This essay is from Womenvision: Women and the Moving Image in Australia (Damned Publishing, 2002), ed. Lisa French, and is reprinted with permission.
The dilemma posed by narrative film comedy for women filmmakers, spectators and critics is evident in Northrop Frye’s seminal description of the classical plot structure or mythos of New Comedy:
New Comedy normally presents an erotic intrigue between a young man and a young woman which is blocked by some kind of opposition, usually paternal, and resolved by a twist in the plot which is the comic form of Aristotle’s “discovery” … [after which] a new society crystallises on the stage around the hero and his bride (Frye, 44).
For Frye, the resolution of oedipal conflict between father and son through a discovery or cognitio “causes a new society to crystallise around the hero” (Frye, 163). As feminist critics have taken pains to point out, the mythos of comedy requires the bride to be little more than the hero’s prize. New Comedy’s bride is bereft not only of her own desire, her own oedipal conflicts, but also, as Stanley Cavell has famously pointed out, she is almost invariably deprived of her mother (Cavell, 57-8).
Film comedy, as a genre of happy endings at the expense of the bride and her mother, would seem to be unpromising territory for women. However, as Frye argues, comedy develops in two main directions: romantic comedy where the focus is on “discovery and reconciliation”; and savage comedy where the focus is on the conflict with the “heavy father” (Frye, 166-7). In both cases, as Frye points out, “Happy endings do not impress us as true, but as desirable, and they are brought about by manipulation” (Frye, 170). Beyond the manipulated image of the happy ending, it is worth noting a further point made by Frye: there is “a variety of comic structures between the extremes of irony and romance” (Frye, 177). This variety offers a range of possibilities for women filmmakers working with film comedy in both romantic and savage modes.
In her reading of Moonstruck (Norman Jewison, 1987) as a romantic comedy-melodrama, Kathleen Rowe argues for a feminist reappraisal of comedy as the “unruly” genre (Rowe, 1995a, 39-59). Taking up the problem posed by comedy’s conventional plot structure, Rowe sees feminist potential in “comedy’s antiauthoritarianism – its attack on the Law of the Father”, and in its “impulse toward renewal and social transformation” (Rowe, 1995a, 43-44). Rowe insists on an alternative reading of the happy ending “as a sign of the partial suspension of conflict – the tolerance for difference – on which community depends” (Rowe, 1995a, 47). From this perspective, it is not so much the wedding of the hero and ‘his’ bride which worries feminist criticism. Rather, taking issue with Cavell, feminists, including Rowe, have insisted that the problem with romantic comedy is the mother and her marked absence from the scene of her daughter’s “acceptance of the terms of heterosexuality” (Rowe, 1995a, 50). In the cycles of romantic and grotesque comedy which are the focus of this article, Australian women filmmakers not only renegotiate the role of the hero’s bride and the tyrannical father: they refigure the happy ending to include the mother and other women in comedy’s festive community.
Brazen brides: wish fulfilment in new romantic comedies
In the short history of cinema, film comedy has been divided into two major forms: comedian comedy and romantic comedy. Women (with the exception of Mae West) have been excluded from the canon of comedian comedy. The main vehicle for funny women to meet on equal terms with the male lead (in Hollywood cinema at least) has been the cycles of romantic comedy identified by Steve Neale (Neale, 284-99). According to Neale, the formal conventions of the genre are consistent from one cycle to the next: the meeting of the fated couple is auspicious; the “wrong partners” must “embody key ideological attitudes” that block the relationship between the right partners; the couple’s eccentricity, capacity to have fun together, and their subjection to a learning curve are part of the spectator’s fun as well as evidence of the genre’s apparent commitment to equality between the sexes. However, as Neale demonstrates, for ideological reasons the conventions shift with each fresh cycle, from the education of the woman in the1930s/40s screwball comedy to the education of the playboy in the 1950s/60s sex comedy, and from the neurosis about commitment in the1970s/80s nervous comedy to the return of traditional values in the ‘new romance’ of the 1980s/90s. Noting the embrace of old-fashioned marriage in the new romance, Neale argues that the current cycle’s “dominant ideological tendency … in countering any ‘threat’ of female independence, and in securing most of its female characters for traditional female roles, very much echoes the tendencies of the screwball films” (Neale, 298). Neale’s ideological suspicion of the genre, despite the fun it offers spectators and critics alike, is typical of contemporary criticism.
