Feminist Anger and Joy from Roseanne Barr to Margaret Cho and Wanda Sykes
I have suckled the wolf’s lip of anger and I have used it for illumination, laughter, protection, fire.
—Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider
Do you know the joke about the man who couldn’t find the humor section in the feminist bookstore? Probably. Because feminists don’t have a sense of humor, do they? Despite Samantha Bee, Wanda Sykes, the once seemingly progressive Roseanne Barr, Margaret Cho, Ali Wong, Tina Fey, the Guerrilla Girls, and Maysoon Zayid, if asked about feminism and humor, the first thought any of us might have could easily be a perplexed, “What?” This common failure to recognize the importance of humor for feminisms might be expected, given that all too often feminists themselves have been treated as a joke while humor has seemed to be an exclusively male terrain. Scholars have indeed noted the erasure or supposed lack of feminist humor. Cultural critic Susan Douglas, for example, has illuminated the ways in which the news media has transformed feminism into a dirty word through its depiction of the typical feminist as a woman with “the complete inability to smile—let alone laugh.” Certainly, coming of age during or soon after the second wave of feminism, it is hard for us not to be well versed in the sad facts about hostile workplace climates, statistics on violence against women, and the need for equality in a workplace for women who are primary caregivers—facts that do not have the effect they might have on some of us self-declared rational creatures. Of course, we must also wonder, if arguments for equality worked, whether that fortress of reason called philosophy would not rank near the bottom of the humanities in measures of academic workplace equality. If reason as a persuasive tool is at best only indirectly effective, a weak tool on its own, might not the sting of ridicule or the contagion of joyous laughter prove to be more effective weapons for social change? Or to turn the question around, what devices are more explosive in the social sphere, more discomforting to our conventional modes of thought, more invasive of our quasiprivate store of associations, than the well-placed joke, the display of wit, or the well-honed use of ridiculing irony?
In fact, poststructuralist perspectives on power and knowledge influenced by Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze, and Judith Butler, among others, should give us plenty of reason to suspect that various forms of humor or irony might be a more appropriate means of philosophical suasion than fact or argument alone. Recall that Foucault, influenced like other poststructuralists by Nietzsche, turns Platonism topsy-turvy, and posits that the soul is the prison house of the body. In other words, reason itself might be as much the problem as the solution. After all, culture imposes its particular set of norms on what is valued and recognized as reason. Given that social norms shape cognitive habits, the unraveling and disrupting of sexist norms through ridicule might free our thinking as well. In the first sections of this chapter, we aim to spotlight the subversive force of feminist humor on knowledge and power at two key nodes: motherhood and sexuality. Patriarchal notions of motherhood and sexuality have traditionally reduced women’s identities to polarized opposites instead of understanding them through a dynamic and creative force, one that Audre Lorde terms “erotic.” The erotic force in feminist humor messes with oppressive networks of power, intensifying and augmenting its own sources of pleasure and joy. As we offer some key philosophical elements toward a genealogy of feminist humor arising in U.S. popular culture, we discuss the aim, figures, conception of power, and cathartic effects of an erotic politics of laughter. Future waves of feminisms should recall and reinvoke the weapons and insights of humor from earlier waves, bringing humor into the core of academic practices and social movements.
Poststructuralist legal theorist Janet Halley offers ironic, provocative remarks on the feminist movement. In her words, one of the most interesting contributions of the critical stance that has evolved out of the feminist movement reflects the degree that it has allowed us “to take a break from feminism,” or at least overly self-righteous and abstract feminist theory. Her claim is that the feminist romance with rigid theories of domination and identity should give way to a poststructuralist politics and hedonics—in fact, as she puts it, to an erotic politics that is “fun.” The central target of her neo-Nietzschean queer sensibility is “governance feminism,” or those “schoolmarmish feminists” who take themselves as experts on political correctness and who play innocent to their own will to power. We do endorse one aspect of Halley’s remarks in our insistence on the central relevance of pleasure for the feminist movement, but we take up our project with due caution. We do not intend to take a break from feminism or dispense with theories of oppression, or even nuanced theories of identity. The aim is to shake up any stultifying moral compass (the broken one set by systems of oppression) with the kinds of laughs that knock power off its throne. Our claim is that this kind of humor will free us from oppressive norms, some of which can seep into our feminisms as well. Moreover, a touch of self-irony serves as a corrective to any moralizing, self-righteous tendencies of our own that might lead to a feminism that is toxic. While we insist that a social movement aware of domination and fueled by outrage is relevant—and warranted, given the hardships that women continue to endure—inspired by Audre Lorde, we aim to combat outrageous norms and add sources of pleasure through an erotic politics of laughter and joy.
This Is Not Your Mother’s Maternalism
Feminists and feminisms have often been the targets of a venomous conservative ridicule. Subtle and not so subtle waves of insult and mockery reinforce a cloud of associations that accompanies women in their working lives, creating climates that range from hostile to chilly. These biosocial clouds of image and affect diminish voices of protest before they are even heard. Consider second-wave feminist icon Gloria Steinem’s interview on Meet the Press in 1972. Larry Spivak appears to be less an aggressive interviewer after the facts than a caricature of the male chauvinist pig as he snaps at Steinem: “[In your words] women are not taken seriously, [they] are undervalued, ridiculed and not taken seriously by a society that views white men as the norm. . . . [Yet] men are virtually controlled by women from birth onward.” Thus, Spivak scoffed, “Why haven’t you done a better job. . . . Well, hasn’t [the mother] had an opportunity to brainwash the male during those early years. Why hasn’t she done it!” Steinem responds with the facts, maintaining a poise that commands seriousness and respect, and this perhaps was the best strategy. Certainly respect is the goal. But still one could see the temptation to slap back through sharper, more pointed ridicule, thus turning the master’s tool against him.
