Archive for January, 2010

Marriage. It’s what brings us together, today…

It is, after all, the Mother of all decisions–I mean, when we’re in the market for a car, a house, a job, or a sandwich, must we pronounce our love and fidelity to the Passat or the Pastrami til death do us part? Of course not. (And thank god for that, or I swear to you, I would be wheel-less, homeless, unemployed and starving.) And a couple of new books shine a little light on an interesting point: when it comes to that infamous “Piece of Paper,” could it be the decision-making part of the Til Death Do Us Part that does us in?

First, consider the new book “A Little Bit Married,” just released this week, written by journalist/blogger Hannah Seligson. Of the project, Seligson writes at the Daily Beast:

‘A Little Bit Marrieds’ are the ones that write a prenup on a piece of loose-leaf paper as they move in, detailing who paid for the Ikea bureau, who brought the flat-screen TV, whose parents gave them the bed. They don’t share the cost of anything ‘just in case.’ They each have separate shelf units for their books and DVDs. Are they roommates or are they building a life together? Are they husband and wife, girlfriend and boyfriend, or roommates? They may have seen friends go through the whole lifecycle–dating, marriage, and kids–but they still don’t own a couch together. Each thinks the other person is marriage material, but how can they commit when there are un-traveled continents and four more career paths to explore? Everything is great–but what if there is something better out there?

What if, indeed? It’s the classic conundrum–no one wants to make the wrong decision. And the easiest way to ensure we don’t is to avoid commitment altogether, to keep the doors open, to see for yourself whether that grass is greener. Or, at the very least–and more to the point–to reserve the right to take off to see for yourself about that grass at any time.

Interestingly, the issue of choice comes up in “Committed,” Elizabeth Eat Pray Gilbert’s latest, as well, albeit in a different context. Check what The New Yorker‘s Ariel Levy has to say:

For all the variability in the meaning of marriage, one fairly consistent element over time and place was that it had nothing to do with love. “For most of history it was inconceivable that people would choose their mates on the basis of something as fragile and irrational as love and then focus all their sexual, intimate, and altruistic desires on the resulting marriage,” [Stephanie] Coontz [author of “Marriage, a History”] writes. In fact, loving one’s spouse too much was considered a threat to social and religious order, and was discouraged in societies as disparate as ancient Greece, medieval Islam, and contemporary Cameroon. The modern Western ideal of marriage as both romantic and companionate is an anomaly and a gamble. As soon as people in any culture start selecting spouses based on emotion, the rates of broken marriages shoot up. “By unnerving definition,” Gilbert writes, “anything that the heart has chosen for its own, mysterious reasons it can always unchoose.”

Ultimately, Gilbert is clear about what she, like most people, wants: everything. We want intimacy and autonomy, security and stimulation, reassurance and novelty, coziness and thrills. But we can’t have it.

So. The lure of what’s still out there makes it difficult for us to commit. As does the weight of the personal responsibility inherent in making a choice, especially one based on something as fickle as feelings–and then, by virtue of looking at it as a choice, the likelihood that at some point someone will decide they chose wrong. It all reminds me of something one of the women we’ve interviewed for the book said once–albeit while agonizing over another big question, that of What To Do With Her Life: Sometimes I wish I was born in some other country where everything from career to spouse would be chosen for me.

It would be easier that way, wouldn’t it? Maybe even happier. But, alas, here we are. For better or worse.

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Sometimes we need to step back and grab ourselves a little perspective. Sure, we all complain and kvetch about how difficult we have it, trying to make our way in the male-dominated world of work when we never learned to slay the dragon. But how about, just for today, we consider ourselves lucky

Because nothing we angst about even remotely compares to the plight of many military women — who actually DO learn to slay the dragon — serving in the Middle East. Not only do they encounter an often hostile workplace while they are in the field, but when they come back they are as likely to suffer the devastating effects of post traumatic stress disorder as their male colleagues. Because until recently, no one paid attention.

Heartbreaking, really. Because PTSD often manifests itself differently in women — and because women aren’t assigned to combat — their PTSD wasn’t readily recognized. And, because women’s underlying issues were often different than men’s, no one was quite sure how to treat them. Oh, and add this: Many of those women — who can’t bear to be touched, who freak when they hear loud noises, who can’t eat and can’t sleep, who suffer from intense feelings of isolation — come home to take care of their small children, often by themselves. Just imagine that.

