The Role of Women in Screwball Comedy Films

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The Role of Women in Screwball Comedy Films

Joan Wilder: You're leaving? You're leaving me?!

Jack Colton: You're gonna be all right, Joan Wilder. Yea. You always were.

Like a contemporary Dorothy, Romancing the Stone's Joan Wilder must travel to Columbia and survive incredible adventures to learn that she had always been a capable and valuable person. Romancing the Stone (Robert Zemeckis, 1984) is part of a series of 1980s action comedies that disrupted previous expectations for female heroines. These female protagonists manage to subvert the standard action narrative and filmic gaze, learning to rescue themselves and to resist others' limited vision of them. Not only did these action comedies present strong female characters, they also offered a new filmic experience for female audiences. The commercial success of comic action heroines paved the way for women to appear in serious action roles--without the personal sacrifices required of Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley. Figures like Joan Wilder serve as an important link between previous strong yet feminine screen personas and current female stars.

Led by Laura Mulvey, feminist film critics have discussed the difficulty presented to female spectators by the controlling male gaze and narrative generally found in mainstream film, creating for female spectators a position that forces them into limited choices: "bisexual" identification with active male characters; identification with the passive, often victimized, female characters; or on occasion, identification with a "masculinized" active female character, who is generally punished for her unhealthy behavior. Before discussing recent improvements, it is important to note that a group of Classic Hollywood films regularly offered female spectators positive, female characters who were active in controlling narrative, gazing and desiring: the screwball comedy.

Comedy often allows for a subversion of the status quo that is not tolerated in more serious genres. Beginning in the 1930s, the subgenre of screwball comedy presented female characters who were active and desiring, without evoking negative characterizations as "unfeminine" or "trampish." Screwball comedies represent a specific form of romantic comedy that features a complicated situation--or more often a series of complications--centered around a strong-willed, unpredictable female. The comedy is generally physical as well as verbal. Screwball and other forms of romantic comedy do not just reverse the masculine/active, feminine/passive paradigm--which as E. Ann Kaplan notes accomplishes little in terms of change--but instead strengthens the female and weakens the male just enough to put them on more equal footing.

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