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The Wisecracking Dame: An overview of the representation
of Verbally Expressed Humour produced by women on screen
Despite the fact that women have a reputation for talking abundantly, in this essay I shall argue that the comedic styles of
female cinema actors are seldom founded on language. Based on a small, self-selected sample of comic films, what clearly emerges is that, at least as far as the big screen is concerned, the use of language does not seem to be women's preferred means of achieving a humorous effect. It would appear that, in order to get their laughs, most often funny women rely on their physicality or on the situations they spark off, rather than on their verbal repartee. Yet, when women do resort to Verbally Expressed Humour, they are likely to adopt a variety which is unique to their gender alone.
Keywords: cinema; comedy; gender; Verbally Expressed Humour.
1. Introduction Over the years numerous women have taken on comic parts in the movies, yet, whether audiences laugh benevolently at the cheeky group of nuns in Sister Act (Emile Ardolino 1992, USA), relish in the political incorrectness of laughing at the topos of a woman who insists on trying to seduce a male for whom she is clearly not quite attractive and/or young enough or whether they express amusement at the dumbness of a shapely blonde, it soon becomes evident that at the movies, funny ladies are frequently willing to be laughed at.
Now, the archetypical funny lady on screen is unlikely to conform to conventional standards of female beauty. She will typically be somewhat overweight like Kathy Najimy, the break dancing nun in Sister Act, or else she will tend to be unattractive like Rossy de Palma (Women on the verge of a nervous breakdown, Pedro Almodóvar, 1988, Spain) or a combination of both old and unsightly. Speaking of British comedy, Larraine Porter remarks that Numerically in the minority, those women who have attained comic stardom have tended to operate within the narrow range of personas and comic types available to them. Tarty, giggly blondes [ ], nagging wives [ ], plump matriarchs [ ], frustrated spinsters [ ], and female grotesques [ ] formed the paradigm for female comic typecasting. (1998: 69) On the other hand, if the female comic is sexually attractive, she will often simply be there to provoke a comic situation to the advantage of the male cast around her. In fact, using her physical attributes, whether they are positive or negative, as a catalyst for a potentially funny situation is a typically female role on the big screen.
For example, female laughter provoking catalysts may come under the form of the ‘bombshell', namely a dumb blonde with an outstandingly shapely body underscored by skimpy clothing who typically triggers off a reaction in her male admirers, who, bending over backwards to get her attention, or simply shocked by her voluptuousness, soon find themselves in comic predicaments. The archetypical example of this is, of course, the well known scene in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (Howard Hawks, 1953, USA) in which, by walking up a short flight of stairs in a tight skirt, Marilyn Monroe causes the milk bottles on the doorstep to erupt and explode and the milkman's glasses to steam up and crack. Again, if a script is short of a laugh, then directors may well fill the gap with a hard-hitting female. For some reason, being punched on the nose or being hit over the head by a lady's handbag appears to be a guaranteed cause for hilarity like Patricia Hayes, the thrashing old woman in A Fish Called Wanda (Charles Crichton, UK, 1988) and Kirstie Alley in Look Who's Talking (Amy Heckerling; 1989, USA). None of the situations mentioned requires the use of words. Interestingly, actresses' aversion at being trapped in such stereotypes is well documented. “Cute, cute, cute – the ruination of our careers” complained Debbie Reynolds; Britain 's Barbara Windsor considered herself “a body, a bosom, a joke” and most famously, Monroe herself is quoted as having said “A sex symbol becomes a thing. I just hate to be a thing.” (Quoted in Gray 1994:11).
Now, if we look at purely visual, non-verbal humour in male actors, they too, of course, are often there to be laughed at, yet not so much for their physical attributes, but more for the messes into which they get themselves. There appears, in fact, to be a strong pre-dominance of the “Look Mummy I've done something wrong syndrome.” From Stan Laurel to Mr Bean, Hugh Grant and beyond, audiences laugh at the grown up man who has acted like a six-year-old, as the camera homes in on a close up of the comedian's embarrassed expression. It would not, in fact, be unfair to say that female non-verbal humour is centred around the comic's body in a way in which male humour is not, Comedy positions the woman not simply as the object of the male gaze but of the male laugh – not just to-be looked-at but to-be-laughed-at – doubly removed from creativity. (Gray 1994: 9).
