Romance and Representation in “Insurgent”

Ah! Summertime! The time when the school semester is over and a person gets to actually choose what books they read. On my list for summer 2014 is the “Divergent” trilogy and I just recently finished the second in the series, Insurgent. (For the record, I haven’t read any of Allegiant nor have I seen the film adaptation of Divergent).

The “Divergent” trilogy sits amongst a collection of young adult science fiction novels (like “The Hunger Games” and “The Mortal Instruments,” for example) that recognizes the importance (and marketability) of young female heroines. However, on the feminist blogosphere at least, fan-girling over the likes of Tris (“Divergent”) and Katniss (“The Hunger Games”) hasn’t come without careful analysis of what’s missing from these series. While the predominately male-dominated world of science fiction has made space for these ladies, we are a still a far way off anything resembling fair representation. Namely, Tris and Katniss are able-bodied, cisgendered, straight, and white (whiteness is debatable for Katniss, but the movie adaptation portrays her as so). Max Thorton from Bitch Flicks points out that

“Just because straight white pretty cis girls are beginning to be represented in specific (or rather, in one specific niche that is still derided in male-dominated geek culture), we can’t assume that this means the trend will continue in the right direction without some very real, tireless, and vocal work on the part of us consumers.”

 Badass lady heroines like Katniss and Tris are absolutely a step in the right direction. But until we are also seeing non-white, dis/differently-abled, trans*, and queer girls kicking ass on screen, we still have a long way to go. (More on this here, here, and here).

(Note: my mom read this and immediately thought of Lisbeth Salander from Stieg Larsson’s “Millennium Trilogy.” Larsson’s books aren’t really young adult oriented and they’re definitely not science fiction but Lisbeth is such a fantastic queer ((and potentially dis/different-abled)) heroine that I couldn’t not mention her here!)

Maybe that’s one of my favourite things about series like “The Hunger Games” and “Divergent.” I can love them so much while simultaneously critiquing them and using them as a starting point for broader conversations about popular culture. One topic that I’ve been increasingly interested in while reading both Divergent and Insurgent is the development of Tris’ relationship with the story’s central love interest – Four. 

Tris and Four’s relationship changed a lot between Divergent and Insurgent. In her review of the film, Bitch Flicks’ Amanda Rodriguez notes that the main character, Tris, 

“gets rescued a lot, mostly by her love interest, Four… This made me roll my eyes a lot because I didn’t pay $10 to watch a young woman lead be so dependent on a dude for her survival.”

I’ll admit that this is a frustrating element of the first book and I expect that the movie simplified the damsel-in-distress trope even more for the benefit of Hollywood.

However, all of that changes in Insurgent. Firstly, the theme of “rescuing” stood out in the novel for other reasons. The most important rescue in the book happens when Tris’ nemesis, Peter, rescues her from certain death. Despite their personal hatred for each other, Peter saves Tris in order to pay the debt he owed her for saving his life earlier in the book. This stands out as far more thematically important (to me, at least) than any lifesaving being done between Tris and Four.

Secondly, the resolution of the story’s central conflict depends on Tris going against Four’s wishes and undermining his authority as a community leader. This allows Tris to emerge as a political actor in her own right, separate from Four and many of the other characters. Not to mention, it is her best friend, Christina, with whom Tris ends up saving the day which equals a lot of awesome girl power.

What I liked most about the way Roth developed Tris’ decision to undermine Four was how explicitly she allows the reader to see Four attempting to control Tris, and Tris directly defying that control. More than once, Tris is determined to put herself in harm’s way for the good of her allies and Four tries to deter her through guilt. He uses their relationship as a means of control by telling her that “if you do that again, you and I are done.” (page 260) Eventually, he even puts the blame for himself being in danger on her by saying, “You die, I die too… I asked you not to do this. You made your decision. These are the repercussions.” (page 338)

It wasn’t a side of Four that I was a huge fan of. But what I did appreciate was the way that Tris ultimately responds. She calls him on using the fate of their relationship as a way to control her at the end of the novel:

“You tell me you love me, you trust me, you think I’m more perceptive than the average person. And the first second that belief in my perceptiveness, that trust, that love is put to the test, it all falls apart…. So you must have lied when you told me all those things… you must have, because I can’t believe your love is really that feeble.” (page 503)

In the end, it is Tris’ belief in herself that triumphs and that is the reason that her and her allies end up being successful. My favourite line in the whole novel is when Tris says to Four: “I am exactly who you think I am” (page 503).

