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Essay: Diller, Radner & Silverman: representation of women & feminine ideals

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  • Published: 10 June 2023*
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The work of Phyllis Diller, Gilda Radner, and Sarah Silverman collectively offers a history of American female stand up over the last 50 years. Their contribution to this history is discussed with a specific focus on their representation of women & feminine ideals.

Female stand up comedians have always met a lot of obstacles in comparison to their male counterparts in establishing careers for themselves. Avoiding this usually involves a compromise of some kind, whether this be the subject of the material; how they choose to present themselves, or how they speak about themselves in regards to being a woman. Even though today’s audiences are more accepting of women using their comedic skills, as history shows in general life, the further back in time you go, the more restrictions females are met with. The paper will firstly look at how women have been perceived in the entertainment industry as a whole. Then it will go on to explore Phyllis Diller and the work she was producing in the 1960’s onwards, with a focus on how she presents herself as a female comic through the creation of a caricature both visually (her presence) and audibly (the content of her material). Followed by a look into the work produced by Gilda Radner in the 1970’s-80’s; how she uses stock characters in her work to aid it’s reception. Finally, an analysis of Sarah Silverman’s work from 2000 onwards with specific reference to show ‘Jesus is magic’ and how she can dip into both these forms of comedy but also, solely as a persona of herself. The argument will be a discussion of how Phyllis Diller, Gilda Radner & Sarah Silverman represent femininity and women both physically and verbally. Also, due to these comics performing at different time periods in America, there will be an analysis of the research in regards to the socio political changes around the time they were performing as this may have had an influence on the work they performed, how they presented themselves and how they were received. Furthermore, I will explore the attitudes towards women within material, and what audience’s perception of the work was both during the time of their performance and today.

With an extensive viewpoint, the world of entertainment to this day has always been two things – male dominated and misogynistic. A great example of male domination within a creative field was highlighted in a report referenced by Derek Thompson in his article ‘The Brutal Math of Gender Inequality in Hollywood’ carried out by the Geena Davis Foundation in 2010 which analyzed 120 popular films,

‘…released between 2010 and 2013 for demographics, sexualization, occupation, and career. Just 23 percent of these films had a girl or woman as a main character.’
(Thompson, 2018)

Likewise, the report shows misogyny in a creative field through the representation of female actors as,

‘…girls and women were twice as likely as boys and men to be shown in sexually revealing clothing, and five times more likely to be called out for being attractive…’
(Thompson, 2018)

True, in the past 20 years there has been a marginal shift from male gaze to female gaze, in conjunction with the creation of more featured roles and opportunities for women, though there is still a long way to go. With movements in more recent history such as ‘Time’s Up’ and ‘Me Too’ creating safer, more female-friendly industries for creatives to break into, the subject and working conditions can only get better. Despite all these positive movements that have been happening in the past two years, one field that saw a dramatic alteration in the male to female balance well before this was the world of stand-up comedy. Comediennes were going strongly before any major discussions about inequality within the creative industries. However it did come with a price.

Going back to the first few female stand-up comedians such as Phyllis Diller (1917-2012) , these budding stars had to compromise their feminine integrity in order to be accepted by mass audiences since they did not have a target audience to perform too directly. This sacrifice was made in both their physical appearance as well as the subjects of their work.

Phyllis Diller was a stay at home housewife looking after her five children until her husband became unemployed after a few years of him finding and being let go from work. She began performing stand-up comedy after reluctantly dismissing her husband’s avaricious encouragement. A string of writing jobs proved to her and her friends she was a woman full of wit and humour thus she gave in to her partner’s persistence. It is imperative to attribute the socio political changes in America during Diller’s early career as the cause to her growth in success and reception.

Throughout the 1960’s there was a major shift in women’s rights. This was undoubtedly a prolonged result of women entering the workforce during World War II; the sense of independence created from their new roles was not something they wanted to have compromised. With many socio political shifts such as the civil rights movements beginning to take shape in 1960’s America, it was understandable that the Women’s Right Movement was going to start taking form. Publication of feminist literature such as Betty Friedan’s 1963 novel ‘The Feminine Mystique’ to encourage women to see themselves as more than what society currently saw them as “True equality between men and women would not be ‘functional’…” (Friedan 2003); she began to break the idea that a women’s sole purpose was to first become a wife, bear children, then to stay at home and raise them. She started to solidify the concept that not only should women be able to enter any career, but be seen and have the same rights as men in all senses.

Friedan was an instigator in the creation of N.O.W, the National Organization for Women (hereby referred to as N.O.W), in 1966. N.O.W demanded equal rights for women with specific regards to their bodies. At the time abortion was still illegal and the first form of female birth control, Enovid, was introduced though was prescribed only to married women.

