CULTURE & ARTS
05/08/2015 09:08 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Women In Sitcoms Are Getting A Lot More Three-Dimensional. And That's A Good Thing.

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Illustration by Priscilla Frank

It's a crucial moment in the primary campaign, and a New Hampshire reporter has just published a brutal article describing a recording he found of Selina Meyer and her campaign staff mocking her donors. Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) rounds on her staff, eyes wild, poised to attack. "You know what V.P. stands for? It stands for 'victory permafucked.' I don't deserve it. You know? Goddammit. I don't, but you do, because you are all losers!" she hisses. She points at her loyal, masochistic aide, Gary. "Loser!" She jabs a finger at her campaign manager, Amy. "Loser!!"

Meyer, the protagonist of HBO's biting political comedy "Veep," now in its fourth season, isn't warm and cuddly, or cute and charming. She's foul-mouthed, selfish, nakedly ambitious, opportunistic, and sometimes cruel. She's no Lucille Ball -- she's not even Elaine Benes. Comediennes today are plunging into far more transgressive roles than the female sitcom leads of previous eras, and as Louis-Dreyfus' Meyer exemplifies, it's working.

Audiences have flocked to female-led sitcoms like "30 Rock," "New Girl," "Parks and Recreation" and "Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt," leading to an apparent boom in complex, flawed comedy heroines on TV -- but also an unsettling degree of pushback from fans and critics. The bountiful variety of women leading sitcoms today seems like cause for unmitigated celebration, but not everyone is convinced.

Taboo-busting female characters in comedy make many critics feel unsettled, and it’s not just the traditionalists. A surprising level of finger-wagging has been coming from feminist and pro-woman sources, the very viewers who might be expected to back this blossoming of complex female leads.

"Mazel Tov, Dummies!": Women in Sitcoms Are Ascendant

Hoping to get a firmer grip on the current foregrounding of women in the sitcom realm, and why it’s sparking backlash, I sat down with my coworkers to examine major female leads in sitcoms past and present, and the evolution quickly became apparent. We broke the characters down first by whether they exemplified 20 commonly depicted personality traits (a process that involved extensive debate, and admittedly a bit of subjectivity), and noticed that in the past decade, they’ve come to be defined by a more diverse set of personality traits. They're actually becoming, well, three-dimensional.

Breaking these characteristics into four categories -- traits generally perceived as stereotypically masculine, positive and negative, and stereotypically feminine, positive and negative -- we also noticed that earlier female characters typically presented traits from only two of those categories.

Initially, characters such as Lucy Ricardo might have been positive feminine (kind and quirky) but also negative feminine (shallow and incompetent). Women in sitcoms weren't just characters, they were caricatures of their gender.

After a while, there seemed to be a reaction to this one-note depiction -- there followed a wave of funny women given qualities usually bestowed upon male characters. "For a long time, there was pressure to seem like... you were cool," says comedy journalist Elise Czajkowski. "You were one of the guys." For example, Roseanne played a schlubby, gruff working woman just trying to take care of her clan -- a classic man's leading archetype.

Elaine Benes, part of a male-dominated ensemble on "Seinfeld," embodied one of the guys, but also vamped her way into a string of relationships, which she generally torpedoed through her neurotic or self-involved behavior. Elaine spanned the spectrum.

Selina Meyer doesn't have traditional feminine virtues, but she has flaws associated with men and with women, as well as attributes prized in men. Plus, Selina is a fantastic character, a mass of insecurity and narcissism and charm and nastiness, brilliantly portrayed by Louis-Dreyfus. Her performance on the show has met with seemingly universal plaudits.

Not every female sitcom character can be Selina, however. Actually, if the TV landscape were populated with gaffe-prone, cutthroat careerists like the veep, she probably wouldn't seem quite so hilarious.

"Kaboom": What Makes Things Funny?

"The evolution of comedy is toward being more and more specific," says Czajkowsi. "75 years ago... everybody just did each other’s jokes." With shows ranging from the dark, gross-out comedy of "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia," to the aggressively sunny "Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt," sitcoms today are diversifying, refusing to settle into a single, sad rut.

It's still a matter of debate whether clichés and stereotypes make for successful comedy. Though some viewers enjoy the comfort of familiar, trite jokes, the root of humor lies in a moment of surprise, argues cognitive neuroscientist Scott Weems, the author of Ha!: The Science of When We Laugh and Why. Weems studies the cognition behind laughter, and has come to believe that humor is "what the brain does when it's confronted with something that doesn't immediately make sense."

In a recent episode of "Broad City," for example, Ilana's mother tells the girls that the nail salon where they're about to get mani-pedis has been really cheap since someone got a staph infection there. "Staph is not the real bad one, right?" says Abbi hopefully. "Yeah," replies Ilana's mom in a reassuring, maternal tone. "It is." Not only is this a shocking answer, but it's delivered in a downbeat moment, not with the broad wink that cues us to expect a joke.

