There are a slew of movies and TV shows out there that rely on harmful negative tropes and stereotypes to elicit ‘humour’. These can be detrimental and hurtful and serve to perpetuate oppression rather than challenge it. While there are such films and shows in abundance, there are also those which actually use the genre of comedy as a subversive medium and challenge such harmful and damaging tropes. These shows prove that you don’t need to “make fun” of a marginalized group for the sake of humour, and instead be empowering and revolutionary. The following is a compilation of comic films and television shows that have been liberal, sensitive and been successful in questioning hegemonic beliefs while simultaneously being funny as hell:
Perhaps one of the most feminist movies of the previous decade, this comedy shatters so many negative stereotypes surrounding women: that blondes are “dumb”, that girls who love fashion and makeup cannot be intelligent and layered, that a woman needs a man to affirm her own identity. The film portrays a blonde, “conventionally” attractive woman (who, in the 90s and 00s were often portrayed as one-dimensional, self-centered and unintelligent) being intelligent, competent as well as emotionally complex, and also celebrates female bonding and positive body image. In one of the most cult moments from the film, Warner, the protagonist Elle’s (douchebag) ex-boyfriend expresses his surprise at the fact that someone like her (who is a fashion-loving blonde, so of course she has to be “dumb”, right?) could get into Harvard; and she fiercely shuts him down by saying—”What, like it’s hard?” The scene is rendered even more powerful in its irony because Warner actually got into Harvard because of his father’s influence, while Elle got in on her own intellectual merit. You go, Elle Woods!
Not only did this show give us legendary feminist icon Leslie Knope (played by the outstanding Amy Poehler), it also gave us a lot more to love. While it tackles the struggles of being a woman in politics with great sensitivity and humour and exposes the internalized sexism that is still prevalent in the profession, it also tackles race very subtly. Aziz Ansari’s character comments, early on in the show, how he had to change his name to an anglicized ‘Tom Haverford’ from his birth name because it is impossible to succeed in American politics with a Muslim surname. It even advocates for LGBT rights, and has a whole episode dedicated to battling conservative opposition to same-sex marriage! It mocks Men’s Rights Activists who believe feminism is “oppressing men”, orthodox Christian organizations which condemn all things liberal, old white lecherous sexist politicians, skewed and conservative media reporting and so much more.
By now, most of us have embraced the awesomeness that is Amy Schumer, and this show was her original claim to fame. A sketch comedy written, produced and acted by her, this show addresses many feminist concerns such as body image, workplace sexism and other sexist microaggressions, ageism (especially in Hollywood), slutshaming, alternate sexualities, race and so much more. While she can be problematic at times (to be honest, who isn’t?), many of the topics her sketches touch upon are extremely important, sensitive and relevant. She is also utterly, fabulously hilarious. Really, this is how comedy should be done—topical, subversive while simultaneously being extremely funny.
Tackling the sensitive issue of racism faced by the black community on US college campuses (rendered even more topical due to the recent #BlackLivesMatter campus protests), this film uses humour to spread an important message. It chronicles experiences of various African American students with racism—film student Sam White who runs a campus radio show where she calls out racist behaviour, gay freshman Lionel Higgins who is in the closet and is conflicted about coming out, Coco Conners who struggles with trying to reconcile her identity within a culture which only sees white as beautiful, and more such emotionally rich characters. It also looks at racial segregation in college residences, and white people donning blackface to appear “cool” among other issues, and is definitely one of the best satirical commentaries on race ever seen in Hollywood.
Melissa McCarthy is the queen of body-positivity, and this movie further solidifies her position as the same. A feminist take on the spy film genre, this sees McCarthy kick major ass, and perform action scenes that perhaps no plus-sized woman has previously been seen performing in a mainstream Hollywood movie. What makes it even better is that the villain (Rose Byrne), the partner (Miranda Hart) and the boss (Alison Janey) are all women, and are all incredibly hilarious and incredibly powerful—and not just physically. Even their goof-ups or missteps have a lot of character and emotional depth, while also being utterly hilarious. It celebrates female empowerment and agency in the best possible way, and is completely devoid of any of the usual clichés that come with physically strong female characters.
This three-part TV series articulates multiple facets of the queer experience and represents nearly every identity on the LGBT spectrum; even those that are usually not addressed in mainstream media such as asexuality, pansexuality, and demisexuality. It gets its representation spot on by having racially, economically and age-wise diverse queer characters. While Banana is an anthology series which tells a different story in every episode, satirically dealing with not just queerness but sexual violence, AIDS, mental health, and many other important concerns, Cucumber follows the story of middle-aged homoromantic autochorissexual Henry and his various conflicts about ageing, economic bankruptcy and anxieties surrounding sex. Tofu, however, is a documentary-style anthology where a diverse range of both queer and straight individuals narrate their opinions and experiences about gender, sex, sexuality. This three-instalment series is truly revolutionary in what it seeks to achieve, and its criminal that it is so underrated.
Written, produced, directed and acted by the amazing Aziz Ansari, Master of None deals with issues of race—media representation and the immigrant experience especially—in the best way possible. It also delves into sexism, queerness, ageing, parenthood with great insight and sensitivity. The writing is always sharp, real and immensely funny. Each episode deals with a separate issue—there’s one about the immigrant experience, which is remarkable in its realism and sensitivity, one about racial representation in mainstream media with some hilarious insights into the casting decisions of white Hollywood producers, one about sexism, one about ageing, and so on. Without doubt, it is definitely one of the most nuanced and topical comedies in recent times.
These films and TV shows go on to prove that humour can be an important tool of subverting insensitive tropes and stereotypes, giving voice to the otherwise oppressed, and breaking social stigmas. Satire can only be effective when it is a means of reform, and hence, we should embrace those comedies that seek to achieve the same, and bring about social change. Media is a powerful medium and can be a double-edged sword. While it can promote positive emotions, as mentioned earlier, it can also be extremely damaging. So, while watching, and learning from such films and television shows, we should use media for good, rather than the opposite, right?