Films / Guest Posts / TV / Women and Gender

Guest Post: So This Feminist Walks Into a Bar: On Feminism and Humor

Written by Christina Black.  Originally published at Fem2pt0.  Reprinted with permission.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the role of humor in feminism – and feminism’s role in the face of offensive humor.

Rebecca Traister made an interesting point in Big Girls Don’t Cry, her book chronicling the 2008 election and specifically, Hillary Clinton. Traister says that historically, feminists have refrained from showing their humorous sides. While activists such as Gloria Steinem are “funnier than people remember” according to Traister, we can all agree that it’s hard to find the humor in feminist topics like abortion and rape. But on a deeper level, a movement whose goal is to be taken more seriously may want to avoid lightening the mood. Women were already the butt of the joke.

However, Traister notes that in the 2008 election, the term “feminist” began to make a comeback, and these feminists began to show their funny side. A lot of this was thanks to Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, and their well-known skit on Saturday Night Live poking fun at Hillary Clinton, Sarah Palin, and a host of social issues.

The humor is still there in 2011, although it’s retained a darker tone. Think of the women’s correspondent on The Daily Show, Kristin Schaal.  She managed to pull some bleak humor out of the abortion funding debate, noting that, “Sorry, ladies, the free abortion ride is over.” Or the 30 Rock episode poking fun at the feminist community, notably a certain feminist website. Humor, most of it sarcastic, is a tool used frequently on in the feminist blogosphere, with some blogs devoting themselves exclusively to that genre. It’s even an offline phenomenon, with the SlutWalk movement is focusing its message through humor. Gothamist also published a slideshow of the best (most of them funny) signs from the Rally for Women’s Health in February.

Sure, the New York Times did a study in 1997, but I think we’re past asking the question of whether feminists have a sense of humor. But it is nice to see it showing up more in mainstream media.

That being said, we feminists shouldn’t get so comfortable in this role that we are afraid to call others out on their jokes. We can’t be afraid of raining on someone’s parade when they say or do something sexist – even if other people consider it “funny.”

For instance, I noticed a lot of misogyny last night when I went to the movie theater to see the film Bridesmaids, which has been given credit for proving that “funny women do exist in the movies.” I enjoyed the film just fine, but found much less to like in the previews.

In one film, Horrible Bosses, I was appalled to hear the phrase “Let’s kill this bitch” used in the trailer. The film tells the story of three men who conspire to kill their superiors. Sure, the phrase was used to add some dramatic tension. I don’t really care. That kind of language—sanctioning violence against women—is never appropriate. (Are some of the targets male? Yes, but they aren’t discussed in the same dehumanized way.)

The next was almost as bad. In Cameron Diaz’s new film, Bad Teacher, Diaz plays an elementary school teacher who’s not cut out for the job. Something along the lines of School of Rock, but with a female, instead of a male, lead. This film doesn’t advocate killing women, but it condones objectifying them. In the trailer, Justin Timberlake’s character holds up a picture of a large-breasted woman, saying (to laughs) “She has such a big heart.” The next major plot point involves raising money for breast implants. Don’t worry, they don’t forget to include violence against women: the last scene includes Jason Segel telling a young boy “Don’t throw at her…throw through her” and hurling a ball towards Cameron Diaz. Hilarious.

Feminists have come a long way in the realm of humor, but there’s still an awful lot of misogyny out there. This can even be found in the trailers for a supposedly female-friendly film. Feminists must continue to call out these acts and words even if we are accused of ruining the fun. We need to be able to say, we are feminists, and we are funny, but this joke is not. It’s just offensive.

I’m hoping that we can provide a replacement, more along the lines of Tina Fey or Amy Poehler. If feminists can supply something funnier than objectification and misogyny, newly enlightened audiences may not notice the loss. We still talk about those SNL skits from 2008. Who will remember these films three years from now?

Oh, and the best answer to the joke in the headline? Courtesy of the Bitch Media Feminist Joke Contest: A feminist woman walks into a bar…only to realize that it’s been set arbitrarily high.


Christina Black currently works for a PR and lobbying firm in Washington, DC. Previously, she was at a nonprofit focused on women’s issues. She plans to attend law school in California in the fall. One day, she hopes to work at a nonprofit engaged in legal advocacy. She graduated in 2010 from the University of Chicago with a BA in History and Philosophy of Science. Yes, that is all one major.

In her (very limited) free time, Christina tries to catch up on all of the reading and TV shows she missed in college. When not updating her pop culture lexicon, she enjoys exploring the less touristy parts of the city. You can often find her at a museum (okay, those are touristy), the Kennedy Center, or Rock Creek Park.

You can also find her on Twitter @black_christina

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