Michael Eisner’s “Beautiful Women Aren’t Funny” Comment Reveals the Old-Fashioned, Straightforward Nature of Hollywood Sexism

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.

Thus, presciently, spoke Michael Eisner, former Disney CEO, at a panel with the stunning and hilarious Goldie Hawn, of all people. There, beside the living, breathing, contradiction to all his basic assumptions, Eisner covered his tracks by declaring her to be simply “an exception.”

The location of their chat was the Aspen Ideas Festival, where various industry ultra-elites rub elbows in the wildflower-strewn shadows of the Rocky Mountains. In front of this crowd, Eisner — arguably once the most powerful person in Hollywood — doubled down on his thesis. “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,” he continued, speaking to Hawn. “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.”

Ever an overachiever, apparently, Eisner managed to tread on old Christopher Hitchens’ “women aren’t funny” territory while insulting pretty women and funny women at the exact same time. Given our current banner moment for diverse-looking funny ladies in TV, Hollywood, writing, and stand-up, it was also remarkably out of touch. Soon enough, the outrage got churning and Fox News thought it was a good topic for a debate.

The broader conversation about sexism in Hollywood, whether it’s merely perceived or truly statistical, often hits the following snag of an argument: but actually, is it really sexism, or is it a simply about audience, revenue, and the market? Hollywood is supposed to be liberal, after all. They all donate to Democrats! And the job of executives is to entertain the people, make them happy. Maybe “the people” want white guys front and center, now and forever. Thus, every time a film, an entire franchise, or a body of work that caters to people of color, older women, young girls, or anyone outside that young male demographic does well — which happens fairly regularly — it’s treated as an anomaly rather than a basis for a pattern.

But, of course, some brave voices have been speaking up for a long time, supporting the idea that it’s neanderthal beliefs like Eisner’s, rather than “the market,” which causes the race and gender problem in Hollywood. Whether the changed narrative comes from revelations in the Sony emails, from Meryl Streep and Natalie Portman boosting female writers and directors, or from Chris Rock going on a delightful spree of truth-telling about race in the industry, the general cultural winds seem to be shifting to awareness that there’s a big problem in the industry.

And that changing culture has even reached those who believe that the problem might extend to entrenched legal discrimination. As Gabrielle Union recently said, following up on Rock’s comments with some of her own: “They say, ‘We just went with the best candidate’ but if you’re never considered, you never have a chance.” Recently, our own Jason Bailey spoke to Ariela Migdal, a senior staff attorney with the Women’s Rights Project of the ACLU, who told him why “we’ve asked our civil rights enforcement agencies to get involved” in Hollywood bias allegations.

“We’ve asked them to look into the systemic bias here — and what that means is, it’s not just, your boss fired you because you’re a woman, but it’s entrenched in your industry, or there’s a handful of big studios and other employers that are involved,” Migdal said. “So it’s not one person that did something wrong; the whole hiring system is off in this industry.”

For decades, Eisner sat on top of that hiring, greenlighting, and larger cultural structure that produced popular mass entertainment — and, often, entertainment for young girls. It’s wonderful that in theaters today, more progressive fare like Inside Out is showing up on screen to offer girls a broader (and funnier, and sadder) view of themselves. But the situation hasn’t changed so much, yet. In 2013, men made up more than 98 percent of directors for the 100 top-grossing movies.

So the next time you hear that Hollywood (or any gender-skewed sector of the entertainment industry) isn’t actually racist or sexist, after all, because the media is so liberal — point out Eisner’s words, and what the ACLU is investigating. None of these problems are “actually” about anything except plain, unadorned prejudice.