Newsflash: Women can be Funny, too!

I try not to get too worked up over stupid stuff I read in the papers….I’m sorry; I shouldn’t lie right at the outset like that. I read the papers specifically to feed my anger. Maybe I’m afraid my bile will get bored if it doesn’t have something to roil and churn over, or that I won’t have anything to brood about when my bedtime bong hit wears off and I wake up at five in the morning. Some things really gripe my ass, including many articles I’ve read recently in The Times, The Independent, and several other publications from which I’d expect greater breadth of comprehension.

BIG NEWS: There are funny women in the world! Actually, the news seems to be about just how funny we can be, because anything more than a middling talent for comedy in a woman is a shock. Even more shocking is the fact that some of today’s comediennes are pretty, as well as funny. Adding to the collective gasp at the display of more than one attribute at a time in a woman–and discussing the trend as something women are finally allowed to inhabit rather than considering that the trend might be one newly foisted on us–is Caitlin Moran, writing in The Times, “It’s not like back in the 20th century, when women could be either funny but essentially unf***able – Joan Rivers, Roseanne Barr, Bette Midler, Lily Tomlin, Jo Brand – or f***able but condemned to a lifetime of speaking other people’s lines – Lucille Ball, Phyllis Diller, Carole Lombard…” Moran cites Sarah Silverman’s and Tina Fey’s recent appearances on the cover of Maxim and Marie Claire respectively as evidence that finally, this heretofore unseen species of female has emerged, one who possesses a talent only men are supposed to have but who didn’t develop it to compensate for her mediocre looks. As is often the case when the media starts discussing “revelations” of this sort, the only real revelation is in yet another example of the disconnect between reality and what the media says is reality. Ask everyone you know whether they have a female friend or relative who is both attractive and funny. I bet every one of them, bored with your question’s inanity, will say yes.
Actually, maybe the real revelation here is the one not being discussed. Maybe, in comedy, as in so many other professions now, it is no longer enough to be talented; the ones who are getting ahead are the ones like Silverman and Fey, who have looks and talent. If Roseanne were starting out today, I doubt she would gain the success she did twenty years ago, because it seems that more and more, talent unaccompanied by good looks will not suffice to help a woman achieve the success of her more “fuckable” competitors. Why, after all, put a fat funny woman on TV when finally there are skinny funny women we can put on instead? The 20th century, to which Moran glibly refers as to a stone age of outmoded unenlightenment, at least spared some of its talents the pressure to be beautiful. And now in our so-modern renaissance of equality and empowerment, we talk about those days when the merely talented could achieve success as dark and unevolved, compared to now, when, unless Maxim wants you in your panties on its cover, you just aren’t “it.” In any case, the successful contemporary comedienne left unmentioned in this and every other article I’ve read on the subject, is Kathy Griffin, who I would argue is as funny if not funnier than the two titanesses making the headlines. Griffin has famously undergone numerous cosmetic surgeries in an attempt, I assume, to validate her talent with the requisite fuckability.

It’s happening in other fields as well. Soprano Deborah Voigt was fired from the Royal Opera four years ago because she couldn’t fit into the cocktail dress designed for its production of Ariadne auf Naxos. Because of her great fame (developed over twenty years of singing in the best international houses, all that time being, by the way, enormously fat), it looked at the time like a first incidence of its sort in an art form known for the great heft of many of its stars. However, young singers new to the profession now will tell you that they not only have to keep the weight off, but they usually dress for auditions in dresses or skirts which show their legs at least up to the knee. They know that they will be considered for parts based as much on their sex appeal as on their vocal artistry. No wonder; I’ve attended a handful of opera productions in London in the past two years and have seen singers in leading roles wearing bikini’s, miniskirts, and merry widows with fishnets. I haven’t heard a lot of unforgettable voices, but I suppose that’s not what one goes to the opera for anymore. Voigt underwent gastric bypass surgery, lost a significant amount of her bulk and returned to the London stage in the same production earlier this year. It’s hard to think of that as a triumph for anyone but the people who fired her in the first place, people who assume their audience wants singers to look like Gwyneth Paltrow, and who, in making decisions like these, are cultivating a new audience who is now learning to judge an artist as much, if not more, by her fuckability as by her art.

And of course there are many examples of this in other arenas as well. A friend of mine argues, “Can you imagine Ella Fitzgerald doing a music video today?… She’d be kicked off the set, and we’d never hear her voice.” I wonder if Zadie Smith would have attained the level of success she enjoys now, if she didn’t possess a formidable beauty in addition to her formidable talent. It’s difficult to tell, since her looks are so often remarked upon alongside praise for her work. Would anyone ever take Anne Coulter seriously in any capacity—publish her silly diatribes or put her on chat shows so she could insult Jews and berate 9-11 widows, if she didn’t have long blonde hair and wear skirts up to her gigi?

To quote Sarah Silverman, “What the cock is that shit?”

No one says, “That Bill Maher is so funny and smart! Too bad about his nose.” Nobody suggests that it’s surprising or somehow novel for a respected journalist like Anderson Cooper to also be a hottie. Nobody in the public sphere discussed the fuckability of George Carlin. People just aren’t as obsessed with mens’ looks as with womens.’ It’s understood and has been for centuries that a man’s worth lies in how well he does his job, not how he looks while he does it. That and how much money he makes. But that’s a different rant altogether.

And so we have journalists writing about this fake new movement, the advent of the funny beautiful woman. Along with this fake movement is the more real movement of the funny successful woman. Much has been made of Tina Fey’s status as the first female head writer on Saturday Night Live. While this says something about the changing status of women in comedy, it doesn’t say everything: left unsaid is the hypocrisy revealed in the Saturday Night Live modus operandi. SNL offers political and cultural satire from a liberal and progressive perspective. For 33 years it’s used humor to reveal and criticize inequality, intolerance, and other ills (in addition to equally relevant fare like “Landshark” and “Massive Headwound Harry”). What does it say about the show and its progressiveness that until Fey assumed the role of first female head writer there, 24 years after the show’s inception, the creative staff had been a notorious “old boys club”? I do not intend to diminute Fey’s success or her struggle to achieve it, but rather to highlight the peculiar backwardness of a cultural institution (as SNL has been called) which, as late as 1999, could still have been referred to as an “old boy’s club.”

It’s not so much that women are evolving. It’s that the worlds in which we work to make a living and a name for ourselves are small-minded and full of fear. It’s that these worlds have a long way to go before they can consider our talents, successes, and failures without embarrassing themselves and us. People act surprised when we display more than one talent at a time, or have bothered to cultivate any talents when we could have just coasted on our looks. Respected and successful thinkers like Christopher Hitchens can write essays about why women aren’t funny based on the fact that we have wombs and are innately prissy, and supports his theory by claiming that when we are funny we’re usually “hefty, dykey, or Jewish,” and still get published in Vanity Fair. People with influence can talk about something you and I and everyone we know already knew as if it’s some cultural break-through, and then pat themselves on the back for recognizing it and being progressive enough to acknowledge it as a good thing.

What the cock, indeed.

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One Response to Newsflash: Women can be Funny, too!

  1. What a great post! For the record, I’m not at all surprised.

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