Free to be Phyllis


After a long weekend, I logged into Facebook and saw this: “Phyllis Diller Dies at 95”

My heart stopped.  Yes, she was extremely old and testimonials from the past week notwithstanding, considered passé: clownish and sexless, mostly existing as a huffy foil to Bob Hope’s growls and golf club twirling whenever a European starlet in a bikini wandered within eyesight.   If you asked anyone about Phyllis before her death, she would have been described as a relic of the sixties, one so dated that if partygoer showed up dressed as her for at Halloween, there’d be a good chance everyone else would be perplexed by the short go-go boots and cigarette holder.

Now we have testimonials from the major media about her impact on women and comedy.  Too little too late, I’d say. But her death has crystalized something that’s been free-floating in my subconscious for weeks:  female comediennes of the sixties and their impact upon a particular subset of late baby-boomer girls, a subset I happen to belong:  not mainstream pretty, (at least according to shampoo/shaving cream/cigarette advertising triumvirate)  and  able to muster enthusiasm  to follow the trajectory dreamed of by my fellow fifth-grade classmates: tying my adult fate to a vague yet all-knowing and all-giving male—in other words, marrying a kind of Santa Claus but much better looking and devoid of the incestuous vibe.

What did I have to look forward to?  Not much in those days, except for one thing: Phyllis and her tribe on the tv.

I was fortunate to watch the career birth of these women on variety shows that dotted the television landscape:  Ed Sullivan, Andy Williams, even  the then-naughty Dean Martin Show (mostly due to the fact I was fortunate to have parents too pre-occupied to monitor my viewing habits).  I watched them obsessively:  usually a foot shorter than the ubiquitous Golddiggers, the back-up dancers who cooed and caressed the male guest stars, theese women were dumpy but witty contrasts against a background of glittering cleavage and legs.  I was thrilled: they were funny women who weren’t beautiful.

Planting themselves smack in the center of the stage, they twirled and mugged, flaunting outré getups:  Phyllis with shock-treatment hair and clothes; Totie Fields in ridiculously bejeweled baby-doll dresses; and Joan Rivers, hair bouffanted to the height of the stage lights, moaning about her inability to land a date.  Delivering jokes in a speed akin to assault rifles, they plowed through routines dishing about flat chests, unremarkable lovers, and laissez-faire housekeeping habits.  After their three-minute routines, they stuck to their schticks, flinging one-liners to the host and everyone within range, as if they were trying to beat the men in black tie and cool personas in the race to make fun of themselves. The audiences loved every minute of it.

To the ten-year old me, the fact these women not only existed but were starring on television meant I had a future.  Not knowing their back stories, all I had to go on is what I saw on the black-and-white glowing box in front of me:  no men and no looks but  lightning-fast minds.  Not that I saw myself at the time as brilliant or even funny, but smartness seemed more achievable than beauty or sexual allure.  That was my first realization I could actually make it in this world.

I wish I could end with a  eureka moment illustrating how revelatory these women were in my impressionable elementary-school mindset, but the closest image I can come up with is locusts–they were dormant locusts, buried deep in the midst of a jumble Top-40 tunes, slam books and mystifying newscasts about a war happening a thousand miles away.  But coming of age in an era of Erica Jong and Free to Be…You and Me, their memory buzzed around the edges of my pop-culture consciousness, goading me to do more than just find a hot-looking Santa Claus for a life.

LINDA UEKI ABSHER is the creator of The Lipstick Librarian!  web site.  She works as a librarian in Portland, Oregon.

Weekend Edition
October 9-11, 2015
David Price – Roberto J. González
The Use and Abuse of Culture (and Children): The Human Terrain System’s Rationalization of Pedophilia in Afghanistan
Mike Whitney
Putin’s “Endgame” in Syria
Jason Hribal
The Tilikum Effect and the Downfall of SeaWorld
Paul Street
Hope in Abandonment: Cuba, Detroit, and Earth-Scientific Socialism
Gary Leupp
The Six Most Disastrous Interventions of the 21st Century
Andrew Levine
In Syria, Obama is Playing a Losing Game
Louis Proyect
The End of Academic Freedom in America: the Case of Steven Salaita
Rob Urie
Democrats, Neoliberalism and the TPP
Ismael Hossein-Zadeh
The Bully Recalibrates: U.S. Signals Policy Shift in Syria
Brian Cloughley
Hospital Slaughter and the US/NATO Propaganda Machine
John Walsh
For Vietnam: Artemisinin From China, Agent Orange From America
John Wight
No Moral High Ground for the West on Syria
Robert Fantina
Canadian Universities vs. Israeli Apartheid
Conn Hallinan
Portugal: Europe’s Left Batting 1000
John Feffer
Mouths Wide Shut: Obama’s War on Whistleblowers
Paul Craig Roberts
The Impulsiveness of US Power
Ron Jacobs
The Murderer as American Hero
Alex Nunns
“A Movement Looking for a Home”: the Meaning of Jeremy Corbyn
Philippe Marlière
Class Struggle at Air France
Binoy Kampmark
Waiting in Vain for Moderation: Syria, Russia and Washington’s Problem
Paul Edwards
Empire of Disaster
Xanthe Hall
Nuclear Madness: NATO’s WMD ‘Sharing’ Must End
Margaret Knapke
These Salvadoran Women Went to Prison for Suffering Miscarriages
Uri Avnery
Abbas: the Leader Without Glory
Halima Hatimy
#BlackLivesMatter: Black Liberation or Black Liberal Distraction?
Michael Brenner
Kissinger Revisited
Cesar Chelala
The Perverse Rise of Killer Robots
Halyna Mokrushyna
On Ukraine’s ‘Incorrect’ Past
Jason Cone
Even Wars Have Rules: a Fact Sheet on the Bombing of Kunduz Hospital
Walter Brasch
Mass Murders are Good for Business
William Hadfield
Sophistry Rising: the Refugee Debate in Germany
Christopher Brauchli
Why the NRA Profits From Mass Shootings
Hadi Kobaysi
How The US Uses (Takfiri) Extremists
Pete Dolack
There is Still Time to Defeat the Trans-Pacific Partnership
Marc Norton
The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution
Andre Vltchek
Stop Millions of Western Immigrants!
David Rosen
If Donald Dump Was President
Dave Lindorff
America’s Latest War Crime
Ann Garrison
Sankarist Spirit Resurges in Burkina Faso
Franklin Lamb
Official Investigation Needed After Afghan Hospital Bombing
Linn Washington Jr.
Wrongs In Wine-Land
Ronald Bleier
Am I Drinking Enough Water? Sneezing’s A Clue
Charles R. Larson
Prelude to the Spanish Civil War: Eduard Mendoza’s “An Englishman in Madrid”
David Yearsley
Papal Pop and Circumstance
October 08, 2015
Michael Horton
Why is the US Aiding and Enabling Saudi Arabia’s Genocidal War in Yemen?