Living Her Best Life: Let's Talk About Jenny Slate
It’s not easy to be likeable. Too often, suspicious people write it off as “trying too hard” or a sign of unnatural goings-on - but if you could bottle it and sell it by the cartload, everyone would buy a lifetime’s supply. It’s taken too long for us to enter an age of acceptable unlikeability, particularly for women, as our society still views an ability to please as being of primary importance. Yet there are still limits on how unruly a woman can be in the public eye, as noted by Anne Helen Petersen in her latest book, Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud: The Rise and Reign of the Unruly Woman. You can be outspoken, but only to the extent that the balance of power is never truly challenged; you can push back against the demand to be “ladylike”, but go too gross and society revolts; You don’t have to fit our culture’s ever-narrow definitions of beauty, but step outside your boundaries and people can’t help but question why you’re there. Do all of these things at once, while remaining effervescent and showing your vulnerabilities to the world, and you’re a goddamn genius. Some people are just easy to love, and that’s where we come to Jenny Slate.
When Slate made her debut on SNL, it was notable for all the wrong reasons. It would be facetious to call it “the F-bomb heard around the world”, but going by the overblown level of press coverage it received, you would think it had done just that. The clip itself, which is part of a pretty mediocre sketch, passes by quickly, and many may not have noticed it if it hadn’t been for DVR rewinds to note Slate’s own reaction to the slip-up. She puffs out her cheeks in a moment of cringe, then gets back to work. Maybe if the sketch was funnier, people wouldn’t have minded as much. Slate herself never watched the clip, comparing it to being “like watching yourself fall down the aisle at your wedding! I feel like it happened to somebody else, and I want to tell her, “Oh, girl. I’m so sorry, but you need to move on.””
Being good on SNL is hard: Lorne Michaels has his obvious favourites, and countless talents have been shunted to the background of middling sketches while the handful of major stars are made in the spotlight. For Slate (and another alum of that year, Casey Wilson), the opportunities to prove herself on-screen were thin, and people just kept coming back to the F-bomb. Slate, in a piece with Glamour where she gives advice on surviving a workplace screw-up, was open about the fallout. “People tweeted that I was “ugly” and “not funny,” and it really stung. But even in those awful moments, I always tried to find a little bit of pleasure: I was still alive. I liked my lunch.” Slate takes no shame in the incident either, and nor should she. It was just one “fuck”, she noted to the LA Times: “But I don’t care that I swore. No one will ever convince me that what I did was wrong or hurtful — especially when there are shows like Two and a Half Men on TV that are just, like, sexist.” After one season, she was fired from SNL, let go from the job she had so desperately wanted and without a word from Michaels. She found out online.
In the Glamour column, Slate admits the firing hit her hard and led to a bout of stage fright, but she also gives damn good advice on working through tough times: Be nice to yourself, have people you love in your corner, wallow for a while if you need to but remember the importance of perspective and be proud of your talents. So much of Slate the star is defined by what Scout Tafoya calls “empathetic messiness”. She struggles, but you know that feeling all too well yourself, and that makes her all the easier to love. The bright star became the underdog, doomed by many to be nothing but a footnote in SNL history. Watching her prove those doubters wrong proved immensely satisfying to every girl who had screwed up.
Slate became familiar to comedy fans through her regular appearances on everything from Parks and Recreation to Kroll Show to myriad podcasts like Comedy Bang Bang. She could be brash yet warm; abrasive but quick to embrace. The sweetest, and most inimitably Slate-esque example of this would come with a stop-motion animated short called Marcel the Shell with Shoes On, co-written by Slate with her then-husband Dean Fleischer-Camp, who also directed. The film takes the form of an interview with the eponymous Marcel, a tiny conch shell with one googly eye and a pair of pink and white shoes, guiding an unseen documentarian through his house while providing commentary. It’s lo-fi, surreal, imbued with melancholy, and incredibly funny, with the laughs increasing as the child-like voice of Slate describes ever more bizarre exploits, like using a Dorito to handglide or using a man’s toenails for skis. It’s clearly a thing Slate and Fleischer-Camp made for themselves, or at the very most a handful of friends, but it’s so charming and committed to its uniqueness that it’s no surprise it went viral. It spawned a few follow-ups and a children’s picture book, with the pair planning a feature length film she says will be “a character portrait much like Billy the Kid or Grey Gardens.” Like Calvin and Hobbes, Marcel is all about the limitlessness of creativity and the bittersweet awareness of how quickly that imagination can end. Slate knows that all too well.
Her next moment of glory came in the form of the critically acclaimed comedy Obvious Child. Beginning as a short film, Slate and writer-director Gillian Robespierre expanded the story to feature length, premiering to widespread acclaim at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival. It grossed three times its budget, received top reviews from the New York Times and received two Independent Spirit Award nominations. You may know it best as “the abortion rom-com”, a glib tagline that still captures the banal honesty of the story. It’s a sweet, very funny and sharply constructed film that happens to take on a major societal taboo, and with the casual truth that, for some women, an abortion is not a defining moment in their life. This is another key Slate feature - the willingness to be emotionally honest at any given moment, be it in her politics or in detailing a bout of diarrhoea on her Twitter account.
