Women Comedians, Vulnerability, and the Pressure to Have It All

Sady Doyle points out something critical in her latest In These Times column on the power of Bridesmaids and the greatness of Melissa McCarthy:

Critiques of this development are worthwhile. In her Bridesmaids review, critic Michelle Dean points out that “almost every joke was designed to rest on [McCarthy’s] presumed hideousness, and her ribald but unmistakably ‘butch’ sexuality was grounded primarily in her body type.” That’s fair. But it reminded me, in a comparison that would horrify Dean, of Christopher Hitchens’ infamous 2007 essay in Vanity Fair on women and humor, which concluded that men are funny because humor makes them attractive, whereas funny women are… well, read for yourself: “There are some impressive [funny] ladies out there. Most of them, though, when you come to review the situation, are hefty or dykey or Jewish, or some combo of the three.” Obviously, this is offensive. But it left me wondering whether Hitchens had ever actually seen a photo of Rodney Dangerfield, John Belushi, Woody Allen or Patton Oswalt, or, or…

McCarthy is hefty, and yes, part of her performance is a certain blunt pragmatism that could be read as “butch.” She’s also playing a key Apatovian role – Jonah Hill’s role, in fact. She’s a twin sister to Hill’s characters in Superbad and Forgetting Sarah Marshall: aggressive, hypersexual, crude and given the broadest, most popular bits. Hill’s not conventionally sexy, or conventionally well behaved. Neither is McCarthy. They’re comedians; being pretty and nice is not their job.

What makes comedians transgressive, from Lucille Ball to Ken Jeong, is their willingness to look bad in public. Women have never been encouraged to cultivate this fearlessness. There are exceptions – Ball or Joan Rivers come to mind – but they tend to prove the rule. Lady Loser Comedy opens up the game. Women who have the profane deadpan of McCarthy, or the cool prickliness of Fey or the off-rhythm intensity of Wiig: They’re not excluded any more. They embarrass themselves, they’re completely inappropriate, and that’s fine; it’s comedy.

The interesting question, though, is whether comedians like McCarthy and Fey can get entire careers at the level they’d like to have out of playing obscene, or sloppy, or unapproachable, or emotionally unstable. Fey, after all, went through a very deliberate transformation, involving losing a bunch of weight and rebranding herself as glamorous, as part of her move in front of the camera, and her movie career’s involved playing her sex appeal to the edge of its capacity. McCarthy won her Emmy for a role that posited her as conventional-but-heavy object of romantic attention, and the branding around her since has played her up as an unconventional beauty queen. Sarah Silverman is an interesting counterpoint: she’s built her brand on a combination of immaturity and sexual unease, but she’s pitching a network show based on her breakup with Jimmy Kimmel that will have her in a more conventional role.

When Seth Rogen started losing weight and taking on different kinds of roles, the sense seemed to be that it wasn’t actually a necessary transition, that he could carry the amiable schlub thing as far as he cared to. Could a woman do the same thing? Or is this just another realm where women have a sense that they have to try to have it all, and as a result, aren’t quite as good at either plumbing disgust and embarrassment or embodying the highest standards of glamour?