Unruly Women

Maggie Gyllenhaal (1977–), an established and respected American actor, was denied a film role in 2014 because she was considered too old to play the romantic partner of a man close to twenty years her senior. “It was astonishing to me,” she said. “It made me feel bad. And then it made me angry. And then it made me laugh” ( Child 2015 ). Gyllenhaal's hurt and sadness are “acceptable” emotions for women to express, but anger is not. And laughter—especially big, bold laughter—is even more taboo because it conveys fearlessness and often contempt for its target. When Gyllenhaal transformed the pathos and tears typically triggered by shock, pain, and rage into laughter, she showed her refusal to see the incident as a personal affront but instead as political, a consequence of a social order with gender rules so absurd she could only laugh at them. In an instant, she exchanged the defeat of a victim for the power of a victor.

American stand-up comedian Amy Schumer (1981–) tackled the same issue (how sexism is compounded by ageism as women pass their childbearing years) in an April 2015 skit on her Comedy Central show, Inside Amy Schumer, named “Last F**kable Day.” In it, she and three other well-known film and TV stars—Tina Fey (1970–), Patricia Arquette (1968–), and Julia Louis-Dreyfus (1961–)—gather for a picnic to celebrate Louis-Dreyfus's arrival at an age when her apparent sexual desirability has ended. The obvious irony, of course, is that all these women are attractive and successful, and Louis-Dreyfus, the oldest among them, is as beautiful and vivacious as she was earlier in her career, when mass audiences came to know her as Elaine, the flaky ingenue among the eccentric men of Seinfeld, an NBC sitcom between 1989 and 1998.

Gyllenhaal and Schumer, along with the millions of other women who joined in their laughter, belong to a tradition of female unruliness that reaches back for millennia. In their moments of unruly laughter, these women—in real life and in representations of it on page, stage, or screen—refuse to take seriously patriarchy's expectations that they defer to men, accept their subservient status, and comply with the ideals of traditional femininity. “Ideal” women subordinate their own desires to those of men, allow men to define them and their experience, and accept that their value lies primarily in their (hetero)sexual desirability, which, as Gyllenhaal experienced and Schumer targeted, is measured by very different standards from those applied to men.

This chapter begins by defining the unruly woman. After identifying the theoretical assumptions on which the analysis of female unruliness rests, it considers major theorists whose insights into comedy, laughter, and the grotesque, while not influenced by theories of gender, provide valuable tools for understanding female unruliness: Henri Bergson, Sigmund Freud, Northrop Frye, and Mikhail Bakhtin. The chapter then explains that feminist film theory in the late 1980s could not account for the cultural impact of a transgressive public figure such as American comedian Roseanne Barr because, rooted in the study of melodrama, it had yet to explore the feminist potential of comedy and the grotesque. After outlining key attributes of female unruliness, the chapter concludes with recent scholarship on the subject.

Kathleen Rowe Karlyn
Professor Emerita of Cinema Studies, Department of English
University of Oregon, Eugene

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