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Jeffrey Cheung, 2018. Courtesy of Hashimoto Contemporary

15 November 2023

Girls Just Want To Have Fun! : Conceptions of Gender in the Comedy of Barbie and the Cambridge Footlights

GENEVIEVE STEVENS

If you've not seen the new Barbie movie then frankly, my dear, where the hell have you been? 

 

Much like Michael Jackson's death or the decommissioning of Concorde, the cultural moment that has been Barbenheimer is one of those unique pinpoints in global history that you can't help but remember where you were when you first heard about it. For almost four months my Instagram for you page has been plagued by pink, Nicki Minaj's “Barbie World” haunting my feed like a broken automaton. The influence of Greta Gerwig's $1.38 billion grossing film has been almost inescapable. For most of us, Margot Robbie's signature smile has become an omnipresent force as pervasive as Dr T.J Eckleburg’s eyes to a young Nick Caraway. And yet, when I went to see the Barbie movie on the premiere night, (after the obligatory mimosa brunch) dolled up to the nines in sticky lipgloss and pink bows, I couldn't help but feel a little disappointed. Yes, I enjoyed the film- it was deliciously campy, delightfully girly, not to mention the soundtrack is bomb. It boldly promoted an agenda of sisterhood and female solidarity, ridiculing the almost laughable hypocrisy of patriarchy through the medium of catchy tunes and hilarious cameo performances. What's not to like? And yet I guess, with all the media hype, I was left wishing it had done just slightly more.

 

It wasn’t just the hyper-sensationalised marketing style that had set the bar so high for me, but rather the success of Gerwig’s other more subtle contributions to feminist cinema. I couldn't help but feel that Barbie lacked an appreciation for the nuances of female experience that films like 21st Century Women and Ladybird encapsulated so well. The inexplicable pain and beauty of womanhood that Gerwig emulates both in front of and behind the camera in these works were replaced with somewhat obvious rants about the trials of motherhood and one obligatory home movie montage, that though admittedly quite moving, felt a little cliché. And yet I can forgive her on these accounts because at the end of the day, Gerwig’s Barbie is the culmination of an almost impossible task; how to make an exposé on the absolute horror of patriarchy, fun. So, if Gerwig has had to somewhat dilute her feminist sensibilities to appeal to a mainstream audience, to appease the children, reluctant husbands and boyfriends accompanying their pink-clad girlfriends to the cinema, so be it. At least she gave it a crack. Ultimately, whilst some of the rhetoric was repetitive and too on the nose to carry much gravity, Greta got us talking. 

 

So, for a few weeks, I carried with me a somewhat guilty apathy for the Barbie movie, ashamed to speak out about a film that had propelled discussions of gender equality into the mainstream at a miasmic rate. In a world dominated by male-directed cinema, why was I poking holes in a film that had tried, albeit not completely successfully, to champion female empowerment, to elevate female artists, actresses and directors? 


After careful consideration and numerous discussions over copious glasses of wine with friends, I have decided that for all Barbie’s efforts to bring down the patriarchy, there is one patriarchal myth that it continues to perpetuate: the myth that women just aren't funny.   

 

Ryan Gosling’s portrayal of Ken has got to be one of the most iconic moments in 21st-century cinema, completely overshadowing, in my opinion, the female lead in a film that is meant to be, about, and for women. And, whilst a lot of the movie was more fun than laugh-out-loud funny, on more than one occasion Ken was downright hilarious. It wasn't just Gosling that got us laughing, in fact, the film was peppered with moments of successful comedy. But, to my dismay, they were almost exclusively delivered by men. Will Ferrrel’s bumbling portrayal of Mattel’s CEO, albeit not always hilarious, was played for gags, combining traditional comedic tropes of slapstick and farce. Whilst it may be low-hanging fruit, watching Will Ferrell and a posse of suit-clad henchmen roller skate along LA Boulevard is admittedly quite funny. For me, by far the funniest line in the film was surreally delivered by Stath Lets Flats’ Jamie Dimetriou, a comic actor who was undoubtedly hired for his comedic prowess. Yet I am hard-pressed to think of any comparably funny moments delivered by women. Barbie’s own comedic lines often fell as flat as her feet and whilst Catherine Mckinnon’s Weird Barbie was a breath of fresh air, she is possibly the only genuinely funny female character in a film jam-packed with award-winning actresses undoubtedly capable of cracking a joke. I couldn't help but feel Gerwig had missed a trick.

