Sunday 25 February 2018

Funny girls

Hollywood wants its female comics to be hilarious AND sexy

Girl power: Comedians like Amy Schumer are impervious to the male gaze
Girl power: Comedians like Amy Schumer are impervious to the male gaze

Suzanne Harrington

'From my position, the hardest artist to find is a beautiful funny woman. By far. Usually, unbelievably beautiful women are not funny."

This is what Michael Eisner, the former Disney CEO, told Goldie Hawn during an on-stage conversation at the Aspen Ideas Festival. Eisner was complimenting Hawn on being the exception to the rule - both beautiful and funny. Not since Lucille Ball, he said, has there been a "really beautiful woman" in movies who is also funny.

Once your brain gets past the how-very-dare-yous, you tend to scramble around for examples to splutter, and wonder what the man is talking about. The entertainment world is full of gorgeous funny women. To what standards does Hollywood judge female beauty? The short answer is "impossible".

Look no further than the Amy Schumer sketch, Last F**kable Day, with Tina Fey, Patricia Arquette and Julia Louis-Dreyfus. I defy you not to cry with laughter, even at a subject as enraging as ageism and sexism amongst the entertainment industry's funniest and most gorgeous.

Are male comedians required to be anything other than funny? Do they need to pass a hotness test as well before they are allowed to make us laugh? If so, nobody told Woody Allen, Billy Crystal, Groucho Marx, Ricky Gervais, Adam Sandler, Seth Rogan ... I could go on.

They are many, none are beautiful, and because they are not women, we don't seem to mind.

Perhaps Eisner's statement would have been less contentious had he substituted the word "woman" for "person". Is Brad Pitt any more hilarious than Angelina Jolie? Of course not. Neither of them have to do much, other than remain upright and keep breathing - their looks do the rest. No humour required.

Not that you have to be famous for beauty to render humour unnecessary. I once spent the summer hanging out with a couple who worked as models. It was an eye-opener - and a door opener, and a meal ticket (not that they ate), and free entry to every club in town. All based on their symmetrical faces and elongated bodies.

What was most extraordinary was how boring it was. Their personalities had atrophied at puberty, because they had never had to use them; their beauty did all the talking. They just smiled and glided, buoyed by constant approval.

So do women use humour when they are not judged to be car-stoppingly beautiful? Men have always done this, but what about women? In 2007, the late Christopher Hitchins, in a Vanity Fair article, took a detour into stupidity when he wrote that female comedians were either "hefty or dykey or Jewish or a combo of all three", suggesting that humour is almost an evolutionary strategy as a substitute for looks in our endless quest to get into each other's pants.

Again, Hitchins was adhering to a prescriptive version of female beauty - thin and feminine.

Amy Schumer would probably not pass the Eisner test: "I want to throw my hands up in the air after reading a mean Twitter comment and say, 'You got it. You figured me out. I'm not pretty. I'm not thin. I do not deserve to use my voice….all my self worth is based on what you can see'. And then I think, f**k that... I say if I am beautiful. I say if I am strong. You will not determine my story - I will."

Schumer is on the cover of August's edition of GQ magazine wearing Princess Leia's bikini and sucking C3P0's gold robot finger.

Like her fellow American comedians, she is entirely alpha, vibrating with power and aspiration, and prone to statements like this: "I am not who I sleep with. I am not my weight. I am not my mother. I am myself."

And my favourite: "Don't feel bad for me. I think I'm, like, so pretty."

Like Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, she owns the room.

British comedians, on the other hand, tend to revel in dysfunction rather than aspiration - think Miranda Hart or Sarah Millican. Jo Brand probably epitomised 'female comedian' to Christopher Hitchins, but tampon jokes were still something of a novelty when she began her career 20 years ago.

Yet even in British comedy, female self-deprecation is moving aside for female assertion - this new power is epitomised by fearless force of nature Jayde Adams, last year's winner of the Funny Women Awards.

Hitchins' idea that women who do not conform to the beauty ideal use comedy to attract men assumes that men and women are the same when it comes to humour.

Or at least, that we have the same cultural conditioning in terms of being funny. We don't. There's a reason the class clown is always male. While women's ultimate fear of men is that they will kill us, men's ultimate fear of women is that we will laugh at them. That's at them, not at their jokes.

A 2006 study published in Evolution and Human Behaviour showed that men like to be the humour producers, and like women to be the humour appreciators. Men tell the jokes, and prefer women to laugh at the jokes.

Almost any male dominated stand-up comedy bill will confirm this imbalance. Conversely, the research suggested that men are intimidated by funny women. That they are a turn-off. Can this really be true?

Within the socio-sexual minefield of online dating, when men say they want a woman with a GSOH, they generally mean they want a good-looking woman who will readily fall about laughing when he cracks another brilliant joke. It does not mean he would like a woman who is funnier than him, one who uses humour like a light saber or a scalpel.

That frightens him. While we have mostly moved on from men being scared of success and intelligence in an opposite-sex partner, there still lingers the faintest whiff of fear around a funny woman. Out-funnying the chaps remains, in some circles, a bit unladylike. A bit off-putting. A bit one-of-the-lads.

Eisner suggested that Goldie Hawn was very funny because she didn't realise how beautiful she was. That being unaware of her own looks made her more comedic, less likely to sit back and let her appearance do all the work. But what about when obviously beautiful actresses play comedy roles? The ravishing Cameron Diaz has appeared in Farrelly brothers comedies - was she not funny enough or hot enough?

Since forever, shame has been used as a weapon against women to shut them up and keep them down; those who refused to be shamed were ridiculed or excluded or both. These days, funny women like Amy Schumer, Amy Poehler, Tina Fey, Sarah Silverman, Megan Amram, and Lena Dunham are blazing a trail of guts, laughs and feminism, largely because they are both shameless and unshameable.

All along, the rule for women has been that being too funny wasn't sexy, and being too sexy wasn't funny, and you had to choose. Female American comedians are now straddling that divide, and taking back their power.

Good-looking female comedians still have to endure heckles along the lines of "shut up and show us your tits", but it would be a brave heckler indeed to take on a female comic of the new generation. A very brave heckler indeed.

The Amy Schumers and Poehlers of the entertainment industry - who continue to inspire a rash of female comedy in their wake - are impervious both to the male gaze and to the rules of patriarchy. Or as Poehler, responding to a male writing colleague who told her one of her jokes was not "cute" and that he did not like it, told him with considerable disdain: "I don't f**king care if you like it."

This has since become a catchphrase, a T-shirt slogan, and an ingrained response. Someone should tell Michael Eisner.

Irish Independent

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