Before the advent and popularity of streaming services such as Netflix, I watched shows and movies that were available through my cable package. Growing up in the ’90s and early aughts, I rarely watched comedies that starred women. And if I did come across comedies with women in the lead, the women were vying to be the objects of men’s affection, like in Clueless, or men were trying to get their attention (sometimes with ill will), like in 10 Things I Hate About You. In short: The male gaze was ever-present. Often films were cast aside as “chick flicks” and given less attention and smaller budgets, despite their success at the box office. In the 1970s and ’80s—an era often referred to as the standup comedy boom—women of the genre were tokenized with comedy clubs booking no more than one woman on any given night. In the case of the famed Comedy Store in Los Angeles, women were relegated to the Belly Room—a different room in the building altogether.
From the Fall
The Death Issue
More than a decade after the Comedy Store closed in 1979, the Los Angeles Times reported that the Belly Room had both its fans and critics among women. The writer-performer Emily Levine told the Times, “It was a marginal venue that marginalized women,” while comedian Lotus Weinstock said it was “born out of sexism, to give women a place.”
But since that time (not to mention the inequitable decades before it) things have changed both in the stand-up world and on screen. Time and time again women have proven that viewers are interested in the stories they tell. In 2011 the film Bridesmaids grossed more than $288 million worldwide. It was hailed as a cultural landmark and received more than 71 award nominations, including one for an Academy Award. Before that, in 2004, Tina Fey wrote the screenplay for the millennial-favorite Mean Girls, which grossed over $129 million worldwide.
“It’s not that these girls are better than the girls who preceded them,” writer Fran Lebowitz told Vanity Fair in 2008. “They’re luckier. They came along at a time when the boys allowed them to do this. In comedy, timing is everything.”
Previously, roles for women leaned toward stereotypes and were vastly underwritten, like Rachel McAdams’ character in Wedding Crashers. But now that more women are performing in—and creating—lead comedic roles, viewers get to watch stories of fully formed women with their own challenges and successes. The following picks, all of which are streaming on Netflix as of this writing, prove that women are not a monolith. Gender is not their sole means of identifying themselves. Their experiences are largely affected by their other identities, including race, age, and class.
Tuca and Bertie
This animated series is voiced by comedians Tiffany Haddish, of Girls Trip fame, and Ali Wong, whose two standup specials received wide acclaim. Tuca (Haddish) and Bertie (Wong) face challenges that many women in their 30s experience: moving in with partners, workplace sexual harassment, and buying homes. A few bizarre things happen along the way. For example, Bertie’s boyfriend’s grandmother’s ashes somehow get mixed into a sugar container. When the sugar bowl is given away by accident, Tuca and Bertie must get it back. The two take each challenge hilariously head-on. The show further complicates what friendships between women can look like on-screen. One day they can be grappling through anxiety and sobriety together, and the next they can be completely annoyed with each other.
The first season of this NBC series is available on Netflix, which bills it as a “dramedy.” Three suburban women—Beth, played by Christina Hendricks, Ruby, played by Retta, and Annie, played by Mae Whitman—pull off a heist at a local grocery store to get themselves out of their finance-related ruts. One woman and her husband, for example, can’t afford to pay their daughter’s medical bills. The robbery leads to some unfortunate circumstances because, as one IMDB reviewer describes it, the show is “soccer moms Breaking Bad.” Beth, Ruby, and Annie have to figure out how to carry on and live with their choices. In Good Girls, Beth, Ruby, and Annie are allowed to celebrate their newfound individual power (and face the consequences of that power) while continuing to be just what they are: mothers.
In this film, three friends—Jenny, played by Gina Rodriguez, Blair, by Brittany Snow, and Erin, by Dewanda Wise—have one week to enjoy New York City together before Jenny heads west for a job. The stakes are raised when Jenny’s boyfriend, played by Atlanta’s LaKeith Stanfield, breaks up with her ahead of the move. On their last full weekend together, the women show up for one another. They cry together, they party together. Together, they accept change in their respective lives. In Someone Great, Rodriguez’s character shows the realistic roller coaster of emotions that is a breakup while allowing for friendships to change over time.
Grace and Frankie
While this series has been celebrated since its premiere in 2015—five seasons are already streaming on Netflix—it’s never too late for those who haven’t watched it to catch up. Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin play Grace and Frankie, respectively, and together they go through the aftermath of divorce from their husbands. A twist: Their husbands had a secret romantic relationship with each other for years. The thing is, Grace and Frankie weren’t close friends before their splits. Forced to build and navigate new lives, the pair grow closer, all the while getting on each other’s nerves. The show never leans into ageist humor, but it still gives its main characters room to thoughtfully address the hilarity that comes with aging.
Always Be My Maybe
Ali Wong plays world-renowned chef Sasha Tran, who temporarily moves back to San Francisco, her hometown, to open a new restaurant. While there, she and her uber-rich fiancé break up and she reconnects with her more down-to-earth childhood friend (with whom she shared a rather awkward first kiss and sexual encounter) Marcus Kim, played by Randall Park. They haven’t seen each other in 15 years and try to deny their palpable chemistry, but eventually sparks fly. Writing for Vox, Jason Shen says the movie “carries the torch forward” with Asian American characters who move away from stereotypes and “aren’t the traditionally successful doctor or lawyer we are used to seeing on screen.” Bonus: If you’re a Keanu Reeves fan, you’re in for a treat because he makes an interesting cameo playing … himself.
In this Canadian sitcom (which airs on PopTV in the United States), Catherine O’Hara plays Moira Rose, the matriarch of a family that suddenly finds itself broke after living lives of luxury funded by their video store empire. The Roses are forced to relocate to Schitt’s Creek, “an armpit of a town they once bought as a joke,” according to CBC’s description. In late June, the cast wrapped up production on its sixth and final season, but the first four seasons are now available on Netflix. In those episodes, the family adjusts to living in a town they view as beneath them while simultaneously trying to make their way back to the more glossy life they once knew. O’Hara told Entertainment Weekly that it’s challenging for writers to construct new, fun storylines for older characters that don’t center on “death, disease, and divorce.” But in Schitt’s Creek, her character Moira “has had so many great opportunities.”
Thankfully, there’s more where these nuanced comedies came from. In July, Amazon picked up a 10-episode comedy series by Tracy Oliver, a writer known for the 2017 hit Girls Trip, which cost $19 million and made $150 million. Amy Poehler has signed on as one of the show’s executive producers. “Until you create the thing that you can then point to,” she told New York Magazine, “there’s no example for it.”