The Women of SNL was a Special featuring the ladies from Saturday Night Live over the show’s history. While watching it, I was suddenly reminded of when my friend and I started an improv group in college. We wanted to practice some of the skills we were learning in our comedy class, so we booked the student run space and gathered a small group of interested improvisers. We tried things we’d only read about in books and explored things we’d done in class.
We went to a college where the male to female ratio was 1 to 3 but somehow in our little group, we had more men than women. We all improvised enthusiastically for a few sessions and then someone pointed out that my co-founder and created almost exclusively male characters. At the time, I was mystified by this habit. We were feminists at a (mostly) women’s college, why did every character come out that way?
Watching the Women of SNL, I had an insight into the why of that pattern. We grew up with very few funny female character models. Funny defaulted to male. I was a dedicated SNL watcher in my youth and at the time, there were very few signature female characters – aside from the ones in drag. (a la “The Church Lady” or Terry Sweeny’s Nancy Reagan)
The women that were on during my formative years were funny in relationship to men. They weren’t the stars of their sketches. They were written into the roles of bimbos, prudes and nags. You can see how they could have been so much funnier if anyone had known how to write actual women for them.
Watching the survey of the women of SNL all pressed up next to one another revealed how much of a difference there was in the newer generations of women on the show. Tina Fey’s position as head writer surely has to be credited with some of the monumental change between those seasons. Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Maya Rudolph, Rachel Dratch and Kristen Wiig all took on female characters in a way that no one had been able to before them. Particularly radical to me, was how often these female characters are in relationship to one another. They were in sketches with other women. SNL started to pass the Bechdel Test with flying colors in their era. There are whole worlds of women that had never been on-screen before and it was inspiring to see them.
Watching the SNL special made me wish I had grown up watching women like Wiig, Fey, Poehler, Dratch and Rudolph for inspiration. I envy the young women who have grown up with them to look toward. I think they must have a much clearer sense of what’s possible, of roles they could play and how to be funny and still be a woman.
I heard a film critic talk about the definition of good satire as something that should always punch up. He said that the best satire targets the guy at the top. I think for me, in college, taking on male characters of any kind felt like punching up. There weren’t enough women in power to feel like I could punch up to a female character, I guess. Funny defaulted to male then, even as a woman and I’m so grateful to see that it doesn’t have to anymore.
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