Australian women filmmakers have made an original contribution to international cinema’s most recent cycle of romantic comedy by testing the terms by which the ‘new romance’ educates its heroines into acceptance of a ‘happy’ ending based on inequality. Dating the Enemy (Megan Simpson-Huberman, 1996), Love and Other Catastrophes (Emma-Kate Croghan, 1996) and Strange Planet (Emma-Kate Croghan, 1999) are conventional romantic comedies of gender inversion, wrong partners and eventual cognitio arrived at through mutual eccentricity, play and learning. The plots are driven by female characters who renegotiate the heterosexual pact at the heart of the genre. Thank God He Met Lizzie (Cherie Nowlan, 1996) and Love Serenade (Shirley Barrett, 1995) shift the mood of the genre from wish fulfilment to cool irony at the expense of the feckless hero (and the spectator). In various ways, this cycle of Australian romantic comedies upsets the genre’s intransigent commitment to heterosexuality, refusing to secure “its female characters for traditional female roles”. The bride, transformed beyond recognition, is a telling figure in these films. The bride’s mother puts in an uncharacteristic appearance in Lizzie, and her conventional absence from the genre is noted in Strange Planet and Love Serenade (1).
The most conventional of these romantic comedies, Dating the Enemy, exploits the trope of gender inversion to put its mismatched couple – Tash (Claudia Karvan), nerdy science journalist, and Brett (Guy Pearce), narcissistic music-TV host – into each other’s bodies for the course of the film. The overt lesson they learn (entirely suitable for the corporate 1990s) is how to harness their sexual differences to become successful team players in international media space. Near the end of the film, a professor of genetics assures the television audience that opposites attract because their genes are perfect complements for each other, “just like male and female”. However, there are passages of play between three potential couples in the film, which complicate this conservative ideology. Tash and Brett are versions of the Doris Day virgin and Rock Hudson playboy of the 1950s/60s sex comedy; their best friends are the neurotic sidekicks given centre stage in the 1970s/80s nervous comedy; the third couple is much closer to Frye’s bland hero and bride who function as figureheads for the new society rather than as individual characters. The wedding vows of the bland couple are featured in Dating the Enemy at the point in the plot when Tash (in Brett’s body) experiences “Wow!” sex with a Monroe-esque blonde and Brett (in Tash’s body) has “is that it?” sex with his best mate. These inverted sex scenes, rather than the wedding vows of the bland bride and groom, promise some sort of utopian re-negotiation of heterosexuality for the corporate career couple of the 1990s. However, what is carefully excluded from the plot is a sex scene between Tash and her best friend to parallel the sex scene between Brett and his best mate. The implication is that mateship can survive a (disguised) homosexual encounter, but the erotic bonds between women pose more of a threat to the genre’s heterosexual ideology.
The repressed question in romantic comedy of the bonds (erotic and otherwise) between women is more insistent in Emma-Kate Croghan’s two tributes to the genre, Love and Other Catastrophes and Strange Planet. These films take up the problem of the woman’s education (not only into the norms of heterosexuality but also into the public playing field of knowledge and work). Although the potential couples are drawn from the four cycles of the genre (including screwball eccentrics, sexual sophisticates, neurotic sidekicks and incurable romantics) the women are not restricted to the traditional female role (ultimately the bride, no matter how spirited). In Love and Other Catastrophes, Francis O’Connor plays Cary Grant to Radha Mitchell’s Irene Dunne, effortlessly appropriating classic scenes from The Awful Truth (Leo McCarey, 1937) to place a lesbian couple’s break-up and reunion at the centre of the comedy. In Strange Planet, the crucial meeting between the three right couples (the sexual cynics, the romantic idealists and the eccentric sidekicks) is delayed until they enter a ‘green world’ at the very end of the film where the self-knowledge they have acquired in the everyday world of same-sex friendships, from one New Year’s Eve to the next, enables them to recognise their heart’s desire (if only for one magical night).
Although Strange Planet refers to the 1980s/90s new romance (exemplified by Meg Ryan in Nora Ephron’s comedies), it does not educate its women into acceptance of traditional domestic roles. The only bride to appear in Strange Planet is a computer mismatch, while, mirroring Meryl Streep in Woody Allen’s Manhattan (1979), Joel’s ‘perfect wife’ finds love with another woman. Croghan’s films not only decentre heterosexuality, they delay the moment of cognitio in order to focus attention on the bonds between women, the problems of their working lives, and the parallel ties between men. What is made clear is that these couples, who find each other in the end, inhabit an unequal world which, in the tradition of comedy defined by Frye, is under patriarchal rule. The absence of the mother from this comic universe is a buried problem not only for the characters but for the women writers and directors who have attempted to appropriate romantic comedy for a social transformation that requires rethinking ‘the hero and his bride’.