 

"It seems Barbie, like the majority of popular cinema, seems hellbent on painting men as the only vehicles of comic relief." 

 

You see this trend time and time again, on and off the screen. You only have to look so far as the world of comedy itself to see this is true. Name your three favourite stand-up comedians. I guarantee at least two of them are men. Why? Because some of the funniest people I know are women. Yet as a society, we seem obsessed with denying this fact. Men consistently occupy the role of class clown in the playground, men dominate comedy on the screen and the set lists for stand-up comedy nights at my local comedy club are overwhelmingly male. Aside from just underrepresentation, our very conception of female comedy is frustratingly narrow, pigeon-holing women to jokes about motherhood, ageing and the unspeakable horror that is menstruation. Going up to Edinburgh for the Fringe Festival this month I was somewhat alarmed by the essential “femininity” of the female-led comedy performances I saw advertised. I saw countless flyers for shows called “My Vulva Speaks”, or “Her-sterectomy”. Whilst I understand the importance of normalising discussions of the female body, female comedy seemed unable to detach itself from ideas of YY chromosomes. Back in the nineties creative production like Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues unapologetically eroded misogynistic sexual taboos by putting the female body on a pedestal.  Now in a world where you can see six naked vaginas on mainstream TV every night - thank you Naked Attraction - I can't help but feel that these contributions have lost their radical edge.

"Where male comedy is allowed to be capacious and broad, female comedy seems inextricably shackled to ideas of sex and female anatomy. Where female comedy disappointingly represents its own genre, male comedy unfairly accounts for almost everything else." 

Cambridge Footlights Tour Show 2023

However, amongst a sea of inherently gendered comedy there was one show I saw that dispelled these myths entirely, The Cambridge Footlights “The Search Continues”. 

You may be familiar with the Cambridge Footlights, a long-established comedy posse that proffers a host of successful alumni, Eddie Redmayne and Hugh Lawrie to name a few. The group’s members change year by year, allowing new comic voices some time in the sun. Made up of three female, one non-binary and one male member, the Cambridge Footlights not only put on a frankly hilarious performance but importantly did so whilst completely subverting gendered ideas of comedic theatrics. 

 

For all their comedic prestige the footlights did not disappoint, providing a series of short, delightfully playful sketches. Peppered with refreshingly relatable references to Greggs, Monzo, diabolo-ing, the Footlights were a far cry from my preconceptions of the average Cambridge graduate - where were the Hugos and Baranabys spouting high-brow jokes about Aristotle and Freud?

 

The show was vibrant, youthful, and at times surreal, veering from absurdist musical moments to the world of slapstick at high velocity, and what perhaps enticed me the most was that performers moved seamlessly between roles in a way that made gender not only unimportant but often invisible.

 

"Visible markers of gender or sexuality became irrelevant as the audience was blissfully enculturated into a world where the human body is liquid, dynamic and infinitely adaptable."

 

The Cambridge Footlight’s joyous performance invited us as an audience to suspend our disbelief, to the point where in a scene of romantic entanglement between a male and female member it is delightfully ambiguous which character is meant to represent which sex, or indeed whether the couple is heterosexual at all. These details are irrelevant and seemingly arbitrary, and the scene is funny, nonetheless. Whether purposefully uncoded or not, these ambiguities force us to challenge our preconceptions of gender and performance. No longer bound by gender or seemingly even species, performers as comfortably embody the character of animals and inanimate objects as human people - cue Izzie’s uncanny rendition of a dog trapped in a hall of mirrors. Here humour is deliciously silly, witty and fun - a far cry from the lamenting comics sat on stools contemplating the inequality of their gendered existence; in other words, moaning about life. 

 

"The Footlights showcased the very best of sketch comedy, illustrating the inclusivity of physical theatre as a medium that is not concerned with experience but rather movement, physicality, performance and impersonation."

