In Astoria, Queens, nestled in a packed auditorium at the Museum of the Moving Image, I absorb an exciting retrospective on the late ‘60s sitcom That Girl with Marlo Thomas in conversation with Gloria Steinem and Debra Messing. Amazingly, Thomas was only twenty-four years old when she created, starred in, and produced the successful half-hour comedy about a young, independent woman pursuing a dream of acting in New York City.
Bridging the world of The Patty Duke Show and Mary Tyler Moore, That Girl was a game changer. Yet, in the age of New Girl, Two Broke Girls, and Girls, it’s hard to fully appreciate how rare it was to envisage a single woman who wasn’t a spinster on television. You see, in 1960s television you never saw a young woman espouse the belief in women’s equality—feminism—on television. Come to think of it, conveying feminist ideals remains a contentious point of conversation in comedy, whether stand-up or scripted, mostly because as much as women are embedded in the game, men still run the show.
“Comedy is masculine. You’re out there and you’ve gotta be in charge. I’m a lion tamer: snap, snap, snap, snap! Now we can all be friends because you know I’m in charge,” says the late Joan Rivers to open MAKERS: Women in Comedy. The MAKERS.COM documentary premiered on PBS earlier this month and marks Rivers’s last appearance on screen. The film also features candid footage of Ellen DeGeneres, Susie Essman, Chelsea Handler, Sarah Silverman, Mo’Nique, Joy Behar, Margaret Cho, and others.
It’s no secret that comedy is dominated by masculinity, despite the women who have carved out massive real estate. What’s more surprising is from talking with filmmakers Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady that many comics recoil at discussing inherent gender bias in comedy while acknowledging, in stark detail, numerous incidents of sexism. Ewing says of being a woman in a male dominated field, “We’re conditioned, all of us, to be careful not to go too far when asked gender based questions [because] you’re always afraid your words are going to be twisted as though [you’re expressing] sour grapes.”
Then again some comics like Rivers, Essman and Behar are blunt in their discussion of sexism. Herein lays the problem: most women believe they should have equal rights, but disagree on how to express that, a phenomenon not unique to comedy.
Lena Dunham is a lot like Marlo Thomas. She is a young television mogul, actress, comedy writer, and flowering feminist in the public eye.
“I think Lena Dunham is brilliant,” Thomas tells me. “I admire her, I identify with her. She’s doing what I did, which is to express what she sees, what she feels about her generation. I have no idea what her opinion is on feminism, but she’s living it.”
Just as Thomas comes from a successful comedy family, the daughter of the remarkable Danny Thomas, Dunham is the child of two artists, Laurie Simmons and Carroll Dunham. Simmons is an interesting role model given her renown as a multi-media, feminist artist.
However, only after the first season of Girls did Dunham begin to realize her sway on other young women with the stories she chose to tell. Since then she has become increasing vocal on women’s equality. In her new book Not That Kind of Girl she openly discusses her views on feminism. In fact, she also launched a humorous series “Ask Lena” on YouTube where she gives sage advice on feminism in episode one.
Dunham spoke with Bad Feminist writer Roxane Gay, associate professor of English and creative writing at Purdue University, in October. Gay is highly regarded for her self-depicting stance that welcomes a less stately, more flawed concept of modern feminism.
“I just think feminism is my work,” Dunham tells Gay. “Everything I do, I do because I was told that as a woman, my voice deserves to be heard, my rights are to be respected, and my job was to make that possible for others.” Again, like Thomas says, Dunham is “living it” and increasingly owns her feminism. However, it could be said that her enviable autonomy as an artist, born with privilege, allows her that freedom in a manner that other women dependent of the favors of male gatekeepers, may not. Well, unless you’ve got two brass ovaries like Sarah Silverman.
Silverman is the woman we all need in comedy, not because she’s likeable, but because she doesn’t give a shit—plus she’s a funny, charming, and a feminist. She was one of only three female guests (Tina Fey and Sarah Jessica Parker are the other two) featured on Jerry Seinfeld’s hyper-masculine web series “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee.” The entertaining show follows the millionaire comic as he interviews fellow, high-profile comics while riding around in obscure, expensive cars—real male bonding.
This year Silverman won an Emmy for her HBO comedy special “We Are Miracles” after engaging fashion reporters in a chat over the contents of her purse, including her liquid THC vaporizer.
Silverman’s latest crowning achievement, released last week, is a collaborative video with the National Women’s Law Center to raise funds for their work on equal pay through advocacy and legal channels. The conceit is that Silverman is having a sex change operation in order to avoid a “$500,000 vagina tax” which represents the wages an average woman loses over a lifetime of unequal pay. Per usual, Silverman has caused some controversy, this time within the transgender community. Nevertheless, what she does takes courage: to wave a prosthetic penis and convincingly tout a message about women’s equality.
When I ask Marlo Thomas if she had seen Silverman’s latest viral video, she says “she’s just sensational. I thought it was so funny. She can get away with anything because she has such a sweet face!”
The same could be said of Thomas, who as Ann Marie on That Girl defied the status quo and spoke directly to her generation with resounding applause. She empowered women across the country to pursue their dreams, find a partner who supports them like her boyfriend Donald Hollinger (the late Ted Bessell) and even sock a guy in the face when he sexually harasses her (she actually did that in one episode).
Thomas has seen an entire arc of women in comedy from her feminist awakenings during the second wave, past Silverman and well into Dunham. And she knows That Girl was transformational. In fact she recalls “Bill Persky [creator of That Girl] said ‘That Girl threw the hand grenade into the bunker and created the space for all the other shows to walk through,’ and I think that is the truth.”
So what is comedy for? “I think it’s the cushion of life,” she says. If you can laugh at things, it will save you. Otherwise you wallow in the hurts and pains to your psyche. It’s the laughter that saves you.” So maybe we should take a lesson from women with brass ovaries: comedy and feminism are longstanding bedfellows.