Comedic television is an art that is always up for interpretation by viewers and critics alike. Three shows that have recently received stellar reviews and a dedicated fan-base on NBC are 30 Rock, Parks and Recreation, and Community. Besides the same network, what the shows have in common are the women within the show, and how the shows portray traditional gender roles. In the past, when women were on the forefront of comedic television, if they were even allowed, it was usually in a role that was traditionally feminine.
Friends for example had three female main characters, which usually spent most of their story arcs worrying about marriage or babies. Even on Seinfeld, a show years ahead of its time, the main female character, Elaine, usually had storylines consisting of looking for dates, and was usually the most boring character by far. What these new shows are proving, is that more so than any time before we are seeing an emergence of women in comedy that show that gender does not define humor.
On the forefront is Tina Fey, after coming off as the first female head writer of Saturday Night Live, she began writing her own show, 30 Rock, which is about being a head writer at a place very much like Saturday Night Live. While the show sounds like it would be more appropriate on Lifetime or Oxygen, it never focuses on gender and treats Tina Fey’s character as a straight actor and a foil to the zaniness of the show around her. More importantly the show never tries to reinforce gender roles or arguments and never comes off as a “girl show” that is strictly aimed at women, but a show made simply for people looking to laugh.
Similarly, the show Parks and Recreation features Amy Poehler as Leslie Knope, a government bureaucrat. As with 30 Rock, the show never focuses on the main character being a woman, and she is not defined by her gender, but by her ambition, knowledge, and caring about the town she represents. By having a position of power, and being portrayed as someone who is excellent at their job, the show draws a sharp contrast from such others as Two and a Half Men, where women are viewed as just a pair of breasts and contrasting genitalia as opposed to real people who occupy an equal status as men. Another example but not quite as pernicious is a show like The Big Bang Theory, where the one female main character can barely pay rent, is uneducated, and frequently cannot keep her life together; in direct opposition to the men on the show who all work as scientists at a university and can immediately tell when she is doing something detrimental, like being tricked into dating a bully that is hinted at as being abusive as well. Her only redeeming characteristics are usually her looks. While gender is not ignored, it is always presented as equal between the sexes, as opposed to women cannot do this, or men cannot do that.
As an evolution of these shows, Community perhaps takes the most equal role, in that gender is never an issue. The main female characters are presented as equal as the other characters on the show, so much that gender isn’t even discussed. All of the characters, who are members of a study group, are on equal footing with their own quirks and oddities. Community essentially shows a genderless, race-less world where gender or race is treated like a hair color or height-- they act as details, not as defining qualities of that character. Gillian Jacobs portrays Britta on the show, a young, free-spirited woman; she plays a role that could have been filled by a man, as is Alison Brie’s character, Annie-- she is a high strung former straight “A” student, and then a pill addict-- a role that could be rewritten as a man, and replaced with a male actor on the show. Where the point really hits home, however, is Yvette Nicole Brown’s character, Shirley, a middle aged mother who bonds with the show's resident old timer Chevy Chase--who is himself a product of a time of racism, and heavily enforced gender roles. The two bond as they are the oldest members of the study group, and feel excluded. This friendship is one that is ignoring any sort of previously defined roles, and is paving the way of television shows to come.
Despite the strides made by these women, other shows such as Whitney, also on NBC are taking a more backwards route. This show makes a huge deal about gender roles, consistently reinforcing the, and highlighting the function of them in society. However, the shows are an excellent template, and are proving a show with a female main character does not have to be classified as a “woman show”. As many strides have been made in the past century for women, an equal comedic TV opportunity is an achievement which seems small, but is a testament to how far society has progressed, and hopefully, the roles of women in television will continue to expand in the future.