 

Despite just being genuinely hilarious, the Cambridge Footlights offered a space where women and queer performers could shine in a way that did not define them by their marginality. I left the theatre refreshed to see a performance largely showcasing female and queer comics that wasn't about being female and queer at all. It was about dogs and chickens and politics and satire and whirly tubes and murderous Zumba instructors and the degrading process of ordering a Monzo card. In other words, it was the ‘everything else’ that AFAB (assigned female at birth) comedy so often isn't. You could tell that the Cambridge Footlights wrote sketches about what made them tick in a way that was broad, ambitious, liberated and most importantly very funny.

 

"The Cambridge Footlights presented a master class in gender-blind comedy exploring the possibility of physical theatre to allow women and queer people to move beyond the confines of period jokes and self-deprecating quips, into a world where the gendered body is merely a vessel, a prop if you will, in an illusion of androgynous comedy." 

 

Recently an ex-co-worker sent me a touching letter on her last day at our dental practice. After signing off the letter she had written a scrawled footnote “P.S. You are the funniest person in this building”. I was taken aback and utterly touched by this sentiment, because not only had I never considered myself a particularly funny person, but I was shocked by how much this compliment meant to me. There was something intimate and singularly touching in her faith in my ability to make people smile, spread joy, distract those around me with silliness, wit and maybe even genuine comedy.

 

The reason I think being called funny is one of my favourite compliments is, that in order to allow my true comedy to show through, like many of us, I have to be very comfortable with a person. Despite being relatively confident, I am by no means the loudest person in a room, I am a self-confessed slow burn who sometimes requires a little bit of warming up before operating at maximum capacity. If you find me funny, it is probably because I like you and am confident enough to let loose around you. This realisation makes sense. In my relatively uninspiring admin job, my colleagues are invariably older than me and almost exclusively don’t give a shit about how I dress, what music I listen to or how many Instagram followers I have. At work, I am far removed from the social structures of status, popularity and coolness that may dominate interactions with my peers. Furthermore, my workspace is completely sexless, my male colleagues are mostly happily married with kids, and if exploring my possible bisexuality means necking off with Carol in orthodontics, I think I'll stick to the straight and narrow for now. As shameful as it is to admit, with no potential love interest to impress, I feel free to act more silly than sexy. Because I’m too busy putting googly eyes on our staplers to embody the stereotype of the sexually promiscuous “new girl”. Rather than the ditsy, eyelash-fluttering receptionist of cinema, I’m sending my boss niche moth memes under the desk.

 

Interrogating this personal shift is exposing as well as cathartic because I think the sad truth is, in much of my life I've simply not felt comfortable enough to allow myself to be silly. Because feeling comfortable enough to be openly funny as a woman requires a degree of freedom. Freedom from embarrassment, insecurity and judgement, faculties which, thanks to decades of conditioning, are often denied to young women. Where men are praised for their assertion, brazenness, and loveable jack-the-laddishness, femininity has become synonymous with ideas of conformity and passivity. Being funny is so often about being loud, taking up space and commanding a room, things that do not come naturally when you've grown up being silenced, prefacing reasonable queries with “this might be a silly question” and allowing boys to talk over us because we’re ever so “polite”. In fact, funniness is not only not feminine but anti-feminine. An idea illustrated by the toxic paradox pedalled by the media is that women can either be sexy or funny but never at the same time. As if being funny itself directly diminishes what it means to be a woman. From French and Saunders to Mamma Mia’s Rosie and Tanya, film and television are choc-bloc with these binary double acts. The sex symbol and the slightly butch comedic side piece, though friends, are mutually exclusive ideals which can’t and shouldn’t overlap.

 

If these references seem a little millennial, whilst browsing Instagram recently I have noticed a rise in what I like to call the “cool girl aesthetic”. Think slicked-back buns and raver-girl shades. This new version of the “It Girl” wears vintage football strips and moodily drinks espressos on grungy continental street corners. She is the edgy, cigarette-smoking little sister to the “Girl Boss” and “Clean Girl”. A far cry from the loudmouth witticism of Cher Horowitz, this new brand of “It Girl” answers in monosyllables without lifting her eyes from her flip phone. She is aloof, no-nonsense and rarely cracks a smile, not even in photos. She will ask you your name at a party even though you've met three times and she follows you on Instagram. Better yet she may ignore you completely.

