Friday, August 24th, 2012

Let's Pick Apart This God-Awful Article About How Pretty Women Can't Be Successful Comedians

Oh, Jesus. If you'd prefer to avoid getting angry at your computer screen, do not read Ashley Fetters' new piece for The Atlantic, Why Do So Many Pretty Female Comedians Pretend They're Ugly?. It makes the argument that, in general, women cannot be funny while also being pretty — that pretty female comedians must ugly themselves up in order to get people, specifically males, to laugh at them. Pegged to the death of Phyllis Diller, here's the main argument:

Diller's reign as the frumpish, clumsy queen of the underbrag was groundbreaking on many levels. She did, after all, prove that women with bad hair, bad cooking, and loud mouths could be America's sweethearts, too. She was an iconoclast, a refreshing antidote to the June Cleavers and Harriet Nelsons that had been dominating pop culture in the years prior. But Diller's trademark brand of hapless, self-deprecating, ugly-girl humor was based an invented set of shortcomings she didn't actually have. Which highlights a weird glitch in the system that still plagues women in comedy today: Why can't funny women be hot? Or accomplished? Or smart? Why do so many women with these otherwise highly valued traits have to downplay them to get laughs?

There are echoes of Christopher Hitchens' infamous article about how women aren't funny in its justification for this theory. For example:

Robert Lynch, a cultural anthropologist from Rutgers University and a part-time stand-up, agrees: "Maybe women have to go overboard with the self-deprecation because comedy can be an alpha thing," he says–the alpha being the class clown, the attention-grabber, the presence dominating the room. "Women alphas in general tend to be disliked. They can sometimes be distrusted, I think. And they're not sought after."

"The female stand-ups I know," he admits, "they don't get a lot of dates out of it."

You must get a lot of dates, Robert! You sound like a fucking keeper. I'm sure all of your part-time female peers keep you 100% informed on their dating lives, so your generalization here is certainly usable as concrete evidence to this half-assed theory.

One of the biggest problems with the piece, beyond its basic premise being completely flawed, is that the author seems to know very little about contemporary comedy. The whole thing is pegged to the death of Diller, and the main example used throughout is Tina Fey's Liz Lemon. But has Fetters watched any other comedies on TV besides 30 Rock? The women in, say, Community and Parks and Rec do nothing to play down their beauty, and are incredibly funny despite (?) this fact. After a season of TV in which it seemed that female leads in comedies were becoming the norm, it's amazing that someone could actually make the argument that funny women are all trying to look ugly, and that pretty women can't find success in comedy. The biggest new hit comedy of the season was New Girl, and you'd be hard-pressed to find someone to argue that Zooey Deschanel was trying to look ugly in that. Or Kat Dennings and Beth Behrs were in 2 Broke Girls. Or Whitney Cummings was in Whitney. Or Sophia Vergara and Julie Bowen were in Modern Family. And so on — I could easily list over a dozen of other beautiful, funny women in comedies on network TV. Hell, she uses the example of Kristen Wiig in Bridesmaids as a beautiful women who made herself ugly in order to get laughs. Did we watch the same movie? She made herself look unhinged and desperate in order to get laughs, but she looked just as pretty as she does in everything else she does. Maybe not as Gilly. But in Bridesmaids? Give me a break.

To view success in comedy only through a sexualized male gaze is poison. Women don't do comedy in order to secure a potential mate, and to look at comedy through that lens is insulting and not a little bit ignorant. This is the sort of piece that would never in a million years be written about male comedians or how they look, and the super-flimsy pegging to a comedian whose heyday was 40 years ago with a single piece of not-great contemporary evidence (Tina Fey "trying to look ugly" as Liz Lemon is still pretty damned attractive) shows just how many straws you have to grasp at to attempt to make being a pretty woman in comedy a liability. It's a blatant example of starting with a theory and then searching for evidence that'll fit in and support it.

