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As comediennes continue to make audiences laugh, scholars and media outlets continue to examine the roles of women in broadcast comedy.[1] The opportunities for women in every aspect of the creation of comedy series have expanded, but this expansion does not necessarily lead to a larger number of liberated characters on-screen. Though current television allows for more complex storylines and characters, the Los Angeles Times’ recent promise of “a new breed of Modern Woman” on television is not yet apparent.[2] Studying the female-led comedies debuting in 2012 demonstrates that the relationships among creator, character, and politics examined in this thesis are still complex and significant.

In April 2012, HBO premiered a controversial new series entitled Girls. Twenty-six-year-old Lena Dunham created, writes, produces, stars in, and often directs Girls, a comedy-drama focused on four female twenty-somethings trying to figure out their lives soon after graduating college. Struggling to survive financially and trying to find meaning in their lives, the characters in Girls are fundamentally different than the mid-thirties housewives and career women featured in the previously analyzed sitcoms.


Dunham and her story, however, are not irrelevant to this thesis. Much like Lucille Ball and Tina Fey before her, Dunham portrays a profoundly flawed, less successful version of herself who “loses” both personally and professionally in every episode. Dunham’s character Hannah Horvath is a struggling writer without hope of a successful career, while Dunham graduated from Oberlin only four years ago and has already won two Golden Globes and earned four Emmy nominations for her series. In Girls, Hannah has a troubled personal life, dealing with uninterested men, self-centered friends, and serious bouts of obsessive-compulsive disorder. Dunham, on the other hand, is thriving. She is happily dating a musician and living out her dream of writing comedy.

Entertainment Weekly columnist Melissa Maerz highlights this disparity between character and creator by rhetorically asking, “how can you be the voice of the post-Great Recession generation when so many broke twenty-somethings think you have it all?”[3] The article fails to answer the question, but the answer seems simple: by making Dunham’s character Hannah as pathetic as possible. Just like Ball and Fey, Dunham’s personal success led to her creation and subsequent portrayal of a constantly “losing” character with none of the opportunities Dunham herself enjoyed.


Dunham’s media appeal, however, was still somewhat limited by her gender. Girls features a lot of nudity and graphic sex scenes that are usually more awkward than erotic. Famously outspoken radio host Howard Stern criticized Girls on-air, saying “it’s a little fat girl… and she keeps taking her clothes off and it kind of feels like a rape… It’s like – I don’t want to see that… I learned that this little fat chick writes the show and directs the show and that makes sense to me because she’s such a camera hog.”[4] Dunham commented on Stern’s criticism on The Late Show with David Letterman, saying she believed Stern “has earned the right to free speech” and that his “little fat chicks” comment put her “in the best mood” because she found it hilarious.[5]


[Dunham's interview with David Letterman is available below]


Dunham called into Howard Stern’s show just a few days later, reiterating that she “enjoyed the ‘little fat chick’ label” but insisted, “I’m not that fat, Howard… I’m not super thin, but I’m thin for like, Detroit.” Stern apologized for his comments, but Dunham seemed unaffected by the insults, perhaps because Stern was just one of many criticizing her body and her program. Regardless, though Stern implied his comments were not gender-based by insisting, “I’m hyper-critical of guys that are heavy; I’m hyper-critical of women that are heavy,” the controversy surrounding Dunham’s nudity is unparalleled by any critique of male nudity. Dunham told Stern she “appreciated” his apology, and continued to show her body in the second season of Girls.[6]

[Dunham's talk with Howard Stern is available below]




Dunham was not the only woman premiering a female-led sitcom in 2012. Working in a more traditional network-sitcom style, Mindy Kaling, formerly of the successful sitcom The Office, debuted The Mindy Project on Fox in September 2012. Kaling created, writes, produces, and stars in The Mindy Project, a program that overturns pre-existing notions of success and failure for female sitcom protagonists. Unlike Ball, Fey, and Dunham, Kaling portrays a more traditionally successful version of herself. Kaling’s character Mindy Lahiri is a prosperous obstetrician/gynecologist, as was Kaling’s own mother.[7]


Kaling’s character Mindy achieves relative success in the workplace, but also encounters some of Liz Lemon's personal problems. She has a hilariously horrible love life, but wants nothing more than to live her own romantic comedy and find a man to be with happily ever after. The Mindy Project chronicles Mindy’s attempts to prove herself as worthy of her male coworkers’ respect and to find herself the perfect man. Neither effort goes according to plan, but she does develop close relationships with her coworkers; their interdependence in the office is established by the end of the first season.


