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Funny is Fierce!

I LOVE comedy. I love all things funny. When I was young I used to practice jokes on the stage in my father’s comedy club in the middle of the day, when nobody was there. I remember writing my own joke that had something to do with Olivia Newton-John having to wear giant earrings to keep her from floating off the ground (it was a horrible joke). At the time, “Let’s Get Physical” was in heavy rotation on the radio, and I was infatuated with Olivia’s satiny leggings and braided headband. I have always found humor in the silly, the absurd, and the disgusting. This is a good thing, as I live with my two young sons, and there is never a shortage of bodily functions or jokes about such functions going around my house. But it has always felt a bit uncomfortable to me to let loose and laugh at things that are usually thought of as immature or gross. I distinctly remember in high school having a friend who was extremely outgoing and unafraid to pass gas in front of her friends, male or female. I couldn’t understand this. The idea of passing gas in front of a guy was terrifying to me, as if a girl was not supposed to do such a thing. In contrast, my male friends had no such qualms about allowing their bodily functions free reign. This disequilibrium, along with a few things that have crossed my path via social media in the past week, got me thinking about the role of women in comedy, and the differences in perception of what is funny depending on who, male or female, delivers the punch line or performs the act.

Let’s take the late, great Joan Rivers as an example. Her passing last Thursday prompted me to do a little research about her history as an entertainer and what I found was astonishing. Most people of my generation think of plastic surgery, her raspy voice, and rude comments about people’s fashion choices when they hear her name. But Joan was so much more than that. She started her entertainment career at a time when women were largely thought of as homemakers. Quiet, obedient, and well dressed were characteristics that dominated the accepted view of women in the late 1950s. But Joan, as gorgeous as she was, broke beyond that mold, and was completely unafraid to say what she meant, uncensored and no holds barred.   She was one of the first women to push comedy in that way. She was the only woman who could steal thunder from a cigarette smoking Johnny Carson on the Tonight Show. No matter your feelings about her put-downs, her plastic surgery, and her loud voice, she was a pioneer in building a new vision of what women could be.

Now, can we talk about Mindy Kaling for a minute? Here is a woman who was awkward and boyish as a child, does not fit the image of the typical American TV star, and yet, is the star of the only sitcom on TV right now worth watching in my opinion. The entire cast is stellar, including the men (who knew Chris Messina was so damn funny?), but Mindy is an absolute gem. She puts herself out there and is completely honest about who she is. Her bright clothes, her love of romantic comedies, her curves, her hatred of exercise and love of pancakes…even though this describes her character on the show, if you have read her book you know that a lot of what we see each week is reflective of her own insecurities. The image she has built of a smart as hell woman who is a successful doctor AND chooses to wear heels, girly dresses, and make up is one we need more of in entertainment. Her ability to be unapologetically pathetic is genius! She makes it seem a little bit more ok to stumble through life with our personal insecurities on full display, rather than tucked away at the bottom of our drawer full of sensible underwear. “Get out your sexy, red reading glasses,” urges the post from The Mindy Project’s Facebook page. Wear your insecurities like a neon sign. We all have them. We are all human. Sometimes we want to jam pancakes down our gullets instead of running 5 miles. And the best part is, the cranky but well-respected male doctor on the show, who seems to detest all of the things Mindy loves, falls for this less than perfect woman and can’t shake free of her spell. Hmmmmm.   Why might that be? Because funny is fierce! Honest is fierce.

And finally, Ms. Chelsea Handler, goddess of late night and deliverer of uncensored truths we all want to say but are afraid to. If ever a woman epitomized the opposite of what is considered traditional lady-like behavior, she takes the cake. She shares pictures of herself in the great outdoors doing her business (a woman after my own heart)! She pushes the boundaries of comedy, truth, and what most people would define as a reasonable comfort zone. She encourages people, especially women, to get out there and live life beyond the boring and normal (an idea I completely agree with). I believe she does what she does not simply to shock or appall people, but because she believes in what she says and doesn’t give a shit if you, or me, or anyone else likes it, agrees with it, or thinks it is out of control! It seems like often, when she speaks, she is simply reacting to something in a deeply honest way. It is so funny because you can bet most of us watching were thinking the exact same thing, but when we said it in our heads it sounded really bitchy. And why are women in particular so afraid of being brutally honest, being funny, and maybe even a bit bitchy? As if being labeled “bitchy” is the worst thing in the world. When a male comic makes fun of someone it is observant and witty, but when a female comic takes a stab at someone she might be labeled bitchy or insecure. The same thing happens in education.  When a male professor is strict, he is thought of as serious and professional.  But when a female professor is strict she is labeled a bitch.  I have experienced this first hand.  Screw that. Chelsea breaks through the bull and gets to the point, and I, for one, think it is perfection.

