The White House Correspondents’ Dinner is a total onanistic throwaway of an event, an opportunity for celebrities, politicians, and all the insidery media insiders to sit around the campfire and listen to a comedian gently mock them while enjoying really expensive truffle oil s’mores. That’s fine — even ordinary people need to kick back every once in lunar cycle and bask in their own splendor, but things took a turn from inoffensively snarky Saturday night when Conan O’Brien, the evening’s master of ceremonies, introduced the fantasy casting list for a TV movie about the power players in Washington. Guess who plays Janet Napolitano? Paul Giamatti. Get it?? Because she has short hair and wears pant suits.
The casting list is mostly funny, especially the parts about John Boehner being played by Tan Mom, Chuck Schumer being played by Grandpa Munster, John Kerry being played by an Easter Island mo’ai, and Wolf Blitzer being played by a Furby. Most of the other gags — Harry Reid looks like the dour old man from Grant Wood’s “American Gothic" — are worthy of a courtesy chuckle, but otherwise forgettable.
Except for the moment when the reel juxtaposes the headshots of Janet Napolitano — the only woman included, by the way, in this entire joke — and Paul Giamatti.
If you listen closely, you can hear the audience’s reluctance to laugh at the comparison, which seems a little meaner than the others if only because Napolitano is the only woman that Conan’s joke scribes chose to mock, and the way they chose to mock her was by comparing her to an actor who has carved out a Hollywood niche playing frumpy intellectuals, unctuous music agents, and action movie villains, all because he’s bald, portly, and fitted with the sort of nose that any Italian grandmother would endearingly describe to strangers as a mushroom. In other words, Paul Giamatti, although a skilled thespian, is not your conventionally attractive leading man, which has made him a perfect leading man in unabashedly independent movies like American Splendor or Sideways.
The punchline in the Napolitano-Giamatti joke is supposed to be that Napolitano, with her short haircut and, more subtly, her professional success in a field dominated by men, looks like a man. She’s positively masculine, right, folks? Ha ha ha! And what sort of man does Janet Napolitano, the first woman ever to serve as the Secretary of Homeland Security, look like? Why, that disaffected homunculus from that wine movie, you know, the character who loathes Merlot.
The fuck of it all is that Napolitano and Giamatti, at least in the headshots used at the WHCD, actually bear a slight resemblance, as if they could be distantly related, and the joke might have been less problematic if other women were also included in the casting reel. After all, there are lots more female power players in Washington than Janet Napolitano. Why not make fun of them? Most likely because, at a genial event like the WHCD, comedians are looking for softballs, material that’s not controversial enough to raise too many eyebrows (though the Spielberg sketch about Daniel Day-Lewis playing Obama certainly could have if Obama himself wasn’t in on the joke). Comparing Paul Ryan to Mr. Bean is innocuous because, first of all, Paul Ryan and Mr. Bean don’t really look alike, but more importantly, men are rarely judged for their appearance.
That’s why Paul Giamatti can end up with Virginia Madsen at the end of Sideways, but (spoiler alert) the lowest, most depraved thing that the strapping Thomas Hayden Church can do during his Santa Ynez Valley bacchanal is cheat on his fiancée with a fat woman. It’s why Tom Cruise, who is now 50, can still have on-screen love interests half his age without too many people in the audience retching (maybe that’s a bad example because Tom Cruise could still pass for a teenager, but you get the idea). Appearance and age are real obstacles for women in the public eye, and making fun of Janet Napolitano — and only Janet Napolitano — at such a good-natured venue means that it’s still a generally acceptable comedic gambit to ridicule a woman for seeming too traditionally masculine.
Why not make fun of Nancy Pelosi, Mary Landrieu, or Hillary Clinton? Fuck, doesn’t Michele Bachmann deserve a little heat for being a half-crazed conspiracy theorist with the power to help make laws? By not making fun of other female political players, the comedians responsible for the casting joke proved that snarking a powerful woman for her appearance is now a treacherous game, except of course when you’re making fun of a woman who has decided to wear her hair short, as if she were giving tacit permission to be criticized for not conforming to the gender norms our poor, Western follicles have been subject to since the powdered wig went out of fashion.
Images via AP, Eduardo Verdugo and Evan Agostini