If you want proof that women are dominating the current comedy landscape, check out the Broadcast Film Critics Association's six nominees for best comedy, for its Critics' Choice Movie Awards (which will air Jan. 17).
Only one, The Big Short, has male protagonists.
The other five are stories centred on women: Inside Out, about the emotions in a preadolescent girl; Joy, starring Jennifer Lawrence as an entrepreneur; Sisters, in which Amy Poehler and Tina Fey throw one last bash in their childhood home; Spy, where a doormat (Melissa McCarthy) learns to kick ass; and Trainwreck, starring (and written by) Amy Schumer, about a cynic who reluctantly falls in love.
Fey, Lawrence, McCarthy and Schumer are also nominated for best actress in a comedy, alongside someone who showed them how it's done: Lily Tomlin, who's up for the shamefully underrated Grandma, about a cool, dogged woman who spends a day scraping together the cash for her granddaughter's abortion, and ends up confronting her past. Don't be deterred by the awful title or trailer. See it.
(Over at the Golden Globes, the other group to award both comedies and dramas, Joy, Spy and Trainwreck made the cut for best picture – comedy. Lawrence, McCarthy, Schumer and Tomlin are nominated for best actress – comedy, along with another vet, Maggie Smith, for The Lady in the Van. That awards show airs this Sunday.)
But before feminists start popping champagne and celebrating the hard-won fight for mere parity, I want to challenge the writers of comedies about women to make a change: Please stop making your heroines humble and debase themselves, and alter who they are, in order to "grow."
The guys from The Hangover don't hug and learn. They celebrate their debauchery right to the end of the credits. In Pineapple Express and This is the End, Seth Rogen and James Franco don't throw away their bongs at the end of Act Two and spend Act Three becoming "better" people. Ted 2 was not subtitled, "Ted Enters a 12-Step Program and Begins Reading to the Blind"; the studs from Magic Mike XXL don't quit stripping and open a soup kitchen. I haven't yet seen Ride Along 2 or Dirty Grandpa, but I doubt there's a lot of atoning.
So I don't understand why, at the end of Sisters, the siblings can't just congratulate themselves for throwing the party of the decade, and okay, sure, repair the damage to their house. But that's not what happens. Instead, they have to show us that their souls are damaged, too. They have to be embarrassed by how inadequate they are. They have to see that they threw the party, not because parties are fun, but because they were desperate to fill a psychological need, which they now have to grow up and address.
The same goes for Trainwreck. Wouldn't the story have worked just as well if Schumer's character simply learned that she shouldn't be afraid of love? Did she also have to, in full-on self-help montage, throw away her booze, tidy her house and type primly on her laptop – and oh yeah, become a freakin' cheerleader – to win her man back? (I don't care if her routine was "ironic." She still put on the uniform.) For God's sake, Grease, that seminal feminist manifesto, was braver when Olivia Newton-John won back John Travolta by donning a black leather catsuit.
In Old School, after Will Ferrell's character goes streaking, he doesn't apologize and atone. So why, in Bridesmaids, can't Kristen Wiig attack the giant cookie at the engagement party with glee? Why does it have to be shameful and awkward and send her into friend-exile until she cleans up her act? Sometimes that discrepancy exists within the same movie: In last year's The Intern, Robert De Niro's character is allowed to remain quietly right, while Anne Hathaway's has to discover and correct the many ways in which she's wrong.
Spy is a bit more subtle. McCarthy's character, Susan, isn't humiliated by all the ways in which she's inadequate – she's humiliated by how others expect her to be inadequate: a crazy cat lady, a sad Christmas-sweater-wearer. She doesn't learn who she is by being humbled into it; she learns by seizing control of the power she's had all along. The best scene in the movie – when McCarthy finally lets loose, hurling insults at Rose Byrne's henchman and then asking, scathingly, "Are you crying?" – achieves real liftoff. Still, I hope the next movie is nothing but scenes like that, McCarthy revelling in her most anarchic self.
I must note that much of what I'm complaining about is sisters doing it to themselves. Bridesmaids, Sisters, The Intern and Trainwreck were written by women. Spy, Joy, Inside Out, and Grandma, on the other hand, were written by men. Those latter films provide a different – dare I say, more traditionally male – route to their heroines' growth. Instead of shaming them into overcoming their internal obstacles, those films throw external obstacles at their protagonists, and they grow by triumphing over them.
In Inside Out, Joy (voiced by Poehler) doesn't have to debase herself to learn to make room for Sadness (Phyllis Smith); she learns by doing. In Joy, Lawrence doesn't have to realize she's wrong; her challenge is to make doubters realize she's right. Same with Tomlin in Grandma. It's less, "You're bad, so let's make you okay," and more, "You're good, but let's make you great."
I'm not sure why so many women writers put their protagonists through a loser's journey rather than a hero's. Does the male-dominated studio system and/or marketplace expect (and therefore demand) it? Or have women internalized that message so thoroughly that they don't notice how much they're perpetuating it? Either way, here's hoping that more people (of every sex) recognize the habit, and kick the hell out of it.