I snapped today when I read Nikki Finke’s much-talked-about critique of the Emmys, specifically her thoughts on Julie Bowen’s win for Outstanding Actress in a Comedy Series. I’ll put Finke’s entire tirade here to spare you the trouble of clicking through (but if you must, it’s here): “Listen-up, Hollywood: Beautiful actresses are not funny. They don’t know how to do comedy. (As Bowen demonstrated with her acceptance speech that repeated the phrase ‘nipple covers’ 3 dozen times. To zero laughter.) Only women who grew up ugly and stayed ugly, or through plastic surgery became beautiful, can pull off sitcoms or standups. Bowen isn’t a comedienne just like Brooke Shields wasn’t and a zillion more. Because it’s all about emotional pain and humiliation and rising above both by making people laugh with you instead of at you. So stop casting beautiful actresses when you should be giving ugly women a chance. (Tina Fey always points out she looked like a troglodyte when she was younger.) This also applies to handsome men, by the way. Now argue amongst yourselves.”
Finke knew what she was doing; hits for her piece would go up by declaring something so controversial. And she’s already had responses with people ranting about her and posting photos of funny women, talking about what a fool she is. That’s all great and helpful. My response is that I’ve never understood why the funny vs. beautiful dichotomy even exists—and I’m questioning how we created a world in which it does. (Okay, and also that Brooke Shields is hilarious. When I saw her on Friends as the obsessed soap opera fan, I thought, “Yes, Brooke! You went from underwear model to blasé movie actress to Norma Desmond! You will not let people tell you who are!” Only someone who is unwilling to let herself grow would look at Brooke Shields and decide that a woman who used to parade around in her panties for a living can’t decide to start letting her wit do the dazzling…while still looking movie-star perfect.)
Beauty is mesmerizing, transportive; it makes tongues wag and it makes times slow down. Beauty says, “I am here as an object for you to admire,” and while it contains power, it’s a power that turns its owner into an object of projection and fantasy. Comedy is refreshing, jarring, true, smart. Comedy says, “I am powerful, in a way that means I am going to call it like I see it, and sometimes you will feel taken aback.” The ability to deliver a comedic line is a form of confidence that a person has—or doesn’t have. The ability to show up at an event and know that a certain percentage of people will stare at you is a confidence a person has, or doesn’t have. The difference is that beauty, though a quality that dazzles a room, invites people to make up who you are and fill in the blanks; comedy shuts that down. When a beautiful woman demonstrates a sense of humor, it goes one step past showing she’s smart and gets right to, “I’m not just smart, I’m questioning and I’m making observations. I am an active participant, not a shell.”
The idea that a woman can only be funny if she has suffered is an interesting one, for humor can be a sign that someone is able to find happiness at all times, and it is often developed as a survival mechanism for those dealing with hard times. But the implication—and this is not just Finke, it’s the reason she and others have this issue in the first place—is that beautiful people don’t have everyday problems and therefore can only be funny if they’ve suffered the plight of the underdog. What’s particularly disturbing about this implication is that a beautiful, funny person has to keep proving their pain—has to keep apologizing. “I’m still hurting! I’m not just enjoying being funny and beautiful! I hope that makes you feel better about your sucky life and limitations!” Why do we need to know that Tina Fey wasn’t attractive when she was younger? Why did Joan Rivers constantly make fun of her own appearance, then pick relentlessly on gorgeous Liz Taylor when Liz was struggling with her weight, and then resort to frightening plastic surgery? Do we need to see a funny, successful woman apologizing constantly for her wit and success in order to feel that all is right with the world? Must every beautiful funny woman pull out “awkward teenage photos” to prove “but I’m one of you! Really!”
The beautiful vs. funny issue comes down to the recurring problem of women not being allowed to embrace all forms of their power. A beautiful woman, out of politeness, has to pretend she doesn’t notice she is being watched, even though of course she should be aware of it, for reasons ranging from self-protection to understanding why she might receive special treatment, either preferential or jealous. A funny woman proves consistently that she is aware of herself in the world, and is insightful about human behavior and motivation—and when this is combined with prettiness, it leads to a viewer wondering, “Wait, so are you aware that each hair toss drives people wild too? How much of this are you picking up on?”