This side of Tris is amazing. It’s not just her determination to protect her family and her community that I so admire, but her fierce trust in herself. Despite whatever tired romantic tropes get dredged up in Divergent, Tris and Four’s relationship in Insurgent carries one message to the girls and young women who are reading: Boys are awesome and fun. However, as soon as they stand in the way of our goals, our sense of self, and our ability to be agents in our own right? Well, then they can fuck right off.

This is something that I enjoyed about Insurgent a lot. However, I have to ask myself why it is that Tris gets to be the feminist heroine and why her relationship with Four can be highlighted in exciting ways. Tris gets to be read as “non-traditional” because she’s a teenage girl with qualities like bravery and power that typically aren’t associated with girls in pop culture. Four can be a “non-traditional” love interest because he admires Tris for qualities like strength and determination as opposed to beauty. But Tris and Four are still traditional enough. They’re still white, cis, straight, and able-bodied. It is only because they didn’t rock the boat too much that they were allowed to achieve the ranks of mainstream popularity.

If you read Insurgent you might have noticed Lynn admitting to being in love with Marlene (another woman). But, this is as Marlene is dying. As a consequence the reader’s awareness of Lynn and Marlene’s romantic relationship ends as quickly as it began. That it is Tris and Four’s relationship that I focused on in this post, and not Lynn and Marlene’s, speaks volumes to where power structures continue to play an enormous role in the production of popular culture. We’re going to need to rock the boat a lot harder if we want that to change.

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“The Bachelor,” otherwise known as: “Day-Old Cheese Pizza”

I have a confession: I watched this most recent season of “The Bachelor.” I have a gut-wrenching instinct to apologize for this because, “as a feminist,” I should be ashamed of watching something so terrible, right?

Too bad, “as a feminist,” I’m also learning how not to apologize for doing something people think I shouldn’t do. Too bad shame isn’t useful and learning to resist it is an invaluable part of my feminist journey to be a whole and happy human being. So here’s to empowered engagement with all of the horrible things patriarchy, capitalism, and oppression throw at us! I watched the whole season of “The Bachelor” and I’ve got a thing or two to say about it.

If you’ve heard anything about Season 18 of the show, you’ve probably heard all the talk about the bachelor himself, Juan Pablo Galavis, being a total jackass. Unfortunately, there’s a pretty good chance this is true. There are, for example, the homophobic remarks, the slut-shaming, and the other generally offensive things he’s decided to say to women.

But that’s not what I want to write about. While all of the above is totally gross and horrible, we have to take in to account that Galavis was the star of a reality television show, meaning, what we saw of him may not actually be a reflection of reality. It is also absolutely necessary to ask ourselves what it means for Galavis to be the first Latino bachelor to star on the show. Whether conscious of it or not, how did racial stereotypes of Latin American men as “macho womanizers” seep into the producers’ editing of the show? Despite being blonde and blue-eyed in true all-American fashion, Galavis’ Venezuelan accent marks him as “foreign,” as not/un-American, and it would be naive to think that this didn’t mediate the way he was perceived by both producers and audiences.

There may be a variety of reasons that the producers of “The Bachelor” had an interest in making Galavis the bad guy. However, the reason that stood out so starkly in the show’s final episode was that Galavis refused to buy into the premise of the show the way everyone expected him to.

On the show’s final episode, all the contestants get back together to discuss the highs and lows of the season. Galavis entered the stage to a chorus of booing. The show’s “winner,” Nikki, didn’t get the same negative reaction but that’s because, apparently, we’re all just supposed to feel bad for her. We’re supposed to feel bad not because she ended up with a (potentially) slimy guy like Galavis, but because Galavis didn’t ask her to marry him. To the outright horror of the shows producers and “Bachelor” fans far and wide, Galavis ended the season by telling Nikki that he didn’t want to propose because he wasn’t 100% sure he loved her. HOLD. THE. PHONE. HOW DARE HE??!??!?!?

Oh… wait… wait no. No, that’s actually a totally reasonable thing to say. Unless you’re the star of a show dedicated to making happily married folk out of conventionally attractive white people who’ve spent 2 months going on lavish and unrealistic dates involving 25 other people, of course.

The major issue here, was that Nikki had told Juan Pablo that she was in love with him several months earlier. “The Bachelor”’s host, Chris Harrison, was visibly distressed by this shocking turn of events. He spent the better part of his interview with the couple trying to coerce Juan Pablo into confessing his eternal affections. At one point, Harrison admitted, “I don’t know what I’m looking at.”