In Love and Other Catastrophes the world of cinema is exclusively male, from petty power-monger, Professor Leach and his canon of male auteurs (Hitchcock, Woody Allen, Tarantino, Spike Lee), to the guru of cultural studies, Adrian Martin (played by the Melbourne film critic himself). Even the academic supervisor of Alice’s thesis on Doris Day is played by film buff broadcaster, Paul Harris. These are more than ‘in-jokes’ for a Melbourne audience: the two romances in the film are boldly indebted to Eric Rohmer and Leo McCarey, begging the question of female authorship in romantic comedy and in cinema (2). This question has much to do with the absent mother and women’s conditional access to sexuality and culture – an access which is licensed at the cost of becoming their father’s daughters, an issue first raised by Cavell in his analysis of the absent mother in classic screwball comedies of the 1930s/40s.
Feminist critics, seeking to understand their ambivalent pleasure in the genre, have focused their attention on the figure of the absent mother, drawing on Naomi Scheman’s sharp critique of Cavell (Scheman, 62-89. See also Fischer and Rowe [1995b]). Scheman, like Cavell, adopts both a Freudian and a mythological framework to understand why “neither [the woman’s] appropriately feminine sexual identity nor her ability to assume public power is compatible with her being her mother’s daughter” (Scheman, 73). Scheman argues that through shifting her active desire from her original bond to the mother to become the passive object of her father’s desire, the female subject learns the first lesson of femininity: father-daughter incest is the “paradigm of female desire” (Sandra M. Gilbert qtd in Scheman, 70). This shift from the mother to the father “must leave some considerable residue of loss, a grief at the heart of socially acceptable femininity” (Scheman, 69). It also requires a degree of amnesia of the original attachment to the mother: “that attachment is most likely to be rediscovered through an erotically experienced bond with another woman, or through the daughter herself becoming a mother” (Scheman, 73). The return of the mother to romantic comedies written and directed by Australian women, at the very least, challenges the genre’s habit of “securing most of its major female characters for traditional female roles” (Neale, 298) (3).
In Strange Planet the scenario of women as authors of their own oedipal quest draws on one of comedy’s carnivalesque sites, the graveyard. The long-buried mother of romantic comedy is ‘unburied’ in two scenes where Judy (Claudia Karvan) visits her mother’s grave, the second time to let her mother know that she has given up her father-complex and that her career is now being advanced by her female boss. The dates on the mother’s grave, 1954-79, indicate that not only has Judy been brought up by her drug-fucked rock ‘n’ roll father, but that her mother belongs to the baby boom generation of feminists whose daughters have inherited their mother’s new society, post-feminist perhaps, but still under the law of the father (4). In Croghan’s films this double legacy – of a paternal cinema of re-educated brides and a post-feminist society of motherless daughters – is accepted in true comic spirit as a fallen world which nonetheless has potential (literally, a niche market in Croghan’s case) for the pragmatic filmmaker unwilling to relinquish her pleasure in romantic comedy but willing to examine her complicity in its traditional happy ending. By drawing attention to the missing mother, by insisting on the erotic bonds between women, Croghan transforms the incestuous terms on which romantic comedy ‘educates’ its women into heterosexuality. Assuming authorship of the genre, Croghan and Simpson-Huberman imagine different erotic and economic futures for their female characters.
While the mother as muse (and mentor) is affirmed in Strange Planet, the mother-in-law (a stock figure of comedy) is revived in Thank God He Met Lizzie. The mother’s manipulation of her daughter’s wedding into a social event is central to the film’s gradual revelation that Guy’s ‘perfect’ bride, Lizzie, is truly his mother-in-law’s daughter and that the terms of the marriage will be set by Lizzie to preserve her (erotic) independence (5). In Lizzie the joke is on Guy, but it is also on the spectator. Lizzie sees through the patriarchal joke of romantic comedy at the same time that it cleverly seduces the spectator (aligned with Guy’s gullible point-of-view) into wanting the genre’s conventional happy ending to prevail. The sublime Lizzie (in Cate Blanchett’s most luminous performance to date) has no intention of cutting her desire to fit Guy’s fantasy of the idealised woman who will complement him to perfection. This bride has long since fled her virgin bed and moreover is not afraid of her mother’s power. Nor is she afraid of becoming a mother: the final, ambivalent image of Guy, Lizzie, two children and the family station wagon fails to affirm ‘family values’ or to recuperate Lizzie for a traditional female role. Instead, Lizzie revels in what comedy does best: deflating the spiritual aspirations of ordinary mortals and bringing them back to earth with a harsh thud, reminding us that we are indeed ‘of woman born’. As Walter Kerr puts it, “Low comedy is a birth experience…. It consists in the discovery that we have a backside and that it is going to be slapped” (Walter Kerr qtd in Lucy Fischer, 73). When Guy discovers on his wedding night that his beautiful bride (like her mother) has desires which rudely conflict with his own, romantic comedy begins to shift into a more savage mode.
