This course will concentrate on the roles and representations of women in Anglo-American cinematic comedy: women as the butts, audiences and tellers of jokes. Participants will study the range of roles that women have occupied in screen comedy since the 1930s, as lovers, friends, mothers and daughters, in the home and in the workplace. Considering the visuals and the dialogue that make comedy a beloved medium, the course will explore how women’s voices, bodies and stories have been employed in comedy to expose and subvert patriarchal norms. As well as paying attention to comedy’s onscreen stars, from Katherine Hepburn to Mindy Kaling, the course will also centralise the work of female comedy directors from Alice Guy-Blaché’s pioneering silent comedies to twenty-first century innovators like Gurinder Chadha and Kay Cannon.
Beginners’ level, no prior knowledge necessary. The course includes six sessions with the course tutor and two course screenings. The course runs for eight weeks from Tue 8 Oct.
Led by Sarah Ilott, Senior Lecturer in English and Film at Manchester Metropolitan University.
Weekly Course Outline
Week 1 – Tue 8 Oct, 18:30 – 20:30
During the first session I will introduce some of the key histories, theories and attitudes that have shaped representations of women in comedy. Drawing on clips from a range of films we will discuss how comedy as a genre invested in relations of power and incongruity can be used to expose the repressive social structures that women must negotiate, yet also provides a means for challenging or subverting these structures. We will consider the disruptive power of female laughter as a means of expressing rage or an alternative worldview and positioning women as the subjects, rather than the objects, of laughter. Finally, I will introduce the genre of Screwball comedy that flourished in the 1930s and 40s and was dominated by a host of verbally dexterous and physically expressive female comic stars in anticipation of next week’s screening.
Week 2 – Tue 15 Oct, 18:30 – 20:30
Screening 1: The Awful Truth (U)
Dir Leo McCarey/US 1937/90mins
Irene Dunne, Cary Grant, Ralph Bellamy
This Academy Award-winning film stars Irene Dunne and Cary Grant—in the first of their screwball collaborations—as a married couple whose mutual suspicions of infidelity lead them to seek a hasty divorce. Yet as they attempt to embark on lives of singledom their witty repartee unites and distinguishes them from the inferior suitors who vie for their attentions. Produced under the stringent regulations of the Hays Code, love masquerades as hostility with verbal dexterity providing the romantic chemistry. This classic battle-of-the-sexes comedy provides an insight into shifting attitudes towards marriage in the context of 1930s America.
Week 3 – Tue 22 Oct, 18:30 – 20:30
Women in Love: From The Awful Truth to But I’m a Cheerleader
This session will give us the opportunity to discuss what we made of The Awful Truth and then move on to consider the evolution of the romantic comedy, exploring their representations of sexual politics in relation to the shifting contexts of production. Though romcoms have evolved from their traditional (and heteronormative) origins to encompass the gay romcom, grey romcom, gross-out romcom, and so on, we will consider the politically placatory message that they continue to provide: that romance promises stability in an otherwise changing world.
Week 4 – Tue 29 Oct, 18:30 – 20:30
Female Friendship: From The Women to Girls’ Trip
Evading the constraints of patriarchy, domesticity, and the male gaze, female friendship films allow women to express their desires and fears on their own terms, whilst a healthy dose of humour draws female audiences into a powerful community of laughter. We will explore the representations of women in female friendship comedies from George Cukor’s ground-breaking 1937 film The Women, which included a star-filled and uniformly female cast of more than 130 speaking roles, to contemporary films such as Girls’ Trip (Malcolm D. Lee, 2017) that represent sisterhood whilst resisting essentialist claims about the universality of women’s experiences. We will also discuss how these comedies differently engage with the implied threat of lesbianism that haunt all-female spaces.
Week 5 – Tue 5 Nov, 18:30 – 20:30
Women’s Bodies: From Mae West to Melissa McCarthy
This week we will consider comedy’s preference for unruly or transgressive women, exploring the ways in which exaggerated performances, slapstick and pratfalls enable women to violate patriarchal sanctions against making spectacles of themselves through excessive eating, speech, and sexuality. We will discuss the ways in which women use their bodies in comedy to control the terms on which they are seen, speaking back to normative viewing practices that position the woman as the object of the gaze (rather than its subject or controller). As well as performances, we will also consider the bodies and costuming of the performers, using clips from a selection of films to explore the ways in which women have been differently constructed as deviant, transgressive or monstrous—as working-class or transgender, or due to their sexuality, age, religion or ethnicity—and how comedy allows for the partial reclamation of social power.
Week 6 – Tue 12 Nov, 18:30 – 20:30
Screening 2: Late Night (15)
Dir Nisha Ganatra/US 2019/100 mins
Emma Thompson, Megalyn Echikunwoke, John Lithgow
Katherine Newbury (Thompson) is a pioneer and legendary host on the late-night talk-show circuit. When she’s accused of being a ‘woman who hates women’, she puts affirmative action on the to-do list, and – presto! – Molly (Mindy Kaling) is hired as the one woman in Katherine’s all-male writers’ room. Molly might be too little too late, however, as the formidable Katherine also faces the reality of low ratings and a network that wants to replace her…
Week 7 – Tue 19 Nov, 18:30 – 20:30
Women in the Workplace: From His Girl Friday to Late Night
This session will give us the opportunity to discuss what we’ve made of Late Night, before putting it into historical context to consider other representations of women in the workplace. Comedy has often been associated with temporary transgression, in which excessive desires are indulged and social norms subverted, only to reconcile individuals with an unchanged society at the end. We will discuss how comedy has presented women at work as masculine, denied romantic or familial fulfilment as they transgress social norms, yet how this also exposes and pokes fun at patriarchal fears about female desire and success.
Week 8 – Tue 26 Nov, 18:30 – 20:30
Mothers and Daughters: From Stella Dallas to Blockers
To conclude the course, we will study the representation of mother-daughter relationships in comedy, considering Kathleen Rowe’s claim that the mother’s death is often required to bring about the happy ending of romcoms, as the mother-daughter bond is constructed as a dangerous expression of female unruliness. Examining films from the melodrama/comedy crossover Stella Dallas (1937) through to the contemporary moment will enable us to discuss how shifting representations of the mother-daughter relationship bring humour to socially contentious or taboo topics such as the collapse of the nuclear family, teen pregnancy, and working mothers. As mother and daughter are often made to represent generational differences in attitudes towards femininity and domesticity, we will explore the cost at which their final reconciliation is brought about.