Meanwhile, some decades later, after the rise and retreat of second-wave feminism, during the era of a Teflon presidency and an ascendancy of family values, a stand-up comedian and soon-to-be television icon took a new and more incisive grasp on the master’s tool. Indeed, the same questions that feminists like Steinem worked hard to rebuke with careful, reasoned discourse in the 1970s, the once great Roseanne Barr dismantled with her bawdy, working-class sense of humor in the 1980s and 1990s. Barr is not the first female comic on the public stage—just think of Jackie “Moms” Mabley, Gracie Allen, Phyllis Diller, Joan Rivers, Lily Tomlin, and Whoopie Goldberg. Yet with few women to lead the way, this female comic takes her inspiration from Lenny Bruce. Barr’s humor established its potential to empower a demographic of underheard women against the moralizing backdrop of trickle-down Reaganomics, reflecting traces of feminist and working-class angst. Still, this empowering, energizing humor emerged off center from the movement’s concern for the harms of domination and legal protection for those perceived as weak and vulnerable. It allowed for the creative use of outrage, an emotion that, unlike sadness or nurturing warmth, women are not supposed to express.
Roseanne Barr’s target was a particularly invidious form of social power: norms of the family to which she refused to be subjected. In one scene from the show Roseanne, Roseanne’s good friend, Crystal, insists that Roseanne’s husband, Dan, is the ideal man. Roseanne, unimpressed, snarls back, “Do you think he came that way? . . . It’s 15 years of fight’n that made him like that.” After all, “A good man just don’t happen,” Roseanne insists. “They have to be created by us women.” As she continues her tutorial on the subject, Roseanne reaches toward a plate of doughnuts, explaining to her female coworkers, “A guy is a lump . . . like this doughnut.” Flicking the sprinkles off the icing, she illustrates how first “you got to get rid of all the stuff his mother did to him.” After breaking the doughnut in half, she points out that “then you gotta get rid of all the macho crap they pick up from beer commercials.” Finally, she gets to her “personal favorite, the male ego,” symbolized by a small bite of doughnut that she happily devours. Rather than playing the worshipful wife, Roseanne explains how her relationship with Dan really works—with humor that bites. Like Spivak, Roseanne blames the mother—or at least her mother-in-law—for a role, perhaps more minor (the sprinkles on the doughnut) than male culture (the beer commercials), in supporting the male ego. But her candidate for mothering, or remothering, is the grown man, not the son. This mothering fosters “15 years of fight’n.” Comedy, it seems, is warfare by other means. This is not our mother’s maternalism.
Steinem too knew how on occasion to use humor to advance the feminist cause. Yet it is hard to imagine Steinem ever emulating the crotch-scratching, off-key-anthem-singing Roseanne Barr, and this is not about their singular personalities. Instead, this difference in style reflects the fact that feminists as a whole were not seen as having much of a sense of humor. Perhaps it is Barr’s working-class identity that matters most—or as we know now, her white working-class identity. Of course, we are not suggesting that if only Gloria Steinem had been on a break from a factory job and sitting in front of a plate of doughnuts, her response to her host would be have resembled Barr’s. Still, a play on crass class distinctions did propel Barr’s feminism to mainstream television. Meanwhile, the frequently overlooked impact of feminist humor may reflect its excessively serious aesthetic of bourgie respectability. But it remains odd, given the rich tradition of street theater that women have utilized in everything from the double entendres of early twentieth-century blues singers and burlesque along with the 1968 Miss America pageant protest and the lesser-known Harvard Yard Pee-In to protest the lack of female restrooms both masterminded by Missouri-born black lawyer and activist Florynce Kennedy, the Women’s International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell’s (W.I.T.C.H.) 1968 hex on Wall Street, and the ironic cheers of Radical Cheerleaders in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
At the same time, let us not ignore other already forgotten feminist humor that was front and center of the second-wave movement. Steinem too has long understood how to mess with the master’s tools. In an iconic 1978 Ms. Magazine essay, “If Men Could Menstruate . . . ,” Steinem seems to be writing for such future stand-ups as Margaret Cho. Steinem insists that “men would brag about how long and how much.” At that time, the association of men and menstruation was more than just humorous inversion. This use of humor accumulates political force by borrowing from the shock value of the (allegedly) obscene, a feature of feminist humor that we will return to later. As part of broad-based political movements of the 1960s and 1970s, the incendiary humor of political radicals does not simply create diversionary tactics or comic relief. By illuminating the inversions and inflaming the passions that fuel social awareness and activism, this humor can produce climate change.
Regardless of views of earlier female humor, the humor of later comics like Cho, Sykes, and Ali Wong operates quite differently. Wong, who filmed her 2016 stand-up special Baby Cobra while seven and a half months pregnant and wearing a tight dress, demonstrates what it might feel like to trap a white man’s head between her legs in cunnilingus and then crush that colonizer. When reason fails, these comics use their erotic power and male vulnerability to turn their anger outward in explosive and self-affirming joy. We will return to this cathartic element later. Here we note that the history of female comedians has moved from the subtle wit of Gracie Allen or Lucille Ball to the fiery, often enraged provocations of feminist humorists. This firebrand humor, both fuming and fun, sets the stage for a refreshed politics of feminism. Stand-up Kate Clinton nicely coins a term for this explosive mix as “fumerist” because “it captures the idea of being funny and wanting to burn the house down all at once.”