The cruel joke of romantic love is further exposed in the small-town comedy, Love Serenade, a kind of footnote to the 1990s cycle of romantic comedy. In this laconic satire, two rustic sisters (whose orphaned status is silently marked by a shot of an empty wheelchair in the family lounge-room) compete to “ease a man’s loneliness”, then conspire to “set love free” by turning him into a fish when their romantic desires are thwarted. Love Serenade, like Muriel’s Wedding, treats the bride as a grotesque figure of crippled female sexuality which, pushed to a limit, becomes deadly to the male. If, in the end, Love Serenade puts a smile on the spectator’s face, it is an uneasy smile at a compensatory image of female bonding (on the mother-daughter model) in the face of disappointed female desire which itself has taken on a grotesque form. Lizzie and Love Serenade are liminal films: they stand on the threshold between romantic and grotesque comedy, revealing something of the treachery concealed in the idealised figure of the bride and her mother. The question of whether these ambivalent images of the bride are also regenerative (in Mikhail Bakhtin’s terms, as images of a new social order) requires investigation of another figure in Australian film comedy, the grotesque daughter and her treacherous mother (Bakhtin, 1968).
Grotesque daughters: savaging the family romance
Degrading the figure of the bride in romantic comedy extends the genre into that other comic terrain – the antiauthoritarian rebellion of the son against the ‘heavy father’. In the hands of Australian women filmmakers this rebellion has been transferred from the son to the unruly daughter. In the grotesque comedies the figure of reconciliation is usually the mother-daughter rather than the hero-bride. Rebellion against father-daughter incest as the model for the daughter’s heterosexual identity is central to a series of grotesque comedies inaugurated by Sweetie (Jane Campion, 1989) and in some sense completed by Holy Smoke (Jane Campion, 1999). These comedies of degradation, death and rebirth, savage the family romance in ways that are better understood in terms of grotesque comedy rather than the closely related genre of family melodrama.
To understand the image of the grotesque female body in antiauthoritarian comedy, feminist critics have turned to Bakhtin’s work on the carnivalesque world of Rabelais (6). Bakhtin describes the grotesque (eating, drinking, defecating, copulating, birthing, ageing, decaying) body of Rabelais’s medieval carnival as a comic figure of profound ambivalence: its positive meaning is linked to birth and renewal while its negative meaning lies in decay and death (Bakhtin, 308-317). In Bakhtin’s utopian view, grotesque comedy defeats the fear of death by combining images of birth and death in the one body, that of the “senile pregnant hags” whose decaying-birthing flesh is “the epitome of incompleteness” (Bakhtin, 25-26). Bakhtin’s maternal image of the earth as both womb and grave is central to feminist reappraisals of the grotesque female body as a source of comic rather than melodramatic attitudes to sexuality, death and the material life of the body. The female body is central to Bakhtin’s argument that “blood as a seed buried in the earth, rising for another life … is one of the oldest and most widespread themes” of the carnivalesque (Bakhtin, 321). A powerful image of carnivalesque ambivalence appears at the end of Sweetie, when Kay’s slim, pristine, disciplined body merges with her sister’s fat, naked, blood-gurgling corpse in a mouth-to-mouth transfusion of Sweetie’s abundant life-blood into Kay’s classically bloodless body.
The cycle of comedies initiated by Sweetie draws on Rowe’s key figure of the ‘unruly woman’ whose history extends from the medieval figures of Ursula the Pig Woman and Mrs Noah to popular culture’s Miss Piggy and Roseanne. For Rowe, the unruly woman is “above all a figure of ambivalence” who seeks to dominate men and is unafraid of making a public spectacle of herself with her body, her speech, her laughter, her sexuality and her association with “dirt, liminality … and taboo” (Rowe, 1995b, 31). In the carnivalesque world, “dismemberment, horror, death, and taboo” (epitomised by the maternal body) invite communal laughter rather than individual fear of mortality (Rowe, 1995b, 33). However, as Rowe points out, “Carnival and the unruly woman are not essentially radical but are ambivalent, open to conflicting appropriations” (Rowe, 1995b, 44).