“With the increasingly widespread use of birth control, women gained greater control over when and if they would have children, allowing many women to enter the workforce who would have otherwise been busy rearing children.”
(Schulman 2018)

For Diller, these cultural shifts were imperative to her reception as without them this perfect married house wife and mother ideology would have be more concrete within society at the time thus she would’ve been met with more resistance against her entering this field.

As stated by friend Rod McKuen in ‘Phyllis Diller The E! True Story Documentary’

“she had no-one to base her act on, no one to look up too because there were no female stand up comedians”
(Reznivok 2001)

and as a result as the narrator of said documentary states ‘many of her jokes poked at the trials and tribulations of the standard 1950’s housewife’ (Reznivok 2001); for Diller she was performing at a time where she was the 1% in her field. As she states in the documentary ‘I was always searching for new material…’ because she could only go off her own experiences, and once they ran out she had to add fiction to fact (Reznivok 2001).

This work can be seen as progressive in the representation of women as Diller was taking a new slant on the topic of jokes; wives were no longer the butt of the joke, and they could now see the fun poked at their husbands through relatable anecdotes focusing on the women’s viewpoint of married life including what this role entailed at this time. Another focus of her work can be seen as a shared negative view women have of themselves in regards to their appearance. Though it can be argued that in a wider context the negative viewpoint of a woman, despite coming from a woman, is no better than a man expressing the same thoughts through his act.

Diller had flaws in the progressiveness of the presentation of femininity in her performances which may have hindered the acceptance of female comedians at her time. Understandably, a large portion of her stand up acts up until the 1980’s before she began to migrate into other forms of media, was self-deprecation. Many jokes such as her performance on ‘The Ed Sullivan Show’ October 5th 1969 shows this attitude with jokes such as “you think I’m overdressed, this is just my slip!” (Marlow 1969).This can be interpreted in two ways. The first is that Diller is removing femininity based on the widely accepted, though diminishing in society, concept of the perfect housewife at the time. Her flamboyant presentation removes all trace of this despite the fact she was herself the standard stay at home American housewife, up until her first stand up performance, before the creation of her image, in March 1955. In retrospect, Diller had some awareness of how the way she presented herself physically onstage would affect her reception; “I came out as a clown,” she says. “A clown is androgynous. They didn’t worry if I was a man or a woman.” (Goodyear 2005)

On the other hand, based on previous conceptions of women and how they should present themselves, this caricature is helpful in taking the suspected image and expanding that to a point of silliness. The shift in appearance of women came in conjunction with the feminist movement and how this affected women’s’ presentation of themselves through clothing. Smart, reserved, coordinated outfits of the 1960’s in America were replaced with jeans and tie dye shirts in the 1970’s as more hippie ideologies began to spread. Though in media, especially Hollywood, the idolised celebrities were still dressing respectfully and glamorously. Diller’s hyperbolically glamorous costumes could be seen as a parody of this fashion. Even so, looking at this choice in a positive light, Diller still chose to self-deprecate herself when talking about the clothes she wore. During a variety act she describes an experience whilst shopping,

“… so then I went into the dress department and told the woman I was a medium, well, she wanted me to contact her dead uncle fred … she insisted I try on this certain dress, she said ‘madam this dress is so sexy it’ll give your husband ideas, I said why does it come with a brain”. (Steele 1977)

In this joke Diller is still making her husband the butt of the joke, though the implication of a mall assistant mistaking her profession as a medium rather than her clothing size is self deprecating as she is not alluding to in anyway that the assistant is incapable of understanding what she means; in conjunction with the implication her husband is not attracted to her – ‘why does it come with a brain’.

Moreover, Diller’s own views of herself were low anyway as she states in the documentary ‘I was most concerned I wasn’t pretty, in fact I knew I wasn’t’ (Reznivok 2001). Could her self deprecating humour be a projection of her discontentment with all aspects of herself physically? Or is she taking control of these insecurities by taking away the power from others as to what they could say to her with the intent to hurt her? Or is it a fluctuating system of both these ideas. Either way, one can be seen as regression and the other progression for women’s ideals of themselves in how that society would perceive them at this time.

It is then up to audiences as to how these jokes are interpreted. Not only this but it also asks if there are any physiological effects caused by this type of humour on the audience member too; whether a woman can laugh at herself due to the content’s relatability; whether a woman is put down as her insecurity is being mocked and laughed about; whether a male is forming harmful views against woman. At the time Diller was performing, this was not analysed. However today, with mental health becoming less of a taboo topic of discussion, research has been carried out to analyse the possible adverse implications exposure to negative sentiments can have on one’s psyche. Interestingly enough in 2017 Elle debated the effect of self-deprecating humour, though notably with more of a negative slant with a concern it may be ‘psychologically and socially damaging’ (O’Malley 2017); whereas the Independent posted a study in February of 2018 noting self-deprecating humour is linked to ‘greater physiological well being.’(Barr 2018) Unfortunately there isn’t a lot of writing about any recorded factors deprecating humour had on people around 1960’s America hence it is wise to look at the style of humour with caution acknowledging it may have had both a positive and negative effects on receptors at the time of performance.

