Why do we find the trainwreck comedy trope so funny?
Whether it’s accidently turning up to your parents’ garden party dressed as a Playboy bunny, cycling drunkenly into a swimming pool after ruining your ex’s wedding, or screaming hysterically at your best friend’s bridal shower while trying to destroy her ‘giant f**king cookie’, we’ve all become familiar with this favorite trope of women’s comedy. It’s what The Hairpin recently christened, ‘The Trainwreck’.
Yes, the Trainwreck is a twenty/thirty-something woman who is failing at almost everything. Be it her love or sex life as with Mindy of TV sitcom The Mindy Project and comedienne Amy Schumer in sketch show Inside Amy Schumer. Or her work & social life, as with Annie Walker of 2011’s hit female-centric comedy Bridesmaids and Jess of New Girl. Or perhaps just her life in general, as with the iconic trailblazer and household name for trainwrecks everywhere, Bridget Jones. The Trainwreck, as Arielle Dachille explains, is ‘an incorrigible but loveable bundle of bad decisions and self-aware quips, she’s different than the sitcom matriarchs or Helen of Troy…. The hot mess is no “perfect woman.”
Sure these trainwrecks are hot messes but women can’t get enough of them. In the last five years, the female comedian’s Trainwreck type has become a regular fixture in women’s comedy and what is even more telling, is that largely female audiences are embracing them wholeheartedly, sky-rocketing a number of female comedians to fame, such as Mindy Kaling, Amy Schumer, Zoey Deschanel, Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, Renee Zellweger, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Lena Dunham, Greta Gerwig, Taylor Schilling, the list goes on.
But what is it about this Trainwreck trope that makes it so popular amongst female comedians and why do women love it so much? Perhaps its huge success lies in what Dachille described as ‘the fact that she is the antithesis of a patriarchal society’s ideal female.’ Take this trainwreck for example. Bridget Jones, a failure of a 30 something whose story follows her grappling with the expectations put on her as a young woman in the early noughties. Whether she’s donning big knickers in an attempt to be thin, serving up blue soup after a failed attempt to be a domestic goddess, or sliding bottom-first down a fireman’s pole while trying to be graceful and professional, Bridget is the original modern Trainwreck. The stories follow Bridget’s attempts to meet all the impossible standards society places on women, to be beautiful but natural, sexy but ladylike, a ‘hot date’ but still wife material, powerful but not a ‘bitch’, independent but not a ‘spinster’. Bridget tries to meet all these expectations and fails wonderfully, not only because they’re unrealistic, but also because they’re often contradictory. Instead, the trainwreck’s slapstick actually smashes up these standards by making comedy out of them, either mocking the ridiculous standards or highlighting the contradictory expectations women struggle to meet, all hilariously exemplified by Bridget’s calamitous failings.
Dachille critiques the Trainwreck however, saying that this self-deprecatory comedy cuts both ways, leaving us laughing at the women at the center of it rather than with them, but this is not necessarily true. Rather than laughing at these women for their failures, the laughter more often than not turns towards the absurd expectations they are trying to meet. Our enjoyment comes from our empathy with these women. We feel every cringe layered within the comedy, and there is something refreshing in being able to laugh at these embarrassing ‘failures’ and frustrations. It’s also hugely liberating to be open about these struggles women experience in trying to meet society’s expectations of them, which these comedian’s champion through comedy, making the pressures on women the butt of joke and not the women themselves.
Both Mindy Kaling and Amy Schumer have taken up the gauntlet on parodying the disparity between the expectations and reality for women in pursuit of romantic relationships. In The Mindy Project, Kaling parodies the dissonance between the stereotypical rom-com-like imaginings of her love life and their reality. For instance, in a climactic scene, Mindy, hoping to emulate the iconic ending from Sleepless in Seattle , is found by her love interest collapsed from exhaustion at the top of the Empire State building because the elevator has broken down. Amy Schumer takes it a step further, absolutely tearing up the disparity between expectations placed on women, particularly in relation to parodying her sex life in her sketch comedy show. Although she unapologetically admits in her comedy skits that she is a ‘slut’, she parodiess the unrealistic pressures on women to be sexually empowered yet unattached.
Dachille also criticizes these women’s comedy shows and films for centering around romances with men, saying that the female trainwreck’s status is ‘ very much a riff on the “damsel in distress.” She argues that be it ‘Paul Varjak, Marc Darcy, Adam, Nick, Danny—they all come along to give our girls the care they so desperately need.’ This is in part true – romance is certainly a big element of the trainwreck’s concerns, but while Dachille argues that ‘It’s not enough for the hot mess to love herself, a guy needs to love her’, is this really the message trainwrecks give? Yes women want someone to love them but don’t we all? Sure the ‘will they, won’t they’ keeps us hooked as a plot device but most of the time, as with Bridget, they go on to break-up, fall apart, meet other people. In the latest Bridget’s diary, Darcy has been killed off. It’s not really about the men, but contradicting the dominant male gaze that society pressures women into conforming to. For the trainwreck whose whole story has been about her attempts and failures to meet these standards they are lead to believe men want, a man loving the trainwreck who doesn’t live up to these standards merely re-inforces the whole point the trainwreck exists to highlight. It shows women they shouldn’t need to chase arbitrary ideals in pursuit of romance or social acceptance.
Through comedy, the Trainwreck also introduces new types of women, both in appearance and personality to our screens. Physically, these women comedians are often not conventionally attractive, what with Bridget’s wobbly bits, or the self-described ‘chubby’ woman of colour, Mindy Kaling. Personality wise, Jess from New Girl’s comedy is based around her weirdness and emotionally complex personality and none have used the trainwreck comedy trope to create new and more complex female characters than Lena Dunham’s Girls. And Trainwrecks don’t just deal with the failures to meet male-centred societal pressures but shows women failing in other areas of their lives. Annie Walker in Bridesmaids took the focus off of romance at its centre and instead was more concerned with female friendship and dealing with failures in one’s career. Frances Ha takes the trainwreck and failure for women to a deeper level. Essentially it comes down to not just women failing at being ‘women’ but women who are facing the failures of modern life, which are very human, very real failures after all.
The funny woman portraying the struggle women face between expectation and reality bring feminist concerns to a maintstream audience as well as bringing new female characters we haven’t seen before. Comedy is an essential aspect because it is endearing, and accessible and brings laughter rather than fear or despair at everyday sexism to audiences. Overall the trainwreck trope is inherently feminist because it shows women how to laugh in the face of everyday sexism that expects them to oppress their true selves in pursuit of a narrow ideal and instead it teaches them to love themselves not thinner, not cleverer, not with slightly bigger breasts or a slightly smaller nose, but just the way they are…
By Rachel Lavin @RachelLavin