The ambivalence of women toward the female grotesque is highlighted in the carnivalesque assaults on patriarchal authority in Sweetie, Dallas Doll (Ann Turner, 1993), A Fistful of Flies (Monica Pellizzari, 1996), Soft Fruit (Christina Andreef, 1999) and Holy Smoke. These savage comedies invite a different kind of laughter from romantic comedy. Their regenerative endings depend on death, often of the grotesque woman herself (in Sweetie, Dallas Doll, Soft Fruit). The quintessential image of rebirth through death in Australian grotesque comedy is the burnt-out backyard (and its iconic hills hoist), which marks the mother’s suicide in Muriel’s Wedding (7). Similarly, the definitive image of the unruly daughter exploding her incestuous tie to the father occurs near the end of Sweetie when Dawn, naked, fat, obscene and greedy, farts in her father’s face as he tries to force her down from her childhood ‘palace’, the fatal tree house that he built long ago for his ‘princess’. In Dallas Doll the unruly woman reconstitutes a middle-class family according to her incestuous fantasies (seducing mother, father and brother, resisted only by the sceptical sister). As an evangelical agent of free enterprise, Dallas liberates the family from its upper middle-class, heterosexual regime, at the same time setting the scene for her own dismemberment. Her brutal demise is absurd rather than tragic, affirming unruliness as both fatal and regenerative.
Father-daughter incest as the model of heterosexual desire is turned on its head in these grotesque films, leaving the father figure weakened and isolated. The death of the grotesque, cancer-ridden mother at the end of Soft Fruit leaves a vacuum around the violent father, which his fat, sexy, loud-mouthed daughters refuse to fill.
In A Fistful of Flies the sexually rebellious daughter dons her mother’s wedding dress and takes her father’s shotgun to the cemetery where she misfires, shooting her father’s statue of the Virgin Mary instead of herself. Saved by the Virgin, she joins forces with her mother to turn the gun on her violent father. It is crucial that the father is humiliated and disarmed in public – he is forced at gunpoint to relinquish the black leather belt which he has used in private to sustain his fantasy of the virgin daughter and the chaste wife. In Dallas Doll the middle-class father loses his authority as he submits to beatings from Dallas, while in Soft Fruit the brutal father loses his wife and daughters but regains his son by stripping naked, in public, in the rain.
The daughter’s assault on the incestuous palace of childhood (built by the father and maintained by the compliant mother) is a central image in the grotesque comedies. It involves not only an assault on the father’s power but the rebirth of the mother. In A Fistful of Flies, the punitive mother, under pressure from her daughter’s sexuality, casts propriety aside, urinating in the street, flashing her “onion” at the onlookers, and declaring to her daughter that “men are like toilets: fully engaged, pissed off or full of shit”. The daughter’s sexual re-alignment with the mother reverses the ‘natural’ order of the father-daughter alliance usually affirmed by romantic comedy. The rejection by the mother of her complicit relation with the heavy father (who is rendered absurd rather than evil) leads to a different ending from the betrayal and self-sacrifice of maternal melodrama.
The connection between maternal melodrama and comedy has been noted by Scheman in her critique of “the teaching and learning of female powerlessness [as] the dark underside of the laughter of the remarriage comedies” (Scheman, 83). Rowe picks up Scheman’s point and argues that “the most dangerous expression of female unruliness, after all, is the love between mother and daughter, which must be shattered to enable the daughter’s narrative to end on a note of romantic comedy” (Rowe, 1995a, 52). Like the romantic comedies discussed above, the grotesque comedies end in wish-fulfilment, avoiding surrender to a new paternal order. The grotesque wish takes the form of a (violent) separation of the mother from the father, which restores the primary bond between mother and daughter. In Soft Fruit the three daughters remove their dying mother from their father’s house to a caravan. The mother’s death does not pave the way for a renewed relation with the father – the daughters are already aligned as mothers with their own children. Similarly, the father is excluded from the new matriarchal family at the end of A Fistful of Flies – hope for a different future for Italian-Australian masculinity is vested in the young boy who meets his Nonna for the first time. Although Sweetie leaves the parental relation unresolved (the mother’s liberatory trip to the desert occurs in the middle of the film), the wish-fulfilment images of Rosalind on her tractor in a field of sunflowers at the end of Dallas Doll, or of Ruth in India with her mother (and a new boyfriend) at the end of Holy Smoke are calmly regenerative. They resonate as fertile after-images of the sexual and spiritual upheavals of carnivalesque comedy.
