Kathleen Rowe Karlyn and
feminist genres of laughter

by Linda Mizejewski

Several years ago, Victoria Sturtevant and I began to plan an anthology of essays that would encompass the history of U.S. women comedians from the silent screen through cable television. Thinking about these outrageous bawds and wits, as well as the uncontrollable laughter they continue to incite, we kept coming back to a point made by Kathleen Rowe in her groundbreaking 1995 book The Unruly Woman: Gender and the Genres of Laughter. The power of funny women, says Rowe, is crystalized in the specific threat of “the female mouth and its dangerous emanations—laughter and speech” (43). [open notes and works cited in new window]

Focusing on this insight, Sturtevant and I chose the trope of hysteria to link a history of dangerous female emanations, a history of feminism, and the tradition of female unruliness so eloquently laid out by Rowe. Our anthology, Hysterical! Women and American Comedy (2017), gathers essays from two generations of scholars who have likewise been inspired by Rowe’s theorization of loud-mouthed sitcom and rom com heroines and who have extended her work to include stand-up comedians, talk-show hosts, and contemporary showrunners.

In one sense, this is the happy, never-ending story of how all good scholarship keeps engendering fresh insights and queries. But the larger story here is about the very inclusion of these topics as objects of study in feminist theory. It’s not in the purview of this short essay to map out the development of feminist media studies in response to and as distinct from feminist film theory, nor the overlapping relations between the two bodies of scholarship. Instead, I hope to highlight the influence of Kathleen Rowe in these relations because The Unruly Woman exemplifies feminist theory’s richness and complexity.  More than half the book is about cinema, but it’s grounded in cultural theory rather than in the psychoanalytic feminist film theory that was prevalent in the early 1990s. And by focusing on a character figuration rather than a medium of production, it established an early example of transmedia cultural scholarship, tapping television’s Roseanne (ABC 1988-1997) and Miss Piggy of the Muppets as primary illustrations of female unruliness.

Roseanne Barr, star of Roseanne (ABC 1988-1997)

For cinema studies in particular, The Unruly Woman opened a vibrant line of inquiry. Rigorously theorized, the critical model of the Unruly Woman enabled feminist film theory to include the madcap heroines and fast-talking con women that earlier feminist scholarship had eschewed. In short, Kathleen Rowe is a significant plot point in the ongoing narrative of feminist theory on comedy. This larger story is also about feminist scholarship’s more inclusive turn to bodies and stars that had been left out of the picture, and about a turn from melodrama to comedy, the better to include our stories of hysterical laughter as well as tears.

Sturtevant and I were able to come to our anthology project as the benefactors of this history. In 2009, she had published A Great Big Girl Like Me: The Films of Marie Dressler, a book that brought critical attention to a comic actress who in the early 1930s was MGM’s biggest box office draw. Dressler was a substantial woman—five foot seven, two hundred pounds—who became a star in her 60s. Sturtevant found in Dressler a perfect match for the qualities Rowe had laid out in her theoretical model of the Unruly Woman. Sturtevant writes in her introduction that

“Dressler’s comedy is all about the body, and her body is excessive—too old, too large, and too active for feminine propriety . . . transgressing the boundaries of feminine containment” (34).

She was able to argue for the meaning and importance of that body by citing Rowe’s key insight about the Unruly Woman: her loudness and dominance disrupt the gendered social order itself and signify female subjectivity.  Rowe argues,

“Ultimately, the unruly woman can be seen as prototype of woman as subject, transgressive above all when she lays claim to her own desire” (31).

In my own work, this claim for comic unruliness as female subjectivity made it possible to explore the feminist implications of contemporary women’s comedy and to extend Rowe’s insights to stand-up comedy and reality television series. In Pretty/Funny: Women Comedians and Body Politics (2014), my starting point is comedy’s skewed relation to femininity; my argument is that prettiness, the gold standard of femininity, remains a primary target of feminist comedy, as seen in Tina Fey’s bumbling Liz Lemon character or in Kathy Griffin’s defiant embrace of the D List. And because prettiness is perceived as white femininity in our culture, the racial and racist meanings of “pretty” can be lampooned by wicked satire, as seen by the likes of Wanda Sykes and Margaret Cho. In our Hysterical anthology, Sykes and Cho are further analyzed by Bambi Haggins and Rebecca Krefting, respectively, who emphasize the centrality of anti-racist politics in the comedy of these women. Making the point that politically-charged Black female comedy has a longer history, Haggins draws out the connection between Sykes and stand-up comic Moms Mabley (1894-1975), whose sly granny persona channeled her formidable social critique.