The kind of laughter provoked by plump Bridget Jones Bridget Jones' Diary (Sharon Maguire, 2001, UK / USA / France ) struggling into a pair of panties which are clearly too small for her is quite different from that caused by the sight of Darcy (Colin Firth) wearing a home-made sweater with a reindeer on the front. In the same film, Bridget, dressed up as a bunny girl cannot be considered the same kind of funny as her father dressed up as a vicar. Yet over the years, women's sexual attributes have become a common source of derision on screen.
In this essay I shall examine a small, self selected corpus of films in which women play comic roles with a view firstly to briefly observe their roles as non-verbal vectors of the comic and secondly to investigate their use of Verbally Expressed Humour ( VEH ). What I would like to claim is that, just as in non-verbal comicality women tend to set up situations for which male comedians subsequently obtains a laugh, also as far as VEH is concerned, the utterances of many female comic actresses often simply serve as a springboard from which their male counterparts can go for the final ‘good line'. Having said that, however, I intend to show that the few comic actresses who have managed to cross the line from comic sidekick to comic diva, tend to adopt a style of VEH which is typical only of females.
2. Operational Definitions
The corpus chosen for this study is a convenient one consisting of 20, self selected comedies from North American and British cinema containing a total of 110 comic actors, roughly half of whom are female. Apart from its limitations in terms of size, the corpus raises a number of problems which require brief clarification.
2.1. The concept of humour
So far I have adopted the terms ‘humorous' and ‘comic' in a vaguely synonymous manner. Yet the terms are not at all synonymous. In fact, an important issue in the field of Humour Studies is that, as yet, there is no universal consensus of an unequivocal definition of the concept of humour (Ruch 1998:5-12). Of course we all know what we mean by humour, but the scores of existing definitions are mostly at odds with each other. From its original Latin meaning of ‘fluid' ( umor ), over the centuries the word has travelled from its early days as a medical term of the science of physiology, to the discipline of aesthetics, from France to England and finally across the Atlantic to become the unclear umbrella term it is today. In effect, today the term humour has acquired what Ruch calls “multiple usage” (1998 : 6) as it also embraces concepts such as comedy, fun, the ridiculous, nonsense and scores of notions each of which, while possessing a common denominator, all significantly differ from one another too. What is more, to complicate matters further, the concept of humour often appears to be used as a synonym of sense of humour (Ruch 1998 : 6). This confusion naturally leads to problems when deciding what can be defined humorous on film.
Of course without attempting to define it, we all know that humour is something to do with the concept of funniness. Funniness exhibited by a positive humour response in terms of smiling and laughter, as a reaction to some kind of stimulus. And here is where matters begin to become muddled because we all are perfectly capable of finding something funny and yet not react with a laugh or a smile, which are two very different phenomena both in terms of bodily process, behavioural reaction and emotional response. Thus the “positive humour response”, expression coined by Paul McGhee (1979) to conceptualise the perception of a humorous stimulus as being funny, has been deemed inadequate in personality research and replaced by the term “exhilaration” (Ruch 1993: 605-616). Exhilaration incorporates reactions such as laughter and smiling to the “humour response” as well as a series of physiological changes. Possibly most importantly of all, exhilaration includes the emotional effect which is experienced to a humorous stimulus, an effect which leaves the recipient with that agreeable feeling of physical well-being with which most people are familiar. However, let us not forget that we could theoretically split our sides laughing simply by being successfully tickled or by consuming nitrous oxide. Neither is it uncommon to laugh because of nervousness or fear. Likewise, it is a well known fact that smiles do not exclusively communicate amusement. However, even if the reaction to a humorous stimulus may well be invisible, an internal physiological reaction, combined with an emotional response, namely exhilaration, will certainly occur and this effect can be quite separate from a visible display of appreciation.