Peter McGraw, co-author of The Humor Code: A Global Search for What Makes Things Funny, has a slightly different take: Laughter comes from a moment of violation that we recognize as ultimately benign. This theory also explains the above example -- at least given that the girls don't get staph infections.

The benign violation theory also, McGraw argues, accounts for the range of possibility in the humor arena. "The world of violations, the world of things that can go wrong is quite vast," he points out, and at the same time, "There are many ways that you can make things okay."

"Retreat To Move Forward": How Feminist Nitpicking Targets Women Comedians

Given the free-wheeling structure of comedy, a laser focus on social equality can be as limiting to female comics as dated stereotypes. A medium that capitalizes on shock and broken taboos can't thrive when performers are expected to hew to a narrow script. Yet many in the audience do expect female characters to maintain certain standards. Characters from Liz Lemon to Mindy Lahiri have been critiqued not for failing as comic figures, but for presenting a negative image of their sex -- for proving to be too weak, selfish or obsessed with men to embody the ideal modern woman.

It's natural that empowered, modern women feel it's time to leave husband-hunting ladies and ditzy chicks in the past. "It's 2015," we think, outraged. "Don't scriptwriters know women can be CEOs and stay single by choice until they die, happily alone?"

Perhaps that's why Selina Meyer has mostly escaped gendered criticism -- she may not be good at her job, but she's still the freaking vice president, and while she's cruel and abrasive, those qualities aren't exactly feminine stereotypes. Selina feels like sociopolitical progress.

What doesn't feel like sociopolitical progress: The gendered critique directed at female stars and showrunners whose characters don't strike us as inspirational.

Mindy Lahiri, of "The Mindy Project," was deemed too "crazy," especially boy-crazy, for the big time. "This is a show about a single woman trying to get -- nay, keep -- a boyfriend," wrote Flavorwire's Jillian Mapes. "I thought Mindy was better than that." And Jessica Day, the titular "New Girl," is too quirky for Seyward Darby, who wrote for The New Republic that Jess's trademark eccentricity is a "painfully shallow presentation." Liz Lemon quickly became a beloved icon of grouchy career women, but toward the end of "30 Rock"'s run, critics became less forgiving of her personal flaws. "Liz has been fully transformed into a needy little girl," wrote Linda Holmes at NPR during Season 6. "Now, she's just dumb, incapable of making her own decisions."

The "New Girl" team directly addressed the relentless critique of Jess Day as too adorkably feminine in the Season 1 episode "Jess and Julia.” "I brake for birds. I rock a lot of polka dots," Jess snaps at a disdainful, hard-edged lawyer. "I'm sorry I don't talk like Murphy Brown ... that doesn't mean I'm not smart and tough and strong." Meanwhile, Emily Nussbaum of The New Yorker, as she so often has, stepped up to bat for the beleaguered Liz, arguing, "From the beginning Liz Lemon was pathetic. That was what was enthralling, and even revolutionary, about the character [...] The show let her be the George Costanza, not the Mary Richards."

Not every female character, in short, should have to be standard-bearers for her sex's worthiness. Male characters have never been saddled with that -- just ask George Costanza.

"Everything Sunny All the Time Always": The Burden of the Admirable Woman Comic

Even the lovable stoners of "Broad City" have run afoul of expectations. They may not be prissy enough to draw the ire of feminist critics, but their post-grad malaise doesn't ideally represent the female sex either. Ilana wears crop-tops to an office job, where she specializes in taking naps sitting up. Abbi just hopes to make it to trainer at the cultish gym where she picks up sweaty towels. The girls explore masturbation, pegging, and drug use. Murphy Brown, though considered controversial in her own time, wouldn't recognize them.

When Jimmy Kimmel hosted Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer on January 19, he took a paternal tack: "I would be worried... if you were my daughters, I'd be like, uh, is this real life or did you cook this up, I hope, in the comedy room?" Kimmel's concern-troll-cum-question hints at his discomfort with women, rather than men, writing and performing comedy about sex, drugs, and misbehavior. When has a late-night host seriously suggested he would be concerned by the comedic antics of a male star, "if you were my son"?

One of the age-old obstacles for women comedians has been this darker side of the benign violation theory of humor: The source of the violation can matter as much to our perception of its benignity as the success of the joke itself. When women break certain taboos, it's not a benign violation anymore. It's just a violation.

But humor by its nature asks performers to break social codes of conduct; successful sitcom protagonists tend to be inconsiderate, intrusive, clumsy, rude or downright dumb. Think Michael Scott, Frasier Crane, Jerry Seinfeld.

By closing certain avenues of comedy to women, critics may feel they're shielding the so-called gentler sex. More often than not, however, they're helping to corral female comics into heavily circumscribed roles, then wondering why people don't think women are funny. They are, of course, but they're also more funny the more diverse and adventurous the roles they take on.

