Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Leaning in, with stiletto wit

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Are men obsolete? Geneticists might argue and the folks on Fox News certainly believe it's a hot topic, but NBC, where Amy Poehler and Tina Fey just triumphed at the Golden Globes, and ABC, where Ellen DeGeneres will be hosting the Oscars, seem to be confident that they are -- at least when it comes to hosting awards shows.

As hosts, Poehler, Fey and DeGeneres seem to have emerged from their male predecessors much as Eve emerged from Adam. One might also be tempted to say that, like Eve, they improved upon the original.

Not that Ricky Gervais, Billy Crystal or Steve Martin weren't terrific; not that Chris Rock, Hugh Jackman and Jon Stewart weren't brilliant. But they were just about as original as Adam. Or, for that matter, sin.

Yet of these hosts, Milton might have said they were busy justifying the ways of comedy to men. That's John Milton, by the way. Not Milton Berle.

What Milton Berle might have said about the male Globe and Oscar hosts is this: "They know what they're supposed to do but they don't know how to make it interesting." It was a line he used in comparing himself to Zsa Zsa Gabor's sixth husband.

The reason Fey and Poehler continue to win the audience at home is because they play to us. That's not playing down to the rabble; that's playing right into the world's repertoire. They weren't busily showing us what humour tight-walk they could do or proving how smart they were, but instead making the viewers feel part of what's going on. They're not attempting to dazzle us but to draw us in.

It's working.

We quote them, we imitate them, we regard them as one of us. One of the lines women loved from Fey's best-selling Bossypants? Where she says when she shows up someplace, people always think she's there to clean their aquarium.

There's no whining in Fey's observation; this is not simply an iteration of self-deprecating femininity passing itself off as humour. In itself, this demarcates the current generation of female humorists from earlier generations of performers who were told, more or less, to use themselves not as a sounding board for ideas but as a punching bag for insults.

What Fey offers in contrast is simply a declaration of fact by one of the most powerful people in the entertainment industry about the way a lot of women are treated: If you're not glammed up when you show up, expect to be handed a Swiffer and a bottle of Goo-Gone. Until we change the world, that is.

In Amy Poehler's provocative and inspiring speech at Variety's 2013 Power of Women Award ceremony, she began by acknowledging, "We're here in Beverly Hills, which is, let's face it, the moon." To position the world around L.A. and Hollywood as something other than the centre of the universe is as subversive as telling women to "lean in" without the goal of being able to take a look down their blouses. Poehler's emphasis on activism may have nothing directly to do with her comedic brilliance, but we delight in knowing she refuses to compartmentalize her life.

We've known that since 2011 when, at the TIME 100 Gala, Poehler gave a speech thanking the women who perform child care so others could work, a topic not usually addressed by the person holding the mike: "I would like to take a moment to thank those people... Some of whom are at your house right now while you're at this event." We know Poehler thinks off-screen as well as on; we know she says what we rarely admit; we know her stiletto wit is a match for her heels.

DeGeneres is -- and always has been -- better than we deserve. In another age, she would have been the fool and the truth-teller at court, but today she commands more power and better outfits. She acts as an ambassador, introducing us to our more perceptive, funnier and best selves. She even sort of looks like the Oscar.

Women might not yet be dominating the Senate, the Congress or the Supreme Court, but they are in ascendancy when it comes to comedy.

But take heart: Men are not obsolete. The smart ones are in the audience, sitting up front and cheering.

Gina Barreca is an English professor at the University of Connecticut, a feminist scholar who has written eight books, and a columnist for the Hartford Courant.

-- The Hartford Courant

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 20, 2014 A9

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