From Patricia Arquette’s Oscar night speech about the industry’s male-to-female wage gap, to recent Sony email leaks that showed (among other things) that Jennifer Lawrence was paid less than her no-more-illustrious American Hustle co-stars, and that Marvel views female superhero franchises as a financial dead-end, the issue of Hollywood gender inequality is ubiquitous. That’s constructive news for women, whose efforts to stand on equal footing with their male counterparts remain a constant struggle, whether it’s because of unfair age biases (older women, the argument goes, get fewer opportunities than older men), or simply a preference to cater to the teen-boy audience above all others. And yet even as this necessary debate rages on, a heartening development is taking place—right now—that suggests actresses are perhaps finally winning the battle: the female movie comedy renaissance.
For the first time in, well, ever, women are now close to outright dominating the comedy landscape, a notion reconfirmed this Friday when the summer’s maiden high-profile farce, Hot Pursuit, hits theaters. A mismatched-buddy road trip saga starring Reese Witherspoon and Sofia Vergara, Anne Fletcher’s film works off a familiar template: A stuffy cop is paired with a disgruntled, uncooperative charge on an odyssey that finds them engaged in endless bickering while avoiding danger at regular intervals. From a formula standpoint, think of it as akin to a sillier rendition of Midnight Run, replete with Vergara as a federal witness who’s turning on her former mafia husband, and thus is in danger of being snuffed out by those on the mob’s payroll.
That Hot Pursuit is cut from a cloth usually reserved only for men marks it as an example of comedic gender progress. More telling still, however, is that it’s the first of this blockbuster season’s numerous female-driven comedies, which when tallied together, dwarf summer 2015’s male jokefests—aside from star-deficient TV imports (Entourage) and remakes (Vacation), those amount to only Adam Sandler’s retro videogame alien invasion Pixels (July 24) and Mark Wahlberg’s Ted 2 (June 26).
Hot Pursuit, on the other hand, is merely the opening salvo in an estrogen-fueled campaign by women to take over mainstream cinematic comedy. Next week that continues with Pitch Perfect 2 the highly anticipated sequel to 2013’s a cappella hit. After that, there’s June 5’s Spy, which finds Melissa McCarthy—perhaps the most popular comedian of any gender working today—headlining an action-oriented espionage spoof (from her Bridesmaids director Paul Feig) that has the likes of Jason Statham and Jude Law assuming subordinate supporting roles. And then on July 17, Trainwreck is poised to elevate TV sensation Amy Schumer to big-screen prominence at the same time her Comedy Central series continues to dominate the pop culture news (and viral video) environment.
If there’s a tipping point for women’s ascendancy to the movie-comedy throne, it would of course be Bridesmaids, the 2011 hit that helped Kristen Wiig successfully transition from Saturday Night Live to film, invigorated the directing career of Paul Feig (previously best known for his work as the creator of TV cult hit Freaks and Geeks), and turned Melissa McCarthy into a breakout phenomenon. What made Bridesmaids unique was that it subjugated its romantic-comedy inclinations—and the various clichés that go along with that genre—in favor of out-and-out comedy-comedy. The point wasn’t to be funny while also being amorously sweet and saccharine; the point, above all others, was to make people laugh until their stomachs hurt and their bladders went weak—and to do so with the same go-for-broke lack of inhibition that its male counterparts have long exhibited. Even if it sometimes seemed almost too eager to court male comedy fans by indulging in Farrelly Brothers-style gross-out gags (think: the infamous bathroom scene), Bridesmaids broke new ground because it assumed from the outset, and unashamedly, that women can be ridiculous, rude, and raunchy about their lives, feelings, and relationships.
While that might sound like an obvious assumption, it wasn’t one commonly made until Bridesmaids’ critical and box office triumph. And the shadow since cast by Feig’s film has been considerable. On TV, where funny women have more frequently found a home (dating all the way back to Lucille Ball and Mary Tyler Moore), they now are sitcoms’ prime movers and shakers, including Zooey Deschanel in New Girl, Anna Faris in Mom, Mindy Kaling in (the criminally just-canceled) The Mindy Project, McCarthy in Mike and Molly, and Amy Schumer in Inside Amy Schumer. For McCarthy, her CBS gig has been only one of many springboards to the A-list, where—also thanks to 2013’s The Heat, opposite Oscar-winner Sandra Bullock—she now stands virtually alone as Hollywood’s one truly new comedic superstar, the rare actress (or actor) who alone can help sell a movie during the peak-competitive summer months. In the current Hollywood marketplace, she has next to no rivals—at least, not just yet.
That’s because in the past two months, Amy Schumer has become the veritable queen of Internet humor, pushing aside even the reliably tweetable Jimmy Fallon as the new master of YouTube-ready comedy vignettes. Aimed at skewering hot topics with tongue-in-cheek dirtiness, those clips have included her recent music video “Milk Milk Lemonade,” which lambasted pop music’s current infatuation with women’s backsides, and her episode-long 12 Angry Men Inside Amy Schumer spoof, which cannily paid homage to a cinema classic while also brutally satirizing the male gaze, and the way in which men judge (and place value upon) women. Both of them taken from her Comedy Central show, these bits have dominated recent online pop culture chatter, cementing Schumer as the new politically-charged voice of contemporary comedy at the precise moment that the amusingly disreputable Trainwreck—from Judd Apatow, the comedy titan responsible for the bromances Knocked Up and The 40-Year-Old Virgin—aims to provide her with an initial big-screen breakthrough.
Just as McCarthy puts an aggro-femme spin on Chris Farley’s hefty-yelling-goofball routine, so too has Schumer assumed the boundary-pushing social critic role abdicated (at least for now) by Dave Chappelle. Yet what makes McCarthy and Schumer special isn’t, ultimately, that they’re allowed to thrive on the same playing field as men, but that they’re able to do so without sacrificing (or neutering) their distinctive feminine viewpoints or personalities. Like Kaling, Faris, Wiig, and the rest of their comedic comrades, they’ve staged a Hollywood coup by refusing to be pigeonholed into hackneyed rom-com (or meek damsel-in-distress) roles, instead wielding their own idiosyncratic attitudes and styles to deliver humor that’s as brash and bawdy and badass as anything in the movies today. In other words: They’re funny as hell, and their takeover has just begun.