/ Glenn Fleishman / 6 am Wed, Apr 17 2013
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  • How Ophira Eisenberg slept her way to monogamy

    How Ophira Eisenberg slept her way to monogamy

    Photo: Matt Bresler

    Whatever you do, don't call Ophira Eisenberg a comedienne. That's an outdated, patronizing term from an era when men patted women on the head (or, unsolicited, on the ass) and called Amelia Earhart an aviatrix.

    If only her fiancé, now husband, had known that before he compiled a spreadsheet of every woman he had slept with before meeting Eisenberg, a list she discovered by accident and couldn't resist examining, and which listed her as the latest entry with the unfortunate label comedienne in the cell next to her name. She was furious. But Jonathan is a remarkable man, and, in one of the best parts of her new memoir, manages to explain himself credibly. (Spoiler: She marries him.)

    Eisenberg is a professional comedian, thank you very much. She tours, she hosts the NPR quiz show Ask Me Another (with the Internet's Jonathan Coulton as the regular musical sidekick), and recently came out with a memoir: Screw Everyone: Sleeping My Way to Monogamy. You can hear a half-hour conversation she and I had about the book, her life, and her husband's beautiful, piercing eyes in the podcast in this post.

    It's a Bildungsroman, like many memoirs, dealing largely with the period from when she came of age and sexual maturity as a teenager through moves from her hometown of Calgary to Toronto and then New York, and her shift from IT support to full-time funny lady.

    And she is one funny lady. As she recounts her life through the lens of the beds she's passed through, she has plenty that we can laugh with at her side. The guy with the bedroom full of Garfield stuffed animals for one. His big dick got women into bed, despite all the plush (she nicknamed it “Odie"); his mechanical and unerotic behavior in the sack meant Eisenberg looked at hundreds of lasagna-loving dolls staring at her just the one time. The discomfort of losing her virginity on a bathroom counter, but at least it took the curse off from never having done it before. The morning her alarm clock fails to go off, and her mother discovers her punk-rocker boyfriend still in bed with her, him not having snuck out at 5 a.m. Sand-encrusted Australian beach sex with a near stranger, followed by recriminations by a long-term boyfriend about V.D. — even though she figured out later he'd picked it up from a fling of his own.

    But there is something substantial missing from this book: shame. Eisenberg doesn't wring her hands over the life she's led, although there's a little chagrin here and there, especially about the Garfields and the time she picked up a bartender's boyfriend by accident. She must have missed the lectures on feeling bad about intimacy, even enjoying it, while growing up as the youngest of six, the child of older parents.

    She didn't even get the extra patina of misery when experiencing happiness that comes from being a Jew. (My Jewish parents also failed to tell me I should expect to be unhappy.) Her mother was Dutch and father from what was then the British Mandate for Palestine, and they didn't impose a particular morality on her. They may also have been a little exhausted raising six children over a span of over 40 years.

    Eisenberg went home with men and pursued long-term relationships with some and then didn't agonize later about whether or not she should have slept with them. She loved the connection. She loves men, their bodies, and sex. Marriage, commitment, and monogamy were never the Barbie Dream House goal for her, but she found the right guy when she wasn't looking for him, which is how it always goes.

    Eisenberg tells a great story, and she's a natural at weaving together the funny bits, many of which involve a bar followed by a romp, and the more serious stuff, such as how she almost died at eight from a horrific car accident, and bears a large and visible scar on her torso to this day. The scar becomes a totem in the book: she worries about how men will react to it, even as she bears it as a mark of survival.

    Some of the best comedians are deeply unhappy people who are able to use that sadness to tap into some part of the human condition that lets them rip laughs out of the audience. I recall seeing the late Mitch Hedberg perform at a small comedy club in Seattle a decade ago. My wife and I loved his performances on Comedy Central. Seeing him in person, though, it was immediately apparent how miserable he was, even though we were laughing nearly uncontrollably. At the end of his set, he said, "If you'd like to talk to me after the show…I would be very surprised." That is it, in a nutshell.

    Eisenberg is the other kind: the one that comes to humor from a knowledge of the vagaries of life, but hasn't been broken by it. Good natured, but not insipid. She wears her joy as a shield, from whatever deep well she continually calls it up.