I don’t know what I’m looking at.In Chris Harrison’s world, any relationship that isn’t on a fast track to heteronormative monogamous marriage is a relationship with no name. 

I’m not naive. It’s not like I’ve ever expected anything radical or progressive from a reality show that buys into so many toxic notions of masculinity, femininity, marriage, family, and love that I wouldn’t know where to begin to catalogue them all. But I guess I just thought they’d try to do a better job of hiding it. I guess I expected them to spout propaganda about the inclusivity of “The Bachelor,” to claim that it tells the stories of real lives and real relationships. I honestly didn’t expect Harrison to be so glaringly obvious about the fact that it’s all a contrived fantasy. 

Because, really, which one of these resonates more with real life: falling in love and getting married after knowing someone for 2 months or falling in love in different and complicated ways and having to navigate the rocky terrain of human to human connection in an imperfect and messy way? I don’t know about you, but I’m voting for the second option. In the words of the Vancouver Sun’s Misty Harris,

“[the reason] why, days later, tongues are still clucking over the hit show’s controversial conclusion: not because ABC’s prince turned out to be a toad, but rather because that toad publicly, petulantly refused to jump at producers’ command – and pulled back the curtain on one of TV’s longest running games of make-believe as a result.”

Harrison outlines his rationale for allowing the show to be the exclusive fantasy it is in an interview about the potential for there to be a gay bachelor, or a bachelor who didn’t conform to normative standards of attractiveness. His response was this:

“Look, if you’ve been making pizzas for 12 years and you’ve made millions of dollars and everybody loves your pizzas and someone comes and says, ‘Hey, you should make hamburgers.’ Why? I have a great business model, and I don’t know if hamburgers are going to sell.”

THIS JUST IN: STRAIGHT PEOPLE ARE PIZZA. QUEER PEOPLE ARE HAMBURGERS. Whahaaaat?? Couldn’t we imagine it more in terms of the current “Bachelor” being cheese pizza and different adaptations of the premise being ham and pineapple, or pepperoni, or deluxe, or REALLY ANYTHING ELSE BECAUSE WE’RE ALL JUST REALLY SICK OF ONLY GETTING CHEESE PIZZA ALL THE TIME. Harrison continued to say, “is it our job to break barriers, or is it a business? That’s not for me to answer.”

Ahhhh. Well now we’ve reached the bottom of a deep well and capitalism is not about to throw a rope down and help us out. It’s okay to be unethical, or to ignore ethical considerations, when business is at stake. But, why isn’t it Harrison’s job to answer that question? Why can’t we hold him accountable to the ethical considerations regarding “The Bachelor” franchise? What might happen if we dared to imagine that we have a right to expect more representativeness from our media?


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What do “Her” and “The Social Network” have in common? A lot about him.

*Warning: Spoilers ahead for both Her and The Social Network*

Recently, in my “Introduction to New Media” class, we were talking about human connections to technology. The professor brought up the movie Her (a film that focuses on a romantic relationship between a human and a computer operating system) as the film depicts a reality that might not be so far in our future. After discussing Her, my professor referred back to the 2010 film, The Social Network (which is based on the story of Mark Zuckerberg’s founding of Facebook). She suggested that we could imagine The Social Network and Her as representing a progression between where we’ve been and where we’re going in regards to social technology. I was immediately interested in what it might mean to use these two films as cultural landmarks in this way.

For starters, if we are to learn anything from The Social Network, it is that technical innovation has been driven by exactly one thing – the sort of expectations and opinions about sex that we’ve come to expect from the teenage boys and young men of “coming of age” comedies: the same expectations and opinions that have been normalized through the rhetoric of “boys will be boys” and that rarely prioritize the agency, value, and/or pleasure of teenage girls and young women. Re-watching the film, an interesting (disturbing?) pattern came to light. The pursuit of sex and a sense of entitlement to women drives every major web-based innovation discussed in the film.

Facemash, the precursor to Facebook, allowed visitors to rate women against each other based on their appearance. In the film*, Mark creates Facemash as a sort of “wronged nice guy” self-care after being broken up with (and after using his public blog as a way to demean and humiliate his ex). The other site that inspired Facebook, the Winklevoss brothers’ Harvard Connection, is a lucrative idea because, according to the Winklevosses, “girls want to get with guys from Harvard.” Finally, there’s Napster, a site created by Sean Parker who explains that he created Napster because “the girl [he] loved in high school was going out with the co-captain of the varsity lacrosse team and [he] wanted to take her from him.” In regards to Facebook itself, it is the “relationship status” and “interested in” sections of the profile that cause Mark to declare the site as finished. Him and Eduardo discuss that what will get people to log on will be the opportunity to use these tools to “get laid” and “meet a girl.”

