Sunday, January 28, 2007

I'm No Actor

And I never would be. I could take an acting class and act. But I still wouldn't be an actor.

I'd be an actress.

I'd also never be a comedian. I'd be a comedienne.

I'm watching the SAG awards and it opened with AA style confessions from a selection of talent, each ending with "I am [your name here] and I am an actor." Of the several women who shared stories of their thespian roots, only one, Shirley Jones, said "I am an actrees." Even Jada Pinkett Smith, who said from her first production of Wizard of Oz at age 3, she wanted only to be an "actress" said "I am an actor."

Here's my beef: I get that female thespians are seeking Hollywood parity and have decided that a good way to help that struggle is to reclassify themselves with their male peers. But that reasoning is predicated on a belief that identifying something as feminine - or just female - in nature makes it per se inferior. Why is an actress less than an actor? Why is the term actor more worthy of respect than the word actress? The chances of rising to positions of power in Hollywood - on screen - don't seem as gender-dependent as in other fields (like comedy, which I'll get to in a minute). Off-camera, sure, that glass ceiling may be cracking, but it's still there. But studio executive doesn't come in gender-specific variations (not like we call people studio executors and executrixes - is that how that is made plural? whatever). So what gives? Be a damn actress if you want to be. Or be an actor - but not because you think the word will entitle you to increased respect. If they want to get you down, the lack of "-ress" won't stop them.

Now, for comedians/comediennes, the distinction may have a substantive as well as an illustrative usage. The same argument applies from above: presuming that using the feminine version of the word decreases its value or respectability is offensive nonsense. However, when it comes to funny, men get more respect. They get more stand-up specials. They get more HBO specials. They get to be correspondants on the Daily Show more often. Guys are cooler, funnier. Of course they aren't really cooler or funnier, but they are allowed to be and are reinforced as such much more often. This is why a mediocre talent like Sarah Silverman gets a show and an abundance of ink spilled over her (oh, and I totally mean that in a vulgar way, because that's what they do) in Entertainment Weekly. Well, to be more specific, Sarah Silverman gets it because she's *pretty* and funny - and usually only fat or ugly girls get to be that funny.

(That's a gross generalization - there are many gorgeous comediennes, but I still have a point.)

I digress.

The message here: actress isn't a slur. Neither is comedienne. I'd rather be either than an actor or comedian.


Anonymous said...

I agree with your post that removing feminine pronouns reinforces existing biases that perceive women as generally less than men. But I would argue against the notion that there is a conspiracy that holds back comediennes. Our culture simply lets boys play more and thus develop comedic talents.

In Decemember 2005, I wrote a commentary for The Sacramento Bee that touched on this topic. Here's the relevant part:

Begin quote--

Take as an example female editorial cartoonists. In the first 19 days of December, The Bee published 33 editorial cartoons, not counting Rex Babin's work. Just four were drawn by women.

Signe Wilkinson of the Philadelphia Daily News drew three of those cartoons. (Etta Hulme of the Forth Worth Star-Telegram drew the fourth.)

I e-mailed Wilkinson, explained the disparity I found in both letters and cartoonists and asked her why more women don't speak out.

"It seems to me," she e-mailed back, "men like to mouth off in public more than women do. You can see that either positively (they have so many more brilliant insights to share) or negatively (they have so many more needs that can only be satisfied by public displays of whatever). In either case, it seems to me that on average women take things more personally than men so don't like getting random e-mails from strangers that say, 'You idiot.' I get that and a lot worse from e-mail correspondents, mostly men.

"There is a growing number of women in politics and in political commentary, but it takes a bold, brazen article to weather the backdraft from putting strong opinions out in the public."

--end quote.

When my son entered kindergarten in 1996, I helped out in the classroom. The thing that amazed me then was what happened at playtime. Nearly all of the boys would go racing out into the playground, climbing on the equipment and generally running around. Meanwhile, most of the girls would gather at tables as though holding high tea. Where does this come from? It certainly didn't come from the teachers or the parent observers. I would argue that it is something so deeply engrained in humanity as to be instinctive.

Anonymous said...

Yeah-no, I think I disagree on most points. No, wait, I disagree most with the notion that your views and previous commentary don't reinforce my original point - as in articulate as I may have been in expressing it.

I don't believe there is a "conspiracy" - that word is much too loaded, especially for a discussion of comedy (at least for this discussion - when it comes to Leno's right-ist, ignorant "stand-up," I'll use it).

Men are allowed to have more fun. Boys will be boys. Girls, it seems, even if they are being girls, are seldom excused for being such. Compare common turns-of-phrase:

Boys will be boys.

You _____ like a girl.

But even with that point, I tread too near stock gender-bias commentary diction - which is boring and not the least bit funny.

Going back further, then: Classically, theoretically speaking, comedy is the feminine force in literature. It is circular. It is immortal. It breeds and rebirths itself. Tragedy (or mere drama) is linear; male and finite.

So is this a case of misunderstanding the use of the term "feminine" - as when discussion pronouns in foreign languages and mistaking "feminine" (la, las) for having anything to do with gender specifically? Perhaps.

Take perhaps the world's first, brilliant comedy. Written by a man, Aristophanes's Lysistrata features bold and comedic female characters who exemplify, quite literally, the fertile ground from which true comedy springs in all its baudy, earthy glory. The straight men in that play were frequently women as well, but even the straight men women were funnier than the very straight men men.

Compare with today's stand-up scene. With the exception of perhaps Wanda Sykes and Ellen DeGeneres, the comedic landscape is overwhelmingly male. Even funny women aren't "look at me, I can be funny" funny. They are reactionary. They are Lucy. They are infrequently Carol Burnett.

This is sad. And, I would argue, unnatural, since, if you are to stereotype based on biological traits, the fertility of women biologically predisposes them to this fluid form of language play - the circular reasoning of most jokes and puns. And yet something happens to counteract nature and gives us straight men women and funny men.

You might want to note as well that of the various forms of comedy - stand-up, improve, performance, or otherwise - those who use more cruel forms of humor - those who resort to mocking (Leno, again, looking at you), tend to be men. Somehow, someone as racist, rude, and intolerable as Mencia gets to air his mind on air with a lot less negative press than, say, Rosie on the View (I'm not endorsing her brand of funny by a long shot).

Compare that whole type with Ellen DeGeneres - she can make it through an hour + of standup without resorting to either cruelty or purient, foul-mouthed humor (much of which is funny, but is a lot lower-hanging than the fruit of accomplished comedy).

The physical activity of boys and girls has less to do with their funny-potential than their mental accumen and the ways they are encouraged to exercise their mouths. But like you said, boys get to be boys. Until girls get to be boys, there will be fewer celebrated comediennes on television and on film.

Sarah Silverman's only accomplishment is being pretty and pretty funny, not in being a brilliant comedienne.

Anonymous said...

fantastic discussion here.

i suspect it goes even deeper than gender, to the underlying ideology of humor. wit, subversiveness, sticking up for the underdog - most of these things could be done brilliantly by either gender (e.g. dorothy parker's acid wit).

but the celebration of the donmination of the weak by the strong that calls itself subversive but is in fact a celebration of the "natural" pecking order lends itself to those on top of that heirarchy - ie. white men, or nonwhite men making jokes that white men would get called out on the carpet for making.

gender is part of that heirarchy, but it's broader than just gender.

to put it another way, richard pryor's humor and carlos mencia's humor don't flow from the same source.

the fact that i couldn't think of a comedienne when i did that, other than perhaps margaret cho, is telling.