In 1940, radio comedienne Gracie Allen ran for President of the United States. It was a publicity stunt, meant to shock audiences and generate laughs, but it also served as a sophisticated critique of American party politics and gender inequality. Seventy-one years later, the NBC sitcom Parks and Recreation detailed fictional bureaucrat Leslie Knope’s campaign for city councilwoman, which closely mirrored the contemporary 2012 Presidential primaries. Perhaps the most important similarity between these two campaigns is that both Gracie and Leslie were the least logical
characters in their respective shows. Despite the fact that Gracie and Leslie were unlikely candidates, they nonetheless succeeded in their campaigns. In part, this success was because of another common trait: neither character was really as foolish as they were supposed to be. Their political commentaries, rather, were laughing matters because they were voiced through their respective characters, who were always portrayed as illogical in their programs. In the end, the most foolish characters made the most important political comments, in part because of their gender.
Comedy itself seems a somewhat illogical place for thoughtful social commentary. A genre very literally based on not being serious, comedy’s seeming simplicity allows for serious political critiques couched in non-threatening narratives. And in such a stereotypically male-dominated field, placing such critiques in the words and actions of foolish female characters further removes the threatening overtones of serious social commentary. The political similarities between female sitcom stars go further than just electoral politics. Rather, much like the feminist slogan, female sitcom stars have made the personal political and extended critical discourse throughout their own careers and into the narratives of their characters.
Many women were influential in the history of American broadcast comedy, but six in particular stand out as creators, actresses, and participants in political discourse. Gertrude Berg of The Rise of the Goldbergs (1929-1931, 1936-1955), Gracie Allen of The Burns and Allen Show (1929-1958), Lucille Ball of I Love Lucy (1951-1957), Mary Tyler Moore of The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970-1977), Tina Fey of 30 Rock (2006-2013), and Amy Poehler of Parks and Recreation (2009-present) all took part in the creation of their sitcoms, led their shows to critical success, and used their characters to make political commentaries. These creators and their characters were all powerful influences of their own time, and though the similarities are abundant, the six women represent a variety of perspectives on feminine comedy and political discourse.
The programs themselves, the actresses’ memoirs, and scholarly analyses of American culture all reinforce the similarities among these female sitcom stars over nearly a century of broadcasting, as well as the importance of these portrayals and the political analyses they were able to include. Susan Douglas’s critique of female representation in the media is particularly relevant; Douglas uses the term “enlightened sexism” to describe the media providing “fantasies of power” through supposedly liberated female characters that still embody deeply sexist undertones. These comediennes do exemplify these “fantasies of power” to some extent, and their involvement in the creation of their programs further highlights the issues inherent in their characters. Yet the women examined here had political ideas that they managed to express in their shows, and their characters do achieve some real power in their programs. This thesis analyzes how the careers of these comediennes, the characters they portrayed, and the overtly political statements made by their characters intertwine to expand and challenge Douglas’s “fantasies of power,” which extend beyond the screen and into the lives and careers of these cultural producers.
The first chapter covers the careers of female sitcom stars and creators. Berg, Ball, and Fey created their own programs and characters, but played women that enjoyed far fewer opportunities than did their creators. Allen, Moore, and Poehler, on the other hand, were involved in the production of their programs but did not take credit for the creation of their characters. Perhaps as a result, they portray the strongest, most independent women.
The second chapter examines the characters these women created and portrayed. Ball and Fey, two of the women involved in the creation of their respective characters, play women who are regularly proven inferior to their male counterparts. In stark contrast, Allen and Poehler, whose characters are both framed as illogical by their shows, regularly outsmart other characters by being nonsensical. Berg and Moore, perhaps the two most groundbreaking comediennes, portray women who are both logical and comical, without always being outsmarted by superior men. Somehow, they “have it all,” but still embody passive characteristics that prevent them from overturning traditional gender roles.
Finally, the third chapter analyzes the direct relations between these women and electoral politics. Gracie and Leslie run for office, while Fey uses 30 Rock to voice her own political beliefs about ongoing elections. Berg and Allen redefined their shows as political machines when broadcasting government propaganda during World War II. While these examples illustrate the obviously political nature of these programs, it is the intricacies of the female characters and the stories of these women’s careers that show, once again, that the personal is political.
Gracie’s campaign ended before the election took place, but Leslie’s continued. In a close race and ultimate recount mirroring the 2004 Presidential election, Leslie won a place on the city council, and got one step closer to her goal of being the first female President. When placed in the context of earlier female-led sitcoms, what is currently happening on Parks and Recreation is simultaneously formulaic and extremely significant. The female sitcom star’s unprecedented run for public office has certainly been done before. But when compared to Fey’s 30 Rock, which debuted just three years before Parks and Recreation, Leslie Knope is groundbreaking in both her outright feminism and her political success. Even Women’s Liberation icon Mary Richards in The Mary Tyler Moore Show, a character revolutionary in her independence, never proclaimed herself feminist. Leslie is breaking boundaries, and the dichotomy between the characters currently portrayed by Tina Fey and Amy Poehler is important. As Susan Douglas demonstrates, America is not yet postfeminist and nowhere near as enlightened as the media proclaims. These women, however, are making strides and subverting gender norms through their careers, characters, and political commentaries. Studying the politics of American broadcast comediennes over the last century allows for a better understanding of their relevance as well as the disputed and ever-changing role of women in American culture.
 Susan Douglas, Enlightened Sexism: The Seductive Message that Feminism's Work is Done, (New York: Times Books, 2010), 5.