And here’s the kicker. In addition to having the horrors of the war scene on constant replay when they get home, many of these women have the scars of sexual assault and harassment to deal with, too. Here’s more, from this past Sunday’s Mercury News:

When imagining a war veteran with an anxiety disorder, it’s likely few people picture a young woman. But women make up 15 percent of active-duty military members, and the Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that by the end of 2020, women will represent 10 percent of the nation’s veteran population. And though military and congressional policy says women can’t participate in direct ground combat, they’re faced with many of the same situations. Because of the unpredictable nature of warfare in Iraq and Afghanistan, everyone is serving on the front lines. Women carry guns, and use them. They drive Humvees hit by improvised explosive devices. They interrogate, and witness bloodshed. Women come home with the same long-term, emotional and physical problems as their male counterparts, yet women return to a society that for the most part doesn’t understand — or accept — that they’re serving in the line of fire.As a result, the feelings of isolation can be even more overwhelming, especially since a woman is often one of few in her unit, says Natara Garovoy, program director of the Women’s Prevention, Outreach and Education Center for the VA Palo Alto Health Care System.

Complicating matters, some female soldiers live in fear of being attacked by one of their own. In 2008, the VA reported that one in five women screened for military sexual trauma had in fact experienced such an incident, be it sexual harassment or sexual assault. Garovoy, a clinical psychologist, says that because the risk is so high, most women in the military are required to do everything — from top-secret details to visiting the bathroom — with a buddy.

As an aside: Three years ago, Liz Weeker, one of my journalism students, wrote her capstone piece — a longform piece of investigative journalism — on this very subject. She did a fabulous job, picking up on a serious issue long before the mainstream media noticed. But here’s the thing. She found women with PTSD who were willing to talk to her, but had a tough time finding any studies or research, or “experts” to provide background, analyis or talk about treatment.

You can guess why. No one was paying attention.

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As Americans, we put quite a bit of stock in happiness. Our founding fathers even name its pursuit as an inalienable right–up there with life and liberty. And I challenge you to find a person who’d answer the question “Do you want to be happy?” with an “Eh, I could take it or leave it.”

But a recent post by Penelope Trunk on her Brazen Careerist blog suggests that, not only is happiness not so admirable a pursuit–in fact, she uses the word “vacuous”–but that, in choosing to chase a life defined by happiness, we are necessarily opting out of an interesting one. Why’s that? Choices. In her post “Do you overemphasize happiness?” she writes:

I think choosing a life that is interesting to us and choosing a life that makes us feel happy are probably very different choices.

For one thing, people who are happy do not look for a lot of choices, according to Barry Schwartz, in his book, The Paradox of Choice. People who want to have an interesting life are always looking for more choices and better choices, and they make decisions for their life based on maximizing choices.

She then riffs on her different experiences living in New York City and Madison, Wisconsin, where she currently resides, letting the judgments fly. (New York offers choices and opportunities, the promise of access to the best of everything. Madison offers cheese, football, and PETA-inflaming bioscience departments.) She explains her need to go there thus:

The fact that I feel compelled to have a tirade about Wisconsin in the middle of this post is interetsting to me. People who value choices over happiness never argue about it. They are proud of it. People who value happiness over having a life full of interesting opportunities get indignant over being accused that they made that choice…

What this illustrates, though, is how different the world of lots of choices is. People will pay a ton of money to have a lot of choices, which is what they perceive as an interesting life. (See the average rent per square foot in NYC) but people will not pay a ton of money for a life with relatively few choices. (See the average rent per square foot in Madison.) This makes me think that people put a higher premium on choices, because choices make life more interesting.

That they do. After all, a life of PB&J for lunch every day is a reliable snooze. No sushi? No ceviche? No curry? No thank you. But that it’s interesting or happy, one or the other–much as it pains me to say it, I think maybe she has a point. But, as always, I think we’d be missing something if we didn’t look a little harder at what she means when she says happiness–and it seems that, in this post, what she’s really talking about is ease. While one might argue that it’s a given that choices make life more interesting, the women we’ve spoken to for our book seem to all agree: choices make life hard. But do difficulty and challenge necessarily equate to unhappiness? And does seeking them out make us gluttons for punishment? I’m not so sure.

