This again? Really?
Last week, Michael Eisner, Hollywood honcho and former Disney chief executive, appeared on an Aspen Ideas Festival panel with Goldie Hawn. Eisner tried to pay the blonde bombshell a compliment by telling her she was practically one of a kind. Instead, he ended up maligning her entire gender, using a familiar and highly resented trope about women: that we can be easy on the eyes or quick to tickle the funny bone, but almost never both.
“From my position, the hardest artist to find is a beautiful, funny woman,” Eisner said. After acknowledging that saying this would probably land him in hot water, he continued, “In the history of the motion-picture business, the number of beautiful, really beautiful women — a Lucille Ball — that are funny, is impossible to find.”
On the bright side, in a perverse way this statement represents progress. In decades past, the debate was over whether women could be funny, period. According to the late Christopher Hitchens, evolution never taught women to be funny because, “They already appeal to men, if you catch my drift.” Jerry Lewis likewise said he had “trouble” watching a woman do comedy because “I think of her as a producing machine that brings babies in the world.”
At least the premise of Eisner’s remarks is that, sometimes, under the right circumstances, ladies can maybe kinda occasionally crack a joke with some success. We’ve narrowed the comedically challenged subset of the Second Sex to the hot ones.
Like I said: progress!
The idea that there are zero, or nearly zero, drop-dead gorgeous comediennes out there is of course demonstrably false. Consider, in no particular order: Sofia Vergara, Sarah Silverman, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Sandra Bullock, Tina Fey (a total babe who somehow always plays characters presented as unattractive schlubs), Mary Tyler Moore, Jane Fonda, Diane Keaton, Kristen Wiig, Anna Faris, Sutton Foster, Emma Stone, Elizabeth Banks, Ellie Kemper, Anna Kendrick and of course Cameron Diaz , who seems closest to having inherited the Hawn-type of comic female lead.
And that’s just off the top of my head.
Still, to be fair to Eisner, the Hawns and Diazes of the world are indeed, objectively speaking, rare.
There is, after all, only a small share of humankind that is really, really, ridiculously good-looking, to quote a guy who would know. The slice of the population that’s exceptionally hilarious is also very narrow. That’s what makes them, you know, exceptional. The Venn diagram overlap between these two tiny populations is even tinier. It is the truly rare bird, and lucky duck, who is blessed in both dimensions.
But that applies to men as well as women. There are, frankly, not all that many drop-dead handsome men with highly developed comedic chops running around the world. Note that many of the biggest, most bankable male comedy stars — Seth Rogen, Will Ferrell, Adam Sandler, Jonah Hill, Andy Samberg, Ben Stiller, Owen Wilson — trade on being, if not exactly uggos, at least average Joes.
The difference is that there are plenty of comic roles available to those scarce, twice-blessed men, while there are few funny roles at all written for women, of whatever degree of conventional attractiveness.
With few (but growing!) exceptions, the kinds of parts traditionally available to women comprise the doe-eyed ingénue, shiny unattainable trophy, humorless villain or some other straight-(wo)man archetype. Because of both the inertia of Hollywood tropes, and the gender of the creative types who stand behind the scenes drafting dialogue, shaping storylines and coming up with quirky characters, the funnier parts are usually reserved for men.
Eisner, in other words, seems to be confusing supply with demand.
If Eisner really had been hell-bent on casting comic beauties, he was, in his heyday, almost uniquely positioned to locate this supposedly missing talent. Or rather, to create it. He did after all helm Disney during its animation renaissance, when the studio churned out classics such as “The Lion King,” “Aladdin,” “Beauty and the Beast” and “The Little Mermaid.” But even in these beloved animated films, wherein female characters’ appearances could be drawn to any comely specification imaginable, the comic roles were still dominated by dudes. Where, pray tell, was the lady version of Pumbaa? Better yet, where was the hot lady version of Pumbaa?
Even in a universe Eisner controlled, where there were literally no visual constraints on casting, these roles just didn’t exist. And yet, adding insult to injury, Eisner has the gall to complain that the talent pool remains too shallow.
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