The Comedic Limitations of The Unruly Woman


In her Chapter “Feminist Film Theory and the Question of Laughter,”[1] Katherine Rowe outlines the figure of the ‘Unruly Woman’ who, in a comparison to Bakhtain’s work, appears as a haggish caricature that challenges male-dominated social hierarchies through caricature, focus on the grotesque body, and offensive humour. Conceptualised more than twenty years ago, Rowe’s model has proved prophetic in predicting the styles of humour employed by female comedians such as Amy Schumer and Melissa Mcarthy – I believe that, as female-driven comedy becomes more prevalent, Rowe’s reduction of such comedy to offence and unruliness is problematic as it inevitably has limited long-term appeal.


For example, the unruly comedy of Amy Schumer – although embodying the feminist potential Rowe writes on – soon became a target for critics who saw the limited range of her humour; and used this as a basis to criticise feminist comedy as a whole. In this clip from Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Kaitlin Olsen (Another talented female comic) performs a caricature of Schumer’s comedy, illustrating the laziness of her performance and its constant return to jokes based solely on female sexual organs. Rather than illustrate the range of comedy and female-specific observations that Olsen demonstrates in the rest of the series, here Olsen reduces here entire female identity to sex alone – This is obviously problematic from a feminist perspective.


As a counterpoint to this reductionist comedy, I introduce the online sketches of Muriel Comedy, such as this parody of female reboots. Here, rather than reduce their comedic spectrum to offence and a focus on sex, these comedians use their unique female perspectives to engage in more traditional comedic forms of social commentary, parody, and conventional caricature.

[1] Rowe, Katherine. “Feminist Film Theory and the Question of Laughter.” In The unruly woman: gender and the genres of laughter. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1995. Pp. 1-22


  1. I agree wholeheartedly with your opinions on the limitations of the female grotesque. As society has moved out of the 2000’s, one can easily see the decline both in quality and popularity of grotesque films as a whole due to their formulaic and often predictable nature.

  2. This example reminded me of Rowe’s reference to Mulvey when she briefly talks about liminality. Essentially, she suggests that liminality allows society to comment on itself which I think is what these women do in the Muriel comedy sketch as they comment on contemporary female attitudes to create this counterpoint of unruliness.

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