As a champion of the regenerative laughter of the carnivalesque, Bakhtin reminds us not only of the healing power of laughter in the face of death but also of laughter’s peculiar spiritual dimension. In Bakhtin’s view, comedy relocates the spiritual from the head and the face to the belly, the bowels and the genitals: “The essential principle of grotesque realism is degradation, that is, the lowering of all that is high, spiritual, ideal, abstract” (Bakhtin, 19). This downward movement from the thinking head to the laughing genitals is a “popular corrective to individual idealistic and spiritual pretense” (Bakhtin, 22). In Holy Smoke Campion brings spiritual and erotic desires to bear on the voluptuous body of Ruth (Kate Winslett) and subjects both Ruth and PJ (Harvey Keitel) to the humiliations of the flesh. When PJ succeeds in destroying Ruth’s blind faith in her Indian cult leader, Ruth’s illuminated body becomes grotesque: stripped of her sari she stands naked in front of PJ and urinates, weeps and demands sex; at the pub she gets drunk and stoned, slow kisses a girlfriend and is groped by two louts. However, it is not only the woman who makes a spectacle of herself in Holy Smoke. In the film’s central, staged struggle between cruel beauty and armoured age, degradation is mutual. Ruth derides PJ’s sexual vanity as he exposes her spiritual vacuity: their mutual descent ends in a bizarre desert odyssey where both undergo a symbolic death (Ruth dressed in tea towels in the boot of a car, PJ in a skin-tight red dress, covered in emu shit, under the blazing sun).
The spiritual and sexual descent in Holy Smoke takes place in a carnivalesque world inhabited by Ruth’s family of buffoons and tricksters who happily transplant themselves from suburban Sans Souci into the outback. Their televisual world of kitsch Australiana intrudes into the rarefied cinematic world inhabited by Winslett and Keitel. These intrusions comically deflate the spectator’s desire for spiritual redemption, a desire ignited by the film’s transcendent opening sequences set in India. At the end of the film Ruth returns to India with her mother and PJ returns to America (with Pam Grier, no less) to become a writer and father of twins. The final images of postcards and computer screens hold out a cautious hope for a future, web-based, digital world (neither televisual nor cinematic) which might include PJ as the father of newborn twins but is likely to exclude Ruth’s suburban father and her corrupt guru. Ruth’s rejection of PJ’s incest fantasy (at his most debased he begs her to marry him) and her alliance with her rejuvenated mother, implies that her renewed spiritual quest will be grounded in her sexual identity as her mother’s daughter. Ruth’s carnivalesque release from father-daughter incest as the prototype of proper femininity opens onto a third (mostly overlooked) terrain for women in film comedy, the terrain of the mother and the crone.
Women’s funny business: post-feminist plots
If the mother is mostly absent from romantic comedy and, initially, complicit with the father in grotesque comedy, then she appears in her own right in three post-feminist comedies, Waiting (Jackie McKimmie, 1990), Talk (Susan Lambert, 1993) and The Road to Nhill (Sue Brooks, 1996) (8). These eccentric comedies break the mould of romantic and grotesque comedies which devote themselves to women’s funny business from the point-of-view of the daughter. By taking conception, birth and death as their focus, post-feminist talkies bring to mind the origins of comedy in ancient female fertility rites and the subsequent elimination of the mother from the scene of comedy (9). If Talk and Waiting derive their fun from re-inventing fertility rites within a post-feminist milieu whose biological time-clock has started to tick, The Road to Nhill derives its laughs from the post-menopausal end of the fertility cycle. Together, the three films remind us that it is the regenerative fucking, birthing, decaying body of the ‘senile, pregnant hag’, which makes women’s business central to comedy.
Post-feminist talkies have little in common with New Comedy’s rebellion against the father and the crystallisation of a new society around a young couple. Rather, they draw on Old Comedy which Frye describes as “a blend of the heroic and the ironic” whereby the “comic hero will get his triumph whether what he has done is sensible or silly, honest or rascally” (Frye, 43-44). In particular, Waiting and Talk bear the imprint of old comedy’s struggle to construct and protect an “enchanted and idyllic” social order against all opposition from a world “like our own … or worse” (Frye, 44). In Waiting, the struggle to protect an idealised, feminist worldview is represented in the documentary film-in-progress which aims to record and celebrate the events leading to a surrogate birth. The impending birth re-unites four female friends – the pregnant artist, the feminist filmmaker (and her teenage daughter), the ex-patriate career woman back from London, and the adoptive mother who longs for a baby of her own. In an ironic ending which ruins the ideological project of the feminist documentary-in-progress, the artist (Noni Hazelhurst) is unable to give birth until she decides to keep the ‘surrogate’ baby. In Talk a post-feminist utopia (of creative work, liberated sexuality and ‘freely’ chosen motherhood outside marriage) is mirrored by a dystopic, cartoonish world of stolen jewels, sexual jealousy and murderous passions. This parallel world is imagined by the silent Julia Strong (Victoria Longley) in response to the non-stop ‘talk’ of her friend and cartooning colleague, Stephanie Ness (Angie Milliken).
