Another day, another internet outrage.
Last week Goldie Hawn and Michael Eisner were in conversation onstage at the Aspen Ideas Festival when the former Disney CEO went out on a very precarious limb as he mused about women and comedy:
From my position, the hardest artist to find is a beautiful, funny woman. By far. They usually—boy am I going to get in trouble, I know this goes online—but usually, unbelievably beautiful women, you being an exception, are not funny.
Then he proceeded to saw off the limb he had crawled out on. Hawn responded that she owes her sense of humor to having been an “ugly duckling” growing up, and Eisner countered, “You didn’t think you were beautiful”:
I know women who have been told they’re beautiful, they win Miss Arkansas, they don’t ever have to get attention other than with their looks. So they don’t tell a joke. In the history of the motion-picture business, the number of beautiful, really beautiful women—a Lucille Ball—that are funny, is impossible to find.
He was right, at least about the getting-in-trouble part. Internet umbrage predictably ensued. “Former Disney CEO Michael Eisner Tells Goldie Hawn ‘Beautiful Women… Aren’t Funny’ (And The Internet Explodes),” read a misleading Huffington Post headline. He had accidentally reopened the wounds inflicted back in 2007 by Christopher Hitchens’ Vanity Fair essay, “Why Aren’t Women Funny?” That polemic had inflamed feminist ire at the time, much to the amusement of the gleefully controversial Hitchens, and Eisner had reignited it all over again.
“Whatever possessed Eisner, who is neither funny nor beautiful, to make these inane remarks is unknown,” Vulture sneered. Hypable dismissed Eisner as a desperate dinosaur terrified of change in a “post-patriarchal” world, whose statement “has no place in a civilized, post-invention of fire society.” Slate’s go-to feminist Amanda Marcotte called Eisner a “daft sexist” whose comments were classic “mansplaining” about women. For the final nail in his coffin, she even linked to scientific evidence suggesting that women are just as funny as men.
But Eisner never said they weren’t. There are plenty of examples of real sexism in the entertainment industry that warrant attention without getting lathered up over an imaginary or harmless offense. Eisner wasn’t trying to hold women up to a separate standard. Most comedians—male and female—are not extraordinarily attractive. Certainly there are examples of funny, attractive actresses—maybe even many, depending on how lax your standards are. But extraordinarily attractive and funny? Rare, by definition. Eisner didn’t mention men, because he was talking about women; it was in the context of complimenting Goldie Hawn by elevating her to the level of a Lucille Ball, who is the gold standard of beautiful comediennes. Would it have been more acceptable if Eisner had told Hawn, “There are many, many beautiful comediennes, and you were merely one of them”?
Context is everything when quoting someone, but internet vigilantes often don’t even bother to look past the headline, much less read deeply enough to consider the context. All they needed to get fired up in this instance was Eisner’s comment that in his showbiz experience it is “impossible” to find really beautiful women who are also really funny. Should he have said “impossible”? No, because of course it’s not impossible. But that harmless exaggeration doesn’t warrant hanging him in effigy.
As comedians such as Chris Rock, Jerry Seinfeld, and The Office co-creator Stephen Merchant have complained lately, we as a culture have become boringly prudish and hypersensitive to even the most innocuous violations of politically correct orthodoxy. No public or even private figure can speak casually anymore without risking triggering the tiresome Angry Villagers of the internet, whose torches and pitchforks are always at the ready.
As Jon Ronson notes in So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, the internet has engendered “a great renaissance of public shaming . . . coercive, borderless, and increasing in speed and influence.” It is “like the democratization of justice.” Except that this “justice” is actually the ruthless condemnation of the insatiable mob, for whom every careless phrasing, every off-color joke, every unintended offense is a felony, and the punishment is always personal destruction. Then the mob moves on to the next outrage and the next target.