Dipartimento di Musica e Spettacolo - CONFERENZE, Women and the Silent Screen Conference

Font Size: 
Silent Comediennes and "The Tragedy of Being Funny"
Kristen Anderson Wagner

Last modified: 2010-05-12


In this paper I will explore some of the contradictions and complexities surrounding women's performance of comedy in American silent films.  Articles in fan magazines of the 1910s and '20s with titles such as "Is it Tragic to Be Comic?" and "The Tragedy of Being Funny" often situated comediennes as victims - of their circumstances, their talents, or their looks - and films such as Show People and Ella Cinders to some degree supported the idea that being a funny woman was cause for pity as well as praise. Longstanding cultural stereotypes held that women could be either feminine or funny, but seldom both, and as a result female comics were frequently labeled as unsuccessful women as well as comedians. Despite the fact that a great many women had long and lucrative careers in film comedy, and comediennes were very popular with silent-era audiences, comediennes were frequently depicted in the popular press as uncomfortable with building their careers in comedy, uneasy about performing physical comedy, or afraid of looking ridiculous in public.  Paradoxically, fan magazines and trade journals generally acknowledged, and even promoted, women's humor, although traces of pervasive stereotypes about the incompatibility of comedy and femininity are evident in these discourses.  Most often, however, these stereotypes appear in these publications only to be disproved and dismissed, a shrewd strategy for trade journals trying to market their stars, and fan magazines whose largely female readership would likely be interested in stories of women breaking boundaries and defying expectations.

This tremendous ambivalence toward women performing comedy reflected broader concerns in American society about appropriate behavior for women. If, as many believed, simply having a sense of humor raised doubts about a woman's femininity, then actively engaging in comic performances could be seen as an affront to and unraveling of traditional gender roles. But rather than avoiding the genre altogether, comediennes negotiated a comic space for themselves in myriad ways.  Some advocated a more refined, "feminine" comedy as an alternative to the rough-and-tumble slapstick that many felt was unsuitable for women, and some - acquiescing to prejudices against funny women - spoke of their desire to leave comedy for more respectable dramas.  Other comediennes unapologetically embraced comedy, even lowbrow slapstick, to the delight of their fans and the consternation of their critics. 

In this paper I will trace some of these complex discourses and debates about funny women that played out in the press and onscreen in the early 20th century. Through careful reading of newspaper and magazine articles, studio publicity, and films such as Show People and The Extra Girl I will show that silent-era comediennes found a multitude of ways to integrate the supposedly disparate qualities of humor and femininity. The fact that so many actresses chose to continue to perform comedy, despite their own or the public's misgivings about the genre, would potentially have sent a strong message that women didn't have to restrict themselves to appropriate behavior as defined by others, or try to conform to an idealized and outmoded conception of femininity.  By performing, enjoying, and succeeding in comedy, comediennes showed that women could safely step outside the confines of traditional femininity and find a new definition of femininity that suited their own individual proclivity and talents.


Conference registration is required in order to view papers.