March 20, 2013

Kristen Wiig, Strange Doctor

By Ellen Finnigan
It's official. Saturday Night Live has lost something that cannot be replaced. I have made a real effort to reserve judgment in order to give the new female cast members a chance, but I'm sorry, I cannot pretend anymore. It just isn't the same. Some of the new chicks I like: Cecily Strong is very versatile. Kate McKinnon shows real promise. But there was something about Kristen Wiig that went beyond good acting or comedic timing, that made her seem from the very beginning like something singular and special, a star.

What was it? The ancient Greeks had a word for this: kairos. Kairos was the Greek god of opportunity. Classical rhetoricians used the word to refer to the right moment, the need to remain aware of the changing circumstances and conditions in which we communicate. Comedy is a kind of communication; so a comedian must have an intuitive understanding of the context in which she performs, including the psychological and emotional makeup of her audience. Wiig was a star from the beginning because she understood her audience and she understood her time. On Saturday nights, I mourn her absence.

When Wiig debuted on SNL in 2005, Sex and the City had only been off the air for one year. Sex-tape celebutante Paris Hilton was starring in the second season of The Simple Life, as reality television was treating us to some real gems. On The Swan and Extreme Makeover, women deemed unattractive were given free plastic surgery, while "average" guys on Average Joe competed for the affections of a hot woman. Inspired by the Desperate Housewives, Americans got four million Botox injections in 2005, making it a new $1.4 billion a year industry. Americans got 324,000 nose jobs that year, 98,000 liposuctions, 290,000 boob jobs, 230,000 eyelid lifts, and 135,000 tummy tucks. After allegedly spending almost a quarter of a million dollars on plastic surgery, Demi Moore snagged "hottie" Ashton Kutcher, the kids were all rating each other on the website "Hot or Not," and Paris's catchphrase, "That's hot," was everywhere.

So when Wiig appeared on SNL as the Target Lady, a matronly, overly excitable, cashier sporting a so-not-hot bowl cut, and later in a spoof of the Lawrence Welk Show as Dooneese, a deranged backup singer with a high, balding forehead, contorted face and tiny, deformed hands, she stuck out like a sore thumb, so to speak.'s Paul Dergarabedian said, "She reminds me of Will Ferrell with her fearlessness and almost complete lack of vanity when it comes to making comedy." A lack of vanity!—and in a woman?—who could imagine it?

Men always say they appreciate a woman with a sense of humor, but if it looks like this? Nobody wants to sleep with that, Kristen. Nobody. And if you put that out there, who is going to want to sleep with you? And isn't the whole point of life about trying to get people to want to sleep with you? That seemed to be what the culture was trying to tell us in the 00's. (That is always what the culture is trying to tell us: It is one way to create billion-dollar industries.)

This was a huge part of Wiig's appeal: There was nothing we needed more in 2005 than an attractive, leggy brunette who was willing to brazenly undermine her would-be hotness. After all, the opposite of "hot" isn't "average" or even "ugly." "Hotness" isn't about beauty; it's about sex appeal. So the antonym would be something like goofy or just plain weird. Wiig could shed her hotness in an instant; in fact she seemed eager to. But there was more to her singularity than a lack of vanity as Wiig blazed a trail by creating a unique brand of comedy that said something about what it is like to be a woman in this world today.

Who can forget the opening scene of Bridesmaids? No man could have written it. It begins with a late night hook-up between Annie (Kristen Wiig), an insecure thirty-something, and Ted (Jon Hamm), a quintessential player.

She says, dreamily, "I love your eyes."

He responds matter-of-factly, "Cup my balls."

"Okay," she says. "I can do that!"

"You know what to do!" he calls out, laughing.

Ted is a total jackass who would surely crack up if someone spelled "BOOBS" on a calculator. He treats Annie like a blow-up doll. Annie is the picture of accommodation. She once asks meekly, "Can we slow down?" and later suggests, "Um, I think maybe we're on different rhythms here," but her face says it all—not that Ted would notice.

In the morning, Ted tells her that, though he really likes "hanging out," he doesn't want a relationship. He then asks her to leave. On her way out she is forced to climb over the electronic gate at the end of the driveway (in heels) and when the gate starts to open with Annie straddling atop, we know the humiliation with Ted will never end.

But Wiig's comedy doesn't stem from any angry, man-bashing feminism. In his classic "Essay on Comedy" published in 1897, Victorian essayist George Meredith mused: "Folly is the natural prey of the Comic, known to it in all her transformations, in every disguise." Is Wiig concerned here with the folly committed by a womanizing jerk, or does she have another target in mind? When Annie meets up with her best friend Lillian (Maya Rudolf) later that day, Lillian conveys her disappointment in Annie for hooking up with that "asshole" again. Annie offers the excuse: "But he's so hot." The folly here lies with Annie: Because Ted is "hot" (what we are all supposed to be and want above all else), she is willing to neglect her emotional needs and settle for the occasional orgasm instead. Later in the movie she angles for "more" with Ted, hinting that she wants him to be her date to Lillian's wedding, but he continues to make it clear that he's not interested, openly referring to her as his "fuck buddy" and "number three." The other source of folly is Annie's persistent delusion (common among the fairer sex) that sex with Ted will somehow eventually lead to emotional intimacy with Ted. Annie and Ted are both pathetic, but it is Wiig's character we sympathize with, because we, as women, understand the world she's maneuvering in.

