After the dark Halloween night recedes this year, Elvira, Mistress of the Dark, will be forever leaving the stage with it. After thirty-five years in the business, comedian Cassandra Peterson will be retiring live-stage performances of her popular goth Valley girl character. A staple of the season, the demise of Elvira from the Knott’s Berry Farm amusement park stage marks the end of one of the sexiest (and refreshingly apolitical) women in entertainment.
A former member of the famed Groundlings comedy troupe, Peterson drew heavy inspiration from Maila Nurmi’s Vampira character to create Elvira, a schlock horror movie hostess. Peterson, an ex-Las Vegas showgirl, took the young and beautiful but slightly vacuous female archetype and threw in a dash of edgy punk rock glam. An American icon emerged. Probably one of the hardest-working women in show business, Peterson has starred in a feature film and a direct-to-DVD movie, filmed a CBS pilot in the early 1990s and pushed Coors Light beer for many years. The Elvira brand includes a recently resurrected comic book and a clothing line. Mournfully, Peterson’s Elvira leaves no successor. The current cultural climate will likely be hostile to the next woman who dares insert into her comedy act a ditzy female persona with unapologetic sex appeal.
Granted, Peterson works off a shtick, but so do other female comedians who receive far more respect. Amy Schumer has built a career playing off the sordid details of her sex life and Samantha Bee’s late-night talk show carries a title honoring the glorification of genitalia. Their comedy acts are not seen as exploitative but are instead praised because they are carried out under the guise of female empowerment. In June 2015, the Daily Beast praised Schumer because she “is crass” and “a lot like a man—with the added benefit that she’s a woman.” In an attempt to reclaim their sexuality, comedians like Schumer have traded in the mystery and allure of womanhood for gender equality at whatever cost. This is a by-product of third-wave feminism, a strain of women’s rights advocacy which abandons the individualism of choice feminism in favor of collective grievance. Consequently, comedy acts like Peterson’s face the artistic graveyard.
Whatever Peterson’s politics may be, they do not dictate her craft and it is the better for it. As Elvira she embraces her sexuality, and whatever self-effacing jokes she may traffic in, she is never vulgarized by them. Despite Elvira’s ample décolletage, Peterson’s routine is merely cheeky innuendo set up around clever and at times cheesy puns. It never enters crude or obscene territory.
Lucille Ball and Carol Burnett, who revolutionized television in their respective times, could be goofy and were embraced for it. Today, female comedians are expected to not play up their vulnerabilities for laughs—unless they are praising promiscuity like Schumer and promoting a liberal political agenda. Peterson is a performer much in the mold of Ball and Burnett. Yet she will never receive the accolades bestowed upon Schumer and Bee because her gender is the engine of her act, not the vehicle.
The prevalence of third-wave feminist figures like Schumer makes the likelihood of future Elivras impossible. A decade ago, Peterson hosted The Search for the Next Elvira, a reality TV series with the goal of finding someone to take over her alter ego. Her fans never warmed up to her replacement. One less comedian like Elvira puts a nail in the coffin of the kind of fun, campy comedy that has been entertaining Americans since the days of vaudeville. We’ll miss you, Mistress of the Dark.
Image: By David Goldner