Funny Feminism : The Cost of Humor
It is 8 a.m., and I am that commuter on the train. The one breaking the sacred early morning silence with suppressed laughter staring down at the book in my lap. With abrupt exclamations like “I become furry!” and “I start to bleed!” lining each chapter, How to Be A Woman by Caitlin Moran is hilarious. If I wasn’t laughing at her writing, I was hysterical about what my fellow neighbors on the train might have thought upon seeing “I don’t know what to call my breasts!” at the top of the page.
Raunchy, real, and unapologetic in sharing her stream of consciousness, Moran is widely praised as a “feminist heroine for our time.” But with great humor, comes great responsibility. Multiple failures to be inclusive and an overall assumptive nature throughout have left this “woman’s guide” subject to wide criticism.
In a particularly well-executed examination of the book, Roxane Gay’s essay, “How We All Lose” from Bad Feminist, calls out a few of the blanketed statements that Moran makes. In the “I am a Feminist!” chapter discussing double standards in gender equality, one of the most oft-quoted excerpts is:
“Are the men doing it? Are the men worrying about this as well? Is this taking up the men’s time? Are the men told not to do this, as it’s ‘letting our side down’? Are the men having to write bloody books about this exasperating, retarded, time-wasting bullshit?”
I wince at the offensive use of the word “retarded” here but ultimately agree that yes, this is a catchy idea. Sure enough, it is largely the question that fuels the #AskHerMore campaign at awards show red carpets, where it is finally being acknowledged that the women in extravagant ball gowns do, indeed, have more to say than what designer they’re wearing. The popular GIF of Cate Blanchett bending over to follow the gaze of a camera panning down her dress and demanding: “Do you do that to the guys??” is a perfect summation of the feelings there. That question she asks is generally a good rule to “determine if some sexist bullshit is afoot.”
But Moran takes it too far. She continues: “It was the ‘Are the boys doing it?’ basis on which I finally decided I was against women wearing burkas.”
Hmmm. As Gay acknowledges, “This is an odd, glaring statement as I’m not sure what Moran’s stance on burkas has to do with anything.” Muslim women wear burkas for themselves, their religion. It’s part of their culture and “we don’t get to decide for Muslim women what does or does not oppress them, no matter how highly we think of ourselves.” Moran moves on and provides no further explanation to how her version of eye-for-an-eye equality applies to an entirely different culture from her own. Just because an aspect of a culture doesn’t align with an individual’s view of feminism or self-proclaimed “rule of thumb,” it does not grant anyone room for criticism.
Moran also says she wants to “reclaim the phrase ‘strident feminist’ in the same way the hip-hop community has reclaimed the word ‘n*gger.’”
I’ll pause here for an even bigger HMMM.
To compare the struggle of African-Americans, their marginalization, and the ongoing racism that such an enormous group of people in our society today still undergo is something fragile and sensitive; something I feel almost uncomfortable mentioning in this paragraph. I don’t think Moran — a white, English woman with several published works — has the right to talk about this in her book. But I think (and I hope) she knows this. Her comparison seems like a kind of extreme, exaggerated joke — it’s just one that isn’t very funny.
A friend once told me after reading a feminist piece I’d written that he’d laughed out loud several times “which was great, especially considering how dense and serious feminist texts are.” I considered this — most iconic feminist texts are intense and can be rather intimidating. The Feminine Mystique — a staple in any women’s studies class — quite literally has the word “mystique” in the title. And let me just say right now — I haven’t read it. As a young and learning feminist, I have reached for less traditionally “academic” things to draw from. Mindy Kaling, Amy Poehler, Tina Fey and Kristin Chenoweth are among the lady authors proudly read and loved on my bookshelf. Moran’s hilarious stories were yet another of the more obvious and fun starting points.
But that’s just it — feminism does not hold a reputation for being “fun.” Dramatic protests, extremist women, man-hating are usually some of the stereotypes associated with the movement. This perception doesn’t allow much room for humor to gain a foothold.
But of course, this is a serious matter we’re dealing with.
There is nothing fun about the meninist Twitter account. (Check out another Lady’s opinion on that here.)
It’s not fun when a strange man calls me “baby” from across the street.
It’s not fucking fun that women must undergo biased counseling to make a decision about their own bodies, to earn as little as 67 cents to each dollar that men make, only to be more likely to suffer workplace discrimination when they do have — and are crushing — that job.
Feminist issues are issues of human rights. And fighting for human rights isn’t fun. But how many more people have seen Pitch Perfect 2 than The Hunting Ground? More people read humorous books, watch humorous shows and movies. In fact, from a very scientific poll I recently conducted (ahem…messaging friends with various Pusheen cats, on Facebook, during work hours), 100% of my outwardly feminist friends had heard of or were more familiarized with Lena Dunham’s Not that Kind of Girl than the works of Simone de Beauvoir. With humor and hilarity, we are given a grander stage, a brighter light. Because haven’t you heard? Women are funny now!
Humor may be easier, more digestible to approach but that doesn’t necessarily mean humor is simple. I took a class that counted towards a philosophy credit called “The Philosophy of Comedy” during college. I think it’s safe to say that if the philosophers of academia count analyzing old SNL episodes as part of required “higher education” learning, humor can carry just as complex layers as any serious-toned material.
I loved How to Be a Woman. If I ever see Caitlin Moran, I will immediately run up and hug her, assuring her that I, too, thought I could opt out of having a period. But! I also loved how reading Bad Feminist afterwards made me question and rethink; turning the feminist wheels in my brain on their ever-growing newborn baby sides. Humor can be used to our advantage. I think it’s important to have humor on our side. But it’s also just as important to know what humor costs us. Gay writes that “There’s so much in [Moran’s] book that demands we reconcile casual insensitivity and narrow cultural awareness for the sake of funny feminist (albeit dated) thinking.” From my own — and many others’ experience — humorous feminism is many people’s first engagement with the subject. Don’t we want to make a good impression?
Funny feminism can be good. We need funny feminism. But we must be careful in approaching “gender matters in a selective manner, one grounded in a narrow brand of feminine experience — all for the sake of being funny.” These are the narratives that people who are learning, people who might not have any idea at all (people like me!) pick up first — and it’s therefore important that we get it right.
Originally published at obviweretheladies.com on August 17, 2015.