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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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‘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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