Between the hilarious "Women of LA" video, Seth MacFarlane's lame "We Saw Your Boobs" and The Onion's less-than-bullseye attempt to make a satirical point about the media consumption of actresses with the old C-word, it's that time again. Time to talk about how "humorless feminists" will never understand that sometimes people aren't being "patriarchal oppressors" they're just trying to be funny. Coincidentally, I stumbled on this great article at Vagenda, I am Sexy, I am Funny, I am a Fucking Feminist. It's a coincidence because it wasn't in response to these events, it was a response to Ellie Mae O'Hagan's article on the anniversary of The Feminine Mystique, Feminists can be Sexy and Funny, but it's Anger that Changes The World.
Despite the title, O'Hagan basically argues that feminism and humor are inherently at odds
In my mind, if being sexy and funny are the two cornerstones of a new feminist movement, we may as well all pack up and go home now. At its core, feminism should be angry.
Sexy, funny feminism is inspired by the fear that feminism will never get anywhere unless it is likeable.... what is popular and non-threatening is what men deem to be acceptable.
Vagenda's article does a great job taking down this hoary old edict
Anger is at the core of most humour.
To dismiss humour not only limits your options as far as activism is concerned (and there has been some pretty hilarious activism - KNITTED VAGINAS, people!) but also completely dimisses the long legacy of women who have challenged patriarchy through jokes
And most damningly, Vagenda argues that telling a feminist what she can and can not be is the most hypocritical, paternalistic thing another so-called feminist can do.
It's a great read and I basically agree with the whole thing. So, that does a great job of addressing why feminists should feel free to be funny.
But why don't we consider Comedy as, well, not inherently feminist - comedy is too broad to be inherently anything (except true & funny) - but at least not inherently anti-feminist? There's this underlying idea in the Guardian piece and nearly all the responses to the Oscars that still needs to be addressed. There's this fundamental idea that somehow Comedy (or Humor [or Humour because the two articles I reference are British]) is some kind of Other. Some massive piece of the patriarchy-industrial complex that can be challenged or co-opted, but can never be an organic part of the feminist movement or vice versa. Which is just stupid.
They say most couples come to therapy (or divorce court) with problems where they feel 180 degrees apart, but they actually started practically on the same page, just through poor communication, mistrust and antagonism, feel like enemies instead of partners. The same is true of comedy and feminism. Yes, sometimes idiots use "I was only joking" as a shield to hide behind being offensive. But that isn't humor's fault any more than it's friendship's fault that some idiots say "No, that wasn't racist, I've got one black friend." And good comedy comes from truth, truth that is often rooted in the same anger O'Hagan argues is the root of "proper" feminism.
So, because I love you both, here's your couples therapy homework:
Feminists, stop looking for oppressive subtexts and then jumping to the conclusion that the comedian in question is a) completely unaware of the cultural context in which he lives and/or b) purposefully perpetuating misogynist stereotypes with the sinister end goal of putting all women down. Yeah, point it out, but save the yelling for when it's really important. If you're at Alert Level 11 for every single piece of pop culture generated that doesn't reflect the ideal world you wish you lived in, no one will listen to you when you're making good & important points. Hell, sometimes we're so quick to kill the messenger, we're actually slaying an ally with a good message. Yeah, the Onion was really clumsy with that tweet, but wouldn't you rather the discussion be about how we all agree that the media is really shitty to women entertainers and not how the PC Police have no sense of humor?
And let me just point out how very much Comedy has been in the service of Feminism. There's been a lot of hand-wringing that this generation of young women are living lives and making choices that would not be possible without the waves of feminism that came before them, yet these women won't claim the title "feminist" and recoil in horror at the word. And that since they won't claim the title, won't make the personal political, it damages the movement and impedes its progress. Well, guess what? There are plenty of comedians who aren't bothering with claiming the mantle of "Feminism" but are probably doing more to push the ideals behind the movement into the hearts and minds of a wider group of young women than a thousand Take Back The Night rallies (I totally just dated myself there, didn't I?). Successful female comedians - the ones whose names you've heard of and faces you recognize - are smart, ambitious women who fought their way through the sexist maze that is the entertainment industry to be able to create art for mass consumption that is based on their minds and their viewpoints, so by definition their mere existence is a boon to feminism.
Here's just a few examples just off the top of my head:
Chelsea Handler ripped straight into slut-shaming, proud to say "yeah, I fucked a midget because I just felt like doing it, so what?" She now has a popular show based entirely on speaking her own mind.
Yes, this created a room for other younger, less adept or less feminist comedians to throw vagina jokes around for all kinds of reasons that may help or hurt the cause of women but isn't that choice what the movement is supposed to be about? By the same logic, any woman who gets a college degree then chooses to become a housewife or traditionally "female" role like teacher or nurse is hurting feminism and that's somehow higher education's fault. A woman getting up and slinging dick and vagina jokes is now so common it's considered hack. And aren't we all trying to make this a world where it's not shocking or shameful for a woman to talk about her body and sexual choices?
Jen Kirkman is probably the most explicitly feminist of the bunch, she publicly and bluntly calls out internet troll misogyny hiding behind the "I was just trying to be funny" canard without trying to dress is up in cutesy clothes to make it palatable. It's probably no coincidence she writes for and appears on Chelsea Lately and After Lately. Oh and did I mention she just released a book called I Can Barely Take Care of Myself: Tales From a Happy Life Without Kids. I haven't had the time to read it but I'm sure it's full of both serious humor and seriously intelligent thoughts on the issue of choosing to be childless.
Chelsea Peretti has these brilliant meta type bits in her stand-up act about humping stools & period jokes that manage to make a strong, memorable (and funny) point about sexism in less than 5 minutes.
Hell, say what you will about Whitney, but Whitney Cummings was recently helming three television shows at one time, one of which featured a female lead who was in no rush to get married, another featured two basically unknown female leads and the third was a too-short lived late night show that, like Handler's, was fully of awesome ballsy bitchiness.
And of course, Tina Fey, who has famously said she puts comedy ahead of any feminist agenda. She was unfairly lambasted for being "too pretty" instead of praised for creating a network sitcom that depicted a single woman running a television show with no ongoing will-they-won't-they romantic plot who ultimately chooses to adopt two children and let her husband be a stay-at-home dad. Never mind the one million tiny ways in every episode she sent a funny fuck you to the status quo from every angle.
Comedians Now, people in comedy need to give a little too so we can all meet in the middle. While in my experience, feminists are the first to jerk their knees at something, people in comedy do tend to react with a show of overwhelming force of the bluntest kind, just plain dismissing any and all criticisms flung our way - including really valid ones. Take the Tosh situation - most of us were on Tosh's side because we support a performer's right to free speech and to deal with a disruptive audience member when the venue hasn't taken care of it. No one was saying there's anything inherently funny about threatening to rape someone (which by the way, is an incredibly inaccurate description of what Tosh did & said). But, in the ensuing frenzy a lot of that got lost and suddenly there were message boards and comment threads full of dumb punks making us look bad. So, you know, let's make the effort to draw distinctions.
And in the same vein, let's try to make sure we let everyone in on the joke. It's very easy for people to misunderstand satire and parody and when they do, let's help them get it instead of dismissing out of hand as ignorant or shrill.
And call people out. Come on, we all know when someone is being funny (or at least trying to be) and says something that touches a nerve. But we also all know when someone's being flat out sexist (or racist or just a dick). If we call out the dick faces (see Jen Kirkman's MA'AM, for example), we sound a lot more credible when we stand up for free speech and art.
Okay, now kiss and make up.