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When asked what an actor needs to be successful in comedy, Tina Fey responded,  “a willingness to drop your ego and let yourself look foolish. You almost have to enjoy looking vulnerable. You’d be surprised how many people don’t want to do that.”[1] Similarly, Ball credited her own fame to “her willingness to be knocked off a twenty-foot pedestal or shot down a steamship funnel,” giving her the reputation “among comediennes as a stunt girl who will do anything.”[2] Though the characters portrayed by Fey and Ball differed, the idea behind both statements remains the same: success in comedy is the ability to confidently make yourself look foolish. But men can, somehow, appear foolish enough to be successful in comedy and still be represented as successful in their careers. Why do women who have enjoyed career success create characters without those same opportunities?


Berg, Ball, and Fey all created their shows and characters. Gracie Allen’s character in The Burns and Allen Show was not her creation, but was written by her husband, George Burns. And while Allen’s character was much more dominant in the relationship than her linguistic foibles conveyed, she still was, for the most part, a traditional model of American gender roles – particularly when the show moved from radio to television, and the stories visually centered on the household. Berg's Molly Goldberg and Ball’s Lucy Ricardo did the same; they were, without a doubt, strong characters with strong opinions, but with no life outside the domestic sphere (even though Lucy Ricardo tried desperately to escape it). Fey’s Liz Lemon exited the sphere of domesticity and entered the workplace, but still enjoyed fewer opportunities than Fey herself, and does not stand out as a feminist role model by any means.


Mary Tyler Moore and Amy Poehler, though extremely successful personally and involved in the creation of their shows, did not create their own characters, and are credited with portraying feminist characters rather than being creators themselves. It seems women can be publicly non-traditional and successful in either the representation of a woman’s life or in their own career, but not both. Both creating and portraying a successful character would upset gender normativity too much, and was clearly not a valid option for these comediennes. These women have broken from gender norms, but had to limit their rebellion against tradition to either career or character to maintain traditional power dynamics. Only men are credited with creating truly empowered female characters, while female cultural producers instead create and portray domesticated, dependent women rarely considered feminist role models.

[1] “Oprah Talks to Tina Fey.”

[2] Ball, Love, Lucy, 5.

DRAFT: This module has unpublished changes.