‘The Twist…? She’s Gorgeous’, Catherine Cohen’s recent Netflix special, sees her concoct a flamboyant spectacle of feminine narcissism, in a show characterised by a rather perfect tension between self-regard and self-deprecation, conceit and vulnerability, play and pain. Part of what’s dazzling about Cohen’s performance is the sheer speed and precision with which she moves through the modulations of her narcissistic persona, and the sense of virtuosity is enhanced by her musical numbers, sung with real accomplishment – songs whose emotive melodies are undercut by the irony and banality of the lyrics.
Much of the self-deprecation is centred on her weight, and her sense of distance from the feminine ideal, but this vulnerability is countered by a lavish egotism, an egotism which, in turn, is predicated upon vulnerability. In a bit about recent weight gain and her new ability to ‘titty fuck’ her boyfriend for example, she moves swiftly from addressing the issue of weight to preening about her sexual prowess (‘you could hear a freakin pin drop – he made a sound I’d never heard before. Ok I’m a sex goddess.”). Complacently, she asks him how it was, only to hear “it was actually almost painful”. She remains imperturbable, though: “feminist win much! Yes, I’m doing the work.” Tracking from vulnerability to egotism back to vulnerability and then to ‘enlightenment’ and complacency about that enlightenment, it’s clear that her persona is bound by the protocols of femininity, and dependent upon male approval, with the final pivot a blatantly empty performance of emancipation. A comment on porn shares a similar dynamic: Cohen declares that she doesn’t like porn, ‘unless my boyfriend says it is someone who looks like me. Otherwise I don’t like porn because it is Bad For Women – and that’s just where I stand on that issue’. The ‘correct’ feminist position is followed by naked egotism (which is equal parts conceit and vulnerability), and followed by a return to ‘correctness’ and capped by an absurd complacency about the conviction of that stance, all at speed. These modulations happen so quickly that our laughter registers their satiric precision almost before we fully comprehend them.
The oscillation between conceit and vulnerability is central to Cohen’s comedy and she understands that egotism and vanity are often much more about vulnerability than is recognised. The narcissism of her persona is particular, but also structural, and the scattered comments about her obsession with her weight which blame society and the ‘patriarchy’ are both ironic and not. As Sandra Bartky argues, feminine narcissism is the natural consequence of women’s objectification, which leads to an ‘infatuation with an interiorised body’ (40). But Cohen’s deliberately glib use of feminist orthodoxy emphasises just how trapped we are; the recognition of the problem has been fully incorporated, and any acknowledgement of its structural nature is now stale and cliched.
It’s important not to overstate the politics of the piece though, and Cohen’s glibness is also just glibness: she revels in the naked superficiality of what Harold Pinter called ‘the poverty within us’: the smallness and inadequacy of our innermost thoughts and desires. When she imagines her dying words as a question about her hair looking ‘better half up or full down’, it’s both about the constricting consequences of an ‘interiorised body’ and a blithe declaration of superficiality. Often the songs serve to showcase this, and she uses the implications of the melodies – soaring, dynamic, urgent – to contrast comically with the banality of the actual sentiment. When she sings about her aching desire to go to ‘events, events’, for example, the mundane hunger contrasts with the idiom of the big musical number – with ‘events’ the more generic, less glamorous choice; a reflection of her lack of discrimination (‘parties’, say, would be less banal, and more discerning). The songs also add to the sense of virtuosity: and the precision of the satire in song is as exact as the spoken sections of the special; all the more impressive because of the momentum of the music. There’s an implicit contrast, too, in the precision of her expression and the broad brushstrokes we largely expect from mainstream music, which often trades in smudged or sweeping emotion.
Pinter argues that communication is often a process of ‘continual evasion’, because to reveal to others our impoverishment ‘is too fearsome a possibility’, but Cohen, like other accomplished stand-ups, is able to reveal that inadequacy, and even to delight in it. Evasion is still a key aspect of her storytelling, of course, masked as it is by persona and irony, but we recognise her generosity in acknowledging the poverty that we all share, and our laughter is both reward and gratitude.
Bartky, Sandra Lee. Femininity and Domination, Studies in the Phenomenology of Oppression. London and New York: Routledge, 1990.
Pinter, Harold, ‘The echoing silence’, The Guardian, 31 Dec 2008, https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2008/dec/31/harold-pinter-early-essay-writing
© Emma Sullivan 2022.