Is feminism becoming funnier and less serious? Is that a blow to women’s rights?
Last month, Slate Double X’s Katie Roiphe wonders “if the era of earnest popular feminism is over.” She declares a new era of “Mockery Feminism,” in which feminists use humor to ridicule sexism. Roiphe bolsters her argument by using best-selling feminist writers Tina Fey and Caitlin Moran and feminist blogs Jezebel and Double X as examples since they all bestow healthy doses of sarcasm and snark with their feminism. Roiphe asserts:
“The implicit attitude of this kind of writing is: “Can you believe these bozos are still acting like this?” The tacit assumption is that we all take for granted a certain set of shared beliefs, and we should mock those few retrograde Neanderthals who do not agree with us. The tone is less urgent and more queenly. It contains the idea that feminism is cool, and that it will mock you like a cool and impressive girl at the lunch table if you are in violation of its principles. The idea is to make fun of your enemies, not preach at them.”
While Tina Fey is a feminist icon to many people, a backlash occurred with feminists questioning her portrayal of gender. Although writing Bossypants may have redeemed her feminist reputation as she weaves passages about sexism in the workplace and women’s equality amongst personal anecdotes. In How to Be a Woman, journalist Caitlin Moran, aka the “British Tina Fey,” discusses abortion, menstruation, masturbation and sexism and why women need feminism.
What’s interesting about both best-selling books isn’t that funny feminists penned them. Both women freely use the F-word, wearing the feminist label with pride. And while they may have cloaked their feminist themes in humor, rather than “preaching,” the message of gender equality remains the same.
The media continually perpetuates the myth of the humorless feminist, with some invoking the particularly offensive moniker “Feminazi.” (That’s right because wanting gender equality is exactly like genocide.) And of course asshats like Christopher Hitchens and Adam Carolla share their boundless wisdom with us mere mortals and proclaim women aren’t funny. Right. And these two are so hilarrrrious. Okay, can we stop being surprised that women, and particularly feminists, are funny? Please??
While Roiphe does acknowledge feminist sarcasm isn’t exactly groundbreaking — citing writers Rebecca West, Mary McCarthy and Germaine Greer — she still acts like it is, citing “the mockery feminists” as part of a “new feminism.” And Roiphe only mentions Fey and Moran — as if these two funny ladies are the only funny feminist celebs running around (um, Amy Poehler? Hello??), heralding a new epoch.
It’s not necessarily that people are getting more sarcastic as writer Amanda Marcotte suggests. Funny feminists have merged satire and social commentary throughout the 70s, 80s, 90s and 2000s. Amy Poehler, Margaret Cho, Roseanne Barr, Carol Burnett, Bea Arthur, Rue McClanahan, Kathy Griffin, Ellen Degeneres, Lily Tomlin, Sandra Bernhard, Lizz Winstead, Janeane Garofalo, Nora Ephron, Samantha Bee, Kristen Schaal, Aisha Tyler, Sarah Silverman, Wanda Sykes — all outspoken feminist comedians. And all (or at least most) funny as hell.
Yet satiric feminist humor has an even longer history. Writers Dorothy Parker, Jane Austen, Frances Burney and Maria Edgeworth all utilized subversive comedy to scrutinize and expose sexism against women. In her book Laughing Feminism, Audrey Bilger explores the connection between feminism and humor. Women writers in the 1700s and 1800s used comedy and satire “to combat patriarchal nonsense…at a time when overt feminist statements could ruin a woman’s reputation.”
But Roiphe completely misses the crux of sarcastic feminism:
“The new mode assumes that serious, righteous outrage is tactically wrong. Not that sexism does not exist, but that its existence at the moment requires a tougher, wilier, more knowing, and sophisticated stance. Earnest outrage seems outdated, an overreaction of sorts, an almost embarrassing outburst of sincerity.”
Um, no. Just no. No one is saying outrage is wrong. And who says feminist comedians aren’t outraged??
What’s wrong with questioning the ridiculousness of patriarchal oppression through mockery? I mean it IS ridiculous. Why not mock those who purport inequality? It doesn’t mean sarcastic feminists don’t take sexism and misogyny seriously. It means they fight back against oppression using satire to illuminate the idiocy of inequality. Roiphe doesn’t seem to understand that you can channel righteous anger through humor.
It makes sense feminists would use satire. Journalist Molly Ivin called satire “the weapon of the powerless against the powerful.” Feminist badass Jessica Valenti believes “most feminists develop a strong sense of humor” in order to “survive the daily sexism” and a political climate that’s hostile to our rights.” And journalist Rebecca Traister believes “feminist ideology is adopting comedy as one of its most useful communicative tools,” citing the Daily Show’s War on Women coverage as a potent example. Droll, sardonic, snarky feminists often fuse activism and social justice with humor. We have been inundated with attacks on reproductive rights, gay rights and civil rights. We can either laugh or cry. Or if you’re like me, both. Feminists use comedy to call out the preposterousness of sexism and ultimately advocate gender equality.
PolicyMic’s Andy Boyd thinks “funny feminism may be the way forward”:
“Feminism, whether it deserves it or not, has a reputation as one of the less fun liberation movements, but this is changing. Young people are increasingly likely to see feminist positions, if not the word “feminism,” as totally intuitive and as part of a life of normal, mainstream cultural engagement. This happens every time a college student links to Jezebel, every time Caitlin Moran lets readers all across Britain know that you don’t have to look like Kate Middleton to be famous, and every time Tina Fey destroys on 30 Rock, which lately she has been doing with staggering frequency.”
But Roiphe questions feminist humor’s capacity to make a difference:
“…Whether this mode of humor works in the arduous and largely impossible business of changing the world, or even changing one single person’s mind, remains to be seen.”
But I think we have already seen its impact.
I even think feminist humor played a small role in the 2012 elections. The War on Women and on reproductive rights galvanized women and young voters. Funny feminism and social media spread the news of each sexist attack. Celebs like Amy Poehler, Meryl Streep, Tina Fey, Kathy Griffin, Joss Whedon, Martha Plimpton and Sarah Silverman used humor to push back against oppressive attacks on reproductive rights and the GOP’s “legitimate rape” bullshit. They did it in an engaging, funny and most importantly memorable way.
Was their message diluted because they used humor? Absolutely not. In fact it became more salient as humor makes a message more palatable, delivering it to a larger group of people.
Women overwhelmingly won this record-breaking election. President Obama was re-elected, gay marriage passed in 4 states, and an anti-abortion amendment failed in Florida. With 20 women in the Senate and at least 77 women in the House, we will have a historic number of women in Congress. All of these successes struck a massive blow to the GOP’s onslaught of attacks against women, gay rights and reproductive rights. While I’m still worried we have so far to go in achieving gender parity and equality, Tuesday night renewed my hope. And feminist humor played a small yet vital role in spreading awareness.
When we see sarcastic feminist humor, in all its snarky glory, we not only see that comedy and feminism are allies. We see the idiotic absurdity of patriarchal oppression. Injecting feminism with humor doesn’t make you less of an activist. And it doesn’t mean you’re less serious about combating sexism and misogyny.
If people can laugh and question inequality at the same time, what’s so wrong with that?