Who doesn’t love comedy? If you said ‘me’ or raised your hand at this point, then not only are you wrong to feel that way but you’re also unwelcome here. I’m a huge fan of scripted and unscripted comedies; whether we’re talking about polished sitcoms (30 Rock, Arrested Development, Frasier), semi-improvised/retro-scripted sitcoms (It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia, Curb Your Enthusiasm) to all out improv (Whose Line Is It Anyway?), I’m all about the comedy. So why am I just pinpointing female characters? Well, recently it was ‘International Women’s Day’ and several people on Facebook and Twitter posted about something called ‘The Bechdel Test’, a set of criteria to apply to any film or TV show to question how women are represented in it. Taken from Wikipedia, the rules are:
1) It has to have at least two women in it
2) who talk to each other
3) about something besides a man.
I’d heard of it before, being no stranger to that dangerous hyperlink trap, but this time around I started to consider my own favourite female characters from sitcoms, and on a more broad scale simply my favourite sitcoms. Arguably, most of the characters in those shows are men, but it’s interesting to me how some male-centric shows portray/feature women differently. More on that a little later on though – for now, here’s my top 5 female sitcom characters. These are characters who are not just eye candy, who regularly have their own story lines, not just supporting figures to the male characters, and whose comedy value doesn’t only derive from their appearance or sex life.
There aren’t that many, and really those are just loose criteria for this bunch. I’m looking for characters who are funny in their own right, and not just some side-line basic chick.
5. ‘Lucille Bluth’, Arrested Development, portrayed by Jessica Walter
Yeah! Arrested Development! There are two types of people in the world – those who love Arrested Development, and those who haven’t seen it yet. It’s cool, guys, I’ll lend you the DVDs. Yes, the practically perfect show (I say ‘practically perfect’ because it ended too soon, and I can’t wait for the new series on Netflix) featured an ensemble cast as the Bluth family, who are all self-centred, spoilt, rich people held together by the least crazy of them all, Michael. When George Bluth Sr is sent to prison for fraudulent dealings, the family is on the brink of falling apart completely, and the show follows Michael as he tries to keep them together. All the characters are weird, wonderful and pathetic, and you only need to look at the matriarch of the Bluth family, Lucille, to see why.
She’s alcoholic, narcissistic, selfish and manipulative. There are the occasional jokes about her sex-life (mostly with a shudder from the other characters), and her scenes do have a tendency to revolve around the male characters… or should I say they revolve around her? Lucille’s stronghold on her sons and daughter, particularly youngest son Buster with whom she shares an almost uncomfortable close relationship, puts her in charge of the family emotionally; Michael may be the one trying to keep the family’s business and finances in order, but the Bluth kids are always striving to get their parents approval, most probably because they’ve never had it. Additionally, her “friendship” with Lucille 2 (her neighbour and Buster’s on/off girlfriend) is another opportunity to show off her fantastic selfishness and malicious streak. We salute you, Lucille!
4. ‘Lois’, Malcolm in the Middle, portrayed by Jane Kaczmarek
Now, firstly it has to be said that Lois’s scenes and story-lines generally focus on the male characters – but that’s because she’s really the only main female character, playing a mother of four (later five) sons and long-suffering wife to Hal, a man who seems to be constantly on the verge of a nervous breakdown.
I, like many others I’m assuming, recently went back and started watching Malcolm in the Middle after getting hooked on Breaking Bad, and while Bryan Cranston is undoubtedly one of the most watchable actors working on television today, Jane Kaczmarek’s performance as Lois is absolutely on point too. While Hal deals with the boys’ bad behaviour by occasionally exploding at them but mostly being the more understanding parent, Lois is the one who doles out the extreme and creative punishments designed to teach her sons a lesson, though they generally just make them rebel even more…
Holding down a job at the supermarket (customer service jobs are the worst, I feel for you, Lois!) and managing to keep a tight(ish) hold on the reigns of a dysfunctional, hyperactive group of boys can’t be easy, but Lois does it while also delivering some hilarious physical comedy too. And she’s not really sexualised either – although as practically every episode sees Hal jumping her bones at the most random times, there’s obviously something desirable there.
3. ‘Liz Lemon’, 30 Rock, portrayed by Tina Fey
Everyone loves Tina Fey, right? Yes, I’m right, and I love her too.
30 Rock often ranks highly in ‘Top Comedy Show’ lists, and managed to remain a fan and critic favourite throughout its seven series run. Set in the Rockefeller Centre in New York, 30 Rock revolved around Liz Lemon, the head writer for the weekly live comedy sketch show, ‘The Girly Show’. Lemon is an odd character – apparently living off cheese and doughnuts, maintaining poor hygiene and having terrible social skills – yet she manages to run a mostly successful television show and have a series of devastatingly attractive boyfriends. Fey’s own experiences as head writer at Saturday Night Live and background in improv theatre influenced the show and acted as a basis for the setting, and the non-sequiturs and cartoonish situational comedy are at times bizarre but always hilarious.
