Last week at the Aspen Ideas Festival, Michael Eisner stirred up controversy during his on-stage conversation with actress Goldie Hawn, a friend and former colleague of his. The Atlantic’s Spencer Kornhaber reported the remarks:
“From my position, the hardest artist to find is a beautiful, funny woman,” [Eisner] said. “By far. They usually—boy am I going to get in trouble, I know this goes online—but usually, unbelievably beautiful women, you [Goldie Hawn] being an exception, are not funny. […] 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.
Below you can listen to the full remarks and the context leading up them:
Eisner emailed a response to Spencer’s piece:
In the context of a public conversation with Goldie Hawn in which I was complimenting her on being both beautiful and funny, I said such a combination is hard to come by in Hollywood. I certainly did not say Goldie was the only one. My point was simply that Goldie, unlike many, has not been defined exclusively as one or the other.
Influencers and decision-makers who share the views that Eisner was stupid enough to say out loud actually decide whether or not I work, my career and sometimes my personal fate. People who share his views, and all the other men who think the things about women that he is expressing verbally, should simply be subjected to a panel of women — women of my choosing — who decide his career fate and legacy based on his physical appearance.
The panel might include Amy Schumer, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Tina Fey, and Patricia Arquette:
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?
Indeed, in this list of “Disney's 10 Funniest Comic Relief Characters,” the only female one is Vanellope von Schweetz in Wreck-It Ralph. The writer openly wonders, “Why are so few comic sidekicks female?”
Regarding Eisner’s remarks, Atlantic readers had a discussion in the comments section that was more nuanced and substantive than the public debate. Here’s SAlfin:
I could list lots of funny, beautiful women: Diane Keaton, Jane Fonda, Sofia Vergara, her co-star Julie Bowen, Jane Curtain, Kaley Cuoco, Mary Tyler Moore, Cybill Shepherd, Jane Krakowski, Debra Messing, Megan Mullally, Julia Louis-Dreyfuss—heck, I could do this all day. The issue isn’t “beauty cancels out funny.” The issue is that Hollywood has made roles for women one-dimensional so the ingenue can’t be funny; she just has to look pretty.
Truth is, roles for women in general in movies and TV have always been handicapped by the fact that most writers are men, most directors are men and most film executives are men. The reason a lot of men were even attracted to film in the first place was to hook up with sexy girls by occupying a power position in an industry notorious for exploitation.
But many of our readers didn’t find the remarks especially offensive or simply gave Eisner the benefit of the doubt. Here’s Paxmelanoleuca:
Eisner’s observation wasn’t totally unreasonable, although you don’t see many smoking hot male comedians either. A lot of comedy comes from awkwardness and discomfort that people experience as part of their feelings of not meeting society’s unwritten expectations, socially or physically. Maybe it’s an experience that beautiful people don’t have that often.
Attention is a fairly basic need while growing up, so it stands to reason that physically attractive people (male or female) aren’t generally going to feel the need to strive in areas other than “being attractive,” since that gets the job done.
It seems clear that struggling with adversity is one way to become a great comic, and being a funny-looking guy is one way, but being a woman (beautiful or funny-looking) can provide you with a good deal of adversity.
In the counterfactual, Eisner would be having the conversation with a very handsome comic actor, someone like George Clooney. And probably the same problem would be there because not many people are that good looking and not many people are that funny in general, so it is a rare combination.
Duncan Tweedy discusses how male comedians often downplay their looks for comedic cred:
When Louis C.K. portrays himself as a young man, he invariably describes a younger version of the way he looks now, i.e. sorta fat and pudgy and kind of ugly. He apparently doesn’t want to admit that when he was a young man doing stand-up, he was a generally handsome and physically fit guy. There's plenty of footage from those days to confirm this.
If Louis C.K. was still a good-looking guy, would half his material connect nearly so effectively? I think not. Losing his good looks was a fantastic boon to his career.
Self-deprecating humor just doesn’t connect as well when it comes from a beautiful person. And as difficult as it might be for an audience to sympathize with a good-looking man, that difficulty will be an order of magnitude worse for a woman. An “unbelievably beautiful woman”* does not elicit the same extreme reactions as a beautiful man (outside a gay bar anyway). People will trip over themselves to offer beautiful women all sorts of advantages—nor are all these reactions beneficial, as Hawn’s Al Capp story illustrates. [Listen to that disturbing story here, retold by Hawn to Eisner at the A.I.F.] People both revere and resent beauty, and that undercuts opportunities for comedy.
I don’t think Eisner should be excoriated for this comment. He wasn't saying women aren’t funny, which is a stupid and indefensible argument. He was merely noticing that “unbelievable” physical beauty makes being a successful female comedian much more difficult. I think there’s plenty of evidence for this.
* Some complicating factors bear taking a closer look at. I think Amy Poehler and Kristen Wiig are “unbelievably beautiful” (see also Lucille Ball). However, if you compare them to A-list female movie stars, you see that there’s a difference, if not in quantity of beauty, certainly in quality. I’m laughing just remembering the dopey faces Poehler and Wiig (and Ball) use to great comedic effect. Anne Hathaway or Jennifer Lawrence, great actresses though they are, just couldn’t pull that off. Most of what makes an A-list actress beautiful is very similar to a top model’s beauty. Most of what makes Poehler, Wiig, and Ball beautiful is in the twinkle of their eyes and the funny expressions they make.
Herein lies the confusing convergence: In a very real way, funny is beautiful.
What do you think? Email firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll update the post with any original points. And regarding our last reader’s point about Louis CK downplaying his looks for comedic effect, be sure to check out a piece Ashley Fetters wrote for us a few years ago, “Why Do So Many Pretty Female Comedians Pretend They’re Ugly?” Update from a reader, Beverly Haynes, via email:
Men are mesmerized by extreme female beauty. The thought process necessary to perceive humor and deliver laughter is interfered with, broken by beauty. Also, the ability to make people laugh is powerful, and women tend to not want to give drop-dead gorgeous women more power than they already have.
Update from another reader, Susan Silver, who wrote for The Mary Tyler Moore Show and asked Hawn a question about ageism at the Aspen Ideas Festival talk:
As the former Casting Director of Laugh-In, I was so happy to see Goldie again. And I had worked for Michael a few times. I was surprised more at the answer he gave to my question about ageism, particularly towards women in the business. He sort of side-stepped it, saying something like “When we were young we had success ...” The way I took it, he implied that now it was others’ chance. Huh?
Ageism is the new sexism. A few years ago, we members of the Writer’s Guild who were affected got a very nice financial settlement and acknowledgement that studios and agencies were ageist. So I’m not sure what Michael meant as far as beautiful women not being funny; we know that is not true.
Oh well, Goldie was great and is involved in a very important project with education and children’s brains.
More on that project here. And below is the full audio of Silver’s question to Hawn about ageism (Eisner’s odd response starts at the 2:50 mark):
Another email comes from Dawn Sesta in L.A.:
A problem exists with our definition of beauty. Michael Eisner is defining beauty in the traditional, passive sense. It is a quality someone possesses effortlessly that is of no utility, only aesthetic pleasure. Comedy is not passive. Comedy is active and reactionary, moving, conversational, living and breathing. When a woman is funny she makes herself a player of the game, not a prize to be acquired. And I don’t think the way beauty is being defined here is able to exist in a realm where everyone is on the same field.