And, to her point that, as opposed to those who choose a “happy life”, those who opt for a life filled with options don’t feel the need to defend themselves, I’d argue: probably not. As we’ve said time and again, when it comes to women who’ve been told how lucky they are that they can be anything they want — well, to suggest that there’s something wrong with seeking out options, hoping for that access to the best of everything, that’d be right up there with suggesting that the earth is flat. As hard as dealing with all the choices afforded to women today can be, very few of us would trade all those opportunities–even if, as Trunk suggests, doing so might offer a shortcut to happiness.  Maybe that’s because happiness is in the definition, and if an interesting life is what one is after, creating and living one brings its own variety of happiness.

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And now for the Friday funnies. Macleans just posted a piece on the feminism of botox, or some such, that deserves at least a minimal riff. To wit, it reports on the ruckus that ensued when Sen. Harry Reid suggested that the new health care plan include a “bo-tax” on cosmetic procedures. Opposition erupted all over the place, McClean’s reported, including from this unlikely corner — NOW:

Opposition to the Bo-tax from the American Medical Association further muddled the matter. As did its denunciation by the National Organization for Women (NOW), the largest feminist lobby in the U.S. NOW’s president Terry O’Neill argued the Bo-tax unfairly targeted women, who comprise 90 per cent of cosmetic surgery recipients —especially middle-aged women facing workplace discrimination who rely on sometimes risky cosmetic procedures to “freshen” their image.

NOW’s seemingly pro-Botox stance was greeted as a jolting about-face from its long-standing opposition to the pressure on women to conform to rigid beauty ideals. Back in 1968, two years after its founding, the group famously burned a trash can full of bras, girdles and cosmetics outside of the Miss America beauty pageant.

Now middle-aged itself, with founding member Gloria Steinem admitting to having had cosmetic eye surgery, NOW’s opposition to the Bo-tax suggested resignation with the ubiquity of cosmetic work and acceptance of its new artificial norms. Older women’s aged appearance was holding them back, O’Neill told the New York Times: “I know a lot of women whose earning power stalled out or kicked down as they entered into their 50s, unlike their male counterparts’, whose really went up.

Oh, I get it. You can fiddle with your looks if you insist you’re doing it to feed your family. (Notice I did not touch “aged appearance”.) Then you can say you’re oppressed and you’re off the hook. But if you choose to go under the knife or — to go broad with this issue, which is where I really want to go — put on lipstick or color your hair or wear a pair of drop-dead stilettos just to feed your ego, you’re clearly a victim of the patriarchy. A tool of the sexist society.

Why else would you want to look good? Because, the wisdom goes, you’re only doing this to pander to the mythical male who not only dictates the definitions of beauty, but likes ’em young, too. (It’s beyond me why any smart woman would even care about pleasing some weenie who is much more comfortable with a starry-eyed girl ten or fifteen years his junior than a woman who is more or less his equal. But that’s beside the point.)

Anyway, hello? I’ve always seen this as a stupid and sexist way of looking at the way we look at our looks. Because let’s face it, vanity begins at home. In the bedroom mirror. There’s one big reason most of us futz with our hair, play dress-ups before we leave the house, put on makeup: It’s to please ourselves — and secondarily, each other. Significant others — or potential significant others — of the male persuasion don’t know Jimmy Choo from Jimmy Kimmel, wouldn’t know a low-light from a headlight, would rather your lipstick is off than on, and aren’t likely to pay close attention to what you’re wearing — unless it’s an old pair of jeans (and then they’re tickled, especially if it means they can dress in kind) or perhaps something Brittany Spears might or might not have worn to get out of a limo.

So I guess I don’t understand why we have to make up these silly rationalizations or apologies if we care about the way we look. We’re not going to lose our feminist card if we like flipping through the pages of Vogue, if we’re a sucker for the cosmetic counter at Macy’s, if we color our hair, or if, you know, we’re considering an eye job. We’re doing it for us.

What can be more feminist than that?

photo credit: Discover.com: Marylin Monroe (1957) by Milton H. Greene
Image courtesy of Marquardt Beauty Analysis

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Quick: what do the washing machine, the birth control pill, and the Internet all have in common?