Furthermore, we never see women driving technological innovation in the film. This is solidified when Mark starts delegating to his newly assembled Facebook team and the two women in the room (having not received any tasks) ask, “is there anything we can do?” to which Mark quickly replies with “no.” In an article on Jezebel, Irin Carmon asks “in Mark Zuckerberg’s real-life world, women did more than give blowjobs… so why does The Social Network so badly want to pretend otherwise?” (Carmon also adds that “black people said more than ‘Is this guy bothering you?’” The lack of people of colour involved in the world of technical innovation is also a serious shortcoming of both The Social Network and Her.) Carmon goes on to say that Mark Zuckerberg “lived, and lives, in a world where, even if women were scarce in computer science classes, they were achieving as brilliantly as the men around them” and points to both Sheryl Sandberg (Facebook’s current C.O.O) and Randi Zuckerberg (Facebook’s former Director of Market Development and Spokeswoman) as evidence of this. Carmon’s article is important because it pushes us to ask why the filmmakers of The Social Network felt that it was so necessary to erase, stereotype, and objectify women in the film.

Her doesn’t have the same obvious lack of involved and developed women characters as The Social Network does. Both Amy Adams’ and Scarlett Johansson’s characters (Amy and Samantha, respectively) are complex and have a powerful presence onscreen (even if we never actually see Samantha). However, the primary narrative of the film still belongs to a man and the women who populate the story are there because of their relationships with him. Furthermore, Her also uses access to women (or woman) as being the major motivator for engagement with technology.

For what it’s worth, Her‘s protagonist, Theodore, does seem to genuinely desire a meaningful relationship with a woman and he does have a strong and mutually beneficial friendship with the character Amy (whereas the men of The Social Network seem solely interested in women for sex). I appreciated this about the film, not because I think all relationships need to be “meaningful,” but because depicting these strong relationships means that we also get to see women as important agents within the film as opposed to only imagining them as bodies that exist for male gratification.

What I also enjoyed about the film was the ending. The narrative of Her allows Samantha to develop to the point that her character moves past her relationship with Theodore and eventually leaves him behind for a new life. In a review on Bitch Flicks, Amanda Rodriguez explains why the ending is so redeeming,

I love that Samantha leaves him because she outgrows him, transcending the role of Manic Pixie Dream Girl in which Theodore has cast her, evolving beyond him, beyond his ideas of what a relationship should be (between one man and one woman), and beyond even his vaguest conception of freedom because she’s embraced existence beyond the physical realm. Not only does Samantha become self-aware, but she becomes self-actualized, determining that her further development lies outside the bounds of her relationship with Theodore (and the 600+ others she’s currently in love with). Samantha’s departure in her quest for greater self- understanding is… what finally redeems a kind of gross film that explores male fantasies about having contained, controlled perfect cyber women who are emotion surrogates.

Rodriguez puts perfectly both the reasons why the ending is important and the reasons why so much of the rest of the film is problematic.

The reality of Her is that Samantha is the “perfect cyber woman.” She’s an operating system, an object, and she’s been created and purchased for the sole purpose of being whatever, or whoever, Theodore wants her to be. In the words of Sady Doyle, 

there’s the unavoidable fact about Her: No matter how evolved or human-seeming Samantha is, she is also a possession. When Theodore tells Samantha he can’t commit to her after their first sexual encounter, she’s offended, but, at least at that stage of their relationship, she also can’t leave.

No amount of enjoying the film, or appreciating aspects of it, can magically turn it into a story of two equals who have the same capacity to choose to be with each other.

I was inspired to bring Her and The Social Network together because of the comment made by my professor that they create a sort of timeline of innovation in regards to social technology. But there’s larger connections between these films than that. While the representations of women in each film and the kinds of relationships prioritized are markedly different in each, both films depict the creation and use of technology as being driven in order to facilitate men’s access to women.

Guest blogger on Bitch Flicks, Lisa C. Knisely asks us to imagine if “Joaquin Pheonix had played Sam to Scarlett Johansson’s Thea” and she explains that “that’s the film I’m still waiting for someone in Hollywood to write, direct, and… produce.” I think the basic point of her comment is that, if we’re going to immortalize the cultural and social change driven by technological advancement through the world of film, we can’t be satisfied to only see women as existing to be accessed through it. In our daily realities, women drive innovation and are active participants in what it produces – why can’t this be true on screen as well?

