Girls on Film: Why Supporting Female Characters Matter

Girls on Film: Why Supporting Female Characters Matter

Jun 16, 2011


Melissa McCarthy Bridesmaids

When we head to the theater to see comedy, we want to be entertained – charmed by the relatability of the characters and situations, as well as the absurdity-- ridiculousness fueled by a small tendril of realism that hits just right. There might be exceptions, but for the most part we need that link; we need to relate. This is partly why we’ve seen the rise of the geek and the rise of the slob hero. There is a certain familiarity that sucks us in, reflecting everyday experiences with cleverness and humor.

Funny men like Seth Rogen and Jason Segal act as the everyman with a witty sarcastic edge, and since men dominate cinematic comedy, this relatability is front-and-center. But these are male-dominated characteristics that have no realistic female balance or counterpoint. They can offer relatable aspects, but not a comedic mirror for the female audience – women relating women. Since men almost universally take the lead in any comedic film that doesn’t start with “rom,” women must turn to the supporting roles – roles which are not only secondary characterizations, but also clichéd whirlwinds that have little resemblance to reality.

This idea really hit home while watching this week’s DVD release, Hall Pass. Here’s an abysmal film – one that makes other recent head-shakers like The Ugly Truth seem marginally decent – that revels in the smart-dumb dichotomy. Owen Wilson and Jason Sudeikis are dumb, sexist jerks who are convinced they are Don Juans. Their wives, Jenna Fischer and Christina Applegate, are the more rational and centered wives who can read through their husbands crap and figure out the truth. Good on paper. Essentially, however, they are two seemingly capable women who are treated like crap and reward give their husbands with a week off of marriage in hopes of changing their husbands’ bad behavior. It’s a headache-inducing film, but since the comedy didn’t charm the critics or the box office, it would be nice to blow it all off as crap characterizations from a crap film. Unfortunately, the habit extends well beyond Farrelly Brothers schlock.

Hall Pass Women

The oft-used example is, of course, Knocked Up. When star Katherine Heigl called the film “a little sexist” and noted the shrew vs. laid-back funny man dichotomy, fans of the film hit back, many claiming that the female support were the better people … better people who might be a professional or a good mother, but who don’t have friendship outside of their sisterly relationship, are distrustful, have no interests outside of their day-to-day work, and who are so uptight that they’re prone to irrational meltdowns. Good on paper, until you see them existing without any social network or personal aspects that make them full, real human characterizations.

But there’s also presence to consider. Magneticism is essential in cinema, whether to spark audience libidos or simply make viewers like a character. Just as two romantic leads require chemistry to make a film work, supporting female characters require warmth and spirit. When you see a wife (Leslie Mann) spiral out of control thinking her husband is cheating on her, only to discover that he’s in a fantasy league to foster friendship and have a moment away, her character doesn’t seem like the “better person.” She is the overbearing, interpersonal villain. We empathize with Paul Rudd’s husband because while he lied, his actions are relatively innocent and understandable. Rudd and Seth Rogen are relatable because they’re genuine. They have fun and heart. In that way, it’s easy to see why Heigl’s character would want him. She has nothing but work and a sister in her life. He has great friends, a good heart, and that all-too-important sense of humor. The laziness can be forgiven.

Paul RuddWhen faced with these types of female characters over and over again, female audiences can either step in line and reflect those off-kilter attributes, or they can relate to the men. They might be slobby, or lazy, or quirky, or nerdy, but the warmth, humor, and fun they have are a whole lot more appealing than a jealous, hormonally-sensitive woman who can’t have fun.

I went to Twitter to get responses from other fans of comedy – to see what, if any, irksome quirks and characterizations bother audiences on a whole. Soon, examples started flowing in. Most complaints centered on one of the most prevalent characterizations – the shrew – the woman who acts as the anti-fun counterpoint to the fun-loving man, who, as smart as she may be, cannot lighten up, who has no sense of humor and takes the fun away, and sometimes needs the man to teach her to lighten up and live. Other irksome qualities included women with a lack of friends, women as either asexual or ridiculously sexual, clingy partners, unreasonable man-haters, catfighters, superficial characters, bossy beasts, hormonal time bombs, and lest we forget – jealous, green-eyed monsters who will not allow men to interact with any woman who is not a blood relative.

When a group of diverse men and women can easily list off a myriad of problematic characteristics that overlap, that aren’t examples of one person’s particular tastes but an entire group’s discontent, there is a problem – a disconnect between the creator and the audience. A filmmaker can throw rational, mature aspects into the mix as well, but if these other irksome qualities are present, the audience will notice.

Happy - Sad MasksIt’s real-life absurdity that stands in the face of what comedy is – an art form that not only reflects society (making it relatable), but allows for a release – laughter. Sail back through the centuries, millennia, and you come to thinkers like Aristotle and Evanthius who talked of this cathartic release, this mirror that’s necessary to make comedy work. If we don’t recognize something, we won’t understand it; and if we don’t understand it, we won’t/can’t laugh. Evanthius also talked about tragedy as life to be shunned and comedy as life to be sought after, but no female audience yearns for a one-dimensional life. Some even consider comedy a way to cement corporate culture, and if we’re cementing a male-centric world with faulty supporting female characterizations, we can never really thrive as a diverse and worthy community. Comedy becomes tragedy.

If the joke falls flat, it’s not comedy, and those precious moments where we should be laughing lead to dead air, and no one wants that – not the creators behind the scenes, and certainly not the moviegoers eager to smile, laugh, and have a good time. On occasion, filmmakers have proved that these unfunny tropes most comedies rely on aren’t necessary, whether it’s the a-typical women and honest conversation in Forgetting Sarah Marshall, the fiancé who stresses the importance of friendship in I Love You, Man, or this summer’s Bridesmaids, which showed the myriad of ways that women can grab laughs. Yet these aspects still persist. If they aren’t necessary for the comedy, what do these characterizations do other than suggest that women are horribly one-dimensional and clichéd beings incapable of fun, trust, and real emotion?

Kristen Wiig Bridesmaids

This trend not only affects the audience, but also the comediennes in the profession. As the New Yorker wrote in their Anna Faris piece earlier this year, this imbalance in studio comedies, where “distinctive secondary roles for women barely exist,” removes an important stepping stone in comedic careers. Many actors move from supporting talent to leading men (see Seth Rogen, Paul Rudd, Steve Carrell…), so it’s no wonder that we don’t see the number of leading funny women in Hollywood that we did in the past. No one wants to see the “woman who played the uptight wife in that movie” as the star of a comedy. These characters aren’t the types that stir audiences into an adoring fandom.

Rationally, it seems simple – get more laughs by making all of the stars and primary supporting characters real and balanced. Weak women are not the backbone to these comedies, so giving them real smarts, fun, and humanity can only embrace larger audiences and even give younger women media representations that show the diversity of the female experience rather than the stifling clichéd version of it. Considering the success of Bridesmaids, Judd Apatow’s increasing interest in female leads, and comedic creators like Tina Fey, Kristen Wiig, and Lena Dunham, one can only hope we’re on the cusp of a new, balanced era of comedic female representation.

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Categories: Features
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