You may be dimly aware of the fact that Chelsea Handler is riding high in the American television ratings and bestseller lists right now. A dirty blonde with a dirtier mouth, her impact has exploded in America. She's been crowned "the queen of filth" and her influence over the water is so complete that she's nearing cultural ubiquity.
There's the four best-selling books, including My Horizontal Life: A Collection of One Night Stands, and Are You There, Vodka? It's Me, Chelsea. There's the chat show on cable, Chelsea Lately, which recently made headlines over here as it was the platform on which the normally glacial Gwyneth Paltrow chose to declare her grandmother a word unsuitable for publication (to save on asterisks, here's a coy hint: it starts with C and rhymes with hunt).
And most recently she has helped promote a hit film, Bridesmaids, which is topping the box office Stateside, thanks to its girls-on-tour take on the gross-out genre.
Handler's shtick, and her immense success, has been built on her willingness to play on, and even bulldoze through, the societal expectation of decorum that extend to women but not to men. She drives with a sledgehammer force through supposed models of femininity. In one skit, she declared that babies are "assholes" (though this line is in fact borrowed from Sex And The City) and jokes about her three abortions.
"We certainly had some real debates about whether we were drifting into territory we should leave to the men," admits Judd Apatow, the man behind Knocked Up and The 40 Year old Virgin and the producer on Bridesmaids.
The age-old trope that women couldn't be funny while also being attractive stemmed from the conceit that a particular kind of composure was at the root of female sexual allure.
It's exactly this notion that Chelsea has set out to skewer. She's a former Playboy pin-up, who aspired originally to follow the more conventional dream of the good-looking blonde into acting before she realised that combining her hotness with crude humour could win her an awful lot more attention than through being a beautiful cipher for other people's words.
Now, I'm all for a well placed expletive at the right moment and in the right context. Sometimes, nothing is quite as expressive as the humble curse. But the basis of Handler's whole appeal seems to be of a locker-room, keeping-up-with-the-boys, repetitive kind.
With her substantial popularity and collection of celebrity followers (Gwyneth Paltrow is just one among many), Handler is credited with having launched some new kind of liberation for women.
As if her willingness to let rip has given girls the permission to break out of the restrictive skin of femininity and unleash their inner 14-year-old boy. This would be a little bit more convincing if her own brand of comedy didn't so decidedly appeal to men. There's an unmistakable undertone of titillation as this sizzling 35-year-old gives ribald commentary on her drunken one-night stands and teenage addiction to masturbation.
Sure, these are both potentially rich comic veins but Handler's approach to them and the dependence on shock rather than insight and observation as the source of the joke seems like the humour equivalent of two straight girls kissing at a party, that is something that's only meaningful or moving for the females involved to the degree to which it allows them to win the attention of the males.
It's not surprising then, that the key butt of Handler's joke (when she's not mining with alacrity the conditions of her own personal life) are other women. When doing this she plays neatly into sexist stereotypes -- Paris Hilton is called stupid, she makes cracks about Kirstie Alley's weight. Lindsay Lohan and Angelina Jolie have both been the subject of her snark.
Comedy is notoriously rough on women. But Chelsea Handler's brand of it isn't a breakthrough because she doesn't broach it on her own terms. Considered a success because she engages with the status quo rather than breaking it, she reinforces the idea that women can only do comedy if they do it like men.
It's interesting to note that Judd Apatow, whose credit on the film Bridesmaids is officially as producer, is the mind who penned many of those gross-out lines.
This isn't a triumph for female comedy while it's so derivative. If Chelsea Handler wants to beat funnymen at their own game, she might start by giving up trying to copy them.