 (images courtesy of and

*The Social Network is only based on reality and, as a consequence, much of what happens in the film isn’t reflective of real events. For this blog, I mean to refer specifically to only the events that happened in the film. 

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Let Us Play Dumb

by Freddie Storm.

Freddie Storm is a Filmmaker currently based in the Vancouver Area. Born and raised in India, she has kept herself aware with the feminist issues in the South Asian part of the continent while understanding the challenges that women in the western society face.

I was out for a coffee with a female friend of mine. We were discussing regular topics such as latest Red Dragon Camera and how it shoots 6 K footage, converting a file into AAF, benefits of Seido Karate on physical and mental health, you know all that stuff women talk about. She went up to get the coffee when a very handsome man in his late 20’s walked into the coffee shop. He sat down close to us, my eyes met with his and we both exchanged a friendly smile.

Soon my friend was back with two Lattes, complaining how she had to pay 60 cents extra for Soy Milk which she thinks is discrimination towards Vegans in a blatant manner. I nodded. She sat down and of course had to notice this stupendously well-dressed man sitting so close to us, soon her demeanor changed, our conversations turned rather uninformative, she started asking me about the clothes I have bought recently and how she hated her curls although everybody who met with her loved it. Soon enough, I knew whatever my friend talked about was intended for this young man to overhear, in some weird way she was actually flirting with him. I later brought up the whole incident to her while we were walking down the Granville Street; I asked her why our conversation turned so shallow when she knew there was male scrutiny on us. She first denied it, and slowly admitted to acting dumb to gain the male attention. It was shocking to me, knowing how she was one of the very intelligent people I knew resorting to being dumb because that got her attention, it was almost an irony.

I being the feminist I am, would not let this pass, I asked her how she thinks men find dumb women attractive, she said to me more so confidentially, ‘I am sure men have told you how they love a smart woman, but honey that is a myth, they like it dumb, unintellectual,” and that is when I got assertive and asked her why she would even enjoy the company of men who do not see women for their minds but merely for their bodies. She chose not to reply.

I went back home, and got reminded of Mary Wollstonecraft’s ‘A Vindication to the Rights to the women’, somewhere she had said that men like their wives to be innocent, almost as innocent as a child, and later in life when their beauty and youth starts to diminish, they lose interest in them complaining they have nothing to talk about given the difference in the level of intellect.

The term “blonde” does not describe a person or a type, “blonde” is now an idea in itself. It is synonymous to a woman who is stupid. When you type in “blonde” on Google, after the first three description links, you will be surprised (or not) most of the other links are sexual jokes on women with blonde hair and how stupid they are.

Society has been fed in with this idea for generations now. One of the jokes I read a couple of months back was that:

Don’t mistake me, I do find this joke hilarious, but, think about this way, not talking to other countries would be way logical and smarter than war, and the joke actually lies in the irony of it.

Also, let us not forget about the representation of women in Media. I truly believe society and media are mirror reflections of each other, almost catch 22 it is, society represents media and vice versa.

Let us talk about Mean Girls, the 2001 movie directed by Mark Waters. The movie starts with a popular group of girls in an American High School, the most popular girl in class in school is Regina George, who is blonde (hair wise), not so bright, sexually extroverted and cunning. All these qualities in her give her the title of the most popular girl. And then there is a new girl in class whose name is Cady, she is smart, culturally aware and very good in Math. Aaron Samuels is the popular guy in school, and both the girls in one way and the other want to win him, the instantaneous solution that Cady comes up with is to fail in her Math test, pretend to be stupid so Aaron would shift his attention to her, and, viola, it works! She asks him to tutor her and he does.

To compete with Regina George, she had to come down to the same level of stupidity, some people may call Cady smart because she understood being stupid was the clever thing to do, but hello, really? 

This movie was made for 17 million dollars and grossed more than 200 million on the box office; this confirms that the idea of female stupidity sells.



I am going to explore more on the history of western literature in propagating this idea. Starting with Jeffery Chaucer’s The Wife of Bath’s Tale, critics have often debated whether it is feminist or plain misogynist. The story deals with a woman during Middle Ages. She is very clever and flamboyant, her name is Alisoun. She has been married 7 times, and has managed to win the wealth and fortune of all her previous husbands. This story is a success story; the only problem is that she has used treachery to be able to convince her husbands into letting her have her way. She has pretended being stupid or weak in order to be attractive to the men. Alisoun is well aware that this kind of behavior is requisite in her marriages, and although very clever, she trains herself to behave vulnerably in front of the men, who enjoy this attribute of her.

