The Unruly Woman: Gender and the Genres of Laughter
by Kathleen Rowe


University of Texas Press, 1995. ISBN 978-0-292-77069-0.
Reviewed by Susan Wittig Albert
Posted on 07/07/2009

Nonfiction: Cultural/Gender Focus; Nonfiction: American Women in Their Cultural/Historical Context

In this intriguing study of women who deliberately inspire laughter by making spectacles of themselves, Kathleen Rowe shows us how rebellious women—loud, domineering, voluptuous, slyly self-deprecating—employ their performance personas to satirize, parody, and call attention to the cultural norms that shape women's behavior. Using two "unruly" women, the television star Roseanne Arnold and Miss Piggy, the Muppet, Rowe illustrates how comedic women create disorder by refusing to occupy their proper places, engaging in excessive behaviors (body size, language, exaggerated sexuality), and crossing the threshold of acceptable moralities in their relationships with others. In Arnold's case, Rowe says, she has the power to "name her own experience, to create herself":

"Perhaps her greatest unruliness lies in the presentation of herself as author rather than actor or comedian, and indeed as author of a self over which she claims control. 'Roseanne' is a persona she has created for and by herself."

Rowe also looks at unruly women in Hollywood film: the comic performances of Mae West, Katherine Hepburn, Barbara Stanwyck, Marilyn Monroe, and Cher, each of whom presents a different kind of unruliness—in the most interesting instances, parodies of the motifs that have been conventionalized in romantic comedy. Rowe also examines examples of men as unruly women, for example, in Some Like It Hot. "These comedic forms," she says, "hold out the promise of dissolving the barriers between the public and private, work and play, the social and the sexual." They also dissolve the barriers between the conventional and the marginal, and teach us how to laugh at what we often fear the most: the unruliness in ourselves.

For me, Rowe's analysis of Miss Piggy ("Pig Ladies, Big Ladies, and Ladies with Big Mouths") was the most interesting and illuminating, and I learned from her discussion of the carnivalesque. But for Rowe herself, Roseanne remains the most important figure, a "compelling example of the disruptive potential of the unruly woman" whose career and persona illustrate the "political power of women's laughter to 'bring down the house.'" In an afterword that explores the comedian's shifting presentations of body, style, language, and substance, she argues that it is these "metamorphoses" that reinforce Roseanne's "transgressive power." It is Roseanne and women like her who, by making unruly spectacles of themselves, allow us to see ourselves and the conventions that too often rule us. (Recommended for women's studies and culture/gender collections.)


Kathleen Rowe Karlyn teaches at the University of Oregon. Unruly Woman was co-winner of the American Culture/Popular Culture Association's 1996 Emily Toth Award for best single-authored feminist study of popular culture. Karlyn's Unruly Girls, Unrepentant Mothers is forthcoming in 2010 from the University of Texas Press.

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