Moms Mabley and Marie Dressler are good examples of bodies, stardoms, and topics that were excluded from the early days of feminist scholarship on film and television.  Mabley had a long career on the Black venues of the Chitlin’ Circuit and then on the stage of Harlem’s Apollo Theater. She went mainstream with a number of successful comedy albums in the 1960s followed by appearances on variety shows such as The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour (CBS 1967-1970). Feminist television scholarship, to its great credit, included women’s comedy before feminist film studies would do so. Patricia Mellencamp’s work on Lucille Ball and Gracie Allen, for instance, was a harbinger of later attention to the sit com as a genre of special interest for women.[1] But there was no interest in stand-up comics such as Mabley nor interest in the Black entertainment venues in which Mabley had thrived for decades.  Nor was there curiosity in feminist film theory about what, who, and how Black audiences might be watching. We had, in fact, no way of describing Mabley’s persona—the outspoken crone, androgynous, disorderly, inappropriate—in positive ways, though she would fit, exactly, the qualities Rowe later associated with the Unruly Woman.

Moms Mabley’s unruly comedy

As for the neglect of mainstream star and Academy-Award winner Dressler, it’s true that Dressler died in 1934, just as romantic comedy introduced a traditionally-feminine comic heroine. It Happened One Night (1934) became the template for the genre that celebrates an unruly-but-beautiful woman who eventually finds her place in the heterosexual couple. In the wake of this hugely popular and more conservative genre, the funny-looking female bodies that had populated silent screen comedies were marginalized into sidekicks, secretaries, and housekeepers. That is, given that feminist film theory focused on post-1930 Hollywood cinema, it’s possible to argue that Dressler and other funny-looking actresses fell outside the parameters of that study.

But it’s also true that we were not much interested in bodies that were marginalized. Like classic Hollywood cinema itself, our attention was riveted on glamorous stars who were the object of the male gaze—and a large percentage of Hollywood films engaged with those white bodies and with the dynamics of voyeurism. The brilliant poststructuralist work begun by Laura Mulvey had been carried on in the 1980s by influential feminists such as Mary Ann Doane, Constance Penley, Judith Mayne, Ann Kaplan, Linda Williams, Tania Modleski and others. Our theories were predominantly psychoanalytic, and in our favorite films for analysis, glamour queens Barbara Stanwyck, Marlene Dietrich, and Joan Crawford played melodramatic heroines—Stella Dallas (1937), Blonde Venus (1932), Mildred Pierce (1945).

Marlene Dietrich in Blonde Venus Stella Dallas outside her daughter's wedding

Our scholarship had in fact become melodramatic, with Mary Ann Doane declaring that for women spectators, the best we could hope for was not desire but the desire to desire—leaving us with the shivering Stella Dallas watching her daughter’s wedding from the sidewalk or with the tempestuous Pearl, shot to death in the desert in Duel in the Sun (1946).[2] Let me be clear: these studies in melodrama were crucial in bringing female subjectivity to the forefront in psychoanalytic film theory. The elegant analyses of the great 1930s and 1940s women’s films stunningly demonstrated that powerful stars had transcended their doomed fate in the scripts and that a major thrust of classic Hollywood cinema had taken women’s stories seriously—or at least, some women’s stories.

At the same time, as bell hooks scorchingly pointed out in her 1992 manifesto, “The Oppositional Gaze,” feminist film theory to that point had seriously neglected consideration of race, “writing only about images of white women . . . under the totalizing category ‘woman,’” and writing about spectatorship with no regard to racial difference (124). Her critique was part of a much wider protest against the whiteness of much feminist theory in the early 90s, but the specifics of her criticism remain sharp reminders of the assumptions behind the basic concepts of our original enterprise: the male gaze, female spectacle, narrative agency, woman as image. Which women? What audiences? Whose images?

By now, this critique and the limitations of psychoanalytic feminist film theory are widely known, but my point here is that the focus of this theory on white femininity not only neglected to interrogate its own category—the requisite whiteness of femininity—but also omitted bodies that fell outside both terms—the non-white, the non-feminine.  Black women were automatically excluded from glamour and the realm of the feminine. Hattie McDaniel and Louise Beavers played mammies and maids; Fredi Washington, who played the lovely mixed-race daughter in the 1934 Imitation of Life, abandoned Hollywood when it became clear there were no decent roles for her.

Louise Beavers in Stahl’s Imitation of Life (1934) Hattie McDaniel, who won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress as Mammy in Fleming’s Gone With the Wind (1939)
Fredi Washington, who left Hollywood and became a Civil Rights activist Hermione Gingold
Jane Withers Mary Wickes

For less-than-glamorous white women, at least minor comic roles were available, but it took decades for feminist scholars to become curious about the subversive potential of third-wheel roles played by Jane Withers, Mary Wickes, Charlotte Greenwood, and Hermione Gingold. Female comic spectacle was less compelling as a topic than female sexual spectacle; the sheer disruptiveness of the former should have been a clue about its value.