These three women, in my view, are women who epitomize the idea of pushing beyond what was once considered acceptable, proper female behavior and rocking their true selves. And they are all funny as hell, a distinction that has not always been viewed as very ladylike in the past. For some reason, women being funny is not always associated with women being womanly or sexy, but funny men are perceived as full of sex appeal. Ask a woman what turns her on and she will often say a sense of humor. Someone that can make her laugh. Ask a guy what revs his engine and you are more likely to hear something related to physical attributes, or the desire to have a woman who will watch sports with him. Seriously? What about a woman who is unafraid to speak her mind, and might just say something hilarious in the process? I heard a man recently describe watching Sarah Silverman on an episode of Masters of Sex and having a hard time thinking of her as sexy because she is so funny. Are you kidding? That is exactly what makes her so sexy!

Thanks to women like Joan Rivers, Lucille Ball, Carol Burnett, Gilda Radner, and many others, today women are a force to be reckoned with in the comedy arena. Just look at the likes of Kristin Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Debra Messing, Kathy Griffin, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Maya Rudolph, and countless others. These women are smart, strong, beautiful, and funny as hell. I would argue that these women are much better role models for our daughters than Disney princesses or super models or pop music stars (no offense to super models or pop stars, many of whom are amazing women themselves). But I would much rather encourage young women to be opinionated, honest, and unafraid to show their flaws. The ladies of comedy lay it down, without hesitation, and put their insecurities on display for the rest of us to appreciate and relate to. I am thankful that I live in a time when women being funny has become an accepted and exalted part of the world we live in. Rock on with your bad selves, funny ladies!   Keep pushing the limits. There are women out here who thank you for your contributions, including making it ok for girls to curse, fart, and fall flat on our faces.

 

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Girly-ness, Interrupted

Me, age 6ish, in my absolute all time favorite dance recital regalia. Bright yellow sateen, feathers in my hair, and gold sequins – now that is something special. I was happiest when I was dancing.

Me, age 6ish, in my absolute all time favorite dance recital regalia. Bright yellow sateen, feathers in my hair, and gold sequins – now that is something special. I was happiest when I was dancing.

I am not sure why, but in my young womanhood I was opposed to blatant girly-ness. Almost a curmudgeon, one could say, way before a curmudgeon-appropriate age. I started out loving dresses, ruffled bloomers, Easter hats, putting curlers in my long hair, and shiny patent leather dress shoes. I know that as a young girl I was already keyed in to the appeal of a super strong but super girly woman who was not only glamorous but could kick some serious ass. This is evidenced by the fact that I spent most of my evenings running around my house in Wonder Woman underoos, a towel wrapped around my shoulders as a makeshift cape, hair bands on my wrists as my power bracelets, and my mom’s knee high brown leather boots. At the time, nobody was telling me that Wonder Woman was an example of the exploitation of women, with her teeny tiny body suit and ample bosoms the focus of her persona. Wonder Woman was just that – a woman who was wonderful. She was strong, and independent, and able to protect herself and others, and still rocked the heeled boots and bosom-enhancing bodice of her spare super hero uniform. And why the hell not? Why can’t a woman be at once girly and tough as shit?

At some point, I think early in high school, I started to detest excessive girly-ness, and girls that were excessively girly. I really do not know why, but for some reason I wanted to be thought of as a girl who could hang with the guys. I am sure a psychologist would say it has something to do with my parents’ divorce, losing my father, and feeling the need to be strong to protect myself, or something equally deep and confusing.   Whatever the reason, I vividly remember a time in my life when hanging out with guys was just more appealing to me because I found girls silly and exhausting. I found being girly exhausting. I was uncomfortable in my womanhood. I didn’t like to draw attention to my body. More importantly, I wanted the guys I hung out with to think of me as tough and cool and not super girly. Here was the flaw in that plan: if you are a girl who is attracted to guys (as I was), and you are trying to be tough and not too girly (as I was), the guys tend to want to date girls who are not you, which really sucks. A lot of men like ‘em girly, ladies, just so you know. I learned this the hard way, and as a result did not have as much dating success early in my dating career as my friends did. Don’t get me wrong, I had long hair, sometimes painted my nails, and experimented with make up. But I would not have called myself girly. I had a lot of guy friends but not a lot of boyfriends. A lovely example of this attempt to be tough and hang with the guys culminated in my being tossed out of a high school hockey game for spitting over the Plexiglas onto a player, which was extremely gross, liberating and embarrassing, but that is another story. (Rochester peeps; I was banned from Lakeshore rinks for life and haven’t been back since).

