The New York Times has female trouble

Katie Roiphe defends risque jokes at work, but then an arts story wonders if women comics are going too far

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published November 16, 2011 9:00PM (EST)

Sarah Silverman
Sarah Silverman

The New York Times thinks naughty ladies are just da bomb. People still say "da bomb," right? That's a thing? On Sunday, the Paper of Record gave Katie Roiphe free rein to gas on "in favor of dirty jokes and risqué remarks," which, to her mind, are what those whiny girls are complaining about when they're being sexually harassed. "Show me a smart, competent young professional woman who is utterly derailed by a verbal unwanted sexual advance or an inappropriate comment about her appearance," she wrote, between boasts about her Princeton pedigree, "and I will show you a rare spotted owl." Show me evidence Katie Roiphe has ever held a real job, and I will eat a rare spotted owl.

Not willing to let any grass grow under its zeitgeisty, metaphoric feet, today the Times notices "Female Comedians, Breaking the Taste-Taboo Ceiling." Have you heard of this Sarah Silverman person? Because apparently she is rather raunchy. And lest you find yourself wondering how you woke up in 1998, and if so, whether Dawson's ever going to hook up with Joey, let me assure you, this story actually ran in the New York Times in November 2011. Coming next, a piece on how people are using emoticons. Oh, wait.

In the first four paragraphs of his piece on taboo-busting babes, Jason Zinoman opens with a 1979 quote from Johnny Carson, segues into a 2007 Vanity Fair piece by Christopher Hitchens, and lands with a flourish on a decade-old Sarah Silverman joke. As those saucy lady comics might say, this story is dustier than your grandmother's vagina.

After bringing us up to speed on Silverman's latest rape jokes, what do you think Zinoman covered next? That's right, Whitney Cummings, "another coarse, sexually frank female stand-up comic." Despite also doing rape jokes, Zinoman finds her "not particularly risky."

Cummings, like Silverman, is both attractive and comfortable around the F-bomb -- and a reliable marvel to the Times. Just two months ago, Andrew Goldman was asking her about being "objectively attractive," what she wears to meetings, and whether she  slept her way to fame and is "too dumb to own a car." It was hilarious.

You'd think the next place to go from here would be Chelsea Handler. Last spring, after all, the Times lovingly noted that "her body has the pre-silicone lushness of a '60s Playmate" while cooing that she admits, "I try to make fun of everyone as often as possible, especially minorities." But shockingly – shocking like a rape joke involving a black guy shocking – the Times veers to Amy Schumer. Schumer, who is not Chelsea Handler, is "blond and bubbly" with "wholesome, apple-cheeked cheer," and an act that "spouts proudly prejudiced views, mean-girl put-downs and meticulously recounted sexual exploits." See, it's completely different.

I'm just a cotton-headed set of ovaries on two feet, but I can't help noticing a recurring theme. Whether it's coming from Katie Roiphe or a culture writer, there's a weird mix of fascination and repugnance toward the gal with a seemingly manly swagger here. She's so cool, she can even laugh off sexual assault. Why can't more women be like her? And she gets to say that stuff about vaginas that other people can't. You know, like Jay-Z can say the N-word and gay men can call each other queer. Imagine the freedom! She's also hot. Who else feels a 1,200 word think piece coming on?

It's not that certain female comics don't perpetuate this attention-getting shtick -- if I never hear Sarah Silverman deliver an abortion punch line in that baby-talk monotone again, it'll be too soon. But the bangable-broad-with-a-potty-mouth story is approximately as relevant as the moms-sometimes-wear-nice-clothes-outside one. What's amazing isn't that a woman can cuss with her pretty little lipsticked mouth. It's that this jive-ass story is still being written, 10 years after it was vaguely topical. It's the astonishment that Johnny Carson's 1979 opinions no longer hold quite so much sway, and that sometimes people who can grow babies in their tummies can curse and talk about their periods or your erections. Guess the cat's out of the bag on that one. So congratulations to the Times on something truly original there. They've made the notion of breaking taboos utterly boring.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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Chelsea Handler Media Criticism New York Times Sarah Silverman Whitney Cummings