Even about romantic comedies in which women played central roles, virtually nothing was written by feminist film scholars in those days because we saw, in these stories, endings that looked too pat, too heterosexual, too ideologically smug.  We preferred our endings in blood, suicide, tears, abandonment, murder, or stoic endurance.  We loved the ways melodrama so piercingly represented female subjectivity under patriarchy—foregrounding the confinements of domesticity, contradictions of heterosexuality, and punishment of female excess and desire. If we thought of women’s comedy at all, it was through Mae West, whom we viewed with suspicion because she was the phallic woman, and whose excessiveness was explained through the mechanisms of fetishization.[3]  West, like Dressler, was an exceptional body, but unlike Dressler, West’s body fit the feminist psychoanalytic theories illustrating the patriarchal tyranny of Hollywood cinema.  

Dressler’s films included a great deal of melodrama, but their generous comic spirit embraced and celebrated the grotesque, maternal body.  And this comic embrace of the maternal was outside the periphery of feminist critique of Hollywood film. That critique was far more adept at pinpointing comedy that shunned or punished such maternal bodies, as Lucy Fischer astutely illustrated in her essay, “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child: Comedy and Matricide.” Tellingly, that essay was the sole contribution from a woman theorist in the 1991 anthology Comedy/Cinema/Theory, which discussed no women comedians at all, not even Mae West.[4] As that anthology demonstrated, scholarship on male comic auteurs had long come into its own, claiming the cinematic comic canon as a masculinist enterprise, from Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton through Woody Allen, with Mae West included as the interesting exception.  

Rowe’s first essay on women and comedy did not rebuke the feminist focus on melodrama but rather illuminated how both modes of storytelling share the same stakes.  The breakthrough insight of this 1995 essay, “Comedy, Melodrama and Gender: Theorizing the Genres of Laughter,” is that both stories showcase an outrageous heroine. The desperate diva, grande dame, femme fatale, and soap opera vixen are all mirror images of the over-the-top heroine of romantic comedy. Rowe calls her “the excessive woman.” In this essay, Rowe takes on Stella Dallas herself and puts her up against Cher in Moonstruck (1987)—Cher, who had been deconstructing herself since the 1970s and who had shown up for her Academy Award in a risqué dress from a drag-queen runway catalog. Cher had been celebrated by gay men long before feminists realized the comic and subversive implications of her performances of femininity.[5] Remember that in winning the Academy Award for Moonstruck, Cher had beat out Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction (1987), the movie that told us feminism and female desire led to murder and boiled bunnies.

In her essay, Rowe connects Cher’s character in Moonstruck with the sad, locked-out Stella Dallas, pointing out that what they have in common is excess—desiring too much, breaking the rules, taking on male prerogatives. Both melodrama and romantic comedy, she writes, “narrate the stories of ‘excessive’ women who assert their own desire and whose stories are emplotted in narratives which depend on the ideology of heterosexual romance” (50). The difference, Rowe writes, is that in melodrama the excessive woman is punished for desiring too much, but in romantic comedy, she gets what she wants. It’s a temporary victory, of course, and once she’s in the patriarchal family and tethered into a heterosexual bond, complications ensue. But instead of focusing on the perils of heterosexuality as the only story of romantic comedy, Rowe argues for the pleasures of watching the romantic heroine’s rebellion—her spunk and quirkiness, her over-the-top behavior, and most of all her desire.  “Romantic comedy,” she writes, “… offers an alternative to the passive and suffering heroines of melodrama” (56). The same year this essay came out, Rowe published The Unruly Woman, the book that rigorously theorized this heroine and connected her to a long tradition not only in film and television but in literature, claiming her antecedents in Medieval drama and Chaucer.

Pinpointing a particular figure and tradition, Rowe sidestepped the universalizing tendencies of previous scholarship on women and humor that had made the topic less appealing for poststructuralist studies. Feminist work on women’s literary humor had begun in the 1980s, as part of the burgeoning enterprise of feminist literary criticism. Judy Little’s 1983 book, Comedy and the Woman Writer: Woolf, Spark, and Feminism, was the first to make a claim for feminist humor, tracing a literary tradition of women writers using wit, parody, and satire to protest gender norms. Nancy A. Walker in her 1988 book A Very Serious Thing: Women’s Humor and American Culture cautioned that not all women’s humor can be characterized as feminist, but that comedy is indeed a powerful vehicle for gendered critique. In the 1988 anthology Walker co-edited with Zita Dresner, Redressing the Balance: American Women’s Literary Humor from Colonial Times to the 1980s, Walker and Dresner proposed a theory of feminine humor to characterize the comic strategies used by women to protest their unequal status. In the next six years, four anthologies of feminist scholarship on women’s literary, stand-up, television, and film comedy were published, establishing women’s comedy as a valid history and making a strong case for its feminist significance.[6]

