This Just In: Beautiful Women Can Be Funny, Too

It’s nice to see the ‘Are Women Funny?’ debate gasping its final breaths.

It’s not so nice to see it replaced with the debate: ‘Can women be funny as well as beautiful?’

But I suppose a new debate was inevitable. When it comes to women in comedy, the playing field is more level than it was – but it’s certainly not there yet. And as long as that remains the case, I imagine these sorts of debates will continue. And, some may say, rightly so. It’s always worth talking about discrimination, about the battles women face that men don’t (or vice versa) – and what’s more, it’s important to do so.

Which is why I’m going to wade into this one, despite it seeming, at face value, to be utter nonsense.

Why, of course women can be funny as well as beautiful. As Katy Brand points out in her Telegraph blog, American TV and films – and British ones too, of course – are littered with actresses who are both beautiful and funny. The female stars of Friends and Sex And The City dominated US TV in the ’90s; the likes of Tina Fey, Kristen Wiig and Amy Poehler have dominated it in the noughties; and many, many beautiful women have been powerful players before them.

But this – the casting of beautiful women in funny roles – creates its own problems. The one that led US TV commentator Nikki Finke to blog this during the Emmys, and thus cause a ‘Funny/Beautiful’ twitstorm to ensue:

“Listen up, Hollywood: Beautiful actresses are not funny. They don’t know how to do comedy… Only women who grew up ugly and stayed ugly, or through plastic surgery became beautiful, can pull off sitcoms or standups… 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.”

I am, of course, going to bite, and say: what tosh. A woman’s looks are no help or hindrance to her ability to do comedy – it’s about a talent and skill for being funny. For heaven’s sake, it’s the one arena where it’s NOT about her looks.

Only, in America it unfortunately still is.

Historically in our entertainment industries, I’d say that Britain has a problem with beautiful women being funny (or as Brand puts it: “It is true that in the UK we seem to prefer our funny women a little less alpha”); while Hollywood has a problem with not-conventionally-beautiful women being funny. But that’s because Hollywood has a problem with not-conventionally-beautiful women, full stop.

Hardly any woman is allowed on screen – let alone be a romantic or comedic lead – unless she conforms to Hollywood’s idea of a beautiful woman; and if she doesn’t, she’ll be an automatic figure of fun (or the beautiful woman’s best friend, or both). And if she’s in a comedy, it’s very doubtful that this woman will be allowed a funny line (unless she’s the figure of fun/best friend/both).

The same isn’t true for men, of course. A man can play a romantic lead or a comedy lead even if he isn’t Hollywood’s idea of a beautiful man – as long has he has charisma or the ability to be funny.

‘Twas ever thus, of course – and Christopher Hitchens touched on the reasons for this gender difference in his controversial ‘Why Women Aren’t Funny’ article for Vanity Fair:

“The chief task in life that a man has to perform is that of impressing the opposite sex, and Mother Nature (as we laughingly call her) is not so kind to men. In fact, she equips many fellows with very little armament for the struggle. An average man has just one, outside chance: he had better be able to make the lady laugh… Women have no corresponding need to appeal to men in this way. They already appeal to men, if you catch my drift.”

I do, Mr Hitchens, I do.

But while there’s much truth in Hitchens’ words, the ‘men funny/women not funny’ split in Hollywood wasn’t so severe in, say, the golden era of the romantic comedies of the 1930s and ’40s, in which the genders would spar (usually across a newspaper office, courtroom or kitchen) and be as funny and feisty as each other. No, I’d say the chasm truly started in the 1990s – the era that the ‘romcom’ seemed to lose all its ‘com’ and become, in the process, the ‘chick flick’.

Ever since then, we’ve had lame comedies aimed at women, and out-and-out comedies aimed at, made by and starring men. And don’t get me wrong – I’m a fan of many of these out-and-out comedies (especially any which involve Ben Stiller or Will Ferrell). It’s just that I’ve got utterly fed up of every woman in said movies being there because she’s good-looking, not because she’s funny; and every man in said movies being there because he’s funny, not because he’s good-looking. Which he often won’t be, because he’s a man, and thus different rules apply.

I’ve also got hugely fed up of all the funny lines in these comedies going to the men. If you think beautiful women can’t do comedy, Nikki Finke, I’d simply suggest it’s because they haven’t been given funny scripts. It’s the Jennifer Aniston Test. Aniston was funny in Friends, because a) she can do comedy and b) she was given great lines. Guess what? a) is unlikely to have changed. But b), given Aniston’s track record on the big screen, certainly has. One can only conclude from her film choices that Aniston is either an appalling judge of scripts, or she’s not being offered many funny roles in the first place. I know which answer I’d err towards.

This is why Bridesmaids was such a breath of fresh air when it hit the big screen last year. At last! A comedy in which the lead characters just happen to be women! Written by women! And it’s funny! And if Bridesmaids – and Friends With Benefits, another movie which harks back to the golden era of comedic equality – have been doing it in the movie industry, then shows like Girls, Two Broke Girls and New Girl have been doing it on TV. Yes, Ms Finke, they feature beautiful women in lead roles (as do ensemble pieces like Parks And Recreation, The Office, Modern Family and Community). But they’re also full of women spouting funny lines – which are often written by women. And that, surely, is progress.

Getting to a point where we’re no longer talking about how beautiful or not a female comedian is would be a wonderful place to be. And getting to a point where we no longer talk about ‘comedies for women’ or ‘comedies by women’ or ‘Funny Woman In Lead Role Shocker’ would be similarly wonderful. We’re not there yet – but if the number of women doing stand-up comedy continues to grow, and if Hollywood continues to make great, funny movies and TV shows written by and starring funny women, then hopefully we might just reach that place sooner rather than later. We certainly seem to be on the right trajectory.

And in the meantime, unlike Nikki Finke, I’m not going to worry about whether those women are beautiful or not. Because guess what? As long as they’re funny, I really don’t care.