I suspect that some of my success in the field of geology was a result of my deeply ingrained desire to be tough. To this day when I hear a fellow geologist say he spent two weeks in the field, my response is (silently, of course), “Two weeks? Pussy. Try three months.” This is of course all in good fun, as I respect all of my

Me holding a side of yak meat.  Our drivers carried this around in our supply truck for two months.  It was like an exceptionally large chunk of yak jerky.

Me holding a side of yak meat. Our drivers carried this around in our supply truck for two months. It was like an exceptionally large chunk of yak jerky.

fellow geologists and believe they are all tough as nails.   I still find myself unwilling to ask for help in many situations, and pride myself on being extremely self sufficient, which is not to knock anyone who is good at asking for help, just an observation about one of my many quirks. My success as a geologist also might be related to my willingness, back when I started, to forego heels and facials and spend extended amounts of time in fleece and hiking boots, and perfecting the art of peeing outdoors in the wind while squatting, and not getting urine on my boots. But the longer I spent in this world of geology, surrounded by women who were seemingly uninterested in girly pursuits, the more I started to question why, as a geologist, I had to choose between being a serious, tough, outdoorsy scientist and a rockin’ hot girly girl in a mini skirt and heels. Why can’t a woman be both jubilant in her girly-ness and strong enough to hike for months through snow and wind and cold at 15,00 feet elevation? I got tired of hiding in flannel shirts, baggy jeans, and combat boots. When I moved to Los Angeles, my office mate, a southern Californian, promptly told me that my wardrobe of khaki pants, brown paddock boots, and button down shirts was utterly unworthy of the L.A. scene. The look on her face when she witnessed me in such clothing, the first time we prepared to hit the town for a night out of dancing and drinking in L.A., was one of mild disgust and disbelief. I had to borrow clothes from her. “Don’t you have anything black,” she asked. I did, but it was a frumpy, long skirt that clearly would not do. Slowly, my evolution back toward that little girl who danced around in her ruffled bloomers and pink tights began to take shape. And thank God, because I don’t believe that my decision to hide inside flannel and khaki was one that was true to my authentic self. I am not in any way criticizing flannel and khaki, if that is your thing. It is just clothing and should not be the defining characteristic of a woman. But for me, it was a persona I built to help ensure I was taken seriously in a world full of, well, tough men.

 

Even more interesting, I think, is that my evolution back to being a girly girl took so long, and feeling completely unapologetic about it wasn’t natural to me at first. There were times I would dress a little sexy or girly and worry about what my geology colleagues would think of me when I arrived at work in a dress and heels. Would they think I didn’t fit the geologist mold? Would they wonder what the hell had happened to me and where did I put my rock hammer and vest? It took me over two decades to get to the point where I can embrace being a girly girl and a tough girl, and not give a crap one way or the other what anyone, geologist or non-geologist, thinks of me. Why do toughness and girly-ness have to be mutually exclusive? I don’t think they have to be. I am confident I could hang with the guys in the farthest reaches of the Tibetan plateau, but I still enjoy a mani/pedi now and then. I can put on a dress, leopard print heels, and pump my own gas on my way into work. One day I revel in having my highlights done, or getting dressed to the nines for a night out with my husband, and the next I choose to be barefoot, squatting in the dirt collecting bugs and worms with my boys. I love a long soak in my Jacuzzi tub, but enjoy a good poop in the woods under the stars too (Don’t knock it ‘til you try it)! I used to think you couldn’t have it both ways. Now I know you can.

I have not been back to the Tibetan plateau, the site of my most intense journey beyond my comfort zone, in over a decade, largely due to children and job commitments that I did not have when I was a graduate student. But I can tell you this for certain; I will get back to the plateau one day, and when I do, my toenails will be neon pink inside my hiking boots.

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