In a recent, aptly named piece on xoJane, "UNPOPULAR OPINION: Hey Broad City, A Woman Doesn't Have To Be A Hot Mess To Be Funny," Emily Gaudette took on Abbi and Ilana directly. Gaudette admits to disappointment that the on-screen BFFs aren't a bit more together. "'Broad City' chooses to exaggerate the misconception that women my age are, essentially, a mess," she complains.

As Gaudette's article demonstrates, Abbi and Ilana may seem, to some viewers, to be reinforcing a frustrating stereotype about slacker millennial women. She regretfully compares "Broad City" to a host of other shows, asking why Abbi and Ilana lack the bouncy resourcefulness of Mindy Lahiri in "The Mindy Project," or the professional drive of Selina Meyer in "Veep," or the big heart and proficiency of Leslie Knope in "Parks and Recreation." Why can't they be admirable in addition to being funny?

“Women in Garbage”: Why Women Comedians Aren't Keeping Their Hands Clean

The strength of "Broad City" lies in its refusal to kowtow to this expectation, or to the expectation that they keep their clothes on and behave. They betray no anxiety about their decidedly un-model behavior in the show; they appear to feel no pressure to represent women in an admirable light.

Even more importantly, "Broad City" doesn't attempt to follow a template laid out by previous ladies of the sitcom world. The show isn't "The Mindy Project" or "Veep." It's specific. It's risk-taking. It can't be mistaken for any other show on TV. To demand more homogeneity, to ask that Ilana Wexler be more like Mindy Lahiri and that Mindy be more like Leslie Knope, disregards the nature of comedy.

Liz Meriwether, the creator and showrunner of "New Girl," has played this game long enough to know she's expected to write a female role model, and to know her response to that expectation: "It doesn't lead you into good work." Instead, Meriwether told me, she strives for honesty and humor. Despite public debates about female characters' relatability, she says, "I think women respond to honesty. I think women respond to all the things that men respond to in characters, and I don’t think men only like to see men portrayed in a positive light."

If you want to watch a sitcom featuring a female lead today, you have an abundance of solid options -- and that's not even accounting for the dramedic "Girls" and "Jane the Virgin," or the transcendent, lacerating sketch comedy of "Inside Amy Schumer." Determined women who brushed aside the traditional restrictions on their comedy have won at least a few major skirmishes, and they've staked out a newly broad territory for women in sitcoms.

What's more, a variety of funny ladies on TV helps make future comic expression for women even more free-ranging. Female-focused humor might feel foreign to audiences accustomed to bro comedy, and until they get used to it, the jokes can be lost in translation.

"Menzies": Why We Don't Laugh About Lady Stuff

Comedy draws from a set of shared experiences, and as long as men in the crowd know little about women outside of the manicured, sanitized version so often presented to them, they have little basis for grasping their humor. "For you and I to be laughing at the same thing," McGraw says, "it really helps if we see the world in the same way." If half the audience knows next to nothing about periods, birth control, or having boobs, jokes about the nuances of such experiences will fall flat -- and when the comedy powers-that-be mostly have penises, that gap in understanding can be particularly damaging.

"Ugh, women comics, they just talk about their period," says Czajkowski, voicing an omnipresent trope that haunts female performers. "I never hear anybody do that, because it’s come to be seen as taboo." The woman comedian who does routines about being on the rag is a despised figure in the comedy scene. But as Chelsea Peretti joked in her special "One of the Greats," "If guys got their period, there's no way a male comedian would be up here, bleeding out of his dick, just like 'I'm not gonna talk about it. It would be declassé.' [...] If guys got their period, 90 percent of standup comedy would just be people running around being like 'I was bleeding out of my diiiiickkkk!'"

Meriwether, who created a whole episode about menstruation and men's discomfort with it during Season 2 of "New Girl," points to another possible consequence of this marginalization of female experiences. "Sometimes it's men who are nervous," she says of the pressure to sanitize female characters in comedies. "Because they don’t understand a woman’s experience, the default is to try to make the character really 'likable.'"

This blind spot isn't irreparable. Much as women have long consumed entertainment featuring male voices and learned to relate to them, men now have a bounty of female-driven comedy -- and other media -- giving them a crash course on how the other half lives. The more women play non-stereotypical, complex comic characters on TV, the more the general audience will relate to and enjoy their comedy.

This suggests there may be an uncomfortable acceptance curve for underrepresented groups in comedy. For example, the benign violation theory makes room for hackneyed jokes exploiting stereotypes, says McGraw. "Because comedy arises from things that aren't quite right, it's often the negative stereotypes that play in comedy," he points out. "Stereotypes are really useful in the sense that they reflect a shared if perhaps flawed understanding of groups."