Kaling is of Indian descent, and is one of the first women of color to lead a network sitcom. The Mindy Project is groundbreaking in its nuanced, non-stereotyped depiction of South Asian characters. Kaling’s character Mindy is by no means defined by her race; indeed, her weight is referenced and joked about much more regularly. Rather, The Mindy Project makes light of misconceptions about race, as evidenced by Mindy’s lecture to her assistants, Betsy and Shuana, in the pilot episode:

MINDY: Hey, you two. Quick question. Do you care about my career and want me to succeed?

BETSY: More than anything in the world.

MINDY: Okay, well if that is the case, why are you sending me non-English-speaking, pregnant immigrants with no health insurance, with literally like burkas and stuff?

SHUANA: I thought she might be rich with oil money.

MINDY: Well, she wasn't. She was poor with nothing money.

SHUANA: Well, why wouldn't you just tell her no?

MINDY: Because I am not good at saying no, okay? One time I left a flea market with a samurai sword. I just, I need a different kind of patient.

BETSY: More white patients, done. [starts writing it down]

MINDY: Well don't write that! [whispers] But yes.[8]

Both Mindy and her assistants present problematic interpretations of race, and Mindy’s own identification as a woman of color does not automatically make her a perfect specimen of multicultural tolerance. Mindy works through issues of race with her white colleagues, and though The Mindy Project references and demonstrates the fact that these problems are still prevalent today, it is one of the only current sitcoms to regularly present and comment on these issues.


["Pilot" can be purchased on YouTube below, or seen on HuluPlus]


Dunham and Kaling’s rise to fame testifies to the importance of their predecessors, whose successes opened opportunities for comediennes and established a broad audience for female-led sitcoms. In addition, Dunham and Kaling’s struggle to portray personal and professional success again problematizes the notion that we live in a post-feminist society. Girls and The Mindy Project have both been picked up for another season, and how Dunham and Kaling will further develop their characters is still unclear. However, like the comediennes before them, their programs will likely evolve and provide complex social commentaries and important insights into the role of women in broadcasting and American culture.

[1] See Yael Kohen, We Killed: The Rise of Women in American Comedy (New York: Sarah Crichton Books, 2012).

[2] Mary McNamara, “On TV, A New Breed of Modern Woman,” Los Angeles Times, April 20, 2013, http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/tv/showtracker/la-et-st-women-on-tv-20130421,0,4327673.story (accessed April 21, 2013).

[3] Melissa Maerz, “#ItGirl,” Entertainment Weekly, February 8, 2013, 39.

[4] Liz Brown, “Howard Stern Rips ‘Little Fat Chick’ and ‘Camera Hog’ Lena Dunham on ‘Girls,’ Examiner.com, January 7, 2013, http://www.examiner.com/article/howard-stern-rips-little-fat-chick-and-camera-hog-lena-dunham-on-girls (accessed April 21, 2013).

[5] The Late Show with David Letterman, season 20, episode 81, aired January 10 2013 (CBS).

[6] The Howard Stern Show, “Lena Dunham Interview,” aired January 16, 2013 (Howard 100).

[7] Mindy Kaling, Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me (And Other Concerns) (New York: Crown Archetype, 2011), 75.

[8] The Mindy Project, “Pilot,” season 1, episode 1, aired September 25, 2012 (Fox), as seen on Hulu, http://www.hulu.com/the-mindy-project.

DRAFT: This module has unpublished changes.