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.”
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: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.