Fumerism does something more constructive than burn down the house, even as it exorcises any trace—perceived or real—of the schoolmarmish demeanor in what Halley calls governance feminism. We aim to pursue this corrective break from the moralizing posture that occasionally infects some strains of feminist politics. We are fully aware that this break could be disorienting, given that the role of moral guardianship has afforded generations of women the credentials to move into the male terrain of politics. Nonetheless, we want to foreground a feminism that does not brood over victimhood or inadvertently perpetuate images of female suffering and sacrifice. This feminist detox would shake up oppressive norms with a good and gutsy belly laugh. We are willing to pay the price of abandoning, at least temporarily, all traces of the early nineteenth-century embrace of republican motherhood, as well as any contemporary notions that somehow mother knows best. In order to smash the normal images of motherhood, scholars turn to Barr because in the 1980s and 1990s, “her mission was simple and welcome: to take the schmaltz and hypocrisy out of media images of motherhood.” Consider her famous line from her stand-up routine: “If the kids are alive at five, hey, I’ve done my job.” Cho goes so far as to entirely refuse maternal destiny, insisting, “I’m not a breeder. . . . I have no maternal instincts. . . . I ovulate and . . . when I see children I feel nothing.” Cho, along with other female stand-ups, uses humor to critique the politics of conventional motherhood and its moral respectability that a rigidly righteous orientation rarely questions. In solidarity with Kate Clinton, Gina Barreca, Janet Halley, and others, we call on feminism to engage openly and playfully with various forms of humor and irony as weapons of choice in tribute to fumerism. After all, across the political spectrum, from left-wing radicals to those alt-right antifeminist extremists in the online “manosphere” know full well, “Ridicule is man’s most potent weapon.” If well aimed, we insist, it can be feminists’ as well.
Fanning the flames of fumerism is a long-standing problem that women face when they make that fateful transition to womanhood. All too often women have found that both on street corners and on the comic stage they are reduced not only to the butt of a joke but also to its tits and ass. A well-rehearsed tradition of stand-up male jokesters that reflects, as Catherine A. MacKinnon charges, a larger culture that not only tolerates but eroticizes male domination prompts a woman to understand herself as a woman the moment she is being objectified. Call this the humor of the asshole. Its pleasures come from the excesses of entitlement and privilege. A seemingly irrepressible flow of male libido reduces women to just the parts men find funny, often making women all too vulnerable to obsession with their bodies and body parts. Fumerism, however, turns the tables and mocks the mocker with a release of female libido that eroticizes its own sources of power and joy. This tradition of humor refuses to pay tribute to acts of harassment or objectification, preferring instead, as feminist comedian Zahra Noorbakhsh explains in the context of Islamophobia and the Trump election, “not to alleviate tensions or smooth out differences,” but “to heighten them,” and “illuminate” moments of “crisis.” Fuming humor affords women the role of trickster rather than “trick” as they sort out the implications of “famous penises,” “detachable pussies,” and those oh-so-sensual “loaf-of-bread-size maxi pad[s].”
All of this reminds us first and foremost of comedian and producer Tina Fey’s salute to her own childhood memories of coming of age. In her biography, Bossypants, Fey recounts some of the uncomfortable common experiences that let a girl know that she is now, ready or not, a woman, such as her mother’s handing a ten-year-old Fey the Modess company’s “‘my first period’ kit” that came with a “vaguely threatening” pamphlet about “Growing Up and Liking It.” Her mother was no doubt supposed to have read the prescriptive information entitled “How Shall I Tell My Daughter,” but instead she just “slipped out of the room” and Fey was left to figure things out on her own. Fey soon realized that she had been “misinformed from commercials that one’s menstrual period was a blue liquid that you poured like laundry detergent onto maxi pads to test absorbency” (which is why she ignored, at least for the few hours, the onset of menarche). But in her defense, she recalls, “Nowhere in the pamphlet did anyone say that your period was NOT a blue liquid.” As she tells it, “At that moment, two things became clear to me. I was now technically a woman, and I would never be a doctor.” She also recognized that the virtues of female modesty can set you up to play the fool. As head writer on SNL, however, she would routinely invert the expectations of who would joke about whose body parts and hence who was the fool. Repeatedly confronted with the question of what is “the actual difference between the male and female comedian writers,” she retorts, as she takes a poke at the male body: “The men urinate in cups. And sometimes in jars” (so as not to disturb the genius at work). Also, it seems that “they had never been handed a fifteen-year-old Kotex product by the school nurse.” This difference led to Fey’s “proudest moment”: the moment when she got her male colleagues to understand what a hit a parody skit would indeed be if it featured SNL’s “female dream team” living it up in their hot “‘modern gal’ activities while giant sanitary napkins poked out of their low-rise jeans.” This humor may not have been your mother’s maternalism, but, as the SNL skit quipped, “This is your mother’s pad.”
Modesty wasn’t the only female virtue that Fey had learned to avoid. Fey realized while doing research for her hit Hollywood movie, Mean Girls, that playing the “nice girl” is not always the smartest way to play. She discovered while attending a bullying workshop with Rosalind Wiseman (author of Queen Bees and Wannabes , which was the basis for the film) that there were lots of women who recalled that as young girls their transformation to womanhood often had something to do with “car creepery” that is “mostly men yelling shit from cars” such as “Lick me!” or “Nice ass.” Indeed, Fey wondered as she recounted all of these stories from women of diverse backgrounds if men purposely organize this ritual of harassment. “Are they a patrol sent out to let girls know they’ve crossed into puberty?” Her own thirteen-year-old response to a guy shouting about her “Nice tits” was to tell the creep to “Suck my dick,” which she now realizes “didn’t make any sense, but at least I didn’t hold in my anger.”
Not holding in anger is what feminist comedy does best. You may be a victim, but you will have your revenge, and a clever one at that. For the woman turned comedian, her act of revenge grants a seat at the table in a kind of game with different house rules: Let’s deal a new hand as we play “Who’s the real victim?” To unravel this mystery, we turn now to “our Senior Women’s Issues Correspondent Kristen Schaal,” who several years ago on The Daily Show played the game while coming to terms with the latest round of Republican woes over their already bulging pocketbooks. “Hallelujah,” declares Kristen Schaal, “it’s about time.” Finally, “Congress is redefining rape to protect us from the worst kind of rape . . . money rape.” You know—the “forcible taking of taxpayers’ money to pay for abortions.” It seems that American taxpayers have had “no say in the matter. . . . They just have to lay back and take it while their bank accounts are violated over and over and over again.” But in February 2011, our brave Republicans in Congress decided to make a change and proposed that abortions should be paid for only in cases of “rape-rape”—that is to say, “forcible rape”—“finally closing,” in the words of Schaal, “the glaring rape loophole in our health care system.” Our Daily Show correspondent can’t believe “how many drugged, underaged, or mentally handicapped young women have been gaming the system!” What an outrage that our “hard-earned dollars should go to women who have only been rape-ished. . . . Sorry ladies, the free abortion ride is over.” Getting rid of those loopholes will prevent “money rape” and protect victimized taxpayers who don’t want to pay for a young woman who has been drugged or who is with limited mental capacity, let alone one who has undergone statutory rape. Roman Polanski “plying a thirteen-year-old with Quaaludes, alcohol, and a famous penis isn’t rape-rape; it’s just rape-esque and shouldn’t be covered—only rape-rape” would get covered.
