In his landmark 2012 comedy special New In Town, John Mulaney remarks that Ocean's Eleven could never have been made with an all-women cast.
"You could never put together a heist with women. Like Ocean's Eleven with women wouldn't work," Mulaney argues, "because two would keep breaking off to talk shit about the other nine."
According to the comedian and former SNL staff writer, passive aggression would run rampant. In the middle of robbing the bank, one robber might make a passing, snide remark about the style choices of another. Mulaney's example: "I love how you can just wear anything."
The joke rests on the juxtaposition of stakes. The heist is high-stakes. Snippy, low-stakes fights in the middle of high-pressure situations tend to be funny. (Ask a sitcom writer!) The joke isn't really about women, but it rests on the accepted idea that women in large groups are petty and passive aggressive. Mulaney also prefaces the joke by saying he "doesn't like to make generalizations about women."
Now. Welcome to 2018. There's a movie coming out called Ocean's 8. It's about a team of women (including Sandra Bullock, Cate Blanchett and Rihanna) who decide to steal a necklace from a woman (Anne Hathaway) at the Met Ball. The women are, based on the trailer, not ‘catty.’ They are funny, glamorous, competent, and, at times, riddled with nerves.
Mulaney’s joke is innocent enough — it’s sexism at its most banal. It’s not even that fabulous of a joke. (A personal opinion: Mulaney’s material is stronger when he’s not talking about his wife.) But it’s these types of very small jokes that, taken in large quantities, start to look like an overarching problem. Most male comedians, especially the popular ones, have damning material about women. Most of it is banal, like Mulaney’s. Some of it is downright offensive. All of it is pervasive, or, rather, it was.
Chris Rock joked in 2009 that “women hate women.” If women ruled the world, he extrapolated, we’d have no war. Instead, there would be a bunch of countries “not talking to one another.” Aziz Ansari’s bit about the two types of men who hit on women largely hinges on the reaction of the women, not the behavior of the guy. Creeps hit on women, and women love it, Ansari posits. Men like him hit on women, and they’re “mean.” (Another bit involves Ansari making fun of a woman who rolled her eyes at his come-on.) Brent Morin has a bit about how aggressively women tend to reject his overtures.
“You girls can be mean,” he says. “Like, women will turn you down right away and then say things you didn’t need to know about yourself. Like, just say no.” He goes into an impression of a woman mocking his advances. Chris D’Elia has miles of material about the behavior of drunk women. (D’Elia himself doesn’t drink.) In his special Incorrigible, D’Elia says, simply, “Hey girls: relax.”
There’s practically a whole subcategory of comedy devoted to the behavior of women. Almost none of it is excellent comedy, although some of it is funny, purely thanks to structure. All of it involves gross generalizations that don’t take into account the perspective of the woman. Morin forgets that women often have to make their rejections blatantly clear, lest their oblivious suitors return. Ansari does the same. He also blames women for having poor taste in men, essentially. And Mulaney applies his very limited knowledge of women in a personal setting to women in a professional setting — if women are this volatile in private, he surmises, what are they like in a workplace?
None of these jokes are the end of women. They’re just not all that good, and, as demonstrated by Ocean’s 8, not true! Ocean's 8 isn't even about women, per se, although the press for the movie is very focused on gender. It's an Ocean's movie, which means it follows a formula: a team of consummate professionals pull off a flawless heist. About halfway through the movie, the heist usually becomes even more flawless. The actors in the movie aren't characters so much as they are tools, parts of a stylish Rube Goldberg machine.
Vulture comedy critic Jesse David Fox asked Mulaney about the joke in an interview ahead of Mulaney’s Kid Gorgeous Netflix special.
“Are you gonna see Ocean’s 8?” he asked, being cheeky. Mulaney deflected, instantly aware of what Fox was poking at. He went on to explain his understanding of the six-year-old joke.
“I was new to dating my now wife [Annamarie Tendler Mulaney], and it was a joke about how it’s sometimes hard to get groups of women who don’t know each other to hang out,” Mulaney said. “People have said to me, ‘Look, they’re proving you wrong.’ And I’m like, What? No, no, no, it wasn’t like a statement. In my experience, with my girlfriend, it was something I noticed and was a joke I said onstage.”
His point is that jokes, while important and sometimes widely publicized, aren’t statements of fact. His joke was based on his experience, which — and I don't like to make assumptions about people, but — probably didn't include many jewelry heists. Based on this limited experience, the women he knew wouldn’t have been able to pull off a heist together. If anything, he's saying that he has a low opinion of the women he knew, one of whom happens to be his wife. This is why John Mulaney would never ask his female friends to make a movie like Ocean's 8 or join him in his next heist.
Speaking to reporters during a press conference last week, Sandra Bullock admitted that, when she was first approached about an all-women reboot of Ocean's 8, she didn't think a studio would finance the movie.
"I thought it was a fun idea. I didn't at the time think the movie would get made," Bullock admitted. Her co-star and fellow Oscar-winner Cate Blanchett agreed, saying the movie felt like an "impossibility."
"Isn't it interesting — two or three years ago, this seemed like an impossibility. Like, how could we possibly get this made? And it's so great that it's being released now, and you go, 'Well, of course.' A lot has shifted," she said.
A litmus test for this shift? John Mulaney, who, in Kid Gorgeous, has a new take on his wife. In his 2018 special, he's impressed by her. Says Mulaney, "When my wife walks down the street, she does not give a shit what anyone thinks of her in any situation. She's my hero."
That's different from a woman who can't finish her heist because she's busy dwelling on an insult. The woman he describes could pull off a heist — and Mulaney, busy worrying and running for mayor of nothing (as his wife jokes), absolutely couldn't.
In the eight days leading up to this summer's first women-led blockbuster, we're spilling everything you want to know about it — from Rihanna playing a hacker to the great Met Gala heist.