Comedy is about doing silly things to get laughs, and how attractive you are is not usually a major part of that. No male comedians are out there attempting to look like stable, datable hunks in order to get laughs. Some are very attractive and get laughs from being silly, such as Rob Lowe or Joel McHale. Some are less attractive and also get laughs from being silly. Sometimes they play up or down their looks for laughs. Sometimes they don't, as how they look doesn't have anything to do with their work. Women are exactly the same! They all do things unique to them in order to be funny. Playing a weird or silly character in order to get laughs is not specific to one gender.

When you bring in this pseudo-science horseshit about evolution and how men can't respect pretty, funny women, you're ignoring the mountains and mountains of evidence to the contrary. At the end of the day, there are all sorts of women doing comedy, and they all look different. And it doesn't really fucking matter what they look like as long as they're making people laugh.

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  • http://twitter.com/jessmstephens Jessica Stephens

    My prediction is that commenters are overwhelmingly going to talk about how much they agree with Adam, save a few wayward butthurt (it's time non-assholes took over that word) misogynists. I'm just going to go ahead and establish myself as one of the former.

    Also, figure out your life, Atlantic. This is not an isolated case of sexist dumbassery.

  • mhight

    i read it more as examining why some of these female comedians deliberately desexualized themselves as a part of their act. even chelsea handler has said that when she started out she was careful to never wear anything "sexy" on stage etc in order to be taken seriously. the disconnect in the atlantic piece seems to be her attempt to apply the theory across the board to all women in comedy (which doesn't work of course bc hardly anything applies to all women, including whether or not they are funny)

  • http://twitter.com/ComedyGroupie Comedy Groupie

    Awesome point about "To view success in comedy only through a sexualized male gaze is poison. Women don't do comedy in order to secure a potential mate, and to look at comedy through that lens is insulting and not a little bit ignorant."

  • Martin

    I actually thought this was a well-written article with an interesting thesis

  • Joshua Ungerleider

    I don't think it has as much to do with looks, but part of what Robert Lynch says I think is partially true, about the alpha thing. I don't think a female will be as successful being a dick, like Daniel Tosh is on his show. Maybe its like how you don't make fun of the less fortunate. As in, fat comics making fun of skinny people is fine, but thin comics making fun of fat people can come off mean (and rich people making fun of poor people, etc.). Not saying its true, but perhaps people don't view pretty women as less fortunate. Basically, Kristen Wiig can pull of the same act as Lisa Lampinelli.

    • http://www.facebook.com/rampbellingman Ryan Campbell

      Sarah Silverman?

      • Joshua Ungerleider

        Good point, I should say it would be harder for a pretty woman to pull off Lisa Lampenilli's act, but not impossible.
        Though, I do think Silverman does a better job at "talking about offensive things" as opposed to "being offensive" as Tosh and Lampinelli are.

  • lookimadeahat

    As soon as I saw this article, I wondered if Splitsider would respond. Thank you for your thoughts! I especially agreed with your point that "sometimes they [men] play up or down their looks for laughs. Sometimes they don't, as how they look doesn't have anything to do with their work. Women are exactly the same!" I wrote a post to that effect on tumblr earlier today: http://lookimadeahat.tumblr.com/post/30130447218/your-job-isnt-to-be-attractive

  • akivaddict

    This article is flawed; if for no other reason than it hastily
    overlooks its counter argument — It’s
    harder to be accepted as a female comedian if you are not pretty. (Don’t know if I agree with this line of
    thinking- but it is out there).

    There was an article posted in a major comedy newsite (maybe
    the Comic’s Comic, not sure?) a few years ago (which I cannot find now [this Fetters
    bitch probably has a gun to Google’s head right now]), which outlined a theory
    involving former cast members of SNL and how there seemed to be more male “Farley-looking”(sic)
    members than female. It basically theorized
    that overweight and/or homely men have their place as unfortunate goofs in
    comedy and are welcomed by a sympathetic audience, but that SNL specifically
    would never hire a female who appears unattractive if she couldn’t also play
    someone’s hot date in the next scene.

