Embracing Messy Women: Elle Fanning, Kerry Washington, Gina Rodriguez and Janelle James on How Comedy Lets Characters Be Flawed

What does it mean to be a funny girl?

Actors Elle Fanning (“The Great”), Janelle James (“Abbott Elementary”), Gina Rodriguez (“Not Dead Yet”) and Kerry Washington (“UnPrisoned”) discuss being a woman in comedy at Variety TV FYC Fest’s Disney Women of Comedy panel, moderated by Variety’s Angelique Jackson.

Each TV character they play — whether she’s an empress of Russia, a public school principal, a family therapist or a journalist who talks to the dead — is layered and complicated. Through comedy, these actors have found the freedom to be contradictory, to not have it all together and to be a little messy.

When asked how she trusts her comedy, Rodriguez was frank: “I don’t,” she said. “I just became a mother, so trusting myself is very difficult.” Rodriguez was pregnant for most, if not all, of filming for “Not Dead Yet.” “I thought this was a For Your Consideration for my baby for best performance in utero,” she joked.

“It was really exciting being able to see somebody who is striving and failing and learning from our failures,” Rodriguez said of her character, Nell, in “Not Dead Yet.” “Because that’s all I do. I only learn from my failures.”

To be funny, these women explain, is to be vulnerable and let yourself go – something women don’t always get to do. “Over the three seasons, I’ve just learned to embarrass myself,” Fanning said of her work on “The Great.”

“You don’t always have to be the woman that walks through rooms thinking, ‘I’m strong, and I know everything.’ I don’t relate to women like that. And that’s not the type of role that I want to play,” Fanning said.

In one way or another, this was something that the other women on stage agreed upon.

“One of my favorite comedians is Lucille Ball. She’s unafraid to be flawed,” said Rodriguez.

“I learned very early on that there’s no vanity in comedy,” said Washington.

But James interjected, “Have you met my character?”

James plays Ava on “Abbott,” a female principal at a predominantly Black public school. She’s selfish, controversial, conceited and hilarious — all things that James argues are groundbreaking.

“Ava is a revolutionary character. To bring a Black woman who is not a ‘handled it,’ ‘get it done,’ ‘fix everything’ person and introduce her to people who probably wouldn’t ever see something like that,” James said.

“People think I’ve invented this character,” she continued. “This is a woman I know, that a lot of other Black people know. I’m glad that people are seeing this representation of Black femaleness. That we can be flawed and funny and fabulous.”

Washington echoed this sentiment.

“A decade ago, for a network to take the big risk of making a Black woman No. 1 on a network show, you had to have it handled,” Washington said.

“Whether it was me or Priyanka or Viola, the messy was private because your outward appearance had to be what the world needed you to be as a woman of color,” she said.

At the end of the panel, Rodriguez exemplified what it means to be a vulnerable woman, how humanity and honesty is a beautiful thing to give to a woman on screen. As she shared what it means to play a flawed but strong female character, she began to tear up.

“’I’m most proud of nourishing this baby while doing a television show and being capable of that,” Rodriguez said. “Seeing all the women around me that have done it, gaining strength from them, and knowing that you can do it all, fail and still be okay with that whole journey. Then just looking at your child and saying, ‘Thank you for getting me through this’… that’s what I think I’m most proud of.”

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