If you don’t agree with the twisted logic, Schaal understands why. “Clearly you’ve been traumatized by years of money rape,” but it’s “OK to talk about it.” Reaching for her chauvinist piggy bank, Schaal encourages the real victims to speak out—that is, the victims of money rape to “show me on the piggy bank where Obama took your money for abortions—was it here?” It is hard to speak out loud about the kind of violation that, for example, occurred in one year alone in 2006, when a handful of women who received abortions because of rape, incest, and health risks endangering their lives took a shocking “two-tenths of a penny per taxpayer” to fund those services. Indeed, as the comedian is suggesting, one might wonder how America can sleep at night! Clearly losing your money can lead to suffering. Liberals should not overlook the fact that the violation of trust and unfair taxation are moral issues. But the underlying point of the sketch is that rape too is a moral issue. Schaal mocks those who mock the victimologists—those big, strong men in Congress who claim to speak for ordinary Americans who would never cry (notwithstanding the then Speaker of the House, John Boehner, who was notorious for his episodes of weeping). Schaal makes us wonder who the wuss is as she asks, gesturing, “Does it hurt here?” on the figure of a pig, suggesting that Congress should tell mommy what happened.
Of course, there is something women do have that is valued almost like money. This is something mothers know and girls find out. As Wanda Sykes insists, “Even as little girls we are taught . . . ‘You have something that everybody wants. You gotta protect it. You gotta be careful. You gotta cherish it.’” She adds, “That’s a lot of fucking pressure.” But “wouldn’t it be great if you could just leave your pussy at home?” In other words, what “if our pussies were detachable!” “Just think of the freedom you’d have,” if, for example, you wanted to hang out with a famous penis (not a movie director this time, but, Sykes suggests, a professional ballplayer). You could detach your pussy and go to his “hotel room at 2 o’clock in the morning.” If he wants you (or, rather, your thing), you just have to remind him, “Look, my pussy’s not even in the building—I’m just here to talk about your jump shot.” Sykes can’t help but think about how convenient it would be to have a detachable vagina. You would never worry again about going places by yourself at night. Think about getting home from work late; you’re contemplating going for a jog, “but it’s getting too dark.” Then you remember: “I’ll just leave it at home.” Sykes explains to her audience, “It could be pitch black” and “this old crazy guy jumps out of the bushes,” but you don’t have to be scared because you can let him know, “I left it at home. Sorry, I have absolutely nothing of value on me—I’m pussy-less.”
To be pussy-less and hence to lack anything of value seems reminiscent of old-school male tits and ass humor—the stuff that nice girls were not supposed to talk about, and the kind of humor men have long relied on to keep women off their patriarchal playing field. Yet Sykes turns on its head this formulaic reduction of women to property that has for far too long served to erotize male domination. Humor may not stop the crime of rape, but it does joyfully and hilariously erotize women’s own sources of power through shared laughter. Sykes gives us a hint about the bonds that come of this shared laughter as she ponders how leaving your pussy at home has its own setbacks. Just think of the problems you can confront if you are on an “unrespectable” hot date and need your girlfriend to help you out. According to Sykes, it gets at some “sisterhood.” That occurs when you call a girlfriend in the middle of the night and say, “Look, do me a favor; run by my house and grab my pussy.” It lets “you find out who your real girlfriends are.”
But leaving your pussy at home when you are not there to keep an eye on it can call for a return of the maternal reprimand. Imagine coming home after being out with the girls and finding your “pussy all bent out of shape.” “Ladies, you know you can’t trust them.” In fact, Sykes suggests you can’t trust them “with shit.” When confronted, her man is just “standing there” with a stupid look on his face and a sorry excuse that “some of the fellows came by.” As she confronts him wallowing in his misogynist mess, she finds her pussy like an old worn sock needing to be “put it in the dryer” to get it back in shape. She adds with disgust, “I better put a Bounce in there.” This kind of housecleaning—the kind that might make you dread coming home—once again affords Sykes the role of the trickster and the means to bounce back against threats, both on the comic stage and on the street corner. By turning male humor inside out, she takes her own property back. With a nod, she gives back power to the pussy and erotizes that old maternal wisdom that also allows her to put her house back in order.
But are there some topics that are off-limits, that even feminist ridicule cannot tap? Some issues, such as rape, that only the male chauvinist pig would turn into a joke? In the summer of 2012, Daniel Tosh found himself in the middle of a controversy after he told a Hollywood comedy club a rape joke aimed at a female audience member. “Wouldn’t it be funny if that girl got raped by like five guys right now . . . like right now?” To be sure, feminists struggle to avoid being pigeonholed as the ones who need to lighten up. After the Tosh controversy, the now infamous stand-up Louis C.K. misfired as he offers his own tongue-in-cheek thoughts to Jon Stewart and the Daily Show audience about the “fight between comedians and feminists.” He insinuates that these two groups “are natural enemies. Because stereotypically speaking, feminists can’t take a joke” and “comedians can’t take criticism.” Instead of upending the stereotypes, this comic recommends women just leave the offending comedy clubs and stop universalizing their feelings. Jokes defended as light entertainment offer foundational support, as the base of a pyramid, for the cruelty of rape culture. Jezebel staff writer and feminist Lindy West intervened more effectively. Observing that in response to Tosh the “conversation had devolved into two polarized camps,” with outraged feminists arguing that “‘rape jokes are never funny’ and defensive comics wailing about how the ‘thought police’ is ‘silencing,’” she pointed out: “The world is full of terrible things, including rape, and it is okay to joke about them. But the best comics use their art to call bullshit on those terrible parts of life and make them better, not worse. . . . Don’t make rape victims the butt of the joke.” Cameron Esposito’s 2018 special Rape Jokes exemplified the point. In this set, Esposito poignantly addresses her own personal experience of having been raped, thus bringing forward the voice of the survivor as she rechannels the laughter against the Toshes. The first rule of the comedy club is to punch up, not down.
