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Where Have All The Funny Girls Gone?

Female roles in today's comedies are either painfully bland or absent altogether. Even sex dolls have it better.

October 21, 2007|CARINA CHOCANO

Watching "Lars and the Real Girl" recently, I had the feeling that I'd seen this story before. The movie stars Ryan Gosling as a lonely weirdo who purchases a life-size sex doll, imbues her with a saintly personality (she's a celibate paraplegic missionary who loves kids) and introduces her to his brother and sister-in-law as his girlfriend, Bianca. Naturally, they are horrified, as is everyone else in the small Midwestern town where they live. But on the advice of the town shrink, they all agree to play along with the illusion that "Bianca" is real until Lars is good and ready to snap out of it. But a funny thing happens to the town after they agree to treat Bianca as a person. They start to enjoy spending time with her alone. They embrace her as part of the community. They elect her to the school board. They succumb to mass delusion, forgetting how crazy it once seemed.
It was during the everybody-loves-Bianca montage that it hit me why Lars and Bianca looked so familiar. "Lars and the Real Girl" may be a self-consciously cute, low-budget art-house comedy, but its central conceit is a perfect metaphor for what's happened to male and female characters in mainstream comedies. He's a schlub, she's beautiful. He's active, she's passive. He's maladjusted, she's placid. He's unreliable and immature, she's patient and forgiving. He's funny and charming, she's conventional and dull. He's the subject, she's the object. He's human, she's a piece of plastic with a fantasy projected on it.
When actress Isla Fisher remarked on the dearth of decent comedy roles for women earlier this month ("I realized after 'Wedding Crashers' there aren't that many comic opportunities for women in Hollywood," she told Details magazine. "All the scripts are for men and you play 'the girl' "), the comment was widely picked up, with most of the headlines making some allusion to feminism. The idea that a girl might play anything other than "the girl" in a studio comedy is so far out of the mainstream that it's considered an experimental concept, not to mention a major financial risk. It seems that not a week goes by without a dust-up about the alleged misogyny of studio executives, or a lament about the state of women's careers in Hollywood, or an explosion of frustration on feminist blogs. Meanwhile, newspapers are constantly running trend pieces trumpeting women's happy retreat from the public sphere, and publishers are releasing dating books suggesting that women stop being so picky. No wonder Susan Faludi's new book makes a case about the marginalization of women in the terror age -- there has to be some explanation for why, increasingly, girls are reduced to playing "the girl," not just in studio comedies but in life.

The culture is completely obsessed with the gender roles and the relationship between the sexes, but the traditional comedy of the sexes is for all intents and purposes dead. This is particularly troubling because, of all the genres, comedy is the most dependent on the inherent interestingness of a character's point of view. It relies above all on our ability to connect on a human level with the character, to be drawn in by their underdog charisma, to delight in their cleverness, to relate to their ability to recognize the stupidity of those around them, to empathize with their doomed, convention-flouting lunacy. So what does it mean to play "the girl" in mainstream comedies these days? For one thing, "the girl" and "the hot girl" have merged to produce a gorgeous, well-meaning, inoffensive love-object devoid of any motivating purpose and quite possibly manufactured in Stepford. "The girl" exists to be won by the hero, and yet to win her he must do nothing more than be himself. If, on the other hand, she has her own ideal in mind when it comes to a romantic partner, we never get to know what that ideal might be. It's up to the hero to prove himself worthy, usually by simply capitulating to "a commitment," at which point "the girl" has gotten what she wanted and can die happy. The formula is adhered to even when it effectively eliminates conflict and comedic situations.

'The girl' as wife

When "the girl's" desires conflict substantially with the hero's desires -- that is, when "the girl" happens also to be "the wife"-- her desires are presented as hidebound, reactionary, conventional and dull. Funny actresses (we know they're funny because we've seen them on TV) get cast in mainstream comedies all the time, but more often than not, they're scolds or nags or ciphers. (See: Lauren Graham in "Evan Almighty," or Lauren Bowles in "The Heartbreak Kid," or Sarah Silverman in "School of Rock.") You wonder if there's some weird economic principle in their being cast. Like it's the entertainment industry equivalent of the government paying farmers not to grow corn.

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