While she had previously described herself as “not very Internet-y”, Slate has become one of the sharpest celebrity users of social media. Her Twitter page is part overshare therapy session, part best-friend rabble-rouser, while her Instagram account allows her to share her love of literature (she enjoys Virginia Woolf, Tamora Pierce and Anita Brookner - lots of women writers) and her family alongside the usual promotional fare. She’s unabashedly political, unafraid to use her fame to support the causes that mean the most to her, like Planned Parenthood, and seems aware of the price of silence, particularly during our current climate. There’s no reason she can’t go from jokes about vomit in her iced coffee to criticising the gender stereotypes in comedy to taking on Ivanka Trump in the space of six tweets.
Since Obvious Child, Slate’s film and TV career has been varied and non-stop, particularly her voice-over work. Between Zootopia and The Secret Life of Pets in 2016 alone, Slate’s voice was part of a $1.9bn box office sweep. This year, she’s in Landline, Robespierre’s follow-up to Obvious Child, another Sundance hit, The Polka King, and her voices appears in both The Lego Batman Movie and the third film in the Despicable Me franchise.
And then there’s Gifted. We could talk about its box office success as one of 2017’s most successful indie films, or we could discuss Slate’s acclaimed work in a more serious role that’s outside her usual wheelhouse. But let’s be honest, that’s not what you want to talk about. You want to hear about Chris Evans: Captain America, beloved sensitive beefcake, and very briefly, the man lucky enough to call Jenny Slate his girlfriend.
We love celebrity relationships. It’s part fantasy, part cultural introspection. If we can’t stop thinking about the history of Brangelina, or why so many are irritated by Kimye, what does that say about us as a society? Celebrities are an exaggerated mirror for us to examine the anxieties of our culture, from gender to race to class and much more, so when they start pairing off, we can’t help but have all sorts of feelings about the entire process. Jenny Slate being with Chris Evans made sense: They’re both Boston natives, they’re funny and sweet, they both light up a room by walking into it, and they each inspire devotion from complete strangers, albeit for different reasons. For some, myself included, their pairing was just right; for others, it beggared belief, and they weren’t shy about letting everyone know how ill-fitting they found them together.
For many months, the comments on Slate’s wonderful Instagram page became unreadable, chock to the brim with vitriol from Evans fans who refused to believe someone like her could be with someone like him. It was always easy to love Slate, but now the need to protect her swelled amongst her largely female fanbase. How could you not celebrate her landing the prized bachelor of Hollywood? It felt like a mass victory for the screwed over woman, and it was about damn time guys like Evans saw how valuable women like Slate were. When half the click-bait buttons on every website you visit are toxic gawking spectacles over “child stars who got ugly” or “former babes who let themselves go” or “hot Hollywood stars with unattractive wives”, it’s no wonder Slate and Evans’s love inspired such excitement. Never mind that Slate is very beautiful; by the standards of an industry that only rates skinny white 25-year-old women with the same interchangeable faces, she was average. Slate noted in a Vulture profile that, “I’m considered some sort of alternative option, even though I know I’m a majorly vibrant sexual being.” Yet, while we couldn’t help but celebrate her seeming prowess with the business’s sexiest singleton, the focus began to feel fetishistic. Even those who adored Slate, and I include myself in this, shared our proclamations in ways that felt a tad condescending towards the woman herself.
The relationship lasted about a year, breaking up before the pair began their promotional campaign for Gifted together. In that time, Slate was interviewed for Vulture in what would be her most candid profile yet. Even the perennially honest star still had a few things to share. She’s honest - sometimes sweetly, other times brutally - about everything, from her divorce from Fleischer-Camp to the relationship with Evans and all the feelings it inspired, to the split and dealing with the fallout. For someone who has never had qualms about telling all, it’s a remarkably generous interview. This is a woman aware that, for many years to follow and for a sizable chunk of people, she’ll be known simply as Chris Evans’s ex-girlfriend, with all the faux-tragic, Jennifer Aniston-style narratives that entails. There’s no regret in that for her, as she says, regarding any future relationships, “Whoever is the next person is going to have to respect that I had a husband who I loved and this boyfriend who I loved so much, and I don’t want to have to act like they weren’t important.”
Now, we’ve seen photographs of Slate hanging out with co-star Jon Hamm, which has inevitably led to more dating rumours. Nothing has been confirmed, but it’s easy to dream, and once again, the celebration of Slate’s apparent dating powers have been brought to the forefront. Another sex symbol, an eligible bachelor with immense talents and a strong funny bone (and apparently casual relation to underpants) who presents a top catch for Jenny Slate. As argued by Anna Leszkiewicz in the New Statesman, “It’s like your best friend just turned around and told you she’s dating Jon Hamm. You love your best friend. You think anyone would be lucky to date her… But you’re still shocked and excited to learn she’s dating Jon fucking Hamm.” Even when we love them, we still struggle to see women like Slate, like ourselves, as worthy of “the best”. Either that or our projections become too big to deal with.
We want Jenny Slate to live her best life because she’s easy to love, easy to see ourselves in, and it’s good to see the underdog win. Of course, Slate’s been far beyond that point for a long time now. SNL’s loss is everyone else’s gain.
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