Liz Lemon has to put up with constant distractions and problems in her workplace, but she’s always in charge – even when she’s seemingly under the rule of Alec Baldwin’s Jack Donaghy, he still manages ending up learning from her and sometimes even does things her way, albeit reluctantly. In this character, Fey manages to show us a hilariously inept and dysfunctional woman, who is simultaneously at the top of her game in her career and isn’t quite as unlucky in love as she likes to think. She’s two conflicting sides in one, which is a perfect portrayal of a woman – low self-esteem despite looking hot as hell all the time (I see you, Tina), underestimated by her colleagues despite being in control under moments of extreme stress, and having a BFF who is self-absorbed but still (mostly) cares.
God, I love Tina Fey.
2. ‘Leslie Knope’, Parks and Recreation, portrayed by Amy Poehler
Anyone who watched the recent BBC Four debut of Parks and Recreation will probably have been disappointed with the pilot episode. So was I when I first watched it, trust me – I couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about, but please give it some time because it is such a quality show. There are some fantastic characters: stupid but sweet Andy, sarcastic and misanthropic April, put-upon Jerry, unlucky wannabe-entrepeneur Tom, over-the-top enthusiastic Chris, and of course, the legend that is Ron Swanson. But at the heart of the show is wonder woman Leslie Knope, played by sunshine-personified, Amy Poehler.
Over the course of Parks and Rec’s five series, Leslie has gone from a local government bureaucrat to city councilwoman, and her optimism and perseverance is sure to get her to her ultimate goal of becoming President of the USA. She’s a feminist in a workplace dominated by men, yet she manages to get to the top without using her looks, and she’s smart, although at times her optimism renders her a little naive. Leslie is an all round lovely person, supporting the women and men in her department equally – particularly sweet is her relationship with Anne the nurse, who ends up working at the town hall with Leslie; also her mentoring of April, whose youthful cynicism and sarcasm makes her more suited to working with Ron Swanson, but lead her somehow into taking Leslie’s job after her promotion.
The character of Leslie is defined mostly be her optimism and her principals, her strong urge to do the right thing by her friends and her constituents, rather than her looks and her love life. This is why she’s so awesome.
1. Ja’mie King, We Can Be Heroes & Summer Heights High, portrayed by Chris Lilley
If you haven’t yet seen any of Chris Lilley’s work, I pity you. Although probably better known now for his most recent series Angry Boys, Lilley’s previous two shows featured a character (among several others which were also played by him) called Ja’mie King, who is arguable one of the most selfish, immature characters in Lilley’s repertoire (rivalled only perhaps by S.mouse).
In We Can Be Heroes, Ja’mie is nominated for the Australian of the Year award for her charitable efforts; by doing a twice-weekly, 40 Hour Famine to raise money (though it also keeps her skinny) she is able to sponsor a record number of Sudanese children. This charity work, however, is at odds with her superficial personality. Ja’mie and her friends at private school are the typical popular rich girls, and when she participates in an exchange programme with the public school in Summer Heights High, her snobbery and childishness are even more evident. Whether she’s making a poster picking on her exchange friends, dating a boy four years younger than her (she’s in Year 11 while he’s in Year 7), or raising funds for a school dance under the false pretence that she’s raising money for charity, Ja’mie is one of my favourite female sitcom characters of all time… even if she is played by a man.
Now, I know there’s probably loads of female characters that you think I’ve missed out. Maybe some of these:
How I Met Your Mother, Lily and Robin, Alyson Hannigan and Cobie Smulders
They don’t count because: They only ever talk about the male characters. Seriously.
Extras, Maggie, Ashley Jensen
She doesn’t count because: Her character is just pathetic all the time, and needs constant validation either from Gervais’s character or whichever male co-star she’s trying to shag in each episode.
Penny, Big Bang Theory, Kaley Cuoco
She doesn’t count because: Her role is entirely as eye candy – sure she’s had story lines here and there regarding her career, but her whole purpose in the show was “Hurrr durrr look at the geeks and then the sexy girl across the hall and how different she is.” Kudos to Kaley Cuoco, who is excellent in the show and was equally brilliant in 8 Simple Rules, but she is just a foil for the men’s banter.
Maybe I just have a problem with Chuck Lorre ‘sitcoms’. In fact, the injection of 2 more female characters actually made this show even worse for me, because these supposedly intelligent women, Amy and Bernadette, go for the two men with the worst attitudes towards women – Howard, a slimy little creep who constants strip joints, and Sheldon, more man than robot, who routinely ignores affection yet somehow lands a needy girlfriend and manages to fulfil the role as her boyfriend. And when the three of them are alone, they rarely talk about anything other than the male characters, which if you look back at the Bechdel Test is a big no-no. But it doesn’t stop people from loving the show, I guess. After all, what better way to end every episode of your sitcom than with a really painfully weak joke, 5 seconds of silence and a black screen, then the theme tune and credits?
Also, I’m sure there are shows that I’m missing out because I don’t watch them. If you’ve got any favourite sitcom leading ladies that you think deserve a mention, let us know in the comments!