Winners and Losers, Reason and Heart: Female Sitcom Characters
Just as comediennes have overcome some of the same career struggles even when working centuries apart, women in comedy, whether on radio or television, tend to occupy the same space in their programs. Gertrude Berg, Gracie Allen, Lucille Ball, Mary Tyler Moore, Tina Fey, and Amy Poehler all serve as the emotional center – the heart – of their shows. At the same time, some female characters are also the voice of reason among the comedic chaos, while others are foolish and cause comic situations. Comedy usually relies on a “straight man” to connect with viewers and provide a voice of reason in contrast to a comedic foil or “dumb Dora” who is illogical and foolish. Comediennes have taken both roles: some of these women portray straight men; others are the foils. Most of these situational comedies also seem to have regular “winners” and “losers;” the stories repeat with one character getting their way at the end of each episode and triumphing over other characters. Winning, however, is not always aligned with logic and the voice of reason; some comediennes lose with logic while others triumph in foolishness.
With all these possible groupings, women have successfully portrayed only a few combinations of different attributes. First, there are the one-sided losers: Lucille Ball, the foolish housewife always dominated by her husband, and Tina Fey, the logical voice of reason who is always outsmarted by her boss or ignored by her subordinates. In stark contrast to the first category, the second pair is one-sided winners: Gracie Allen, the original dumb Dora who somehow outsmarts her husband George Burns with her own brand of illogical logic, and Amy Poehler, whose character Leslie Knope is foolishly passionate about government and almost always gets her way because of her extreme enthusiasm and lack of common sense. The third and most iconic pair are the women who somehow “have it all,” both reason and heart, but do not “win” nor “lose” in their respective shows: Gertrude Berg and Mary Tyler Moore. None of these women have truly been able to achieve it all, but Berg and Moore come the closest, portraying beloved characters while still being logical, yet not outsmarting their counterparts or presenting themselves as too threatening in their success.