Still, the most successful humor may buck those stereotypes, he suggests: "What’s considered 'good' comedy, not with regard to the 'haha,' but with regard to the 'aha,'... is the stuff that’s not obvious." Audiences may laugh at a joke poking fun at Asians' driving skills, but a joke skewering the widespread stereotype about Asian people being poor drivers would be fresher and more effective, he says.

It may even make us reexamine our impolitic assumptions. "Primarily, comedy reflects changes in people's belief... In that way we talk about comedy as a thermometer," McGraw says. "But it can work as a thermostat, I believe. If you get people laughing by pointing out the inconsistencies in what people say ... these kinds of social pressures really do work." He cautions that little evidence exists to demonstrate the efficacy of satirical humor in changing minds, but, as Czajkowski points out, "If you're laughing at something then you don't find it scary." That's a powerful shift.

"What to Expect When You're Expanding": The Rocky Road to Comic Representation on TV

Minority groups, including Asian-Americans, face a similar, if perhaps more daunting, tightrope act as women do: Lean into the stereotype, or push against it? Remaining safely in the middle, even pretending the stereotype doesn’t exist, may seem safest, but as long as the stereotypes persist, ignoring them tends to feel bland.

Mindy Kaling, the star and creator of “The Mindy Project," walks a particularly landmine-strewn path; her identity as both a woman and an Indian-American intrudes constantly upon evaluations of her comedy. In the show, her Indian heritage doesn’t take center stage. Surrounded by white coworkers and boyfriends played by Caucasian dreamboats like Chris Messina and Glenn Howerton, Dr. Mindy Lahiri's racial identity is rarely treated as more than an opportunity to throw in glib one-liners ("I'm Indian, I can't be racist!").

Yet the show has been a target for both feminist and race-conscious tsk-tsking. On the one hand, Lahiri's been labeled too vain and melodramatic, a feminine caricature. On the other, Kaling's been slammed for a lack of diversity in the show’s casting. "I'm a fucking Indian woman who has her own fucking network television show, OK?" Kaling responded at SXSW last year. "No one asks any of the shows I adore ... why no leads on their shows are women or of color."

The loveable but problematic “Fresh Off the Boat” distills this liminal position held by Asian-American comics. The first network sitcom to feature an Asian-American family since the 1995 cancellation of Margaret Cho’s “All-American Girl,” it constantly balances cheap stereotypes with insightful humor, with mixed success. It’s now 2015, and we're still laughing at jokes about an Asian mom complaining that school is too easy when her son brings home straight As. It's no coincidence that, as Fusion recently uncovered, Asians make up a disproportionately low percentage of main TV cast members.

Kaling's comedy, which mingles middle-school slumber party perkiness with the acerbic exasperation of that middle-schooler's mother, brings something different and complex to TV (not to mention a starring role in a network show for an Indian comedian and actress, no small feat). Her character may be shallow, selfish, and confrontational, but she's also endearing, idealistic, and a great doctor. Those things may sound contradictory, but real people are complicated like that. Her race, like her gender, also makes things complicated. Her race, like her gender, makes her audience respond to her with a heightened scrutiny, a ready sense of disappointment. This week, FOX canceled "The Mindy Project" after just three seasons; the show had been struggling in the ratings against NBC's stereotype-fueled snorefest "One Big Happy." Though fans remain hopeful for a second chance (a multi-season deal with Hulu has been rumored), the cancellation is another disappointing setback.

"Bro Club for Dudes": Getting Chicks in the Comedy Club

For women, or at least white women, the evolution past screwball punchline has been in the works for decades, and the proliferation of unlikable, uninspiring, and even unrelatable heroines suggests we've reached a tipping point. It's no longer glass-ceiling-exploding news when a Tina Fey or Amy Poehler gets her own show; it's expected. Once comediennes played into or against stereotypes. Now, the most recognizable female characters in sitcoms combine traits from across the spectrum. They're magnetic role models mixed with black sheep, with a soupçon of terrible judgment.

Maybe Jess, Mindy, or Abbi and Ilana enact certain characteristics viewers don't care to see women associated with or find retrogressive. But they're real. "I'm a woman, Zooey's a woman, we're both talking about our experiences," says Meriwether. "Why are our experiences not deemed worth talking about?"

Pretending those aspects of our humanity don't exist only holds back comediennes from gaining parity in their field; they'll never reach their full potential if it remains taboo for one sex to make humor out of shameful or absurd behavior. Women can't be funny if audiences can't stand to see them be the butt of the joke sometimes. Paragons are rarely hilarious.

If the entertainment world has finally evolved past stereotype-driven female comedy, the inclusion of impolitic characters -- a lazy millennial girl, a desperate single woman -- will be part of the deal. To get girls fully accepted into the boys' club of comedy at last, it might just be worth it.

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