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Rated XX: A Brief History of Female Comedies

Hey ladies! We look back at the rise of women-on-top comedies from the Marilyn Monroe age to the ‘Bridesmaids’ era

romy and michele's high school reunion

Lisa Kudrow and Mira Sorvino star in 'Romy and Michele's High School Reunion'

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If you watch the various trailers for Melissa McCarthy‘s upcoming movie Tammy, you can see the actress trying to jump over a fast-food restaurant counter (and fail), ogle male strippers with her co-star Susan Sarandon and do a manic jig on the dance floor. The talented comedienne might have been able to do those same things in, say, a bromance comedy or a romcom, but here, she’s front and center — the star of the movie, as opposed to someone who comes in for comic relief then goes back to the sidelines.  

Tammy is just the latest in a long line of movies that put funny women up front — call them “female comedies,” the sort of laughfests that let the ladies do the comic heavy lifting. In honor of McCarthy making the cover of Rolling Stone, we look back a brief history of the female comedy via 10 movies that helped define the genre and, more often than not, pushed it in to exciting new directions. 

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‘Gentlemen Prefer Blondes’ (1953)

There just "two little girls from Little Rock," if you believe the song that Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell's alpha females sing early on in this Howard Hawks musical comedy — but don't be fooled. For one thing, neither of them could be considered "little," whether you're talking about physical stature or personality traits; for another, they're not girls but full-grown women, who know what they want and aren't keen on being pushed around. Monroe would end up making another female comedy that year, How to Marry a Millionaire (co-starring Lauren Bacall and Betty Grable), but this is the one that sticks in your memory, thanks to the very real bond between the archetypical Hollywood blonde and the wisecracking Russell. For all the gold-digging on display, it's really an ode to female friendship — the may be after rich husbands, but no man could ever get between this dynamic duo.

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‘9 to 5’ (1980)

You can imagine the appeal of a comedy that revolved around a workplace revenge fantasy — specifically, a revenge fantasy focused on the embodiment of a condescending, sexually harrassing, male chauvinist pig of a boss. There were over 45,000 women in the workforce in 1980, and when they weren't bruising their head against the glass ceiling, most of them had undoubtedly dealt with someone like Dabney Coleman's corporate dickwad Franklin Hart, Jr. Combine that wish-fulfillment factor with one supergroup of a female cast (Oscar-winning actress Jane Fonda, groundbreaking comedienne Lily Tomlin and, in her movie debut, country-music legend Dolly Parton), and no wonder the movie was a huge hit. Most people probably remember Parton's chart-topping theme song over the film, but it was a major milestone in female comedies…not that it caused studios to rush out and greenlight a gajillion big-budget all-lady yukfests. 

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‘Desperately Seeking Susan’ (1985)

A bored housewife follows a bohemian hipsterette, gets hit on the head and wakes up thinking she's the downtown free spirit? This is one of those kooky switcheroo stories that Hollywood pumped out by the pound in the Eighties, right? Director Susan Seidelman's funky, fresh take on the story helped flesh out what could have been just another be-careful-what-you-wish-for cautionary tale; the emphasis is not on the life lessons Rosanna Arquette's stifled surbanite might have gleaned from the experience so much as the longing behind her fascination with Madonna's Susan. Oh, yes, and then there's Madonna, in all her laced-glove glory, exhibiting star presence and a real rapport with her co-star. When the two actresses finally share some scenes later in the film, all the boyfriend and dreamboats get pushed to the periphery. This is their comedy. They've found what they're seeking: each other.

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‘Heathers’ (1988)

“What’s your damage?” Well, for starters, there’s the psychic havoc inflicted on everyone who isn’t in the most popular clique in school — made up of three snooty young women named Heather, and the slightly less aristocratic teen, Veronica (big up Winona Ryder!) they let pal around with them. Then there’s that growing student body count, courtesy of the new psycho-hipster in town (Christian Slater). And lastly, there’s the scars left from some seriously acidic dialogue lobbed by our main quartet (“What’s the up-chuck factor on that?”). Satires don’t get much darker than this, and even though the focus turns into a Ryder vs. Slater showdown by the end, it’s still a landmark take on the femal comedy template; compare this to, say, Girls Just Wanna Have Fun, which had come out three years earlier. The Heathers crew would eat young Sarah Jessica Parker and her friends for lunch.

