Say the phrase “chick flicks” and usually everyone around you, male or female, will roll their eyes. The prevailing notion is that “chick flicks” are fluffy, romantic, silly piles of goo that no one should ever consider high-quality cinema. The thing is, I can’t name a single comedy film starring primarily women that someone couldn’t dismiss as merely a “chick flick.” For instance, even though Romy & Michele’s High School Reunion is hilarious and boasts the talents of Janeane Garofalo, Lisa Kudrow and Justin Theroux, it’s somehow weird to call it a pure comedy. Because it’s about girls and because it’s about high school and because it has a snappy 80’s soundtrack, it becomes a “chick flick.” Female comedies don’t deserve this short shrift from the comedy mainstream. They are not only funny, but they also inspire girls to want to be comedians.
While the boys in my third grade class were quoting Wayne’s World during recess, I was obsessed with A League of Their Own. The film not only transported me to a different time period (hey — I was a nerdy girl who liked American history), but it was also the first time I saw a sports movie where the girls were actually playing the sport. Still, I think what I liked most about the film was that you could tell that each of the women was different. They each had their own lush inner life; they all had different dreams, different backgrounds and are portrayed with different senses of humor. Even though the most famous comedic scene in the film is Tom Hanks’s “There’s No Crying in Baseball” scene, it would never have worked unless his scene partner, Bitty Schram, hadn’t portrayed Evelyn as some sort of fantastic Judy Holliday/Kristen Schaal hybrid. It’s not as simple that Evelyn’s a dumb blonde with an annoying kid. She’s a woman who lives in a time period that isn’t forgiving to her and her sweet awkwardness in every scene speaks to how desperately she just wants to please and fit in. So when Hanks yells at her for crying, it’s not just his frustration that’s funny, but his inability to understand why she’s crying. As a kid I noticed all these details and it stuck with me that female characters are stronger — and funnier — in scenes when they are multi-dimensional.
If A League of Their Own showed me that women could be unique and funny, Clueless showed me that girls could be aspirational and funny. Before Clueless, most heroines in comedies were social outcasts or they had some kind of adversity (sexism, racism, poverty, etc.) to overcome. Essentially, funny girls were underdogs. Though they were funny, their lives didn’t look like much fun. The characters in Clueless were not only funny, but they lived the kind of life that anyone could be jealous of. Alicia Silverstone’s Cher Horowitz has no main adversary to overcome. She’s beautiful, wealthy, popular, and easily shakes off setbacks with a cherubic pout and cutely clever machinations. Brittany Murphy’s Tai Fraiser may be a fish out of water in Beverly Hills, but she is quickly acclimated with the help of a makeover montage. Even though Cher seemed like a dumb blonde, she wasn’t. This is a girl who can argue her way to better grades, correct college students on Hamlet quotations and use French impressionism to make fun of other people. The humor in Clueless is derived from Beverly Hills culture in general and the universal theme of how people get in their own way sometimes. Cher seems to be a pretty princess who has everything. Girls like that aren’t traditionally supposed to be funny. Essentially what Clueless was saying, like A League of Their Own, was that everybody — specifically, every type of girl — could be funny.
Positive role models doesn’t just mean aspirational, though. Superstar was the first SNL film that focused on a female character, Molly Shannon’s Mary Catherine Gallagher. Throughout her career on SNL, even when Shannon was portraying girls in their most embarrassing, depraved and insane moments, you could tell that she was having fun. The manic energy she brought to characters like Mary Catherine Gallagher imbued them with such sillyness that you were jealous. As a gawky, well-behaved preteen I couldn’t help but to want to throw myself in a pile of chairs or to make out with a tree. Ridiculous? Exactly. That’s what made it so appealing. Like Gilda Radner before her, Shannon had tapped into the glee of a nerd having fun. Until then every representative of a nerdy girl I had seen seemed to be witty, but also cynical and altogether miserable. Molly Shannon’s performance made being funny look like the coolest thing in the world to do.
At around the same time I entered high school, there was a surge in Hollywood of comedies marketed for teenaged girls. I got to see Drew Barrymore’s grown up nerd finally gain her self-confidence in Never Been Kissed. Films like Drop Dead Gorgeous and Bring It On brought a satiric lens to the previously saccharine-filled worlds of beauty pageants and cheerleading. Even teen rom coms like 10 Things I Hate About You and She’s All That presented heroines with alternative and feminist viewpoints for me to look up to. So by the time Tina Fey and Amy Poehler were dominating Saturday Night Live, I already knew women could be funny. Seeing that the boys I was friends with finally knew too was only icing on the cake.
Even though I know a lot of comics dismiss these films as “chick flicks” the fact remains that as a female comic I was influenced by all of them far more than I was by mainstream comedy films. I see it in the way I approach characters in improv scenes, write quippy dialogue and in how I choose to present myself on stage. Most importantly these films showed me women in comedic situations who had their own agency. They weren’t the nagging wife or pliant girlfriend. They were individuals with hopes, dreams, and most of all, joy. Each of these films made being a funny girl look like fun. The really important thing though is that I didn’t see one of these films and instantly want to be comedian. I had to see all of them, and many more. The more films we have featuring women in comedic roles, the more examples of funny women we give young girls to aspire to. It’s kind of a self-perpetuating thing. The more female comedies we have, the more females we’ll have in comedy making films for future generations. So for that alone I hope that we can stop referring to female comedies as “chick flicks” and start calling them what they are: comedies.
Meghan O’Keefe is a writer and comedian who lives in Queens. She has a blog.