Pointing out the Mask (Harry Johnson)

Rowe, in ‘Feminist Film Theory and the Question of Laughter’, a chapter from her book The Unruly Woman: Gender and the Genres of Laughter, cites a theory of Doane on how to dismantle the ‘feminine’ values and attributes which melodramas (which Doane focuses on) propagate (Rowe, 5-6). Doane argues that parodying these values – through a kind of heightened, self-conscious performance – is an effective way to reveal the performative nature of femininity and the disparity between that mask and the woman wearing it (Rowe, 6). Rowe goes on to argue that Doane does not go far enough with her theory, in that she does not follow ‘parody’ to its natural destination, comedy (Rowe, 6). It is easy to see how comedy provides a place for such parodying of how women are expected to act in society, and of how they are coded as being in much mainstream film, and not simply melodrama. If comedy is a space to point out and mock societal norms, then it stands to reason that it is a space to point out the

In this sketch from SNL, this parodying is extremely overt, down to the name of the female character (if she can be called a character; the point of the sketch is to show that women in the comedies being parodied exist simply to serve the male protagonist): One-Dimensional Female Character from a Male-Driven Comedy. The sketch also touches on something else Rowe argues: women in film are not allowed to appear grotesque (Rowe, 2-4). She uses the term in the same way as does Bakhtin, and in applying it to cinematic depictions of women, implies that a grotesque female body would be one which does not conform to the standards of perfect femininity which much mainstream cinema creates. In this sketch, Female Character (Cecily Strong) says that, although she can become pregnant and give birth, the audience will never see her pregnant, or change in any way. This would be because such a visible change in bodily function would be verging too close to the grotesque for the male-driven comedy to which she belongs.

In short, such comedic parodies of the societally-approved construct of femininity found and propagated in mainstream film (Rowe and others focus on melodrama, but as we can see from the sketch, the model of femininity to which she refers is also found in other genres) can help to point out the mask of femininity and, as Rowe says, “the gap between an impossible role and the woman playing it” (Rowe, 6).

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