This piece began as a Year in Review assignment for a website. I intended to write about all the great things women did in comedy last year, but as I researched, I realized there were too many women doing too many funny, important things for me to synthesize it all in just one brief article. Below, please find part one of my heartfelt and occasionally incoherent love letter to all the ladies advancing women’s rights through comedy.
“The power to make people laugh is a power, too.”
– Gloria Steinem, ANIMAL, June 16th, 2015
Women have been making people laugh since the beginning of time, and the year 2015 was no exception. But last year stood out for comedy with a feminist bent. Comedians used humor to subvert the status quo in creative, hilarious new ways. They made us laugh while simultaneously shining a light on the disturbing prevalence of gender inequality. They gave performances that empowered us to challenge oppressive social constructs. They wrote the kind of jokes that change politics and culture. Wielding the power of laughter, they advanced the feminist revolution.
There’s that word. Feminist. As writer/producer/activist Agunda Okeyo wrote for the Daily Beast, “conveying feminist ideals remains a contentious point of conversation in comedy, whether stand-up or scripted, mostly because as much as women are embedded in the game, men still run the show…Herein lays the problem: most women believe they should have equal rights, but disagree on how to express that, a phenomenon not unique to comedy.”
Sisters of Comedy
Okeyo would know. Despite being told she couldn’t possibly find enough talented, black, female comedians to produce a monthly stand-up showcase, on November 18th 2015, Sisters of Comedy, the first ever all black, all women stand-up showcase premiered at Carolines on Broadway.
Judging from the laughs and rave reviews, the show was a success. “It allows us to be human,” featured comedian Chloe Hilliard told NBC News. “For some reason, people don’t look at black women as being human. They don’t look at us as being vulnerable or weird. We don’t get to show our insecurities. We don’t get to show any other emotion other than rage and it allows people to see we’re just like them.”
Sisters of Comedy is now running monthly at Carolines with plans to go on the road. While the presence of diverse, complex women making people laugh is worth celebrating, if that’s the only thing you’re cheering about, you’re missing the point. Women didn’t just exist in comedy this year. Women were hilarious!
As Maya Rudolph told The Guardian, “It’s great being a woman. I love having privileges in comedy that 40 years ago I wouldn’t have had. But there’s a good, healthy, feminist part of me that’s, like: shut the fuck up. We’re just talented.”
Samantha Bee is Female as Fuck
Former Daily Show correspondent, Samantha Bee played on this idea in a teaser for her new late-night comedy show, Full Frontal. In May, 2015, already anticipating the barrage of attention she was going to receive for “defying the odds” (wait – you’re a woman, and you’re hosting a late night comedy show? How did you overcome your inherent inferiority to reach such heights?), Bee satirically made her womanhood the sole focus of the teaser. While examining portraits of the all male late-night line up, she pretends not to notice that women aren’t represented in late night comedy. She then rejects sausages (literally) and declares, “I’m Samantha Bee and I’m female as fuck.” It’s a statement of empowerment, wrapped in a joke, sealed in a sausage casing.
Unfortunately, the joke took a sad turn several months later, when Bee was omitted from a September Vanity Fair article in which 10 male late-night hosts were featured as, “all of the titans of late night television.” Bee and the better part of humanity was pissed. “It was just like a big fuck you. Oh, fuck off. Really? Again? What are you doing with this photo spread?” Bee told the Daily Beast. Ah yes. America needs more vintage 1960s imagery of the good old days when men drank whiskey out of old fashioned tumblers in the board room and women in twenty-one states didn’t have the right to terminate their rapist’s parental rights. Oh wait, we still don’t have that right. Thanks for bringing this disturbing reality to our attention in 2015, Samantha Bee.
“These stories are out there, people are doing the really hard investigative journalism on those subjects, but it’s so hard to get that information to tons of people,” Bee told EW in an interview on her twelve years as a correspondent for the Daily Show. “To do that comedically… it’s such an interesting way for people to learn about something that’s real.”
Bee responded to the Vanity Fair piece on twitter with an amazing rendering of herself into the cover photo as a hyper-masculine, laser-eyed centaur followed by a new promo for Full Frontal addressing the gender bias head on.
— Samantha Bee (@iamsambee) September 14, 2015
“When TBS asked me to host a sharp, topical late-night comedy show, I realized a lot of people would focus on the fact that I’m a woman entering a male-dominated field,” Bee starts off in the Full Frontal promo. “But don’t watch my new show just because I’m a woman. Watch because of my nuanced perspective on world events, my repartee with newsmakers from across the ideological spectrum…And of course, these: my 10-pound lady balls,” she concluded, dropping a pair of enormous testicles from under her dress. Balls are where humor and intelligence originate, obviously. What would Bee be without them?
Chicks Who Can Hang
There is still slight reluctance among comedians to joke about their own experience of being female for fear of being marginalized as a “woman comedian”. Culture tells us that being a woman is inherently lame, therefore if you joke about something only women relate to, you risk being boxed into this so-called weaker, hack category of comedians.