This is a post-dating world where men no longer have to compete for women. Instead, women have to compete for men. The "price" of sex is so low that courtship has almost entirely disappeared. In GQ, a very candid Siobhan Rosen observed that "a buffet of fetishistic porn available twenty-four/seven has made age-old sexual practices seem unexciting," and "sex itself is like masturbation with a fellow 3D person." Degradation and abuse are considered normal sexual play or innocuous entertainment, and women participate in order to keep their man's attention. Girls learn very early on that relationships are male-centered (as one teenager put it in New York Magazine, "They expect you to do things and if you say no they'll be mad") and that they live in a culture where they will be rigorously and relentlessly appraised in terms of their sexual capital.

Now don't get me wrong: I loved Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, the female leads on SNL before Wiig came along. Tina was a sardonic beauty with brains, Amy an impish tomboy with a wicked cackle. They did skits about Kotex Classics, "mom jeans," pregnancy and other "girl stuff," but those skits struck me as being generically funny or outrageously funny, not funny in a way that was socially critical of gender relations, the way SNL's presidential sketches often expose something about the political milieu. Tina and Amy struck me as tough, just one of the guys, blending in with the largely male troupe of SNL and its masculine sensibility even if at times they seemed to be leading it. Sexual politics is a distinct realm in which women's attempts to be just one of the guys (a la Carrie Bradshaw, who famously proclaimed to "have sex like a man") simply do not ring true, and I wonder if that's why they never went there. Kristen bravely did.

Take Shanna, Wiig's ditzy, breathless Marilyn Monroe character. She at first comes across as sexy (in a cartoonish way) and has all the men stuttering and drooling over her, but she soon turns gross, very gross. ("Gross" could be another antonym of "hot.") Our culture prizes hotness in a woman above all else, and Shanna throws it back in our faces. I wasn't surprised when Shanna was voted the second-to-last in a survey of favorite Wiig characters on Entertainment Weekly's website, with only 2.9% of the votes. Apparently nobody likes a turd in the cultural punchbowl of the unrelenting sexualization of women (and taking into account the scatological humor Wiig employs in that skit, trust me, that's an apt metaphor.) I love Shanna. The theme of "appearance versus reality" makes excellent fodder for comedy because there is no end to our folly when it comes to our tendency to judge things based on appearance, and the disillusion that sets in when the former gives way to the latter. Shanna makes me want to become a waitress at my local "breastaurant" just so I can serve up some wings to men with a lip-glossed smile, then turn around, bend over, and fart all over their food.

When Wiig isn't portraying weirdos and screwballs that would instantly kill any guy's erection, she occasionally capitalizes on her own genetically bequeathed hotness, but she seems to do so only when there is a point. Take Rebecca Larue, Flirting Expert. Here, Wiig embodies the spirit and essence of traditional women's magazines, teaching us how to flirt using a combination of ridiculous physical cues and birdbrain vapidity. The folly exposed here is desperation, a word which has almost completely disappeared from our vocabulary. When I was growing up, I would occasionally hear someone refer to a female as "desperate." It was an insult, but not as mean-spirited as calling someone a "slut." Connotatively, the word "slut" speaks to a woman's sexual activity, while the word "desperate" speaks more to a woman's dignity. A desperate woman would do anything to get a man or to get a man's attention. She trades on her sexual capital. Sex is one thing almost everyone wants, and a body is the one thing everyone has; so what does it say about you if you lead with that?

The thing is: We're all desperate now! Take a walk down the street. I'm not talking about women who simply want to look and feel beautiful; I'm talking about the fact that New York City is having trouble enforcing anti-sex-trafficking laws because it is becoming harder to tell who is and who is not a prostitute. Even "serious journalists," if they are going to be on television, are expected to show as much skin as possible at every turn. Ratings rise along with the hemlines. Wiig, of course, takes desperation to extremes: When Larue's antics fail to entice Seth Meyers, she turns to him, throws both feet up in the air, and spreads her legs. Way to cut to the chase, Kristen.

Wiig could employ the Gumby-like physicality of a Molly Shannon or the peculiarity of a Rachel Dratch, but she was rarely as creepy as they often were. Her best characters were always endearing, springing as they did from an emotional core, whether of desperation (Rebecca Larue), nervousness (Judy Grimes), or insecurity (Penelope), which, when taken to extremes, made her characters ridiculous and impossible, but at the same time heart-wrenchingly familiar. It was Wiig's ability to capture and exploit the quality of vulnerability in her characters that made her comedy resonate so well with women. Vulnerability is, of course, an inevitable part of the female sexual experience. Vulnerability is also a requirement for emotional honesty, and smart comedy has to be emotionally honest or else it's just screwball, slapstick or ridicule.