In post-feminist ‘talkies’, action is suspended in favour of unleashed tongues and no topic is taboo. At the centre of Waiting and Talk is an ongoing conversation on female fertility, fucking, conception and birth. There is also betrayal (of a daughter, of a friend, of feminist ideals) and the best-laid plans (‘sensible or silly’) and intentions (‘honest or rascally’) go astray. In the end, the fertile body triumphs over political ideals of non-monogamy, female solidarity and surrogacy. However, these ideological failures invite what Russo calls “dialogical” or “conflictual” laughter. In her work on feminist laughter, Russo argues that general laughter “ … is coercive, participated in, like much comedy, by the marginalized only in an effort to pass” (Russo, 226). Post-feminist comedies talk their way through the dilemmas posed by comedy for women – they invite knowing laughter at the conflicts and failures of feminist ideals at the same time that they leave us with Russo’s triumphant final question addressed to Bakhtin, “Why are these old hags laughing?” (Russo, 227)
An answer might be found in an aspect of comedy which is foregrounded in these films (literally in The Road to Nhill): the accident. In Dana Polan’s view, comedy relies on a dialectic between the “comic as aspiration” and the “ironic deflation of pretention” (Polan, 136). In this dialectic, the illusion of self-mastery and control over the world is brought undone by an accidental collision with the material world. As Polan points out, “Comedy … comes in acts of materialization wherein the seemingly free human subject or spirit finds itself falling back into mere body, mocked by a body gone mechanical” (Polan, 136) (10). This is especially true of those free-spirited female characters in Waiting and Talk who find themselves yielding to an unexpected turn of events, to do with an unconventionally conceived pregnancy. If the fertile, pregnant body deflates feminist ideals in these comedies of delayed motherhood, it is the post-menopausal point-of-view of the crone that deflates conventional masculine aspirations in The Road to Nhill. In this rural film, four lady bowlers (post-menopausal by definition) meet with an accident on a country road, generating a backblocks comedy of female laughter at male incompetence masquerading as mastery and control.
Although the four lady bowlers refrain from laughing out loud at the comedy of errors that attends their ‘rescue’ from an overturned car, pained pauses and wry looks invite laughter from the audience. That the dusty road to Nhill is presided over by a benevolent godfather of the Australian film industry (Phillip Adams as the voice-of-god) adds a further ironic note. In an industry which is tolerant of brazen brides, leery of grotesque daughters and indifferent to old crones, Nhill is a sly joke on laconic masculinity as the icon of Australian-ness. Silent female laughter at male mastery relies on comic reversal to assert female superiority over the stronger sex, but the bigger joke is on all of us and the old crones of Nhill know it. God is granted a sonorous voice-over in the film, announcing our common, existential dilemma: that we will all die; that we struggle in vain to control our destiny; that our fate is accidental. In Nhill post-menopausal hags are in a better position than their ‘virile’ male counterparts to recognise this common fate and to greet it with dread and with humour. The film’s wry, long-winded structure as a bush yarn narrated by the stock and station agent, is violated by a shock ending – the sudden death of one of the lady bowlers. It is this accidental death which dispenses with the conflictual laughter of comedy’s perennial ‘battle of the sexes’, inviting communal laughter at the absurd, frightening, fate of the body.
As Frye points out, comedy is guided by a “philosophy of providence” which requires a festive act of communion with the members of the audience who recognise the new society as the one they desired all along (Frye, 164). However, feminist critics have been quick to point out the ease with which comedy’s new society restores the old gender hierarchy. Rowe warns against the too-ready embrace of comedy as subversive, reminding us that “[t]ransgressive women never escape their vulnerability” and that the popular culture of late capitalism has lost the ambivalence of medieval carnival – the female grotesque is now either idealised or degraded but not both (Rowe, 1995b, 44-45). It may be that the ambivalence of Australian women’s film comedies (together with their recuperation of the mother) is their mark of distinction: Lizzie is the perfect, ambivalent bride, utterly luminous and utterly fallen; Sweetie is her father’s dream girl and his grotesque nightmare; and the pregnant women and post-menopausal crones of post-feminist comedy are figures which express female ambivalence towards the regenerative, birthing, ageing, decaying body. However, as Rowe points out, female figures of profound ambivalence (i.e., both idealised and degraded) have limited currency in the popular culture of late capitalism. The films discussed here are no exception. The box office fate of Australian women’s comedies of the 1990s has already been decided. Their critical fate – their significance for changing feminist thinking about film comedy – is still in the balance.