Hint: It’s not the Maytag repair man. Or Al Gore.

Give up? At one time or another, each has been credited with liberating women. Go with me, if you will, to a dark and scary place: a time before washing machines. Between the heating of the water, the scrubbing of the stains, the wringing of the soap, and the pinning of the clothes to the line, well, women hardly had time for anything other than laundry… which was actually probably kind of okay, as there was no such thing as Ortho Tri-Cyclen back in those days either, and, well, no time for nookie at least meant no risk of another kid to keep in freshly laundered Osh Kosh B’gosh.

The pill, well, that connection’s equally easy to understand. Finally, women could screw with abandon! Or at least with a greatly reduced chance of a lifelong reminder of a night of screwing with abandon. No longer  would our dreams have to take a backseat to an accidental pregnancy. With the choice of when–and if–we’d become mothers in our own control, all kinds of other choices–like hey, what do I want to do with this life of mine??–materialized.

(Given the above, is it any wonder sex-atop-the-spin-cycle is a female fantasy of archetypal proportions?)

And then, there’s the Internet. Uh… This one I’m having a little bit of trouble with. Actually, I agree that a case could be made for the freedom afforded by the wild ‘n wooly worldwide interwebs, but it’s Virginia Heffernan’s take, from this week’s NYT magazine, that gives me pause. Check it:

A strategically arranged notebook computer, positioned like a dad’s broadsheet in the Eisenhower era, has become a force field against domestic distractions. While you beetle-brow it through your ‘work’–searching for your airline-rewards password, finding out who Justin Bieber is, obsessing about freckles on my-skincheck.com–you become, by magic, uninterruptable…

Thanks to the Internet, women who prefer never, ever to leave the house to enter the unpredictable world of vice presidents and printer hubs get to pursue fame and fortune as greedily as anyone. (The phrase, for your records, is “work independently.”) Our vaunted verbal skills come through just fine in instant messaging, and we get to skip the stuff that requires broad shoulders, a baritone and understanding of wolf packs: the dread face-to-face interactions. Sure, all those deals that were supposed to go down on the golf course or at the urinal — they probably still happen there. But now, if we so choose, we have the means to text-pester the golfers all the livelong day. Show them which colleague will not be ignored!

I submit, in all seriousness, that women have benefitted more (even) than men by telecommuting technology. Downloading school forms, pumping breast milk, tending to a sick kid, loading up the crockpot, straightening the kitchen — all this can be done with a BlackBerry in hand. None of this can be done — done well, anyway — at the office.

Women, of course, have the same complaints about wired culture that men do: anxiety, insomnia, no escape. But working from home does mean avoiding the “second shift,” that ’90s horror, in which the workday was said to be followed by a day of housework and child care, somehow all in 24 hours. With the Internet, work and life have become one long shift. But isn’t that what middle-class life is meant to be?

So the question, dear reader, is this: that women can now do all of the work–or neither work nor engage with their home lives– without ever entering the world outside their homes, this is liberation?

If so, I say, bring on the chains.

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Apparently, having a wife helps. But we’ll get back to that.

Yesterday we addressed the lack of girls in the boys’ locker room, namely the late-night comedy writers club. Which led Alison to comment:

Are we setting our sights too low by wishing there were more women in late night? Let’s follow the lead of Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Jenna Elfman, Courtney Cox, etc., and go after PRIME TIME slots for hilarious women! The un-funny old men can keep making their lame jokes after we’ve gone to sleep for the night!

And so today, we’re aiming at another boys’ club, this one close to the top of the food chain: the rarefied air of foreign diplomacy, and what the Washington Post dubbed “the Hillary effect,” which it cites not only as the cause for the increase in women in our own foreign service, but for the increase in female ambassadors to the United States as well. And the numbers certainly put those of the late-night writers’ rooms to shame:

More than half of new recruits for the U.S. Foreign Service and 30 percent of the chiefs of mission are now women, according to the State Department. That is a seismic shift from the days, as late as the 1970s, when women in the Foreign Service had to quit when they married, a rule that did not apply to men.

As for the foreign diplomats, the Post reports:

There are 25 female ambassadors posted in Washington — the highest number ever, according to the State Department.

“This is breaking precedent,” said Selma “Lucky” Roosevelt, a former U.S. chief of protocol.

