Where have all the witty women gone?

The other night while watching Amy Poehler and Tina Fey conduct the Golden Globe Awards ceremony, I sat in my living room in flannel pyjamas nursing a cold, yet tittering with barely containable schadenfreude at the way single men in Hollywood were played for laughs by two strong, middle-aged women, whose credentials for hosting the awards was not their ability to bare their silky midriffs but their razor sharp wits. In another era the only reaction to George Clooney dating women much younger and Leonardo Dicaprio consistently accessorizing himself with supermodels would have been envious looks and a nudge nudge, wink wink camaraderie among all men concerned (or unconcerned). But there I sat, observing an alternate being thrown up– a reverse ‘slut shaming’, if you will. Even in the west, this irreverent commentary on long established mores of sexual behavior and the subversion that accompanies it has not been easy to come by, nor has it been quick. Having laws that do not discriminate (the right to vote, equal wages etc.) can sometimes be the easier part to negotiate, fundamentally changing the nature of a gendered society’s thoughts and behavior is much harder. Pop culture can often be both a gauge for observing and a tool for bringing about this change.
Who are Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, you might wonder, and why do they matter to an average Pakistani weighed down by too many pressing problems to care about celebrating some abstract feminist victory thousands of miles away in a culture that has nothing in common with us? Well, they matter in exactly the same way as the Suffragette Movement or Marie Curie or The Second Sex matter to me – as markers of important milestones in the history of women.
Even then the disturbing question remains: where are our Poehlers and Feys? In a globalized world I can revel in the jabs these powerful white women make at powerful white men in an industry defined by power and the perception of it, but what about closer to home? As new channels pop up every day in Pakistan’s rapidly expanding media climate, where are our female role models? – The fun, the smart and the witty with a voice unmistakably their own; changing perceptions and creating new norms while still being able to deliver the common touch. What country is riper than Pakistan for such a figure, or two or three?
There was Bushra Ansari once upon a time who gave MoinAkhtar a run for his money and received equal billing, but Bushra was always Anwar Maqsood’s mouthpiece – a perfect receptacle for the parodies, the mimicry and the political satire that Maqsood poured into her, but never a creator. She only brought his vision to life. In fact, going by Maqsood’s recent spate of stage dramas, his representation of women is just a refined version of the Umar Shareef/Hanif Raja brand of comedy – thinly disguised misogyny in the name of humour.
Social comedy, especially of the irreverent and subversive brand, doesn’t seem to have reached Pakistan yet, if one were to go by a cursory surfing of our interminable television channels. One will chance upon plenty of political irreverence but social life is served solely with a heavy dose of melodrama or an occasional side of slapstick. In a rapidly urbanizing country where divorces and single women are aplenty, not a single television show addresses the pleasures and pitfalls of an independent life.
Granted comedy is a difficult genre; what about news channels? Is it too much to ask for a cerebral, rational, erudite woman on television, funny or not? We have Meher Bukhari who mistakes loud decibel levels for a brain. Ayesha Tammy Haq who has a hard time stringing together two sentences of Urdu without stumbling (a matter of importance in a country where to only be conversant in English is to be limited to a very small circle of people). Huma Amir Shah and Sidra Iqbal on PTV World (again in English) have decent shows, but in the stifling confines of Pakistan’s state run media there is hardly any room for cerebral provocation and refreshing new content. Then there are the inane morning show hosts whose sole aim is to outdo each other in their vapidity. There is also the moral brigade ala Maya Khan and the Samaa TV anchor who barges into people’s houses to expose their private lives. This is the extent of our creative bankruptcy. ’57 channels and nothing on’ said Bruce Springsteen. I feel the same sentiment as I flip through Pakistani channels, almost laughing at my expectation of coming across a Fey or a Poehler.

Sabahat Zakariya is a writer and editor, interested in exploring the intersection between Pakistani pop culture and feminism.


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