A Genealogy of Feminist Humor
Our approach to humor as an erotic art of flipping the master’s tools is profoundly inspired by Lorde’s classic essays “Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power,” “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House,” “The Uses of Anger: Women Respond to Racism,” and “Poetry Is Not a Luxury.” Like poetry, laughter is not a luxury but an “erotic” necessity. (She ungirds the ancient Greek term from its modern pornographic meaning.) In her generative terms, “The very word erotic comes from the Greek word eros, personification of love in all its aspects—born of Chaos and personifying creative power and harmony. When I speak of the erotic, then, I speak of it as an assertion of the lifeforce of women.” Enhancing that life force by channeling anger into heated social movements and festive joy is fumerism’s foremost aim.
Yet this chapter does more than juxtapose a maternal politics of self-righteousness with an erotic politics of feminist humor. While we would agree with Halley that it is best to take a break from any moralizing pose, we would also like to propose some philosophical elements for a genealogy of feminist humor. Here we offer a genealogy for feminism because like Foucault, we too see that history—with all of its ironies, inversions, and unexpected surprises—matters, and with Lorde, we think that domination matters. Genealogy is history and its tragedies replayed through the eye of the ironist (for us the fumerist), alert to inversions in the dynamics of power. As we continue to uncover history’s irresolvable contradictions and stubborn demarcations of power, we will explore the aims and functions of feminist humor by bringing forward two figures (Foucault’s term) to expose what is at stake.
While humor can invert a social order only to reestablish hierarchy and identity, it can also subvert this order and achieve a more democratic aim. In her classic 1966 essay “Jokes,” Mary Douglas teases out relevant, if ultimately misleading, aspects regarding humor’s lack of potential for a “subversive effect on the dominant structure.” Douglas sharply contrasts humor as a temporary holiday from the normal order with the shock value of the obscene, which calls that order into question in a way that is dangerous or otherwise subversive for the social system. Douglas mistakenly leaves the reader assuming that in contrast to the shock of the obscene that is common in high modern art, the break or “holiday” that humor provides from social norms is inevitably a temporary diversion. In other words, for Douglas, a joke is just a joke—a holiday from the normal constraints of politics and morality, not a means of social change. However, our glimpse into the history of feminist humor suggests that both the amusing joke and the shock of the obscene can under certain conditions function within a social movement to effect egalitarian social change. Thus, the aims of some humor can be democratic and not reactionary or merely for fun. Such humor would aim not to exclude but include diverse social groups and individuals. And it would not just reinforce or temporarily invert hierarchies but level them. Moreover, such humor can take a more progressive aim precisely when it refuses to sharply distinguish itself from the obscene. Recall in this context Steinem’s essay on men and menstruation. By illuminating the inversions and inflaming the passions that fuel social awareness and activism, this edgy humor helped stir a political movement. To be sure, a joke can be just a joke, but the experience of pleasure in subversion is not always an illusion or a brief diversion. As we shall further argue, in the process of subversion, humor can transform a politics of anger and resentment into a politics of joy. The techniques of inversion and leveling that can account for the pleasure of the joke are well suited for the central aim of our feminist ethical vision—one of social equality and inclusive belonging.
Cultural theorists provide support for our feminist account of transformative strains in humor by suggesting a source of humor’s pleasure that does not stem from feelings of superiority or in-group/out-group hierarchies. Such humor instead prompts a sense of community from a loosely defined sense of mutual belonging rather than a recognized shared identity. The “unity” of this felt sense of belonging—of laughing together—occurs though suspending and rendering more porous reified positions of identity. Similarly, we argue that fumerist comedy can make visible histories of identities and struggles for recognition and identification, but as moments of dislocation and transformation. In other words, the moment of laughter may jolt one out of habitual habits and cognition and open up fresh possibilities. Comedy can create a new kind of community, one based not on homogeneity or rigid identities but rather on a shared dislocation out of customary lines of identity. The joy of fumerist comedy is not in having one’s preconceived identity and views confirmed, but in being startled out of one’s customary alignments toward a more promising future.
If the pleasures and subversions of comedy serve unconventional moral aims, it seems fair to ask what its implications for ethics are. It has been suggested that comedians’ “complaints contain a critique of the gap between what is and what we believe should be.” We understand this ethical “should,” in contrast to the law-and-reason-bound moral “ought” that is grounded in the modern moral theories of Kant and John Stuart Mill, as opening the way toward what we propose as a postmoral ethics. The problem with the standard modern discourse of morality is that it entails interpreting the self too narrowly as a rational and/or self-interested individual, and morality too narrowly in terms of abstract rules for action. We do not reject all elements of modern moral theory, and we accept the need for both moral laws and reason. However, as many feminist theorists insist, the modern discourse of morality (whether Kantian or utilitarian) is too abstract and disconnected from the emotionally driven and both culturally and socially embedded creatures we are to help us to grasp, let alone resist, oppressive social norms with which moral codes and normal modes of identity may be complicit. In contrast, the “should” of comic discourse eschews the standard moral language, with its problematic notion of the moral person; instead of a sharp focus on rules for their own sake, it deconstructs the disciplinary matrix through a style of comportment and sociability that is egalitarian and even visionary. Feminist politics requires a utopic vision, be it implicit or explicit, and such a vision is what the meaning-making genre of comedy is designed to offer. When fumerists joke, mock, and critique the micropractices of everyday life, their humor often generates joyous glimpses of a better world. This anger-fueled humor challenges conventional morality and the underlying codes of normalization, patriarchal oppression, and social exclusion that this morality sustains via an ethical stance and a social vision.
