Michael Eisner Isn’t Sexist. Internet Vigilantes Are Just Out of Control

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.

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  • MunkiLord

    I think part of the problem is that male comedians(men in general) just aren’t judged by their looks to nearly the same degree that women are. When talking about Chris Rock, Seinfeld, and almost all male comedians their attractiveness typically isn’t mentioned because nobody cares. It’s about their jokes. But a female comedian, it’s not just about the jokes. They are also openly judged on their attractiveness. And men typically don’t have to worry about that nearly as often, if at all.

    So, to me, this does come off as very sexist. Though not in the woman hating they belong in the kitchen kind of misogyny. But the subtle way that society as a whole constantly preaches to women that their looks define them and their value as a person.

    Now do I think Eisner is some terrible guy for stating what he did? Of course not, he’s just voicing what goes through most of our minds anyways. Now that does mean he’s going to catch shit for that, which is ok too. When this sort of sexism shows up, it should be called out. Though I don’t think Eisner should be made the face of sexists, that is a bit much.

    • noufa

      In general? Same degree? This all so vague.

      Every audience notices the difference between Ralphie May & Lachlan Patterson, Or Jim Gaffigan & Joel McHale. Not one of them shies away from it in their act. Heck, think about the #1 gig for comedians: The Tonight Show, starring Jimmy Fallon. The fact that he had a cult following as the “cute guy” on SNL played a part in that.

      The suggestion that comedians ought not be defined by their appearance is downright bizarre. It’s like saying Dave Chapelle shouldn’t “have to” discuss race. Ideally, no. But we don’t live in an ideal world. Comedians understand that.

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  • Joseph Scott

    He was simply wrong. Amy Adams, Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day. Emma Stone, The House Bunny. Michelle Williams, The Baxter. Felicity Jones, Northanger Abbey. Parker Posey, Best In Show. Scarlett Johansson, Scoop. Heather Graham, Bowfinger. Elizabeth Hurley, Bedazzled. Sean Young, Fatal Instinct. Sherilyn Fenn, Fatal Instinct. Sandra Bullock, Miss Congeniality. Eva Longoria, Lower Learning. Rachel McAdams, The Hot Chick. Jennifer Love Hewitt, Heartbreakers. Isla Fisher, Wedding Crashers. Frances O’Connor, The Importance Of Being Earnest. Zooey Deschanel, Elf. Sophia Bush, Table For Three. Anne Hathaway, The Princess Diaries. Julie Bowen, Kids In America. Jennifer Morrison, Big Stan. Alicia Silverstone, Clueless. Jacqueline Lovell, Head Of The Family. Milla Jovovich, Zoolander. Christina Applegate, Just Visiting. Leslie Bibb, Talladega Nights. Eva Mendes, The Other Guys. Eliza Dushku, Bring It On. Bree Turner, Bring It On Again. Renee Zellweger, Down With Love. Brittany Snow, John Tucker Must Die. Nicollette Sheridan, Noises Off. Chyler Leigh, Not Another Teen Movie. Mia Kirshner, Not Another Teen Movie. Jennifer Garner, 13 Going On 30. Alexis Dziena, Fool’s Gold. Tiffani Thiessen, Shriek If You Know What I Did Last Friday The Thirteenth. Anna Faris, Just Friends. Jennifer Esposito, Breakin’ All The Rules. Marisa Tomei, My Cousin Vinny. Jodi Lyn O’Keefe, Whatever It Takes. Rachel Bilson, The To Do List. Hannah Spearritt, Seeing Double. Mary McCormack, Dickie Roberts Former Child Star. Alona Tal, Taking 5. Olivia D’Abo, Greedy. Kate Hudson, How To Lose A Guy In 10 Days. Carla Gugino, Miami Rhapsody. Gwyneth Paltrow, Emma. Halle Berry, B.A.P.S. Linda Cardellini, Scooby-Doo. Odette Annable, You Again. Elisabeth Shue, Molly. Jacki Piper, Carry On Loving. Rashida Jones, Little Black Book. Jenna Elfman, Krippendorf’s Tribe. Malin Akerman, The Heartbreak Kid. Katherine Heigl, Wish Upon A Star. Amanda Seyfried, Mean Girls. Kelli Garner, Man Of The House. Danneel Ackles, Fired Up. Andie MacDowell, Groundhog Day. Michelle Monaghan, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. Sarah McElligott, The Onion Movie. Kristin Scott Thomas, Keeping Mum. Talulah Riley, St. Trinian’s. Jenny McCarthy, Scary Movie 3. Amanda Bynes, She’s The Man. Jane McGregor, She Gets What She Wants. Piper Perabo, She Gets What She Wants. Joyce Hyser, Just One Of The Guys. Sigourney Weaver, Galaxy Quest. Catherine Corcoran, Return To Nuke ‘Em High Vol. 1. Kelly Preston, Secret Admirer. Juliette Lewis, Daltry Calhoun. Michelle Pfeiffer, I Could Never Be Your Woman. Mandy Moore, Saved. Eva Amurri, Saved. Mary Steenburgen, Step Brothers. Jennifer Aniston, Horrible Bosses. Charlize Theron, Waking Up In Reno. Uma Thurman, A Month By The Lake. Kelly Brook, School For Seduction. Ana Claudia Talancón, Ladies’ Night. Ana de la Reguera, Ladies’ Night. Sarah Jessica Parker, L.A. Story. Ashley Benson, Bart Got A Room. Amanda Peet, The Whole Nine Yards. Lauren McKnight, HottieBoombaLottie. Tea Leoni, Flirting With Disaster. Lauren Storm, I Love You Beth Cooper. Sofia Vergara, Chasing Papi. Roselyn Sanchez, Chasing Papi . . . .