Now I admit that perhaps I am giving too much credit to Wiig and not enough credit to her writers, but when you notice recurring patterns in an actor's sensibility, you have to assume she has something to do with it. One of my favorite skits from last season was "Tell Him," an all-female musical number set in a fifties diner where Wiig and company give one of the girls advice on snaring the man she likes. They start by singing:

Tell him that you're never gonna leave him
Tell him that you're always gonna love him
Tell him, tell him, tell him, tell him right now.

The confused lover objects, saying, "I did tell him all of those things! On the first date! But he seemed really weirded out!" So they say no, no, no, that in the beginning you have to keep things light and casual:

Tell him that you don't believe in marriage
Tell him that you never wanna have kids
Tell him, tell him, tell him, tell him all lies.

In every verse, the advice devolves:

Tell him that you're open to a three-way
Tell him that you watch porn every day...

Abby Elliot explains, "You need to show him that you're not one of those girls."

The confused lover asks, "What girls?"

"I mean...girls," Elliot says with a shrug.

The absurdity here lies in women denying what are only the most natural of inclinations and desires—for respect, for exclusivity, for marriage, for children, for love—if they want to have any chance of success with men, and in the fact that "success" in our brave new world of relationships would be to have a man call you "chill"... and then never call you again. In another age, a man would have to prove himself to a woman in order to win her. Now, a woman has to prove herself to a man: by assuring him that she doesn't expect anything from him whatsoever. This skit did such a brilliant job of exposing the feeling common among women that: hey, it's a man's bed, we're only sleeping in it.

George Meredith wrote that folly is "the daughter of unreason and sentimentalism"; as the "first born of common sense," it is the "vigilant comic's duty to strike down folly where she finds it." We live in a time of confused gender roles and expectations but if we can still collectively identify folly as folly, if we can still laugh at the same things—in ourselves and in our world—it gives me hope that we are not as adrift as we sometimes appear to be. Meredith puts it better:

If you believe that our civilization is founded in common-sense (and it is the first condition of sanity to believe it), you will, when contemplating men, discern a Spirit overhead...Whenever it sees [men] self-deceived or hoodwinked... drifting into vanities, congregating in absurdities; whenever they violate the unwritten but perceptible laws binding them in consideration one to another; the Spirit overhead will ... cast an oblique light on them, followed by volleys of silvery laughter. That is the Comic Spirit.

He continues: "To feel its presence and to see it is your assurance that many sane and solid minds are with you in what you are experiencing." This is the assurance Kristen Wiig offered women in her comedy. It is unreasonable to expect a woman to have sex like a man! It is sentimental to think that after years of sexual dallying and womanizing, an aging bachelor's heart will suddenly turn to gold if he meets the right girl! It is cruel to tell a woman that she must repress and deny everything about her that makes her feminine, and thus different from men, that she must never be vulnerable (one of "those" girls), or that she might one day be deemed the "right" girl if only she is hot enough.

Poor, Demi. All that plastic surgery and she could only keep Ashton for six years. What now? Back to the cutting board, I guess.

You see Folly perpetually sliding into new shapes in a society possessed of wealth and leisure, with many whims, many strange ailments and strange doctors.

In our society, folly is clearly sliding into new shapes, but to suggest that the sexual mores of our day may not be an ideal corrective to the notions of the past, to suggest that they may, in fact, have follies of their own, is to risk raising the hackles of a very skeptical public, because anything perceived as "values language" is considered suspect. In this kind of environment, comedy can be an especially effective mode of communication, because it allows for social criticism while withholding moral judgment. Kristen Wiig and other female comedians might be just the "strange doctors" we need. They slip judgment under the door and force us to reckon with something to which we are far more receptive than moral posturing: common sense.

George Meredith wrote: "I do not know that the fly in amber is of any particular use, but the Comic idea enclosed in a comedy makes it more generally perceptible and portable, and that is an advantage." It was to our advantage that Kristen Wiig took the stage every Saturday night for seven years, captured the female experience in a comic idea, and made it easier for everyone to view from a female perspective. I can only hope she will continue to bring her feminine sensibility, her vulnerability, her emotional honesty, her searing wit, and her social criticism to the big screen. Regardless, Kristen Wiig has shown us that female comedians today have a unique power to be able to help men and women to see "the considerable violations of the unwritten but perceptible laws binding them in consideration one to another,"thereby exposing the folly which is so often packaged and literally sold, in myriad ways, as progress.

© Ellen Finnigan 2013
Ellen Finnigan received her M.F.A. in Creative Nonfiction from The University of Montana and recently published her first book, The Me Years. She lives in Athens, Georgia. Visit her at

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