    (SNL’s own female writer, Sarah
    Schneider, starred in this [not on point, but you get the idea] sketch called “In
    an Apatow World”. http://www.collegehumor.com/video/4004939/in-an-apatow-world)

    Comediennes have been placing statements into the public for
    years, lamenting the plight of the non-sexy female comedian and their struggle
    for acceptance by the comedy audience. I
    am not saying I agree with this argument, but whether they are correct or incorrect
    is not the point- the fact that this widely held belief exists and was not tackled
    in this article is a shame.

    (I *will* say… Hail, hail to Gina Barreca. I [usually] love her so much.)

    • colleen7

      Tina Fey tells in her auto biography that had to lose 30 pounds before anyone at SNL would even contemplate her getting a part in the show other than an extra. That is definitely NOT a problem Farley or Belushi ever had. I think it is more an example of the modern attitude of no ugly women on TV, even the funny ones. It used to be only pretty women on TV, except for the funny ones- Maude, Diller, Kiss my Grits Flo from Alice for example.
      Got to say, not impressed with the "Fetter's Bitch" comment when your trying to argue about women being taken seriously.

  • Dave Madden

    I think this post is more hung up on looks than Fetters at least intends to be. Fetters is saying that women are stuck reckoning their sexuality to make it in comedy while men are free to ignore it, and that historically audiences have liked funny women when their sexuality is either undermined (Diller, Fey) or exaggerated and cartoonish (Lampanelli, Tenuta)—which cartoonishness is just another kind of ugliness. (The same, it's worth saying, has gone for gay men in comedy.)

    Straight men, as long as they weren't overweight (but even then…), have had the luxury of ignoring their bodies. Seinfeld, Rock, Pryor, Carlin never had much to say about how they looked or what kind of sex they happened to like. Although this might be changing. Louis CK, heir to a lot of these guys' work, does address his inherent grossness as an old, hairy, overweight man who sweats while having sex. And it might be changing for women, too. Amy Schumer's whole act is about how she just sorta really likes sex without (much) embarrassment or hangups.

    She's not so new. Rudner, Liebman, Bamford. Many women have made standup careers without doing much in one way or another about their sexuality. What Fetters doesn't point to but what's worth pointing out is that these women haven't broken through to Fey/Diller/Wiig levels of fame. Maybe this kind of dutiful sexual reckoning we're talking about has nothing to do with it. But when Mindy Kaling writes about the ways movie comedies narratively maim their female leads (http://www.newyorker.com/humor/2011/10/03/111003sh_shouts_kaling) you know we've still got a problem no amount of sunny "Being pretty's not a comic liability" defenses are going to do away with.

    • Dave Madden

      It occurs to me (or, well, it occurred first to John Limon [http://www.amazon.com/Stand-up-Comedy-Abjection-America-Americanists/dp/0822325462]) that Elaine May is a complex counterexample to all this.

      • akivaddict

        Oooo… very true!

  • http://twitter.com/henrybaum Henry Baum

    Romantic comedy is a different genre – so many of your examples don't fit (New Girl). Katherine Heigl also doesn't dress down. I'm not saying I agree with the Atlantic, but there's a difference between being in a comedy and being a comic – which has at its core being brutally honest and showing the uglier parts of yourself (see Louis CK, or Sarah Silverman, who pulls it off).

    • colleen7

      Excellent point. Even in Community Britta and Annie are more often joke adjacent, not making the joke. Britta in particular is comedic because she is so desperately strident in her empathy, do gooder-ism and political correctness that she is seriously mocked by everyone.
      Sarah Silverman totally follows Fetter's example of a woman who dresses down and minimizes any female attributes, from her ponytail, hoodies, no make up she does everything she can to be "one of the guys" onstage.

  • http://ok-cleek.com/blogs cleek

    Sarah Silverman is pretty good looking.
    And Christina Applegate is gorgeous.

    from the days of yore: Elizabeth Montgomery, Lucille Ball, Barbara Eden: all good looking. Ginger, Mary Anne, too.

  • http://mattpayton.tumblr.com MattPayton

    "I think if a comedian's too good looking…I really cannot believe they're going to be any good. This is for us; this is our consolation prize."

    - Conan O'Brien


  • shanice

    all the lines for funny women in those shows are written by men