    But she pulls a trick on us with her book's title. She may "screw everyone," but this is a sweet and funny book in which she tells us how she went from a teenaged girl to an adult girl to a woman, and found true love. The sex is just cherries on the wedding cake.

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      1. Wyf, I think.  It is were-man & wyf-man; were is the masculine prefix.  I mean, I’m not an etymologist but I think that is how it goes.

        1. No, were alone itself means “man”, it’s not just a prefix.  Personally, I don’t buy the idea that the female form of a noun means automatically a denigration – in many, many cases it’s just grammar.  However, If you get really gung-ho about the idea, you need to go all the way. So no “cow girls” either,  it’s either “cow person” or “cattle herder”  or somesuch. And no “husband/wife” dichtomy either. 

          1. In this case, comedienne was used for a long time as a pat on the head, there there sweetie.

            Also, it gives me great pain to point out she would be her fiancé’s fiancée. Double e.

            1. Our non-gendered language is why La Cantatrice Chauve has to be awkwardly translated as The Bald Soprano. Don’t even get me started on classless society and translating Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme.

          2. I believe you are mistaken; “were” is in fact a prefix meaning male human; wereman & wyfman. The argument isn’t one of denigration except in that the linguistic drift towards the maculine term being also the neutral term is part of a wider pattern of marginalization. The shift from wereman to “husband” & “man” & wyfman to “wife” & “woman” underscores that point.

      1.  I didn’t! But only because I happily read it yesterday on an article in Eurogamer. Strange coincidence.

    1. It’s sad when we have to throw out perfectly good words.  Waitress, actress, comedienne, seamstress.  Shall we eliminate ballerina as well?  Maybe instead of labeling women with male titles (waiter, actor, comedian, aviator) we should label the men with women’s titles?  Let’s call them all barmaids and stewardesses, for example..

      1. Ah, so in your world, which must be, oh, what 1952 or so, the default is “male”?  Well, fortunately, most of us now live in the present.

        1. English actually does make some effort to be gender neutral. It’s fairly common in other languages for pretty much every physical object to have a gender assigned to it. 

          Granted, this neutrality doesn’t typically extend to the people using the language. It does seem more common for people to use “it/their” than when I was a kid but there’s still a lot of people out there who prefer “he/his” usage.

          So I suppose the situation still isn’t great, but it is changing.

          1. Yeah, you’re right, actually, and I do wonder if that’s one reason why such gender-separate words can seem so odd sometimes.  It’s not a normal thing for our language, not really, and it often seems to most often include words regarding certain PROFESSIONS, which I think is quite an important point.

        2. I agree that the unfortunate cultural tendency, when there are gendered terms for professions, to make the masculine the “default” form of the word (whether, as in English, the tendency is becoming to just use the male form for everyone, or as in e.g. in French or German, where the the language uses gender for every noun, so there is no such thing as a non-gendered noun – an engineer (English) = un(e) ingénieur(e) (French) = ein(e) Ingenieur(in) (German)).

          But I don’t think that just having gendered forms of words for professions necessarily implies that the masculine is the default form – why must the default be comedian, and its exception be comedienne (or, in French, where you really have no choice but to use gendered words, comédien(ne))?

          Really, grammatically, it would be more useful to teach the feminine as the default form – in French, there are a number of irregular feminization rules, and it takes lots of  memorization to remember what changes to apply to feminize a masculine noun.  But if you just remember the feminine form to start with, the rules to masculinize the words are much simpler.

          Finally, a proposition – I’m not even presenting this as my opinion, I’m just not fully convinced of its opposite either, and would be interested in hearing counterarguments:
          Insisting on dropping gendered words for professions from the English language is actually a greater force for normalizing maleness-as-default, than is continuing to use the gendered terms.  The proposed basis for this, is that the “gender neutral” term whose use is encouraged, is in fact the male term in every case.

          Why is it preferable, if we must drop one term or the other, to call female restaurant servers “waiters”, rather than calling male servers “waitresses”?  Can you propose a rationale for which way up that coin should land, that does not normalize the notion that maleness is the superior state of being?