Sarah Silverman gets it. “There was a conceit that you had to make the men laugh because the women were just there on dates and they would only laugh if their dates were laughing, so you had to get the men to laugh — and that was, like, a real conceit,” said Silverman on NPR. “It took years for me to realize: Fuck you! Comedy is about talking about my own experience, and I’m a woman, and that’s my experience, and just because it isn’t yours doesn’t invalidate it. It’s so obvious now to even argue or talk about, but it was a real thing.”
The societal pressure on women to be “one of the guys”, but also “cover of Maxim hot” is nothing new. Wildly talented writer, Gillian Flynn defined the “cool girl” concept best in her book Gone Girl:
“Men always say that as the defining compliment, don’t they? She’s a cool girl. Being the Cool Girl means I am a hot, brilliant, funny woman who adores football, poker, dirty jokes, and burping, who plays video games, drinks cheap beer, loves threesomes and anal sex, and jams hot dogs and hamburgers into her mouth like she’s hosting the world’s biggest culinary gang bang while somehow maintaining a size 2, because Cool Girls are above all hot. Hot and understanding. Cool Girls never get angry; they only smile in a chagrined, loving manner and let their men do whatever they want. Go ahead, shit on me, I don’t mind, I’m the Cool Girl.”
Which brings us to Amy Schumer.
Amy Schumer: Feminist Revolutionary
Amy Schumer is the feminist comedian humanity needs. Despite all conceivable evidence to the contrary, in 2015, women are still valued more for their appearance, than for what they have to say. When her hit movie Trainwreck, released this summer, we laughed because it was funny and because it was so true. We loved it so much – but why? Writer, Anne Helen Peterson, who is herself a brilliant human, wrote a fantastic analysis for BuzzFeed on Amy’s Golden Globe nominated performance in Trainwreck as the ultimate post-feminist critique. In the movie, “Amy screws, drinks, and writes like a man, but none of those things actually empowers her, or vaults her to a position of equality, or even makes her feel awesome, or competent, or in control,” wrote Peterson.
In case you are unfamiliar with postfeminism, Peterson goes on to explain the concept in greater detail in the context of Amy’s character. “Like so many women of her generation, she grew up surrounded by the ideology of postfeminism, which suggests that now that the “work” of feminism has been achieved we can all focus on having fun. The problem, however, is that “fun” is still circumscribed by patriarchy, and a woman’s worth is determined by her ability to hew to expectations of desirability. You can have a job, in other words, but actual success is only measured in your ability to simultaneously attract a man, maintain an ideal domestic space, and preserve your body,” wrote Peterson. YES.
This year Amy taught us many important lessons through comedy including, but not limited to:
- Last Fuckable Day – Your “fuckability” is not for anyone else to determine. Tina Fey, Patricia Arquette and Julia Louis Dreyfus agree.
- Football Town Nights – Rape culture is a real thing. Stop blaming the victims.
- Celebrity Interview – Patriarchal expectations of desirability are unrealistic and will destroy your soul if you keep trying to meet them. Just be yourself.
- Boyfriend – If a guy is only interested in talking to you if there’s a chance you would sleep with him, he’s an asshole.
- Hello M’lady – If a guy is nice to you, you don’t automatically owe him something. That’s sexism at work.
At the Ms. Foundation Gala, Schumer gave a gut-wrenching, life-changing, empowering speech (immediate must read, seriously go read it now and then come back), using personal anecdotes to underline the political messages at the core of her comedy: “I am a woman with thoughts and questions and shit to say. I say if I’m beautiful. I say if I’m strong. You will not determine my story — I will. I will speak and share and fuck and love and I will never apologize to the frightened millions who resent that they never had it in them to do it. I stand here and I am amazing, for you. Not because of you. I am not who I sleep with. I am not my weight. I am not my mother. I am myself. And I am all of you, and I thank you.”
Let’s Talk about Privilege with Sasheer Zamata
There are some people out there who still think privilege doesn’t exist, so Saturday Night Live’s Sasheer Zamata made space for a non-judgmental, open dialogue on the issue. Zamata was named an ACLU ambassador this year and she’s using her new position to talk about gender and privilege. “Some of us have more of it than others, and through no fault of our own. It’s a silent benefactor that helps us even when we don’t know it, making structural discrimination difficult to see. And it disproportionately affects women,” writes Zamata on the ACLU blog. In a short video, Zamata explains privilege to a white dude who is, disturbingly unaware of its existence.
“Sure, we’ve made incredible strides in the past several decades. Without them, I wonder if I would have made it to SNL. But women still face greater barriers in employment, education, healthcare, and criminal justice – especially those of color and living in poverty,” wrote Zamata.
Females are Strong as Hell
Stay tuned for the second installment featuring passionate thoughts on Margaret Cho, Kimmy Schmidt, Gina Rodriguez, Kate Mckinnon, Tig Notaro, Kristina Wong, Broad City, Amy Poehler, Lena Dunham, Julia Louis Dreyfous, and more.
Here’s an amazing Hollywood Reporter roundtable to tide you over.
Tell me about your favorite comics in the comments!