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Failing the Bechdel Test: Inappropriate Jane Austen and the Quandary of Funny Ladies

The making of Inappropriate Jane Austen was a first-time video-creating experience for me and my partner-in-sparkle, Katie Gibson, and we flew on the wings of favors great and greater. Our location was a product of a trade-in-kind: Katie’s workspace was perfect for a friend’s office sketch shoot, and said friend had access to the Harlem brownstone we were graciously allowed to use for free. Our actors were talented friends, willing to perform in exchange for pizza and a day in a gorgeous Harlem brownstone. Our crew members were our significant others, who had the technical skill and emotional good sense to help us through what could have been a very trying day. It was a dreamy experience from conception to completion, and we couldn’t have done it without lots of goodwill.

What’s been less dreamy - if more thought-provoking - is some of the response we’ve gotten. So much of it has been positive and excited. But some of it has made me wonder about what it means to be a “woman in comedy.”

A few days after we launched, a friend of mine who had attended our launch party posted on social media about a play she had just seen: “SO much funny, none based in female sexuality or stupidity, hallelujah!” (Spoiler alert: Inappropriate Jane Austen trades in female sexuality and stupidity.) I am fundamentally a narcissist, so I couldn’t help but wonder: was she taking a dig at Inappropriate Jane Austen?! I ended up asking her, and after a bit of hedging, she finally said, “yes.” Which got me thinking: did I on some level agree with her disappointment? And additionally, what is the filmmaker’s responsibility? If I’m a feminist (which I am) and I believe in feminist ideas (which I do), should I constantly be championing feminine funny not “based in female sexuality or stupidity?” A gut reaction I have is: “yes! women should not be presented as sexualized and stupid!”

But then I thought about it a little more, and… well, I’m still thinking about it. Isn't this bias something female comedians have been dealing with for years and years? Why hasn't it gone away? Would this friend - an enlightened performer and maker of fart jokes in her own right - have ever posted: “SO much funny, none based in male sexuality or stupidity, hallelujah!” I don’t think so. She wouldn’t have to. If the play were based in male sexuality and stupidity, I suspect that would be totally fine. So if we’re talking about feminism (aka equality), we have to ask ourselves: Why can’t women make fart jokes? Why can’t women be stupid? Why can’t women talk about sex in a funny way? Because the crazy thing about the otherwise excellent diagnostic that is the Bechdel test is that funny men don’t have to worry about passing it. If two dudes just talk about girls the whole time, that’s cool. If two girls just talk about dudes the whole time, BECHDEL FAIL. That feels unfair, since a lot of comedy has a lot to do with sex and self-deprecation (aka identifying the stupid inside), and denying women access to those two tools, dick joke intended, seems like a one-step forward, two-steps back way to go about it. I’ll continue to consider, but for now, my platform is “fart jokes for one, fart jokes for all!”

Written by Alex Trow, director of Inappropriate Jane Austen

Watch Episode 1: Compliments

Watch Episode 2: Tea

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