And let us not forget that we don't all find the same things funny. Humour is in the eyes, ears, the mind – and to tangle the web even further – in the mood of the beholder too. Therefore, if a film is to be defined as being humorous, this begs the question, “humorous according to whom?” Furthermore, is exhilaration as a response to a stimulus proof of the stimulus being humorous per se ? The answer is of course not. As we know, one may well be amused and experience exhilaration when faced with a perfectly serious situation simply because at times life presents us with situations which are unintentionally funny. And notice here how I am caught off guard as I equate the notion of amusement with that of funniness, two concepts which are semantically linked but certainly not synonymous in physiological, behavioural and emotional terms. Which leads us straight into the philosophical meanders of the humorous versus the comic and intentional versus unintentional which are beyond the bounds of this discussion. Thus, to hastily recapitulate, so far we have humour, sense of humour, funniness, amusement, laughter, smiling, humour response, exhilaration and comedy – a sort of psycho-lexical melting pot in which separate boundaries are ill-defined and confusion reigns.
Why this preface? Simply to underscore that what is considered humorous by one person, may not be considered so by another.
Furthermore, as we shall see below, as diverse filmic genres have merged and blended into each other, we find that the term comedy has come a long way from the original meaning of the Greek word komos which involved the notion of misfortune followed by a happy ending.
VEH is an additional fuzzy area which is far from easy to delineate. Linguistic theories of humour offer us the Semantic Script Theory (Raskin, 1985:99) based upon the hypothesis that verbal humour occurs when one single verbal script contains two
separate semantic scripts which both simultaneously oppose and overlap each other. This theory was to be reformulated and refined to become the General Theory of Verbal Humour (Attardo and Raskin 1991) which, over and above the requirement of two overlapping scripts, adds the proviso that VEH involves the principle that the recipient of such a script is in possession of a complex set of Knowledge Resources ( KR ) necessary to decipher it. Naturally the primary KR required for understanding VEH is a shared linguistic code between sender and recipient. It thus follows that VEH is confined within a number of inter and intracultural boundaries which include regional and national origin, ethnicity, social class, education, religion, gender, sexual orientation as well as special interests which can span from knitting to nuclear science thus showing that “there is a sense in which all communication is cross-cultural” (Romaine 1994:29). And certainly VEH is one of the most extreme examples of highly culture-specific discourse, which, once understood by a certain group of people, is then also dependent on a wide variety of other variables linked to individual personality and mood for the humorous message to be felicitous. Now, while on the one hand the GTVH is convincing, perhaps its most significant shortcoming is that it only appears to account for VEH to a limited extent. As long as we apply it to clearly definable phenomena such as paranomasia (puns) in the widest possible sense, or irony and popular joke narratives based on semantic duplicity (light-bulb jokes, blonde jokes etc.) the theory works, but it falls short in accounting for the copious examples of VEH which escape such categorizations. And much VEH on screen does exactly that, it consists of ‘good lines' which resist traditional labelling. To illustrate this point, let us consider the scene in Ghost (Jerry Zucker, 1990, USA) in which clairvoyant Oda Mae (Whoopi Goldberg) is told that she has four million dollars to withdraw from her bank account. Her surprise upon hearing of such a large sum of money is to repeat the utterance “Four million dollars!” in a tone of acute surprise. Sam's ghost (played by Patrick Swayze who is visible only to the audience) encourages her to say yes, so Goldberg repeats the utterance in an attempt at a nonchalant whisper. The two remarks bring the house down well before the
TELLER: Well, Rita, you'll be withdrawing four million dollars from us today, is that correct?
ODA MAE: Four million dollars?!
SAM: Say "yes"!
ODA MAE: (gasping) Yes! Four million. That's right. That's right.
TELLER: And how will you want that?
ODA MAE: Tens and twenties?