Are we Bamboozling ourselves?

*Some explicit language to follow*

A year and a half ago I wrote a piece on feminist comedy for a blog on rabble.ca. And now if you google my name the first sentence from this article, which includes the word ‘pussies,’ is the first hit on google (hello prospective employers!). Anyways, I deeply enjoy comedy and very much indulge in dissecting its political and social implications. Which is why I’m going to get on the Tina Fey discussion band wagon.

Tina Fey, as many of us know, is probably the most successful North American female comic in the last 10 years.  She was the first female head writer on Saturday Night Live and more recently the creator of 30 Rock and actor of alter ego Liz Lemon. What you may not know, is that there’s an ongoing debate in the feminist and larger community as to whether Fey is a real feminist or not (…or kinda but not mostly). And, more generally a discussion of women in mainstream comedy.

What made things a lot more interesting is that 30 Rock recently created an episode centering on the whole issue. Egged on by Jezebel.com’s critique of The Daily Show’s lack of support for female comics, 30 Rock aired an episode called TGS Hates Women. I’m going to quote someone else who summarized the episode nicely:

“The show begins when a website called JoanOfSnark.com takes “30 Rock’s” meta-show “TGS” and particularly Fey’s meta-character Liz Lemon to task for not employing enough women. In response, Liz hires Abby Flynn (Cristin Milioti), a pneumatic, infantilized, thumb-sucking trampoline jumper… When Lemon actually gets a load of Abby, and notes the way she plays to men for approval, she tries to “help” her by explaining, in front of a statue of Eleanor Roosevelt, that she doesn’t have to put on a baby voice and do her hair like a little girl in order to be valued.”

The conclusion of the show is a bizarre trivialization of domestic violence with an embarrassed Liz Lemon at fault.  You should watch the episode for yourself but basically what I gathered from the conclusion of the show was a pat on the back for exposing the “hypocrisy” of feminism. That is, women judging women for their ‘choices.’ Especially, if the choice is to be a ‘slut.’ So, I was not overly impressed. And, as always, I feel that Alec Baldwin’s character does a much better job of making fun of sexism, than any Liz Lemon plot line, by being such a huge parody of the archetypal sexist business man.

Without getting into the dirty details of analysis for this particular tv show I wanted to muse about two things that I think may be going on in today’s female centred comedy.  The inspiration for these thoughts, unlikely perhaps, came from Wanda Sykes and Spike Lee.

Wanda Sykes has this great comedic piece that you can find online titled Dignified Black People. In it, she talks about how black people can relax now that Obama is president. Obama has proven that black people have ‘made it,’ so there’s no pressure to constantly stress over disproving stereotypes. No more fear of setting the movement back!  Or worrying about Flava Flav. Sykes kids, “we should have killed him years ago.” Now that Obama is president, black people can “buy full watermelons again” and “tap dance.” So, I feel like Fey is our comedy president.  The stereotype is that feminists secretly want to laugh at offensive jokes but don’t because we’re too obsessed with being politically correct.  So maybe because Fey is on top I can laugh, really hard, at the following joke from the aforementioned 30 Rock episode:

Young female high school student: My favorite fish is the cleaner wrasse.  I even tried to get it chosen as our school mascot.  But, well, I was outvoted so our new mascot is a Slut.     Pssssst it’s okay because a woman created this program….umm right?

I would actually argue that there is some merit to this particular joke (subtle, perhaps). But, where this effect is taken, in my opinion, in a much more negative direction is the complete looseness of female comics and female comedy enthusiasts in promoting terms like ‘whore’ or other methods to degrade prostituted women. Whoooah. When did this become something to joke about. That’s like poking fun at child soldiers.

I do not agree with the sentiment that everything is fair play if the comedian is really talented. There are no social or political gains to be made by creating humour around such severe issues as rape and prostitution.

Now, for Spike Lee. In 2000 he wrote/directed a powerful satirical film called Bamboozled.  The story line begins with a failing television producer who decides to get himself fired, instead of sacked, by pitiching a minstrel show (titled Mantan: The New Millenum Minstral Show) in which black actors don blackface complete with a whole slew of over the top racist caricatures and jokes.  The show actually becomes a widespread hit (minus some protests) and as the New York Times movie review succinctly summarizes:

“Despite all the furor, ”Mantan” is embraced by critics as liberating — and by a multiracial audience, who accept the show as a hip, ironic celebration of black culture laughing at itself. Where the movie ventures onto dangerous ground is in its implication that the same impulses have led black hip-hoppers and their white imitators to embrace the word ”nigger” (and its gangsta rap variations) as a proud badge of identity…In one of the movie’s funniest and most disturbing scenes, members of the show’s live audience, all of whom have put on blackface, pop up from their seats to explain enthusiastically why they are ”niggers.”

Even the description of that scene still gives me shivers.

You may see where I’m going with this. I think we need to take a hard look at what is going on for women in pop culture and comedy and what is being sold as liberating and celebratory. Because this isn’t from a movie:

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5 Comments on “Are we Bamboozling ourselves?”

  • Meghan Murphy

    I agree!! I had the exact same disappointment with the conclusion of that 30 Rock episode. Like, on one hand I was glad feminism was being addressed in a fairly innovative way for mainstream television, but yeah, the, like, ‘oooooooh don’t you have egg on your face Liz Lemon’ conclusion was kind of over-simplifying a LOT and presented, I felt, the view that feminism really just keeps shooting itself in the foot.

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  • Frieda Werden

    As a 60s rocker in all senses of the word, I have never seen 30 rock so I’ll take your word for it. But I think the Sarah Silverman song is brilliant feminism as a way of totally undermining the glamour being promoted around sluttiness.

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  • Ellie

    I hear ya, and there’s a lot of Sarah Silverman’s humour that I really enjoy (and Tina Fey’s for that matter) but considering the horrific reality of violence against women (by domestic partners) and widespread prostitution and trafficking (some of this linked to porn itself), I don’t find anything helpful with ‘comedic’ lyrics like “do you ever have drugs so you can have sex without crying” and “you can’t put your arms around a dirty gang bang cum shot.”
    There seems to be a lot of praise for Silverman and Fey for ‘calling a whore a whore.’ I don’t see this as progress.
    I could use a ‘Porn Song’ about men who watch porn. That would be challenging a power structure and Silverman could still inject some of her beloved crassness.

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  • This is a great piece, Meghan. And as for Silverman’s song, I agree with both Frieda and Ellie–it’s a brilliant bit that undermines the promotion of “fun-feminism” and the “empowering glamour” of porn–but–it doesn’t get to the men who demand it. Make fun of them–the wielders of the penises. It’s a good piece, but it’s not taking any risks, really–it’s still not naming the perpetrators. now THAT, as Ellie said, would be edgy.

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  • Ellie

    Thanks for your input Erin! But, I was the one that authored the piece.

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