      2.  Many words, like comedienne, were backformed, not simultaneously evolved, and used as a form of denigration. But, in any case, why gender-differentiate jobs?

        I recommend Words and Women, a seminal work (sorry) that tracks the history of gender-differentiated words, with a lot of information, well documented, about the origin and effect of such terms.

        1.  Indeed, why differentiate objects with words. I vote we call everything foo, to avoid any question that anything whatsoever can be inferred from the noun, thereby eliminating any potential for denigrating usage.

          1. I award you the Godwang Award, distinct from Godwin’s Law. The Godwang Award is for the fewest steps from argument to reductio ad absurdum reasoning in which different things are alleged to be the same thing. The award is a giant wang.

        2. I’m not entirely familiar with the notion of “back formation” (is that a thing?), but “comedian” was imported from French, and “comedienne” is also from French – maybe imported into English at a later time than the masculine form, but still imported not ‘locally developed’ – is that consistent with it being  “backformed”?

          1. I’m using the term wrong, I see. A back formation is when a word has parts removed in the evolution of language to create new words. The classic example is P.G. Wodehouse describing someone as not disgruntled but far from being “gruntled.” Couth wasn’t a word before uncouth; it was brought into language later. The back formation I was thinking of was how words that have a gender component, like chairman were backformed to a gender-neutral “chair,” which is in common parlance now.

            Here, though, I should have said that many gender-differentiated words in English are created through the addition of common suffixes. Comedienne is a French word, true, but we don’t call a male comic a “comedién” but comedian! (The OED says comedienne dates to the 1860s in English usage.)

            But many others come about from an English word, sometimes one that has no “er” or other masculine suffix, being modified to add an “ess,” “enne,” “woman,” or “ix.” A good example is “fisherman.” Hundreds of years before “fisherman” was in English, “fisher” was the word.

            1. It should be “comédien”. Words get borrowed in every which direction and usually take a somewhat different meaning in their new context. So when the French refer to “un building” it has to be really big or “faire un footing” which is just going for a jog. Also the French are going in the opposite direction, adding feminine forms for engineer, author and minister (political) when the masculine had previously been used for both genders.

        3. The first time I read about Margaret Cho, the writer described her as a comedian.  I have never in my life seen or heard the word comedienne.  I’ll definitely have to check out that book.

          1. Comedienne was used for people like Phyllis Diller and Totie Fields. Who mostly made jokes about cleaning, cooking, laundry, wifely duties, etc. Comedy was very gender-divided in those days. Now the youngsters just make jokes about fornication and the drugs.

      3. Too lazy to dig out the Dinosaur Comics comic that pointed this out to
        me, but it seems like there is some cause for using gendered nouns for
        professions where gender specifically matters.  Actor/Actress, for example, as
        women’s roles and men’s roles are fundamentally different- traditional
        Shakespeare performances aside, female characters generally need to be
        played by women, male characters by men. (And I suppose non-gender-specific roles- which must exist somewhere outside of SciFi, experience to the contrary- would be played by gender-free “actors” not “actresses.”) As such, there is at least an argument for making the distinction.  Of course, putting “actor, male” or “actor, female” on a resume doesn’t take appreciably more effort, either- of course, requiring gender on a resume has no doubt already been the basis of discrimination suits, if one wants to be ludicrous about it.

        Does a female comedian who specifically bases her comedy around a woman’s perspective (as opposed to, say, particle physics or animal husbandry based comedy) call for the feminized title to distinguish a type of comedy that cannot be performed as well by a male?  Maaaybe. Definitely a thin argument, that.  (Not saying Eisenberg is such a comedian, BTW- completely unfamiliar with her work, although the above article encourages me to correct that oversight.)  “Comedienne” definitely shapes expectations.

        But now I’m rambling.  In any case, professions with specific gender requirements are few and far between.  Where a man or woman can meet the job requirements equally well, it seems needless and redundant to have a gender-specific title.

        1. I definitely agree about the actress/actor thing. I’ve been in theatre for quite a few years and it’s simply handy to be able to say “female who acts” or “male who acts” in one simple word. If the word “actress” did not exist, I likely wouldn’t argue that we need it, but since it already exists, might as well use it. Cross-gender casting is rather rare in most English speaking parts of the world, so when you need an actress might as well say it.