Women remain a distinct minority — there are 182 accredited ambassadors in Washington — but their rise from a cadre of five in the late 1990s to five times that is opening up what had been an elite’s men club for more than a century.

It makes sense when you think about it, especially since women traditionally have been thought of as peacekeepers. The Post further points out that Hillary has been responsible for championing women’s rights across the globe, which is a good thing. Diversity at the top has also been cited for more open-minded decision making processes and, in some cases, a stronger focus on poverty, health care, and the marginalization of girls in many nations, especially when it comes to education:

[Former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine] Albright said she guards against saying that women focus on “soft issues.” “They are often the hardest issues: poverty, discrimination, education and health,” she said.

On the other hand, what’s good for the world may not always be so easy for the women who are changing it. (The fact that the WaPo’s powers-that-be chose to play this story in Arts and Living, rather than the front section, is pretty telling in and of itself.) Various ambassadors are quoted in the piece, some saying that being a woman gives them a certain special status–that of a curiosity (so much for the blending-in act those joke-slingers are attempting). Or, as Singapore’s ambassador Heng Chee Chan, who arrived in Washington in 1996, told the Post, being presumed to be a man:

When a table was booked under “Ambassador Chan” and she arrived asking for it, she was told, ‘Oh, he is not here yet.’ ”

Many said they are still often bypassed in receiving lines and the male standing beside them is greeted as “Mr. Ambassador.”

“Even when I say I am ambassador, people assume I am the spouse,” said [India’s first female ambassador Meera] Shankar, who has represented India in Washington for nearly a year.

And — here comes the wife part — there’s a certain lack of support, as well:

While male ambassadors are usually accompanied by wives, female ambassadors are often here alone. Of eight interviewed, four are divorced and four said their husbands did not accompany them to Washington because of their own jobs. …Ambassadors’ wives have historically played a huge role in entertaining – a key part of an envoy’s job – so that duty falls to the female ambassadors. ‘We need a wife, too!’ several remarked.

There’s even a tinge of Groucho Marx, who famously said he’d never join a club that would accept him as a member, in this statement from Susan Johnson, president of the American Foreign Service Association:

Johnson said the rise in female diplomats coincides with what she sees as a shift in investment away from diplomacy and toward defense. ‘Is the relative feminization of diplomacy indicative of its decline as a center of power and influence?’

Clearly, we hope not, though her quote smacks a little of the “newsmommy” drubbing aimed at Diane Sawyer when she was selected to take over World News Tonight. Still, Johnson says she is encouraged to see the shift.

And so am I. As is true with all boys’ clubs, whether it be late night TV or the highest echelons of power, it takes guts, if not a wife, to pave the way for the rest of us. No wonder they call it the Hillary effect.

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Leno? Conan? Who cares? Late night TV hasn’t been funny since… well, I can’t remember. But if you think the jokes are lame, brace yourself: a recent piece in Salon.com suggests that perhaps the reason the suck-o-meter seems to be stuck on high might have a little something to do with diversity in the writers’ room. Or, more accurately, the total lack thereof. (Did you know that if you added up all the women writers for Leno, Letterman, and Conan O’Brien, the grand total would be… zero? No, that–alas–is not a joke.) In her piece about the not-so-funny world of late-night comedy writing, Lynn Harris says:

…The 2007 Hollywood Writers Report by the Writers Guild of America, West (WGAW), found that not only had women and minorities not made any hiring gains since 2005; in some areas, they had actually moved backward. And the 2009 report found little improvement, with women ‘stuck’ at 28 percent of television employment and 18 percent of film employment…[The report states] ‘America will continue to become increasingly diverse – this much is guaranteed. And reflecting these changes in staffing and stories is just good business.’

Harris goes on to describe the comedy writing process, in all it’s crude, immature, sometimes offensive, presumably very funny glory. And then, some stuff that’ll turn that smile upside-down:

Crude we can deal with, women in the business insist. Viciously sexist too, even, in context. That’s what’s fun… We can stand the heat, they say. We like the heat. That’s why we’re here. ‘It’s a very aggressive medium, and it’s not the medium for fragile flowers,’ says the venerable Janis Hirsch. ‘It’s a job. It’s not a perfect world. Women have to either nut up and get into the spirit of it or not look for a job on a show that’s all about men.’