Of course, tragic harms, often perpetrated through structures of domination, merit a sober and impassioned expression of direct moral outrage. Our assumption is that power does not only operate through the hierarchies or inequalities located by traditional or intersectional theories of domination. It also operates through the micropractices, engrained habits, cultural stereotypes, and implicit biases of everyday life—practices that make up the normal and normalizing codes of gender and other sites of oppression. Individuals, regardless of gender, perpetuate these norms through practices that operate behind our backs and without knowledge of our complicity. Just as ridicule and humor provide an arsenal of tools that can reinforce these norms and practices, so too can this arsenal tear those conventions down.
Poststructuralists like Foucault, Deleuze, and Butler expose such conventions as invidious and pervasive practices and techniques of normalization. They argue that these practices and techniques of normalization hold us in check as administered subjects through modes of discourse and knowledge that mold the mind as well as the body. They argue that the target of the disciplinary apparatus in modern society is abnormality. Foucault demonstrated how for modern society, “nonconformity was not mere eccentricity; very often it was symptomatic of disease.” Those classified as sexual deviants were “subject to surveillance and constraints imposed through psychiatry and other means by or on behalf of society as a whole.” These sexual deviants, along with hysterical women and other so-called moral monsters, cannot always and easily reason their way out of their subordinate positions and derogatory classifications in modern networks of power and knowledge. This is because moral judgments are themselves part of the power apparatus. This apparatus constructs reason as codes, standards, and habits that render some of us or some of our experiences abnormal, disgusting, or even obscene.
Central for the poststructuralist, post-Nietzschean critique of reason as the ruse of power is the use of irony and ridicule as an epistemology and a methodology. It is easy to forget the twinkle in Foucault’s eye that casts a certain slant over his entire project in The Order of Things. Yet as Halley too suggests, remembering this twinkle is key to understanding the force of his project—a project that was designed, after all, to critique reason in part through odd juxtapositions and inversions. Foucault began his book, as he explains, with
a passage from [literary author Jorge Luis] Borges out of laughter that shattered, as I read the passage, all the familiar landmarks of my thought—our thought, the thought that bears the stamp of our age and our geography—breaking up all the ordered surfaces and all the planes with which we are accustomed to tame the wild profusion of existing things. . . . This passage quotes a “certain Chinese encyclopedia” in which it is written that “animals are divided into: (a) belonging to the Emperor, (b) embalmed, (c) tame, (d) sucking pigs, (e) sirens, (f) fabulous, (g) stray dogs, (h) included in the present classification . . . (n) that from a long way off look like flies” . . . and so on. In the wonderment of this taxonomy, the thing we apprehend in one great leap . . . is the limitation of our own.
The ironic voice should not be viewed as a distraction from the analytic mind-set of social critique but rather as vital to the insights produced by Foucault’s genealogical method and by the momentum of real social change. Thus, we aim to develop our study of feminist ridicule with the irony of Foucault’s genealogical method front and center, beginning with our treatment of those normalizing micropractices. Foucault uses what he terms figures to map nodal points in the matrices of power. In the first volume of the History of Sexuality, perhaps his most ironic book, Foucault highlights the figures of the hysterical woman, the masturbating child, and the sexual adult in order to locate the ways in which sexuality is controlled through biopower in the nineteenth century. Other philosophers too have located figures in matrices so that we might better understand the basis for social power. For example, a genealogy of neoliberalism might foreground the figures of the consumer and the entrepreneur. Feminist movements have also exposed various figures to mark nodes in networks of power. These movements, during one of their fumerist moments, countered one of these figures—the Playboy bunny—with a figure of its own—the male chauvinist pig. To understand the role of these figures in everyday practices of power, we must look back to their emergence in the context of the rising second wave of feminism of the early 1960s. In the previous decade, Hugh Hefner had invented the Playboy bunny as the newest toy for what Barbara Ehrenreich and Susan Bordo describe as the movement that preceded and solicited second-wave feminism—a movement of rebellious young men who aimed to reclaim their masculinity from what they perceived to be a new domestication, the suffocating maternalism of the post–World War II era.
If the male movement had its bunny, then the women’s movement also produced a figure of belittlement, the male chauvinist pig, and this figure was designed to outmaneuver the tactics of the Playboy Club. While the bunny may function as a serious figure for men of male desire, the pig functions for the feminist movement as a figure of comic ridicule, if not outright disgust. Rabbits are also known for their frequent (and mindless) copulation, and so provide a degrading image for women, as Gloria Steinem’s 1963 exposé revealed. The pig, on the other hand, is not simply a serious figure of women’s outrage. The pig is perceived to be (unfairly to this intelligent animal) a comical and even obscene creature, far from the macho predatory beast of masculine fantasy. The pig wallows in its own filth without recognizing how disgusting it is.
More recently, this pig found his way back into the spotlight in the role of pussy-grabber in chief, together with his Playboy bunny–esque first lady. Indeed, President Trump’s campaign flourished thanks to bad-boy antics that made his stoic opponent, second-wave feminist Hillary Clinton, appear as the straight man. It was nearly impossible for this policy wonk, who mistakenly thought she could balance her straight side by playing up at the Democratic convention some of her traditional motherhood credentials, to prevail on the stage. Once this master of insult transformed the debate stage into a comic one, Clinton’s straight discussion of political programs was guaranteed to set her up for a fall. Indeed, when Clinton entered onto that stage, she was as a woman already positioned by comic and social norms of male public space to be the butt of the joke. And when the comic genie is let out of the box, it does not easily go back in. Caricatures of “Crooked Hillary” went viral. Nonetheless, it remains to be seen who in U.S. politics will have the last laugh. The time is ripe for feminism to reclaim the erotic politics of laughter as the pussy grabs back to talk some truth to power.