        2. Non-gender specific roles are all over the place – as long as you’re willing to change names.  Sure it might say “Gianni, the gardener” – but if it’s not a singing part that needs a baritone, it could generally be made a woman’s part just by renaming the character to “Gianna, the gardener”

          1. One is very free to do this with a public domain script. However, if the script is still under copyright one will very often be unable to change things like character names. I suppose if no one ever says “Gianna”‘s name, you could get away with it, but if that name is part of the dialogue, playwrights can get quite pissy about people changing their words.

            The fellow who wrote “Steel Magnolias” stopped a production, not because a character’s gender was changed, but because the production cast a female impersonator in one of the female roles. Living playwrights (and sometimes the estates of dead one’s) can have a great deal of say about productions of their works.

            1. If I live a long, virtuous and healthy life, one reward I look forward to is seeing a Beckett play, after the copyright has expired, and the production company can actually make meaningful staging and casting choices…

            2. I recently watched The Year of Living Dangerously and half way through the movie a female character named Billy played by Linda Hunt turned into a male character played by Linda Hunt. It really threw me off. I can’t imagine what they were thinking. Maybe there was a book. Oh, there was a book. Still. All they had to do was skip saying “he” in the second half. 

        3. Unfortunately, the male term often still becomes the default word. See, for instance, Actors’ Equity Association, or the Screen Actors Guild.  Women remain underrepresented in the language.

      4. For some reason I’m reminded of the time I watched someone storm out of a college Spanish class, because the language assigns gender to damn near everything.

      5. If we’re going to muck about with the language for sociopolitical reasons, which is almost certainly unavoidable, let’s just throw out all the gendered words that are dumb, condescending or confusing.   Comedienne and Heroine are inutterably lame, so throw them out and stick with Comedian and Hero.  And there aren’t enough good words with X in them, so let’s throw out Aviator and make everyone an Aviatrix.

    2. I’m happy that some people are able to navigate this complicated world so successfully. I have no desire to hear about it in detail, but I’m happy to know it’s there.

    3. Odd. In German, women have fought for their “own words” for professions – and not just in jobs which end with the male-sounding “-er” (eg Lehrer/Lehrerin, which might be rendered as teacher/teacheress). 

      The same applies to words which have no inherent male quality, like Arzt/Aerztin (doctor/doctoress). Call a doctoress a “doctor”, and you are heading for a scolding.

      1. Actually, it’s split.  Some women  prefer the female from, some prefer a male/female form and some of my class who graduated insisted that they are „Informatiker“, not „Informatikerin“, even though at that time the feminist trend was to use the female version. 

        About the Doktor: Not in the Germany where I live in.  I know of ONE case where a vet sued to be called “Doctora” instead of “Doctor”.  Didn’t work, though, since the female from of doctor is doctrix, which she didn’t accept. I think because of Asterix.  

    4. To be sure, we’ve put behind us the era of calling people “aviatrices.”  Of course, we’ve also put behind us the era of calling people “aviators.”  So perhaps aviatrix wasn’t the best example…

          1. You missed the meeting we had in which it was decided that people in groups that have had historic or present discrimination are allowed to call themselves whatever they like, but other groups cannot use that term.

            However, white men in the United States are all called Dave. That’s a presidential order now, I think.

    5. I’m going to assume Glenn was being ironic when he mentioned her shift from IT support to “full-time funny lady.”
      I know he really meant us to infer “funny person” (or at least funny woman.)

    6. I hate words like “actress” and “hostess” not because they are demeaning but because they imply gender is important to the role one is playing. Doctors are doctors. Comedians are comedians. They are not male gendered roles; they are non-gendered roles. I blame my attitude on growing up in the 70s. We were taught everyone was equal. And we were equal for a while. Girls asked boys out. People split the cost of a date. Sex roles were equal. It was pragmatic. It was mutually beneficial. It was cool. And then everyone backed out of it and settled on the idea they wanted the 50s without the misogyny. I think it sucks. I feel betrayed. Fuckin 80s.

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