Guest post: Remembering Phyllis Diller, a culinary comedienne

This is a guest post from Kimberly Wilmot Voss, a journalism professor at the University of Central Florida who studies food, fashion and feminism in newspapers, typically from the 1950s and 1960s. She blogs about the history of women’s pages in newspapers and is working on a book on the subject. After learning of Phyllis Diller’s death this week, Voss offered to write a piece about her approach to comedy, which often revolved around domestic work, including cooking.

“My cooking is so bad my kids thought Thanksgiving was to commemorate Pearl Harbor.”

“Best way to get rid of kitchen odors: Eat out.”

“I do dinner in three phases. Serve the food, clear the table, bury the dead.”

These are the words of pioneer comedienne Phyllis Diller, who died this week at age 95. There were no female comics when she began performing comedy in the 1950s, and she was a feminist even if the term wouldn’t become common for several more years. (She famously said that she became a stand-up comic because she had a sit-down husband – a reference to her chronically unemployed husband and father of her five children.)

To make it in a man’s field, she lampooned her appearance and made jokes about things that would be non-threatening – motherhood, housework and cooking. Like the one-liners above, her self-deprecating humor often mocked her skills in the kitchen. Yet, in real life, she was a wonderful cook. Many of her obituaries this week mentioned her culinary prowess.

Diller’s need to mock cooking in her public life – while being a gourmet cook in her private life – echoes the mixed messages that have often surrounded food and feminism. If we embrace a skill associated with being in the home, are we somehow rejecting the fight of women who want out? In other words, can we be equally attracted to a traditional role and the fight for equality?

This isn’t a new concept. In 1972, radical feminist Robin Morgan spoke to the national convention of home economists – the original foodies. She told the almost completely female organization that she was there to “address the enemy.” Several years later wrote she wrote an article for Ms Magazine titled: “Why Women Love/Hate Food.”

There is something conflicting about embracing the feminine arts while being a feminist. Yet, we also suffer when we completely reject that which many women enjoy. In Morgan’s 1972 speech, she called for the home economists to quit their jobs. In many ways, that is exactly what happened. Many university administrators, heeding to the calls of the time to end home economics programs either did that or changed them enough that they would no longer be recognized. (After years as “consumer or family studies” departments, the few that exist today are likely to be called “human ecology” programs.)

All these years later, it certainly seems more acceptable to mix feminism and food. Maybe it is a case that feminism should be more visible in the food world. The stereotype of women as cooks and men as chefs has not died away. The television show Top Chef has faced accusations of sexism and the recent food issue of Newsweek, which features a hyper-sexualized cover image, featured few mentions of women and only one photo of a female chef. Admitting that food and feminism are not compatible but intertwined is a good place to start.

We have a way to go with food and feminism. After all, while many stories have noted that Diller opened the door for the next generations of female comics, we still rarely hear a funny woman mention her interest in cooking. Would Sarah Silverman be considered as humorous if she mentioned her mastery of torte making? If she were performing today, would Diller have adapted with the times and found a way to make cooking funny without being shameful?

3 responses to “Guest post: Remembering Phyllis Diller, a culinary comedienne

  1. I grew up watching Phyllis Diller on variety television shows in the 60’s and 70’s. I loved her ballsy attitude, smoking that long cigarette and huge smile. I had no idea she was a gourmet cook. May she rest in peace.

    • Sarah Silverman is arguably the most successful young female comic today. With respect, I think it’s a quite relevant question to compare older approaches to comedy to new ones to see how much (or how little) things have changed.

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