The division between beauty and humor hasn’t always been as sharp as it is now, and throughout film history there have been women who have shimmied through the cracks. On the late ‘80s/early ‘90s hit Designing Women, a rare woman-focused show where attractive ladies were not trying to cut each other’s throats for men—though they all did date and had some lasting relationships—beauties Dixie Carter and Delta Burke both owned their physical beauty and their comedic strengths. In The House Bunny and Legally Blonde, Anna Faris and Reese Witherspoon, respectively, win our hearts as women who discover that underneath their pretty exteriors they really are smart…and they are hilarious doing so. But the shining era of beautiful, glamorous, hilarious women in film was the 1930s. Myrna Loy, Constance Bennett, Carole Lombard, Jean Harlow, Kay Francis—heck, just watch The Women (the 1939 original, please) and you’ll see why I get so frustrated with how far we’ve regressed from when a film like this allowed each lady to shine.
So what changed? The foundational problem some members of our culture, like Finke, have with funny, pretty women is that they’re just too much of a threat—and in 1939, most women weren’t really seen as threatening in the least. Carole Lombard could be beautiful and hilarious in 1936’s My Man Godfrey because the biggest threat her dizzy socialite character could possibly pose would be selecting the wrong “protégé.” Fifty years later, women had gained in status, income, and independence—so quick, call off the funny ladies! You can see the unimaginative screenwriter’s dilemma: “Wait, she dazzles me and I project my fantasies onto her, but she also sees the world in a way that shows an ability to question everyday behavior and call bulls**t when she sees it. Should I objectify her, or go to her for wisdom? Can’t she make this easier for me?”
I’ve dealt with a rare type of snarky man who can’t laugh at a woman’s joke, and I smell it right off. I see humor as play; I see it as a way to connect, to loosen the atmosphere, and most men respond to this. But there are exceptions. When I was 20, I worked at a food counter in the stock market. All the men were sweet and friendly to me, but there was this one smarmy fellow who would never laugh at my jokes. My delivery is sweet and friendly, and occasionally dry, but I’m never trying to be “one of the guys.” When I delivered the food, I would banter, and the men would banter back, and it was fun. But this one fellow just couldn’t laugh, because I was a cute girl in his age group and therefore my purpose was to be an object he could look at as powerless. He would look at me in the sleaze way, but my jokes were not welcome. One day, I’d had it up to here with him. So when I showed him the day’s menu and he said to me, “Is the fish fresh?” all I could think was, He’s toast. So I put my hand on my hip and said, “Yeah, I shot it this morning.” Dude was so shocked that he burst out laughing, and I walked away thinking, “That’s right. Who’s your daddy now?” But it was only because I was finally saying, “Enough already—you’re going to deal with it,” that I broke him out of his attempt to make me feel that my attempts at showing smarts were unwelcome.
I currently write and star in a web and film series called The Sisters Plotz, featuring Eve Plumb and Lisa Hammer. We style ourselves in a vintage, feminine way with an indulgent dose of camp-glamour. Eve and Lisa are two seriously pretty women. Am I about to tell them to disempower themselves by perhaps wearing less flattering outfits or messing up their hair a little bit because I’m trying to decide if they should be funny or pretty? Maybe we should all make jokes pretending we think we’re fat or we should pick on some part of our face or body, because that will make people love us? Um, no. Right now I want to live the dreams I had when I was growing up. This is the one chance I get to be in the world, and I understand that there will always be acts of cruelty or even just idiocy that I don’t understand. But I want to live in a world where women are allowed to be funny and pretty and smart and free and strong and glamorous all at the same time—or none of these things if they don’t want to be—and I know that there will always be people who just don’t agree that I’m allowed to enjoy this type of privilege. But that’s all right. My red lipstick and I are ready.
Lisa Ferber paints and writes witty character portraits influenced by her fascination with humanity. Her works display an appreciation of the beauty and quirks of human behavior, as well as a compassion for its foibles. Her paintings have shown at National Arts Club, Mayson Gallery and other venues, and sell to private collectors. Her films have screened at the Tribeca Grand and the Bluestocking Film Series, and her film "Whimsellica's Grand Inheritance" won the People's Choice Award at the "It Came From Kuchar" festival. Her plays have been performed at notable theaters such as LaMama, DR2 Lounge/Daryl Roth Theatre, and her play "Bonbons for Breakfast" was a New York magazine "notable production." To learn more about her projects, please visit LisaFerber.com