From Tina Fey to Amy Schumer: Are female comics the new policy entrepreneurs?

Closeup on young woman singing with microphone
  • Published Date: 02 October 2019

The last decade has seen ongoing issues of gender inequity as well as arguably the golden age of female comics. From Tina Fey and Amy Poehler to Amy Schumer, what can these female comics teach us about policy making and entrepreneurship?

At a glance

In a paper for the Australian Journal of Public Administration, Christopher Pepin-Neff (University of Sydney) and Kristin Caporale (Assumption College) discuss policy entrepreneurship and the way female comics use their comedy to define problems and solutions.

The impact of individual actors on policy making has been a long-standing issue especially when considering why one type of actor, rather than another, influences the policy process. Female comics can serve as policy entrepreneurs in public administration by:

  • using their identity to locate themselves as relevant actors
  • attaching solutions to problems
  • biasing political outcomes
  • benefiting from their engagement
  • influencing the broader public.

The paper won the 2019 Sam Richardson Award for the most influential paper published in the 2018 volume of the Australian Journal of Public Administration.

Who are policy entrepreneurs?

The academic literature defines policy entrepreneurs as advocates who are willing to invest their resources – time, energy, reputation, money – to promote a position in return for anticipated future gain. They can hold formal or informal positions and can include politicians, bureaucrats and community advocates.

Policy entrepreneurs seek to define new issues and redefine old issues to influence the policy making process. The following elements are critical to their success:

  • innovation
  • expertise
  • coalition building
  • patience and resilience
  • a strong defence of the idea after adoption.

Five attributes of policy entrepreneurship

Five essential traits for policy entrepreneurship are proposed:

  • serving as a relevant actor
  • attaching their solution to a problem
  • biasing political
  • gaining something from their engagement
  • changing the emotional habitus of sociopolitical structures.

The failure to have any one of these would result in advocacy rather than entrepreneurship.

1. Entrepreneurship requires being seen as a relevant actor by other decision makers

There needs to be a reason why people should listen to the entrepreneur. This includes making a claim of legitimacy on an issue by virtue or credibility, authenticity or responsibility.

Policy entrepreneurs gain power and legitimacy from comedy as a trusted social institution. Females are contributing narratives about women’s bodies, mental health, domestic violence and sexuality that would not be changing national discourses if women had not used their art and voice to change the emotional structure of society.

Female comics’ lives represent different places in an intersectional hierarchy of identity. They operate and influence the public and policy in unique ways from this position. Policy entrepreneurship by female comics translates their experiences into public knowledge through satire, critique, and disruptions in the understanding of a norm or a system of power.

Female comics have become policy entrepreneurs as comedy has become a public interest institution that maintains popular confidence. In 2016, the Pew Research Center reported U.S. adults are likely to learn about the presidential election from:

  • an issue-based group’s website, app, or email (23%)
  • late night comedy shows (25%)
  • a national print newspaper (23%).

2. Entrepreneurship can be seen in the way solutions are attached to problems

The role of problem conditions is important as a problem captures the attention. Entrepreneurs can attempt to attach solutions by:

  • generating problems that need solving
  • taking advantage of focusing events
  • exploiting policy failures.

Being alert to opportunity is a key attribute to the success of entrepreneurs. This skill allows them not only to recognise approaching policy windows but to maximise them while open.

3. Entrepreneurship is reflected in the management of political outcomes

Policy entrepreneurship includes influencing political and emotional outcomes. The impact of this entrepreneurship has the capacity to change the perceptions of issues based on an interaction between the stage, the style, the viral nature of the sketch, the audience and the topic.

For example, Tina Fey’s impersonation of Sarah Palin during the 2008 Presidential Primary on Saturday Night Live was perceived to have had a negative impact on Palin’s favourability ratings and subsequently caused a decline in the Republican presidential ticket. Similarly, Melissa McCarthy’s version of then White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer created political pressure on the current administration given her aggressive, anti-media portrayal.

Entrepreneurship requires having the capacity to access decision makers for their issue, either because:

  • they are the decision maker
  • have the confidence of the decision maker
  • have access to allies and networks that influence the decision maker.

Access is often a function of skill. The ability to broker decisions requires an understanding of the policy process, including actors and systems.

4. Entrepreneurs benefit from their engagement

The way policy actors benefit from their actions is a defining feature of entrepreneurship. The type of benefit sought is related to a range of motivations. These can include:

  • a straightforward concern about issues
  • self-serving benefits such as protecting or expanding budgets
  • promoting policy values.

5. Emotional habitus, policy entrepreneurship and female comics

Habitus is defined as the socially developed capacity to act appropriately. Change in the emotional habitus around an issue can alter the arrangement of feelings within society, political institutions, and policy making for that issue. Public policy and policy implementation plays a key role in challenging how groups are viewed and which emotional rules apply.

Tina Fey and Amy Poehler shifted the emotional habitus around Bill Cosby’s sexual assault allegations in their Golden Globes monologue when they hosted the awards in 2015. An Amy Schumer sketch pointedly addressed the problem of sexual violence against women in the military. These are examples of comics as policy entrepreneurs, using comedy to make a serious issue accessible and relatable regardless of gender.

What it means

Female comics who disrupt emotional, social, and political patterns of behaviour through comedy that draws attention, to an issue can be viewed as policy entrepreneurs in public policy and public administration.

The demonstrate the attributes necessary for policy entrepreneurship: using their identity to locate themselves as relevant actors; attaching solutions to problems; biasing political outcomes; benefiting from their engagement; and introducing narratives that change the emotional habitus of an audience and influence the broader public.

Want to read more?

Funny evidence: Female comics are the new policy entrepreneurs – Christopher Pepin-Neff and Kristin Caporale, Australian Journal of Public Administration, vol. 77, no. 4

This research brief originally appeared in The Mandarin as part of The Mandarin and ANZSOG's ongoing special Research Series and featured in The Drop – ANZSOG and the Mandarin’s research newsletter. Sign up to receive The Drop.