For a while I kept up, in addition to this blog and the Sea Water Bliss website, a third web presence, the Spokesmonster Blog, where I talked about my gig in software marketing. This was back in the early days of my marketing career, when I was paid to make funny cartoons. (Nowadays I spend the bulk of my time writing press releases, and it’s pretty hard to blog about that. So the Spokesmonster Blog hasn’t been updated since late last year.)
In a post in 2008, I speculated about why, despite my best efforts to create a gender-balanced roster of cartoon monsters, my cartoons kept on coming out male.
Why is it so much easier to come up with male characters than female characters? I’m not the only animator with this deficiency. Look at the old Disney or Warner Brothers cartoons. Disney had Minnie Mouse and Daisy Duck, but they were stuck in minor supporting roles. Warner Brothers had Bugs Bunny in a dress – that’s about it. The Simpsons, Family Guy, and South Park all have girls in them, but I’d reckon there are ten male characters for every female one.
Why aren’t animators more interested in drawing female characters? Perhaps they’re limited by a sense of decorum. You needn’t have seen too many episodes of The Simpsons to summon up examples of Homer being dropped from great heights, having heavy weights dropped on him, or losing his pants. Those things just don’t happen to Marge or Lisa. If the definition of comedy is inflicting pain or physical humiliation on your characters, and if our culture is uncomfortable with seeing women brutalised in those ways, that’s a powerful disincentive to drawing female cartoons. Why use Daisy Duck if we can’t clunk her over the head for laffs? We’ll just use Donald instead.
I was reminded of these speculations while reading this profile of the comic actress Anna Faris in the April issue of the New Yorker. Why is the funny Faris wasted in so many unfunny movies? Perhaps because the men in charge of making movies aren’t interested in casting funny women:
David Zucker, the director of Airplane! and The Naked Gun, says that the recipe for classic comedy is to pair a dumb, thin guy with a smarter fat guy: Laurel and Hardy, Norton and Kramden, Rubble and Flintstone. “That wouldn’t work with two women, because…” he trailed off, then suggested, “Maybe women have a built-in dignity, and if a woman slips on a banana peel…” After a moment, he concluded, “You know, maybe it’s just that I’ve never tried it.”
…The director Keenen Ivory Wayans says that vanity impedes most actresses’ efforts at humor. Referring to the scene in Old School of Will Ferrell streaking, he said, “If Will Ferrell was a girl, and she’s got a belly and a hairy back, she’s not running down the street naked.”
I think Zucker and Wayans, in their floundering way, are onto something. This “built-in dignity” that Zucker refers to isn’t exactly built-in; it’s imposed. It’s a by-product of our culture’s protective attitude toward girls. Perhaps this attitude is old-fashioned, but human biology is pretty old-fashioned too. As Faris acknowledges:
“I felt like I was born with a disadvantage – not only female but small, and not particularly athletic. If there is a God, it’s so confounding why he made a physically weaker gender, but one that was just as smart. Couldn’t we just be dumb, and weak, and happy?” She smiled. “Such were the thoughts of a fourteen-year-old girl.”
Since Faris was a young girl there’s been a proliferation of ass-kicking Ripleys and Xenas and Buffys in our popular culture – characters intended to subvert our assumptions about female helplessness. Yet in some ways we’re actually more protective of the “physically weaker gender” than we used to be. Take 1940’s The Philadelphia Story – #5 on the American Film Institute’s Top 10 Romantic Comedies list. In the very first scene, Cary Grant grabs his soon-to-be-ex-wife Katharine Hepburn by the face and pushes her roughly to the ground. The accompanying musical cue tells us it’s meant to be funny.
Nowadays, you’d never show the hero acting so brutishly. In the 21st century, the surest way to make an audience hate a movie bad guy isn’t to show him kicking a dog – it’s to show him abusing his wife.
Even the most cro-magnon Hollywood producer must see that Anna Faris is funny. But he probably also recognizes that there’s a narrower range of funny that she’s able to occupy. Audiences are happy to watch Faris bumble around and trip over her high heels, but we’re not so keen on seeing her get stabbed with a fork, or hit in the face with a wrench, or threatened with anal rape – punishments routinely meted out to male comedians.
Much of modern comedy – especially the kind of comedy favoured by moviegoing teenage boys – is centered on violence. Should we feel bad about that? Maybe we should; I don’t, really. But so long as we laugh at Charlie Day getting fork-stabbed while cringing at Cary Grant’s comedic domestic abuse – so long as that double standard endures – funny women will always be at a disadvantage.