Let’s Get Critical: Funny Women

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The label ‘chick-lit’ has always had a bad vibe surrounding it. Often confined to the realms of the guilty pleasure confessions, I find it a mystery as to why there is such negativity for a genre that is basically comedy by and for women. Whether it’s due to the brightly adorned covers or the real life yet light hearted approach, women’s comedy writing has never been welcomed with open arms by the literary world.

As a recent interview in The Guardian shows, there is a deep-set belief that as ‘chick-lit’ is not serious literature, to be an author or reader of this genre you are expected to be stupid. Sophie Kinsella was questioned about why, when she has an Oxbridge education, she would choose to write about a character like Becky Bloomwood from the Shopaholic series. Kinsella came back with what I regard as a brilliant observation that Becky isn’t stupid, she is relatable and that Kinsella developed the character through experiencing a career in which she felt stuck.

Taking the Shopaholic series as an example, while the title and cover may suggest a flippant topic, once you delve within the pages, the reader is confronted with the protagonist dealing with a very serious debt problem, alongside a career that, although she is successful with, she hates.

The comic irony obviously comes from the fact that Becky is a successful financial advisor but is in mountains of debt, and in other hands this topic could be a gritty, emotional and dark take on the current financial situation facing many in a recession-hit society. Kinsella however approaches the subject, acknowledges the issues as serious, but adds a light-hearted spin to the proceedings making the reading process an easy ride with a few life lessons (and a few laughs) along the way. Yet because of this approach her work is regarded by the book snob as ‘fluff’.

Whilst writing this article, I’ve found it hard to think of any novel in which the leading role is a funny woman, that isn’t classified as ‘chick-lit’. I may be wrong, there may be mounds of them out there, but I personally haven’t come across any.

The most aggravating aspect of this whole issue is that there isn’t any male equivalent; there is no ‘lad-lit’. Take David Nicholls for an example. His début novel Starter for Ten is funny in much the same way as any ‘chick-lit’ novel; there is a romance, humour, social issues and a sense of personal development.

His writing, however, can usually be found in the ‘humour’ section with a cover that would suggest this is a novel for all genders. Does this reflect society’s deep-set need to identify women’s work as being by a woman? Hence the bright pink covers, making it clear to the audience that these books are obviously written by women.

But a comedy revolution could be approaching. The film industry, notorious for its exclusion of female directors, writers and leading roles, may finally be getting a makeover that I would personally thank the hit American comedy Bridesmaids for. Making over $287,000,000 in the box office, it was as though a light was suddenly switched on and everyone realised, actually, women can be funny. Kristen Wiig wrote and starred in the film that has been surprising audiences all over the world, and finally threw women into roles that were so much more than ‘romantic interest’ or ‘the bitch’.

Even I had to be convinced to see Bridesmaids when it was released, but a friend who had already seen it persuaded me that it was so much more than just another sappy rom-com and I loved every minute of it. Wiig writes a story where romance is on the side lines, and friendships become the issue at hand, a rare thing indeed in which women take the starring role, perhaps because the script was actually written by a woman.

Wiig confronts and contorts the stereotypes of women in this film through the study of women’s relationships rather than the usual heterosexual romantic relationship focus of most films. She gives the audience a realistic reaction to a best friend getting married and developing new friendships through this, and that’s why the film is so funny – she recognises how friendships work and confronts the feeling of rejection by a friend, rather than a romantic interest. Also that toilet scene, showing that women can be just as gross as any man.

Further elements of the film that are similar to the overlooked moments of ‘chick-lit’ include debt, regret, hopelessness and confusion, but these, much like the literary counterpart, are given a light hearted, humorous spin, so the audience is left feeling uplifted and amused rather than ground down in the harsh reality of day to day life. Unlike ‘chick-lit’ however, this is seen as funny rather than fluffy.

Something that confuses me about the supposed uprising of funny women is that this revolution is only just being recognised. With the likes of Jennifer Saunders, Dawn French (whose novel A Tiny Bit Marvellous reached number 3 in the bestselling books of 2011), Victoria Wood, and Tina Fey (who developed a whole new breed of high school comedy with Mean Girls) have been confronting and contorting women’s stereotypes through humour for years, but these brilliant women seem to have been seen as the exception rather than the norm.

This is only made clearer by the recent publication of the nominees of the Chortle Awards, repeating the history of similar literary awards in which women are often poorly represented. In the solo categories (that’s primarily stand up and compeering) there are 54 nominations in total, with only two places being given to women. Cue a landslide of comments from men and women alike that “women just aren’t funny”.

This could very well be the case in contemporary comedy (after all, humour is all about personal taste), but it has to be recognised that male comedians have more easily been given a platform for this kind of thing, just the same as they are in the literary world.

Audiences and critics seem to forget that women’s comedy often deal with very serious issues like divorce, debt, parenthood, etc, while the most popular ‘lad’ comedies (for example, The Hangover, The Inbetweeners) deals with nothing more challenging than the loss of the protagonists’ virginity and getting drunk, and yet The Hangover Part II was the sixth most successful film of 2011, compared to Bridesmaids place at number 34.

There are plenty of arguments out there that women comedians just re-hash all the old material (being fat, raising children, family life, periods, etc), but isn’t that the same for men? Peter Kay, the nation’s wealthiest and successful comedian (apparently worth £20,000,000) is criticised constantly for rehashing old material, and yet he has this status. Also, show me a man’s stand-up routine that doesn’t have at least one ‘I got married and now I have to beg for sex’ joke, or some other constantly repeated stereotype, and I will be mightily surprised.

At the end of the day, with the success of films like Bridesmaids and comedians like Sarah Millican (who has sold the most stand up DVDs of any woman, ever), I hope that the new acceptance of funny women will rub off on to the literary world – if Hollywood can do it, so can we. It is high time for readers to get off their high-horses, recognise that funny women need and deserve our support, and realise that in all honesty, you shouldn’t judge a book by its pink, sparkly cover.

But what do you think? Are funny women under-represented? Or are they just represented in the wrong way? Do you love or loathe ‘chick-lit’ – as a label and as a genre? Do you find it funny or merely irritating?

Gina Kershaw

(Image via Julie70)