N.O.W and the Women’s right movement continued to make advancements throughout the 1970’s when Gilda Radner began performing. As how the movements of the time would have aided Phyllis Diller’s reception, though never outrightly declaring support for such movements, key moments in America such as the publication of Ms. magazine, the protests for the passing of the Equal Rights Amendment, and the united nations declaring 1975 as the International Women’s Year will have contributed to the positive reception of Radner’s work. Women were using their voice and talents to express what they believed in, and were supportive of women such as Radner who were thriving in a previously male associated anddominated professions.

For male and female comics, Saturday Night Live (hereby referred to as SNL) was a key tool in the progression of material that could be displayed on American television. This in turn led to female stars of the show such as Gilda Radner, Laraine Newman and Jane Curtain being able to explore a variety of topics and issues, affecting how they presented themselves as women, which was mostly positively. The show jostled the restrictions of distributor NBC’s censorship; “Because of it’s 11:30 p.m. start, the show was able to get away with much more than average prime time shows, resulting in skits and jokes that were seen as shocking and sometimes outright racy” (Reincheld: Penner 2012). As SNL is a sketch show; the cast would often perform as a variety of characters. Radner was heavily involved in the creation of many recurring characters for herself and worked closely alongside show writer Alan Zweibel,

“Gilda never ran away from anything,” remembered Alan Zweibel, who was, with Gilda, the creator of characters like Roseanne Roseannadanna and Emily Litella and among her closest friends. “She just looked it in the eye and said, ‘C’mon — let’s fight it out.’”
(Johnson 1989)

This determined and optimistic attitude aided Radner to create work which was allowed on the show, but most importantly was written in a format she was content and comfortable to perform without feeling as if her artistic integrity was at all compromised.

The characters she constructed were mainly based on stock characters, which was paramount in her reception as a female comedian; since these characters have a familiarity to them and the audiences of the time were more likely to receive them well. Additionally, the use of stock characters allowed her to present herself as she chose too, building on these established paradigms whilst introducing new takes on the representation of women on TV. Yet, it wasn’t all gratifying as she was still met with some restriction which will be explored later through the analysis of ‘ingénue’ archetype Judy Miller.

A stock character is ‘a character in literature, theater, or film of a type quickly recognized and accepted by the reader or viewer and requiring no development by the writer’ (Dictionary.com 2018). Gilda then combined the standard stock characters with elements of archetypal characters, a tool used in storytelling going back to ancient greece, in order for her characters to have identifiable qualities. Some stock characters Gilda adapts is the Crone, the ingénue and the soubrette. Identablility leads to a recipience as there is a familiar element to her work whether the characters are likeable or not. A crone typically is not likeable, a trope Radner instills in her character Emily Litella. The ingénue on the other hand is someone the audience is in favour off, like character Judy Miller, where as, Radner flips some of the tropes presented by soubrette-inspired Rosanne Roseannadanna. In doing so the character Roseannadanna has more likeable qualities for the audience to warm too.

Radner’s ingenue character is in the form of Judy Miller, a hyperactive six year old who can create worlds from the imaginative interpretation of the space, clothes and objects in her bedroom. The child is never disturbed by adults, and in her play time her main game is to entertain her audience, a table of stuffed toys, with her own reality show ‘The Judy Miller Show’ in which she becomes the pretty princesses and beautiful brides who appear as guests on the show. The ‘innocent’ and ‘wholesome’ tropes of an ingenue character come from Radner’s immersion into her character, Judy’s, innocent outlook of the world. This is displayed through the naivety of the child believing a bride would say things such as “I’m the most beautiful person in the whole wide world, yes I’m the most beautiful bride that especially everyone loves, in the whole wide world…” combined with the visual comedy “…and here comes my husband that I love…” as Judy holds up her toy donkey (Wilson 1977). The use of a child ingenue stock character provides a unity amongst viewers of the sketch as once they were children themselves so can retrospectively look back on their own moments of play and laugh at themselves through Judy’s behaviour. Furthermore, any parents/ grandparents have the ability to relate to this sketch due to the vantage point of being closer to this behaviour through their own family members’ actions; it would take less effort to associate with these child-like behaviours if they have recent and regular interactions with one.

However, within the history of comeddine’s acts, branching away from stand up comedy into other fields of comedy entertainment, going as far back as 1890’s Lotta-Crabtree, female performers have a habit of portraying themselves as a child. As Susan Horowitz notes, “audience resistance to adult female funniness or sexauilty neatly bypassed by presenting material as a child.” (Horowitz 1997) Fanny Brice, the voice of ‘Baby Snooks’ realised this loophole in the male dominated system in the 1930’s as she was met with resistance in the material she wanted to perform though she

“… knew this couldn’t happen as baby. Because what can you write about a child that has to be censored”. (Horowitz 1997)


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