This pioneering work, appearing at a time when studies in humor were narrowly focused on a male canon, was exciting in its implications but limited in its theoretical frameworks, which questioned neither feminism nor gender as categories of inquiry. Feminist cinema studies, with its agenda to expose and critique patriarchal narratives, was unlikely to embrace this relatively utopian approach to comedy. However, the anthology in which Rowe published “Comedy, Melodrama and Gender” shows feminist scholars beginning to explore the importance of comedy films for women. In addition to Rowe’s essay challenging us to rethink romantic comedy, Kristine Karnick and Tina Olsin Lent contributed meticulously-researched historical studies of classic screwball comedies in that volume.[7]

The Unruly Woman further pushed that challenge, and more than that, it gave us the first wholly new theoretical model of a specific comic female figure, the excessive female epitomized by François Rabelais’ mythical Gargamelle, who is cited by cultural historian Natalie Zemon Davis as the “woman on top.” “She eats, drinks, and has sex voraciously,” Rowe writes. “She is a maker of jokes, and obscene ones at that” (36).  Invoking narrative theory and Mikhail Bakhtin’s theory of the carnivalesque, Rowe reveals the through-line from Chaucer’s Wife of Bath to Roseanne Barr.

François Rabelais’ mythical Gargamelle

In the previous decade, Bakhtin’s theory of the carnivalesque had been getting attention mainly in literary studies, although Mary Russo’s book The Female Grotesque: Risk, Excess, and Modernity, which appeared the year before The Unruly Woman, uses Bakhtin to look at the female grotesque in drama and the horror genre as well. But while Russo takes Bakhtin through the darker passages of David Cronenburg and Angela Carter, Rowe goes directly to Miss Piggy as a way to ground her theory and to celebrate madcap female exuberance.  

Although The Unruly Woman does not include queer bodies and the bodies of women of color in its analysis, its celebration of marginalized bodies opens the door for analysis of the myriad bodies excluded by earlier feminist film theory. When I teach Rowe’s book these days, I’m always surprised my students don’t know Mae West, but they know and adore Miss Piggy, and in a flash they make the connection to Melissa McCarthy, Leslie Jones, Aperna Nancherla, Tig Notaro, Mindy Kaling, Lena Dunham, and Maria Bamford.

Melissa McCarthy Lena Dunham

Mindy Kaling (above) and Leslie Jones (right)

Indeed, the recent prominence of women comedians in multiple popular media confirms Rowe’s belief in the power of women’s antiauthoritarian comedy. Rowe’s work has been followed by the feminist comedy scholarship of Lori Landay, Kristen Wagner Anderson, Pamela Robertson, Kristen Hatch, Maggie Hennefeld, Kirsten Leng, Rebecca Krefting, Candace Moore, and Jennifer Reed, among others, and its salience is exemplified in the “Gender and Comedy” special edition of Feminist Media Histories, Spring, 2017, which covers topics ranging from Amy Schumer and Luvvie Ajayi to Italian and Brazilian cinema.

Rowe’s 2011 book (as Kathleen Rowe Karlyn) returns to the relationship between comedy and melodrama as the pivoting modes of telling women’s stories.  Unruly Girls, Unrepentant Mothers: Redefining Feminism On Screen speaks to the very heart of feminism itself by focusing on mothers and daughters—that is, acknowledging feminism as a history of perpetual bickering and passionate connections. The wisdom of this second book is its refusal to let melodrama have the final word on either feminism or the stories of mothers and daughters but rather to point to different narratives that imagine other kinds of stories, as Rowe Karlyn finds in the horror film as well as in the “wicked powerful” feminism of Marleen Gorris’s Antonia’s Line (1995). Likewise, this book asks what wicked powerful feminism looks like when it’s queer, Black, Asian, or older, and it returns to the often-spurned maternal figure (consider Marie Dressler and Moms Mabley) to imagine a feminism that “embraces a motherline or connection among women of all ages, across history” (253).

This is a utopian vision, especially given our current historical moment in which women’s rights, voices, and bodies are imperiled not only by political leaders but by divisions among women ourselves. Yet some of this century’s most raucous and defiant women’s comedy has emerged from that very moment as well, affirming the tenaciousness of women with big mouths, laughing hysterically, acting out, acting up.