By Jessica Singer
There’s no secret to the patriarchal dichotomy that is our Hollywood system. The women are objects to move the plot along for men, or constantly trying to pursue a man and a family, while the men are allowed to have their own personas and adventures. Growing up, I noticed that the female characters in movies and sitcoms were one-note, flat and most of the time, boring. I had trouble finding strong female leads to relate to, or who could inspire me, because they simply fell into what seemed to be their “natural place” in patriarchal society. The only women whom I felt portrayed multidimensional human beings on TV were the women of Saturday Night Live as well as the occasional stand-ups on Comedy Central Presents.
I’ve always had a special place in my heart for a good old-fashioned sitcom. The only female character I can faintly remember being treated equally, or as many people lovingly say, ‘as one of the boys,’ was Elaine Bennett (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) on Seinfeld. She wasn’t defined by her love life or her family — she had her own identity. While there will never be another Elaine, for years I could not find a female character that even came close.
Recently, however, there has been a significant increase in female characters with depth and soul, female characters with drive and ambition. Besides Julia Louis-Dreyfus, the women I particularly ‘fangirl’ over are Amy Poehler, Tina Fey and Sarah Silverman. Each of these women play a particular role in what I have coined the modern revolution of feminist comedy. However, one can easily argue that the revolution of feminist comedy still has a long way to go, with women of color being nearly invisible in the comedy world, with the exception of the few like Maya Rudolph and Anjelah Johnson. But thus far, the one lady who has contributed the most toward paving the road in female comedy in recent years is the lovely Amy Poehler. I would like to break down Amy Poehler’s influence in the comedy world and her contributions to destroying the patriarchy.
Poehler has continuously used her opportunities and power as an actress, writer, producer and director toward the betterment of equal rights for men and women in the world of television and comedy. We have come to lovingly know her as a popular movie star and, of course, as Leslie Knope on Parks and Recreation, but her journey has been filled with hard work and sass — almost always with a smile. She began her comedy career at Second City in Chicago, where she met her improv troupe, Upright Citizens Brigade (made up of Matt Besser, Matt Walsh, and Ian Roberts). This then led them to their own Comedy Central and live theater special. After starring in the cult classic Wet Hot American Summer, Poehler joined the cast of Saturday Night Live.
Amy Poehler was the first woman and third person in the history of Saturday Night LIve to be promoted from featured player to a full fledged cast member of SNL during their first season. Poehler hit the ground running when she began at SNL, creating characters filled with life and laughs, such as little Kaitlyn yelling “RRIIICCCKKK!” as well as her spot-on impersonations of Hillary Clinton, Kim Jong Il and Sharon Osbourne. Among a great cast, she was one of the most prominent break-out stars of her time on SNL.
In 2004 she began co-hosting Weekend Update with Tina Fey and their friendship-improv-woman-power escalated to new heights. Before taking Jimmy Fallon’s seat at the update desk when he left to do Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, Poehler had a telling interaction with Fallon, which is one of my favorite moments in Tina Fey’s book BossyPants. As Fey tells it, Poehler was performing some sort of vulgar joke in the writers’ room, when Fallon said:
“‘Stop that! It’s not cute! I don’t like it.’
Amy dropped what she was doing, went black in the eyes for a second, and wheeled around on him. ‘I don’t fucking care if you like it.’ Jimmy was visibly startled. Amy went right back to enjoying her ridiculous bit.
With that exchange, a cosmic shift took place. Amy made it clear that she wasn’t there to be cute. She wasn’t there to play wives and girlfriends in the boys’ scenes. She was there to do what she wanted to do and she did not fucking care if you like it.”
Reading this excerpt as an eighteen-year-old female fully enamored with the comedy world, I got goosebumps. Knowing that this kind of paradigm shift had occurred in the SNL writers room — from none other than a fun-loving, hard working, funny girl, who asserted herself with a quick quip — was one of the most beautiful things I’d ever read. It seemed to be my personal call to action. I realized that while I was laughing and enjoying myself, I was also watching a battle for gender equality in the comedy world — and the women were coming out swinging. I wanted to help, to be a part of it in some way.
