It is an unfortunate but persistent truth for women in the entertainment industry that, no matter how bawdy or original they may be, there is always an underlying expectation that they be attractive. They might be “crazy,” but it’s likely in that safe, pretty, Zooey Deschanel way in which you bake cupcakes on a Tuesday morning and bring them to the office to give them out after impromptu salsa lessons. The kind of “crazy” that makes a woman truly different — in that she’s not concerned with what you think about her or whether or not you’d like to fuck her at any given moment — is still not easily swallowed. If she’s self-deprecating in making fun of her looks and personality, she should actually look like Tina Fey, and therefore be in on the joke that she’s “weird and unappealing,” but not really. Wink, wink.
There are, of course, the Rihannas and Katy Perrys of the world who make no pretense to part of their sales package being that they are gorgeous, and constantly presented to the world at their most perfect. Just like Channing Tatum and Co. in Magic Mike, their attractiveness and unattainability is part of their charm. They know they look good, and they know you know it. But for many female comedians and actresses, for whom part of their humor comes from their being an everywoman who is, in fact, not a supermodel, such attractiveness has to be done with the tongue firmly in cheek. To be bold, to make jokes or impressions that contort the face or use bathroom humor, to curse a blue streak, and to get down on their own appearance — these are all amongst the things that make us laugh hardest in comedy, that make us feel intimate in the performer’s ability to let us in fully and hide nothing from the audience. But as with the aforementioned Tina Feys and Zooey Deschanels, the slapstick “aren’t-I-such-a-geeky-weirdo” act is often only TV-ready if it is performed by someone who is, in all reality, very attractive and appealing to men.
But artists like Phyllis Diller (and Joan Rivers, and many female performers in their vein), completely embrace and highlight the things about their bodies or their personalities with make them truly unappealing to men. Everything we were taught that men didn’t approve of in a woman — too much plastic surgery, crazy hair, a foul mouth, caked-on makeup, a loud voice, a cackling laugh — they brought to the forefront of their work and laughed at themselves before anyone could make the joke. Ms. Diller was the first to make a self-deprecating remark about her love life, her wig collection, or any other number of things that girls growing up are taught to scoot under the rug, so as to remain appealing.
Even the age at which she started her career flies in the face of everything we’re supposed to do as women if we want to be embraced by the media. Not really achieving stardom until she was almost in her 40s, Phyllis Diller was living proof that, if the material was good and the performer funny, the very macho world of comedy could still be broken into, even when one is no longer the bright young ingenue. How many aspiring young actresses or comediennes already consider themselves over the hill when in their mid-to-late 20s? And, unfortunately, how much of that fear is justified — even today?
What is one to do when you are a girl who maybe isn’t the looker of the neighborhood but has a sharp tongue and a knack for making people laugh? Where are her heroes? Where are the women who, though not born with movie-star looks, are fully embracing being the funny girl and owning the mockery that men in the board rooms of the TV stations would be quick to hurl at her — and meaning it? It is nothing short of exhausting being given these false examples of what it really means to be a nerdy, awkward, not-beautiful, strange woman. How many shows and movies must we be subjected to in which we are supposed to pretend that the lovely, charming, delightfully quirky lead female is somehow regarded in this fantasy land as being, even for a moment, legitimately unappealing? How is it that everyone can throw up their arms in frustration at Girls using rich, privileged women to portray the problems of the young, working poor, and yet no one cares when a movie tries to pass off Anne Hathaway as the ugly nerd that no guy would look at twice?
Phyllis Diller, who died peacefully in her sleep last night at 95, is so important to every woman who, 50 years ago, might have been referred to as a “broad.” For the girls who are often spurned because they are “crazy” — and not in the good way that Joseph Gordon-Levitt loves — she represented the idea that they could get laughs, too, and not just be the butt of them. She showed that being “unattractive” could be harnessed and used in such a charming, witty, good-natured way that no one even saw her flaws anymore, they only saw a funny woman who was completely confident in herself. I cannot think of a woman I look at and find more beautiful — crazy wigs, thick makeup, plastic surgery and all — because she was honest about herself and did exactly what she wanted, and didn’t give a damn what a man would have preferred her to be.