This piece was refereed.
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Cavell, Stanley, Pursuits of Happiness: The Hollywood Comedy of Remarriage, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass., 1981
Fischer, Lucy, “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child: Comedy and Matricide” in A. Horton (ed.) Comedy/Cinema/Theory, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1991
Frye, Northrop Anatomy of Criticism, Atheneum, New York, 1966
Neale, Steve, “The Big Romance or Something Wild?: Romantic Comedy Today”, Screen, 33.3, 1992, 284-99
Polan, Dana, “The Light Side of Genius: Hitchcock’s Mr and Mrs Smith in the Screwball Tradition” in A. Horton (ed.) Comedy/Cinema/Theory, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1991
Rowe, Kathleen, “Comedy, Melodrama and Gender: Theorizing the Genres of Laughter” in Kristine Brunovska Karnick and Henry Jenkins (eds.), Classical Hollywood Comedy, Routledge, New York, 1995a, pp.39-59
Kathleen Rowe, The Unruly Woman: Gender and the Genres of Laughter, University of Texas Press, Austin, 1995b
Scheman, Naomi, “Missing Mothers/Desiring Daughters: Framing the Sight of Women”, Critical Inquiry, Autumn, 1988, pp.62-89
- The figure of the grotesque bride (and her suicidal mother) in Muriel’s Wedding (Paul J. Hogan, 1994) looks back to the grotesque comedy of Sweetie (Jane Campion, 1989) and anticipates the current cycle of romantic comedies which began in 1996. As Frye suggests (Frye, 167), the ideal young couple featured in Strictly Ballroom (Baz Luhrmann, 1992), tends to be rather bland – comic interest lies elsewhere, in the heavy fathers, buffoons, braggarts and tricksters of the genre. Further research might investigate how the brazen bride, grotesque daughter and treacherous mother reinvent Frye’s cast of comic characters.
- In Strange Planet Doris Day is updated to Meg Ryan, a reference which acknowledges the ascendancy of Nora Ephron as the pre-eminent ‘author’ of Hollywood’s ‘new romance’ comedies.
- It is worth noting that female characters in Australian romantic comedies take the egalitarian ideal seriously. Romance and career ambitions are negotiated in the context of the media industries in Dating the Enemy, Love and Other Catastrophes and Strange Planet.
- Scheman, 68, refers briefly to Cavell’s ‘inadequate’ idea that the screwball heroines of the 1930s, as daughters of the suffragette generation, were somehow left ‘motherless’. The motherless daughter is pervasive in Australian women’s films from Maidens (Jeni Thornley, 1978) to Night Cries (Tracey Moffat, 1989) to Radiance (Rachel Perkins, 1998). In my view Australian women’s films fall into two broad categories – comedy and mourning – both of which involve the loss of the mother. I have written on the ‘mourning’ films in “Bringing the Ancestors Home” in Deb Verhoeven (ed.), Twin Peeks, Damned Publishing, 1999, 107-116.
- Lizzie’s economic independence is assured by her profession as a doctor.
- For an influential feminist appraisal of Bakhtin’s concept of carnivalesque laughter, see Mary Russo, ‘Female Grotesques: Carnival and Theory’ in Teresa de Lauretis (ed.), Feminist Studies, Critical Studies, Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 1986, 213-29
- The up-ended hills hoist (rotary clothesline) in Sweetie, which marks the beginning of Kay’s transformative confrontation with her own sexuality, pre-dates the hills hoist as an icon of death and rebirth in Muriel. See Jane Landman, “See the Girl, Watch that Scene: Fantasy and Desire in Muriel’s Wedding‘, Continuum, 10.2, 1996, 111-22.
- Although post-feminist is a controversial term I have decided to adopt it here because in the films I am discussing there is a sense that, in feminist circles, certain tenets of feminist ideology have not stood up to the test of time.
- For a succinct account of the paradoxical exclusion of women from comedy despite comedy’s origins in women’s business, see Lucy Fischer, 60-4.
- Polan draws on Bergson to make this point.