This practice of speaking truth to power through ridicule or irony recalls the ancient practices of the Cynics as described by Foucault. Foucault himself in his later writings aims to emulate this ancient practice of truth telling, or what the Cynics term parrhesia. The Cynics were social critics who avoided systematic philosophy and instead cultivated the art—Foucault calls it an aesthetic practice—of ridicule and improvisation to draw attention to the arbitrary aspects of social norms. For example, the Cynics would use the philosopher’s technique of reductio ad absurdum, but instead of pointing out the fallacies of arguments, they exposed the absurdity of what would pass for common sense. In the process, their occasionally obscene antics would upset public mores. In effect, these philosophers were the Lenny Bruces and Richard Pryors of their day. When fumerists practice this art of speaking truth to power through irony and ridicule, they too take up in their own way the spirit of parrhesia. Their comic spirit offers a political ethic of eros that undoes the self’s conventional core, igniting the fire for unlearning bad norms and habits in a way that mere reflection just can’t do. Anger fuels change, but personal change and social movements need creative energy and new visions too, as Lorde well knew. The emancipatory practices of truth telling through the undoing of toxic notions of identity and community generate energy and eros for personal and social transformation.
But is the queer pleasure of this cathartic force genuinely progressive and inclusive, or might this force be forgetful of race or other dimensions of power? Any genealogical study of the figure of the pig in feminist truth telling must also point out that the male chauvinist owes much to the Pig—that is, the Pig that the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the Panthers confronted in the 1960s, the Pig that caused Watts and the assassination of Fred Hampton. For, as white feminists have had to learn, race certainly can fuel the desire to burn down the house. Lorde, Kimberlé Crenshaw, and Patricia Hill Collins, among others, pinpoint race along with gender among multiple variables of domination, setting the stage for what is called third-wave feminism through a development of what Crenshaw terms intersectionality. Theories of intersectionality focus on exposing power through various structures of domination as they tease out interrelationships between class, race, sex, gender, and other key factors in the function of power. This crucial work opens the question of whether our engagement with fumerism converges with the understanding of multiple axes of power that we find in theories of intersectionality. Recall that poststructuralist queer theory views all sources of identity, even intersectional ones, as forms of subjection and subjugation, and affirms instead fluidity. Our aim is to work within intersectional theories of domination and indeed strengthen Collins and Bilge’s call for a collective identity politics and yet show how humor opens us to fluid boundaries and unexpected alliances. Humor, through its use of poststructuralist fluidity, prompts coalitions or relationships across the social divisions that intersectionality theory locates.
Let’s replay the achievements of intersectional theory by way of the humor of comedian Wanda Sykes to clarify where we find a use for poststructuralist fluidity. Ultimately, both of these two seemingly conflicting theories of power—an intersectional theory of domination and poststructuralist critiques of identity—have much to offer for comedy. When Sykes highlights in her stand-up routines the unexpected ironies of her experiences as a black woman who is also a lesbian, she provides to intersectionality theory some twists and turns that can multiply perspectives and identities to a dizzying degree. The resulting disturbance of any ready-made norms, whether imposed by the white community or from the self-defining black community, amplifies the insights of intersectionality theory while shifting the insights of this theory to a new and delightfully raucous terrain. In some ways, intersectionality theory locates domination on a high-powered, multidimensional, and Cartesian-like grid of precisely defined locations and hierarchies. Black lesbian women would find their points of convergence through the intersection of multiple forces of domination at particular locations in a map of power. Sykes’s black gay irony certainly picks up on these multiple axes of domination, but her humor does not then proceed to redefine or relocate the self in community in any kind of bounded way. Her humor disturbs nodes of power as well as the boundaries and hierarchies that circumscribe these nodes as she mocks them. Indeed, in her humor there is a cathartic subversion of any attempt to reassert impermeable boundaries around the self or one’s community without forsaking the self and its ties for an unbound or entitled identity. On the contrary, Sykes’s humor works to alter specific clusters of social positions and to make possible new ones that are no longer so sternly based on rigid taxonomies of race, class, gender, or sexuality, or on the toxic fear and resentment that can reinforce their normalizing power. The result is a renewed sense of community and alliance based less on identity or self-interest than on positive energy for a visceral connection and felt solidarity.
Consider Sykes’s particular way of declaring that it is “harder to be gay than it is to be black.” She quips that there are things she had to do being gay that she didn’t have to do being black. “I didn’t have to come out being black. . . . I didn’t have to sit my parents down and tell them about my blackness.” She then imagines telling her parents, “Mom and Dad—I’m black,” and her mom acting hysterical: “You know what, you’ve been hanging around black people. . . . They got you thinking you’re black. . . . They twisted your mind. . . . I know I shouldn’t have let you watch Soul Train.” Through mocking narratives of gay development, Sykes allows us to reimagine narratives of “black” development. Sykes’s characteristic irony draws our attention to modes of resistance or tactics of empowerment that do not rest firmly within any given boundaries of community and family, or on any epistemic attitude that assumes for some social group a correct point of view. What Lorde, Crenshaw, and Collins among others begin as a powerful inflection of intersectionality into identity politics ends up with what the Nietzschean (mindful that the last god resides in grammar) might applaud as Sykes’s grammatically incorrect “I’ma Be Me politics.” Sykes sidesteps the downside of the victim sweepstakes, that counterproductive game of who’s on bottom. This erotic politics cuts across so many lines of identity that one is left wondering who’s on bottom and who’s on top. While this ironist confronts the powers that be, her challenge is less often direct than indirect; it is engaging yet subversive. The ironist’s oblique politics may not map neatly and nicely onto the oppressive taxonomies or progressive redefinitions of community and selfhood in domination theories—theories that carefully locate intersectionality. But the irony does release the fervor of insubordination that converts the toxic effects of ordinary politics into an edgy kind of joy, one that neither lacks anger nor embraces innocence. Indeed, Sykes’s style of humor sets in motion perpetual reversals of expectations and norms, a plurality of counterpositions and shifting ground, rather than positing codes and rigid theory. Such comedy intensifies genealogy’s heightened sense of the contingent and the paradoxical. In short, queer humor treats intersectionality to the cathartic dynamic of energy and eros that Foucault, like Collins and Lorde, has called freedom.