 

"In this new definition of ‘cool’ femininity, the illusion of female empowerment cleverly conceals familiar rhetoric, once again equating ideas of female success and sexuality with seriousness."

 

The cool girl can't possibly risk ruining her carefully cultivated mystique with random bouts of silliness. The words ‘knock knock’ have never passed her lips. She is cool, collected and exclusively serious. Even momentary deviation from this ideal could risk spoiling the facade. Because mean is cool, silence is badass and unobtainable is sexy as hell. The cool girl annoys me. Not only because her life looks dull and frankly exhausting but because her existence is completely unrealistic. Whilst this girl-boss rhetoric may promise the illusion of female empowerment, it pigeonholes women into two-dimensional stereotypes that once again deny women the chance to have some fun.

 

"In a world that polarises sexy and silly, it is no wonder many women feel excluded from the comedic sphere."

 

So, whilst Weird Barbie may spit in the face of Instagram’s cool girl, her witticism is secondary in a film dominated by “funny” men. Let's not even mention the fact that Kate Mckinnon was paid just 10% of Ryan Gosling's 12.5-million-dollar wage - but that's a discussion for another day. For all Weird Barbie’s comedy quirks, I can't help but feel that we are not altogether laughing with her but rather at her. Sexless, eccentric and post-menopausal Weird Barbie is only a stone's throw from the crazy cat lady stereotype - the woman feeding pigeons in the park. Ryan Gosling gets to be funny with his six-pack out, Will Ferrel’s bumbling buffoonery doesn't diminish his role as CEO of a multi-million-dollar company. Meanwhile, Weird Barbie's absurdity comes at a price - she is an outsider, an outcast, unsexy, unloved and undervalued.

 

"Barbie was a fun film, and if you’ve not seen it yet it's well worth a watch but I can't help but feel that it feeds into one damaging rhetoric; one of patriarchy’s most slanderous lies - the myth that women just aren't funny."

 

Whilst Barbie's closing line about seeing a gynaecologist may be a strike of comedic genius, it is too little too late in a film that continues to champion the silliness of men as the gold standard of comedy. Women are powerful, yes, intelligent, yes, empathetic and perceptive (whoop girl power!), but just not funny. 

 

And so, it was through the sparkly pink lens of Barbie that I watched the Cambridge Footlights take the stage. And in many ways Barbie and the Footlights had similar intentions; to entertain, to make us laugh and to have some fun. And yet somewhere along the line Gerwig sold out, sold out to the mainstream, the formulaic Hollywood tropes that couch men as funny, women as not. And perhaps the mainstream isn't ready to stomach funny women quite yet, perhaps it is the job of independent production to make these moves first. If there are funny women on the margins, clutching to the fringe, what will it take to pull them within the fold? 

 

In a world where the representation of women and queer comics is grossly skewed, arthouse contributions such as the Cambridge Footlights are as radical as they are funny, redressing centuries of championing men as the only sex with a funny bone. More importantly, they also expand the scope of female and queer comedy to include the absurd, the silly, the playful and the avant-garde. This de-personalised version of comedy sits outside of lived experience. It is abstract and conceptual and completely universal. In fact, part of the beauty of the Cambridge Footlights was their ability to disrupt conceptions of gender, simply by not mentioning gender at all. And let’s get this straight I am not dismissing female comedians who talk about their body, their sex drive, the menopause, HRT, vibrators. Normalising discussions of feminine taboos is important and wonderfully cathartic. But as women, we are so much more than that. Because women are hilarious. You have not heard me cackle, seen the way my sides split in a club loo with the girlies. The way I have giggled over a cup of tea in the staff room with the chicks from work. How my mum can perfectly burp the alphabet after a can of Diet Coke. Women are and have always been incredibly funny.

 

"Until women are allowed to flex their funny bones, female comedy remains somewhat subversive, sitting just below the visible surface, worryingly undetectable in a world of dick jokes and fetishised female silence."

 

If dental receptionary has taught me anything at all it is to care less, to spin a yarn, to speak loudly and to crack a joke. If laughter is the best medicine, then girls, write me a prescription!

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