As I grew up, so did Amy Poehler. A lot happened in the world of Poehler between 2007 and 2009. She starred in about a dozen movies, concluded her time on SNL, began her own web campaign entitled ‘Smart Girls at the Party’ and began writing and starring in two different television programs: Parks and Recreation and The Mighty B!
Amy Poehler’s website Smart Girls was launched in order to create a safe haven for young women on the Internet, a place that can be filled with judgement and hate. Their mission statement is the following:
“Smart Girls at the Party is a rapidly expanding online network and community movement. Our aim is to help young women and the young at heart with the process of cultivating their authentic selves.We change the world by being ourselves, and being ourselves is a life long quest. Smart Girls hopes to provide some fun reference materials along the way.”
This website then created spin-offs such as Operation Nice and Ask Amy, in which Poehler answers young women’s questions on issues such as friendship, negativity, jealousy and even math. Going even further to improve the image of women at a young age, Amy Poehler then created the show The Mighty B!, an animated series on Nickelodeon. Poehler decided to write and star in this cartoon, in which she plays Overachieving Honeybee scout, Bessie Higgenbottom. She wanted to do so because she was worried about the way young girls were portrayed in the media and wanted her daughter to have a cartoon she could relate to and admire.
Parks and Recreation is close to my heart, not just because I’m a fan of Amy Poehler, but also because of all of the multi-dimensional characters on the show, and the way it depicts American life and politics. Parks and Recreation has a diverse cast, as each character exhibits the perfect amount of dysfunctional that they become positively lovable. Poehler’s Leslie Knope breaks the patriarchal dichotomy common in media and flips it on it’s head; playing a working woman who is also lovable and capable of love. Although Parks and Recreation does fall victim to classic romantic tropes from time to time, these tropes do not dominate the show or take away from any of the characters’ identities.
Most recently, Amy Poehler has made her gutsiest and most respectable career move by becoming the executive producer of Comedy Central’s new hit program, Broad City. This new show was initially a web series created by fellow UCB Alumni Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson. Their web series consisted of the adventures these two ladies had as low-income, twenty-somethings trying to actually survive in New York City. However,these characters weren’t anything like the hyper-sexualized women in Girls or Sex in The City (although I love those shows in their own right). As a web series, Broad City highlighted what twenty-somethings realistically go through, such as awkwardly running into someone that you didn’t want to talk to on the subway, trying to get laundry done or having to deal with getting cat-called on the street. The web series was quality in both cinematography and content, featuring a season one finale that parodies Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing from a feminist perspective.
When trying to get their program started, Glazer and Jacobson received Poehler’s email address from a friend and asked if she would be interested in being the producer. She had actually been a fan of their youtube channel and was eager to contribute to their project, guest starring in the season two finale of their webseries.
Broad City is the most feminist television comedy program I have ever seen. One of the most beautiful things about it is that the two leads, Abbi and Ilana (who use their real first names in the program), are extremely relatable to young audiences, both male and female. Their plotlines include trying to receive a package for someone else, trying to file their taxes for themselves, and trying to score tickets to a Lil Wayne concert. They make a point of it to make sure that romantic relationships are not the main focus of these women’s lives, and they avoid the ‘child-having’ conversation completely. Amy Poehler directed the season finale of Broad City, which flips the male gaze on its head in the very first scene. In this scene, Abbi and Ilana seem to be rating the men on a scale from one to ten, but unbeknownst to Abbi, Ilana is actually guessing the size of their penises. We then see basketball shorts bouncing around in slow motion as Abbi and Ilana gawk at them.
From her sketch comedy, to her sitcom royalty, to her inspirational vlogs and now producing some of the most groundbreaking feminist shows in history, Amy Poehler is constantly helping to shape the world of comedy and break down the gender barriers established by the patriarchal Hollywood system.