I was talking with a male friend of mine, who worked as an actor, and he gave me a strange remark regarding comedy scenes with women.
“It’s hard for me to joke with a fellow actress during acting. Because she might not be able to keep up with the sense of humor or might overdo it and ruin everything.”
This stopped me mid-sentence. Why was it so hard for men to find us funny? Why are female-led comedies resorted to a romantic, chick flick genre? And why does a woman have to possess a nonconforming body type to be funny?
The answer to all these nagging questions should be through a prominent movie, “Clueless” (1995).
Not only is this 1995 “teen” drama based on Jane Austen’s “Emma,” but it is also a way for a woman to be funny and sexy.
Women’s sexuality and sexual appeal are always put under question due to the fact that feminist women are stereotyped into this nonconforming archetype. Sexy women are always scrutinized for making it harder to accept other women, when in fact, patriarchal systems demand that women are categorized into either sexy or non-sexy tropes.
Sexy women are reserved for the roles of seduction that demand the full use of their bodies, while “non-sexy” women could play the roles of the geniuses, the funny ones, the girls next door or the rags to riches types. In multiple rom-coms, sexy women are regarded for their bodies, ultimately giving the upper hand to the fresh-faced girl, the one who does not threaten the audience with her overt sexuality. After the end credits roll, male viewers go to their homes feeling aroused but not threatened. Women have served their preassigned roles each individually.
Comediennes in Egypt
In Egyptian culture, female comediennes are scarce. Comedy is a genre reserved for men, for purposes that comply with the extremity to which male-led comedies might reach sometimes. Most
Egyptian comediennes are women with nonconforming body types, relying on farce and exaggerating their physical attributes to gain laughs. However, two of the most notable examples of female comediennes include the legendary Shwikar and Hind Rostom, the latter being an iconic sex symbol back in the fifties and sixties.
Shwikar was a legendary theater actress, who started her stage career starring opposite one of the most prominent theater actors, Fouad El-Mohandes, only to steal scenes from him with her sultry stage persona, her comedic abilities, and her intriguing ability to weave in her own characteristics into the multiple roles she played. Shwikar started with roles similar to her aristocratic background, only to shine through the Egyptian adaptation of “My Fair Lady” onstage, playing the iconic role of Eliza Doolittle—who was adapted into the Egyptian Sodfa Ba’adeshy—solemnly carving her portrayal of the characters into the hearts and minds of millions of Egyptians. Shwikar never gave up her sex appeal to portray a funny character, retaining her flirtatious, singsong tone and feminine spark while shifting from one comedic role to the other.
Hind Rostom is a different story, hailed by many Egyptian critics and journalists as the Egyptian alternative to Marilyn Monroe and Rita Hayworth. But the complexity of Rostom was much more than a sex symbol of the sixties. Rostom hailed herself as a melodramatic actress, starring in multiple Egyptian tragedies, either playing the femme fatale or the prostitute with a heart of gold. It wasn’t until her mid-
career that Rostom starred in multiple films that displayed both her comedic prowess and her unattainable sexuality, diverging from the conservative leading ladies in Egypt in the 1950s.
What’s “Clueless” Got to Do with It?
In “Clueless,” teen comedy takes another stance. Apart from the sexualization of teenage girls that plagued teen comedies of the 1980s, “Clueless” stars Alicia Silverstone as Cher Horowitz, a babe from Beverly Hills, who handles love and empathy, eventually maturing into a more responsible, globally aware woman. As Susan Hopkins states in Philosophy Now magazine:
“Reflecting the rise of third wave feminism in the 1990s, the new Clueless-style chick flicks suggested it was possible to embrace aspects of traditional ‘girlie-girl’ femininity and still be strong, ambitious, and empowered.”
It’s not only about empowerment, but “Clueless” actually makes it easier for a girl to be both sexy and funny: Comedy is not reserved for chick flick heroines who happen to possess the average, girl-next-door quality. Even when played by beautiful actress Meg Ryan in “You’ve Got Mail” (1998) or a highly sexual actress Kate Winslet in “The Holiday” (2006), she is usually downplayed as the obnoxious beauty, who constantly undermines her sexual and feminine self.
Not Cher Horowitz. This third-wave feminist go-getter is self-assured, overtly confident, and well aware of how using tools of femininity is a means to wield the world to her benefit. Like a man in power, Cher uses all her capabilities and privileges to get what she wants. However, when she is met by obstacles that make her tactics seem absurd, Cher reinvents herself, thus restructuring the ideal about femininity and thus retaining her status as a third-wave feminist icon, without sacrificing the “perm.”
The thing about “Clueless” is that it gives its main protagonist the best lines, the catchphrases, the ability to screw up and retrace her steps. A white, cisgender, straight woman correcting her own prejudice and misunderstanding of a gay man and fairly constricting a friendship rather than a relationship, is a unique moment in film history at the time. Seen as both a victory and a nod, “Clueless” carves the way for comedies starring queer women who swiftly move from guest roles to main protagonists, ultimately culminating in “Booksmart” (2019).
In a way, Cher has paved the way for films like “Legally Blonde” or “Easy A,” where beautiful, self-aware women reclaim their bodies and their status quo as beautiful women who could also be hilarious. “Clueless” rebukes the dumb blonde myth, so unfairly attached to Marilyn Monroe’s star icon, even though what it came down to was how a blonde woman could be both funny and sexy.
At the end, “Clueless” is both reflective and ahead of its time. It implants the image of the modern woman of the nineties, rebelling against the clean-shaven stereotypical second-wave feminists and paving the way for women of the fourth-wave feminist, who unlike their predecessors were able to subvert the gaze completely by liberating from the gender and sexual spectrum. Despite resistance, the atmosphere right now is more welcoming than ever for a female-led comedy that does not fear the sexual power of its funny lead actress.