Labels And Genres Hide Good Works
Published: Wednesday, February 29, 2012
Updated: Wednesday, January 9, 2013 18:01
This past weekend, The New York Times published an article about women in comedy, written from the angle of analyzing female Saturday Night Live hosts over the past few years. The paper's contribution to the achingly tired debate was well-intentioned, I'm sure, but something bothered me about the way Megan Angelo framed her argument. "This season has been unusually rich in funny, provocative female-focused moments," she writes in the piece, moments after a quote from actress Anna Faris about how she can't sing or dance.
In the past, the Times has done wonders to advance the cause of women in entertainment and, in doing so, has generally broken past the boundaries of the "are women funny?" question that now plagues most mainstream media, especially since Bridesmaids' success sent industry heads spinning.
Similarly, Vogue last week released a preview image of SNL staple Kristen Wiig's March photoshoot. In the picture, Wiig leans awkwardly on a desk, under which lurks her costar and head writer Seth Meyers. The article writes off Meyers' inclusion as an admiring fan, but for some reason something struck me as stale with the argument—to the watchful eye, her posing can be read as Wiig's reliance on Meyers (read: men) to succeed. I don't think Wiig was expecting the positive critical uproar over her movie, but now, whether she likes it or not, she stands as the protagonist in a myth created by journalists who seem to have forgotten funny ladies like Gilda Radnor, Molly Shannon, and Ruth Buzzi. She's seen by both industry insiders and everyday moviegoers as the savior of female comedy, but even addressing it as such seems to take some of the weight off it. It's like how if you put the word "celebrity" in front of anything—say Celebrity Poker or Celebrity Apprentice—it implies that the thing is "not as good."
The funny ladies debate points to a larger issue with our culture at the moment. As audiences, we like to label things. The upcoming John Carter has been called Avatar mashed up with Titanic and Rise of the Planet of the Apes, just as audiences gushed over the newly Oscar-laden The Artist as a black-and-white silent picture. Animated classics like Toy Story have taken a backseat to "real movies" at awards shows, which is certainly why Andy Serkis' role as every single freaking ape in the aforementioned Planet went unnoticed when it certainly should have been lavished with praise.
The labels we—and, in terms of entertainment, I mean to say critics more than anyone else—assign to things have an impact on our evaluation of them. While I enjoyed The Artist for what it was, I think it's becoming increasingly necessary to take a step back and view it as, simply, a movie. As a silent black and white movie, it accomplished more than any in recent memory, but in the grand scheme of things, how many people are going to be talking about Jean Dujardin and Berenice Bejo in 50 years? Many other genre-unidentifiable films like Beginners and Take Shelter failed to make the Best Picture cut this year in favor of films with flashier, easier-to-sing-about-in-Billy Crystal's-opening-monologue labels. The Help was a story about race, Hugo celebrated the wondrous early days of the movies, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Boring was that 9/11 one that nobody saw. So yes, while Octavia Spencer and Viola Davis explored with quiet ferocity in their film, audiences overhyped The Help because of its self-declared "important" label. As a race narrative, it serves as an interesting slice of history, but as a film, a mere footnote in the sands of time.
As demonstrated last year, labels can truly hinder the great work being done in the entertainment field. Although it's wonderful that audiences flocked to Bridesmaids, I wish critics would have focused more on its merits as a film than as a "girl comedy." After all, if Maya Rudolph has the chutzpah to plop down in the street and pretend like "it happened" on camera, she's got more balls than the cast of The Hangover put together.