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‘Romy and Michelle’s High School Reunion’ (1997)

If you were in the mood for a female comedy circa the mid-Nineties, you had to settle for something along the lines of The First Wives Club (1996), in which a bunch of "older" actresses — by Hollywood standards, of course, older translates as above the age of 28 — plot revenge on their philandering ex-husbands. Nothing against Diane Keaton, Goldie "Private Benjamin" Hawn or Bette Midler, the latter in particular being a staple of big-budget female-driven farces throughout the Eighties (see 1987's Outrageous Fortune and 1988's Big Business); it would be nice, however, to see what sort of comediennes the younger generation could produce as well. Enter Romy and Michelle's High School Reunion, a movie about two immature, materialistic besties which starts off as a sort of female Bill & Ted flick before morphing into a story about the need to leave childish things behind. Not that Lisa Kudrow and Mira Sorvino's airheads aren't wonderfully ditzy creations — Kudrow had been perfecting her clueless persona on Friends for years, and the two have great chemistry. It's that the movie dares you to feel sympathy for these grown-up mallrats even as you're tempted to laugh at them.

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‘Mean Girls’ (2004)

Teenagers can be so mean…and teenage girls, especially the popular ones, can be downright vicious. Loosely based on Rosalind Wiseman's 2002 study of high school cliques titled Queen Bees and Wannabes, this female comedy fashioned itself as a kinder, gentler Heathers, albeit still with plenty of bite. Having fallen in with the "Plastics," new girl on campus Lindsay Lohan soon finds herself adopting to the intergroup hive mindset; the real humor comes less from her transformation, however, than from the way these female students burn everyone around them. (That, and the sheer stupidity of Amanda Seyfried and Lacey Chabert's characters.) Tina Fey's script confirmed that she was a first-rate comic screenwriter, and she and her Mean Girls costar/SNL buddy Amy Poehler would soon front their own female comedy, 2008's Baby Mama (itself a take on the "baby" cycle of female comedies from the Eighties). This film, however, was the one where Fey & co. moved the genre forward.

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‘Sex and the City’ (2008)

When HBO premiered its premium-cable comedy about four women living in New York City in 1998, it was filling a gap whether it knew it or not: You weren't going to see a quartet of ladies discussing single life in  the modern era, the mishaps of metropolitan dating, and the desire to find Mr. Right — and the right pair of Manolo Blahnik Mary Janes — with such real-talk frankness in movie theaters. Sex and the City went from being a popular TV show to a cultural touchstone, making Manhattan seem like a cosmo-filled wonderland and treating close female friendships like a lifeline instead of a competitive sport. You could see the series' influence gradually bleeding into movies like The Sweetest Thing (2002), and after the show finished its run in 2004, a big-screen outing seemed inevitable. The resulting movie may be little more than an extra-long episode, but demand for more Carrie, Samantha, Charlotte and Miranda adventures created a supply. This was what a female comedy looked like and sounded now, for the most part. It was a SATC era.

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‘Tiny Furniture’ (2010)

Before Hannah Horvath ever dreamed of traipsing around Brooklyn in search of bad sex and worse job prospects, there was Aura — a recent college grad and restless twentysomething tooling around her mother’s Tribeca loft, trying to buy some time to figure out what she wants to do with her life. It’s tempting to think of writer-director-actor Lena Dunham’s breakthrough indie as a trial run for the angstful preoccupations and voice-of-a-generation social portraiture that would characterize her TV show Girls. (Once again, the small screen provides a haven for extended stories of female bonding and bickering.) But Dunham’s roughhewn notion of cringe comedy was already fully formed here, as was her idea of best friends who may or may not be undermining frenemies. This little movie that could signalled a drier, more personal route that the female comedy might take; a broad, bawdy tale featuring a lot of SNL alumni that would come out next year would point the way to another road.

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‘Bridesmaids’ (2011)

The common consensus, at least among studio types, was: No one would go see a raunchfest full of women. Sure, they’ll watch schlubby dudes like Seth Rogen and Steve Carell pine for and moon over hot ladies…but actually having ladies be the ones who make the shit jokes, say the bad words and act like slobs and losers? This Kristin Wiig-led ensemble comedy changed everything, from preconceived notions of what female comedies could get away with to the career arcs of several of its stars — notably Melissa McCarthy’s career prospects, as she went from scene stealer to Oscar nominee to co-leading her own buddy pic with Sandra Bullock (The Heat) in record time. The movie’s envelope-pushing notions regarding gender equality in the gross-out elements would soon be seen in independent films like Bachelorette (2012) and studio star vehicles like this year’s The Other Woman, but these were movies that simply caught someone else’s thrown bouquet. Bridesmaids was the one who grabbed the comic brass ring and slipped it onto its own middle finger.

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