Still, even some of the most florid trash-talkers – Hirsch included – also said that other lines do get crossed. And that’s where things get tricky. With so many bitch, asshole and cocksucker stories already flying, of course, it can be hard to pinpoint exactly when that happens; that’s the problem. But some women do say they’ve felt it like a sucker punch when everyday chain-yanking makes the leap from ‘process’ to personal. Just one example of many, from an experienced female writer: Once, in the writers’ room, she told a couple of jerky ex-boyfriend stories she thought could be good script fodder. This prompted another writer to start ranting – angrily, not riffing – about how women ‘always date jerks.’ Another narrowed his eyes at her. ‘A guy acting like an asshole? That’s what makes you spread your legs?’

Her observation: ‘When a guy tells a story about an ex-girlfriend screwing him over, he gets laughs and maybe sympathy. When a girl tells a story about a guy screwing her over, she gets a lecture, or worse. The whole discussion becomes a referendum on women’s sanity,’ she says. ‘I call this ‘nice guy misogyny,’ she goes on. ‘The real problem comes from the supposedly nice married guys who secretly resent women for being on their turf and take it out on them in various subtle ways.’

But it’s not only that. The fact that these women are so outnumbered is also likely to blame for a return to the old-school, blend-in style of Women at Work, an ethos that comes with its own buzzkills:

‘It’s hard to speak up and say, ‘I’m offended as a lady,’ because the whole point is you’re trying not to be different,’ says one female writer. (Aside: When she interviewed for one recent job, the executive producers had the following conversation right in front of her: ‘We already have a woman. Do you think she’ll mind?’) So – perhaps putting to rest some alleged male fears – women may sometimes wind up going along with stuff they wish they hadn’t. As sitcom writer Corinne Marshall put it in an essay on the Huffington Post: ‘While off-color humor suited my palate just fine, there were times when I felt I was selling out, taking something a little too far just to impress the boys. For example, joking about an actress’ weight. In my mind, it’s never OK to talk to guys about how fat a girl is and yet I found myself doing just that. Later, I felt really shitty… because I had betrayed a principle just to be down.’

There is pressure to prove that you’re impossible to offend, women say, which causes some to ‘overcompensate by being incredibly dirty,’ said one female sitcom writer…

For related reasons, they sometimes also keep some material to themselves – sometimes even the good stuff. ‘Even if I thought I had a really great dating joke I think I wouldn’t put it out there because I’d be afraid of being pegged as a little too boys-and-pizza — you know, girls-in-pajamas stuff,’ said the comedy variety writer.

Ugh. The truly offensive kicker in all of this: according to the piece, the late-night shows are all consciously looking for more women writers. I wonder if it’s ever occurred to the honchos at the helm that, perhaps one of the reasons more women aren’t banging down that door is because they’re still expected to check that second X chromosome before entering it? No matter how much they might “like the the heat”–might, in fact, thrive on the heat–these women are outnumbered, and, by virtue of that token status, feel forced to endure sexist missives, to out-gross-out the guys–even when they hate themselves for doing it–and to keep their mouths shut for fear of being called out as ‘that girl.’ With all that to contend with, it’s a miracle these women are funny at all. Imagine how funny they’d be if they could just be themselves.

It’s an extreme version of what so many of us face every day, when “trying not to be different” forces us to walk the line, dwelling in the space marked by the tension between blending in while trying to beat them at their own game and standing out and striving to change the rules altogether. And I’d venture to say such circumstances make our choices harder. After all, who (okay, who other than Sarah Silverman) would want to put herself in such a position? And, as it is with the writers, I wonder: how much does our performance, our contribution, suffer, when we’re expending so much energy managing our image? How much better could we be?

But the thing is, the more of us there are–and not just (wo)manning the pen, but everywhere–the more likely things will change. And that behooves everyone:

For that to really work, though, there have to chicks, plural. Not just one woman who’s therefore the woman and — as in some cases — diverted from the free-wheeling fart-topia by the demands of constant triangulation: pipe up, shut up, nut up?

…The bottom line here is what makes better comedy. And as [former Letterman scribe Nell] Scovell says, ‘It’s been my experience that a room with a fairer sampling of humanity will always produce funnier material.’

And that might just be worth staying up for.

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