Pretty vs. Funny

I found a book in my work lunchroom that I promptly read, Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs by Chuck Klosterman. I really wanted to like it. Who doesn't want to read essays drawing parallels between pop culture iconography and the way regular humans operate? But I found it mostly contrived, with a heavy dose of unwanted snark. However, I think it must have influenced me, because I wouldn't have concocted the following post otherwise.

The death of of our beloved Bea Arthur has gotten me thinking. Bea was not a conventionally attractive woman; her broad shoulders, plain face, and deep voice made her the butt of not a few jokes. But even with this occasional ridicule, she was still the star of her own network tv show (Maude), won an Emmy, and became adored by millions as one of the Golden Girls. Although she never made the 50 Most Beautiful People list, it had no effect on her ability to carry a television show. This seems reasonable to me, but I've come the the realization that Bea was one of the very few women in Hollywood to "make it" because of her talent alone. She wasn't much to look at, but she was funny, and that's what mattered. And when she got *shudder* old, people still seemed to want to see her face on their screens.

Could a Bea Arthur gain popularity in our current culture?

Here's an example why I'm not sure. The media uproar over Susan Boyle is blowing my mind. If you don't know, Susan was a homely contestant on Britain's Got Talent who knocked everyone's socks off with her incredible singing voice, and became an internet sensation. But seriously. Is it really that noteworthy that an unattractive woman can sing, and has the confidence and desire to share her voice? People are behaving as if a dog performed open-heart surgery, and I find that pretty alarming. And what's weirder is that Boyle is now attempting to take steps to become more beautiful, getting her hair cut and dyed, and waxing her bushy brows. The public's response to her is multi-faceted; they're moved by her voice, shocked that it could come from her mouth, and confused about how to feel beyond that. We'll have to wait and see what their final judgement is.

Another fun fact: Tina Fey never got any screen time at all until she lost 20 pounds, and she was just as hilarious during her "fat" years as head writer of SNL as she is as the skinny star of 30 Rock. Early test audiences couldn't even handle quirky-looking Rachel Dratch as Fey's on-screen sidekick (she was replaced by big-eyed blonde Jane Krakowski (who is funny in her own right, but still.)) And that was for a character role, which is usually the only place non-pretties are accepted on tv (see Gladys Kravitz from Bewitched, or any next-door-neighbor or maiden aunt.)

So, to you I pose this question: will there ever be another Bea? Can you think of any other female stars whose looks had no bearing on their media popularity? I want to know what you think.


Squidhelmet said...

Oh man. I'm soooo glad you also think Klosterman is a douchebox. Just for the sake of conversation I tried to read that book a couple times (I swear, it's such a useless flap) and I just couldn't get through it. How do these snarky no-point bullshit artists gain traction?

I love your ongoing devotion to Bea - I've driven some fellow mourners to your site and they've enjoyed your reverence for the moral center of the Golden Girls. Although she criticized Blanche, she was always there to pick up the pieces.

As to your question... I imagine that we will allow a few women to grow old because we get so use to their faces that when the wrinkles come, we accept it because it's familiar. That's my best guess.

anna said...

Chuck Klosterman is THE WORST. I have read almost all his books, because I am so horrified at his popularity that I have to confront myself with his sexist pointlessness, and really style-less writing. Ugh.

The Susan Boyle thing has been really making me think lately, too. I genuinely don't understand why people can't imagine a person who isn't conventionally attractive could sing. Are good-looking people just supposed to be more talented in all areas? Or is it her confidence despite her looks that shocks people?

The Tina Fey/30 Rock facts are news to me. Wow. I have noticed how Tina Fey doesn't cover up her scar in 30 Rock like she does in movies, but I had no idea about the weight loss and Rachel Dratch (who I adore).

I think that cultural attitudes will have to shift back to where they were 30+ years ago for another Bea Arthur to emerge. In the past few decades, female entertainers have been increasingly expected to be not only talented, but also gorgeous. Look at Sarah Silverman. Do you think people would want to hear her dirty jokes if she wasn't so lovely? The context provides so much of the humor - a pretty girl saying those things makes it safer.

I also think this has happened in other areas of life, maybe in reaction to the early '90s. I may just be more sensitive to it because I am not into, um, personal maintenance (or maybe it's just NYC), but it seems like the expected level of personal grooming among women, regardless of profession, seems much higher than it was when we were highschool aged and just noticing these things. Can you imagine Cher wearing a black top and jeans to the Oscars nowadays?

pollyanna cowgirl said...

Ah, you guys. Thank you for reinforcing my C. Klosterman experience. Seriously, not cool. Anna, I remember you reading his books, which is one of the reasons I thought it would be okay. :) I especially hate the way he wraps up each essay with a totally lame bit of sentimentality. Brutal.