Similarly, Margaret Cho encompasses everything that Collins understands as intersectionality, and then some. In Notorious C.H.O. (2002), Cho recalls that she never saw any Asian American role models as serious actors. So, she thought, “maybe I could be an extra on M*A*S*H*. . . . Maybe I could play a hooker or something.” “What I do . . . is I take a stereotype and I enlarge it to the point where it seems ridiculous.” This comic technique reveals how limiting the roles are for Asian Americans and how impossible it is to imagine oneself as an agent in those roles. By overplaying the stereotype, Cho asserts her agency and undermines the stereotype. Through her use of irony, she has made it big on the comic stage—so big that when asked if she is gay or straight, she throws all dichotomies out the window and insists she is neither but instead a “slut.” She likes to have sex with everyone, including the “butch lesbian”—but really butch, in her words: “The kind that roll their own tampons.” In that year, 2002, she wants to know where her parade is—you know, the “Slut Pride Parade.” The street theater of gay pride festivals, featuring the pride parade, grew out of the use of the comic to convert the negative energy of shame to self-affirming pride. Cho’s skit on slut pride does not simply invert the value of the whore over the mother, to invoke the classic dualism. Instead, in proposing a pride parade for sluts, Cho uses comedy to dismantle shame and generate erotic energy for us all. That’s slut power.
A significant advantage of a genealogical method is that it brings history and structures of power as well as its abuses to bear on ethical and political projects. Sykes demonstrates our approach to history and remembrance with her 2009 appearance at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. In her routine, she applauded Michelle Obama for finally unveiling a bit of the past—a bust of Sojourner Truth—in the White House. Also knowing that what goes around comes around, Sykes warns the first lady to “nail it down real well” because “the next white guy to come in—they going to move it to the kitchen.” How easily ordinary history forgets, conceals, and hides! How easy it will be for the next president to hide the bust of Sojourner Truth! In our radically alternative history, comics function as “social interpreters” and as “comic spokesmen.” This is not an unprecedented move. When scholars try to unearth a bit of irony in the past, they too have turned to popular culture and “organic intellectuals” to understand aspects of conflicted social identities. It has been suggested that the refrain of Bruce Springsteen’s rock anthem, “Born in the U.S.A.,” offers a “unified duality, jagged pieces to the puzzle of both the song and its subjects’ social history.” So too do feminist comedians offer jagged pieces of puzzles that speak to their subjects’ social history, a social history that is all too often in the kitchen, not the boardroom. This kitchen and the routines that recall its memories are an important locus for our own genealogical approach.
This history often goes missing from the public archives and censored textbooks. Just think about how the 2018 Texas board of education voted to eliminate Hillary Clinton and Helen Keller from the mandatory history curriculum. This is why Sykes claims her jokes come from the fact that “people will tell me anything,” insinuating that as a black comedian, she is treated like a maid, a cook, or even a stripper, and people will “tell a stripper anything.” As our substitute for the academic historian, Sykes is privy to sources not otherwise available. Yet from her position on the comic stage, and in contrast to the self-righteous expert or spokesman of a social group, she refuses any rigid moral or epistemic privilege to her standpoint. She admits, for example, that she is no better than any other when it comes to racial profiling, and that this is a fault that she, like other blacks, shares with whites. When she sees a black man running down the street, she wonders, “What has he been up to?” When she sees a white guy running down the street, she assumes he is just late.
Indeed, Sykes’s self-ironic response to the problem of racial profiling returns us to the ethical aims of fumerist comedy. Check out her response to the question, if you can’t solve racial profiling what do you do? Perhaps “just treat everyone like a criminal.” And indeed laughter can be a great social leveler. Sykes does not take up those stories in the kitchen—stories well beyond the public archives—as straight humorless histories. Chucking moral guardianship for the ethics of queer erotics, she tells her stories with the attitude and sense of irony that draws on comedy’s catalytic power to alter what we think justice is: “White men get nervous . . . when a minority or another race gets a little power” because “they scared that that race is going to do to them what they did to that race. They get nervous so they start screaming reverse racism.” But that is not reverse racism. “Isn’t reverse racism when a racist is nice to somebody?” What they’re afraid of, she insists, is really “called karma.” Karma is also history, but with visions of justice in the mix.
Let’s catch a glimpse into humor’s cathartic powers before we yield to the larger forces of karma and bring this chapter to an end. Humor might be just the medicine for what ails us in our social norms. Consider Stanford psychologist Claude Steele’s research regarding the impact of gender and race stereotypes on climate as measured by performance among stereotyped populations. This research demonstrates that these stereotypical associations affect performance even among individuals who reject the stereotypes, and that a situation that renders group identities salient may suffice to trigger the associations. For example, women perform less well on math exams when they are placed into a room with men, presumably because the presence of men triggers the stereotypical associations of female inferiority in mathematics. Steele speculates that anxiety associated with various stereotypes may account for what hinders their targets’ performance. If so, then humor may offer a partial remedy. Think of Sykes’s attitude about racial profiling. The ridicule of stereotypes undermines these stereotypes as social norms, but humor also dissipates anxiety and other negative emotions while generating what Lorde calls life force. We return to a full-scale treatment of catharsis later in the book. But for those who suspect that identity politics exacerbates the toxic impact of stereotypes through their mere mention to the point that, like Halley, they are convinced that we should take a break from feminism, we remind our readers of alternative feminisms. Feminism as fumerism offers one way to confront and detoxify the stereotypes, to joyfully reappropriate energy and eros from systems of domination. The seriously erotic politics of laughter burns down by bringing down the house.