Women have always been represented by men in western literature. We have learnt about women’s experiences and behavior for over hundreds of years mostly by reading books written by men. Great poets who wrote about their love interests such as Edmund Spenser or John Donne either sexualized them or criticized them. Women in literature have been mute until recently. The image created by the male writers becomes a margin for what women should behave and act like. The female characters in the books were mostly handsome, chaste and naïve. When women started writing, they had to unlearn everything about women they had read in the books to be able to pen down the genuine nature and experiences of women.

The women writers who started talking about their experiences, these smart women were/are often endorsed with a pinch of madness. For example Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf or Emily Dickenson are always seen as these “crazy” distressed women who did not enjoy life. Who perpetuates these ideas about them? It is those who cannot come to terms with the fact that smart and beautiful women are not a myth.

A lot of young girls are being trained by society (media, literature, social ideologies, etc.) to accept the idea that being stupid is equivalent to being more attractive. It is not true, period. We do not have to either be stupid or pretend to be stupid in order to be popular, in fact it is men who need to be trained that to accept that intelligence is not something they can have monopoly over. Women need to have opinions, ideas and confidence against the popular demand. Women need to think for their own good, whether it is about the way we conduct or the way we are. Patriarchy is internalized not only by men but also by women, and it is a responsibility to fight any kind of suppression, although initially it is as hard as giving up cocaine or the thought of an ex-partner. I would like to conclude this article with a funny picture I found online with hopes that we will all fight the demons of internalized patriarchy in us.


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Women Are Hilarious

The first time I heard the phrase “women aren’t funny” I thought to myself, “that’s really funny. I bet a woman came up with that.” Then, when I realized it wasn’t a joke, I spent an entire evening determining just how many ways it’s possible to dislike Christopher Hitchens, and I did enough internet research to come to the horrified (yet, ugh, not surprised) conclusion that people actually believe that there is something about women that makes them less funny than men. In case you’ve been blissfully unaware of this longstanding belief in women’s comedic inadequacies, Bitch Media has put together this helpful timeline. In fact, while you’re at it, take a reading break and spend the next four minutes watching a group of hilarious women respond to claims that they aren’t funny. Because, dammit, women have been funny for at least as long as people have been telling us we’re not.

I thought about writing a long-winded rant detailing just how sexist the whole idea that women aren’t funny is (who gets to decide who does and doesn’t count as funny? For that matter, who gets to decide what standards of “funniness” we’re using in the first place?). However, when I asked my friend, “What do you think about this idea that women aren’t funny” and she responded, “Bullshit. I’m hilarious,” I threw the entire idea out the window. Instead of talking about why people think women aren’t funny, I realized it would be a lot more fun to spend this time proving the naysayers wrong. Newsflash: women make me laugh until I’m tear-soaked and split at the sides and I have a sneaking suspicion it isn’t just me. Additionally, (because I’m nothing if not ambitious) I don’t just want to show you that women are funny. What I’m really bursting to share is the fact that feminist women are funny. “Whaaat?” says you who’s been convinced all along that feminism is about as funny as the stomach flu – you just might want to hold on to your pants. Things are about to get exciting.

For the record, the comedians I’m about to reference come from a fairly mainstream and well-known group of women. While heaps of high quality feminist comedy exists throughout the world’s many local comedy scenes, I have only so many words to work with before this blog post becomes a novel and I have to hold myself back somewhere. Also, I think it’s important to point out that feminist comedians aren’t just working within a “niche market” of feminist comedy consumers. Nope, these ladies are infiltrating the many corners of popular culture faster than you can say “Whoopi Goldberg” and I think there’s something mighty revolutionary about that. 

Point #1: Margaret Cho: Margaret Cho starting writing standup comedy when she was 14. By the time she was 16, she was performing professionally. Today, we know Margaret Cho as the comedian and performer who has travelled around the world doing standup (and producing films along the way) and who’s starred in the television shows All-American Girl, The Cho Show, Drop Dead Diva, and Dancing With the Stars. She’s made a Grammy nominated album of musical comedy called Cho Dependent and she’s written two books, I’m the One That I Want and I Have Chosen to Stay and Fight. Why have I bothered to tell you all of this? The point I’m trying to make here is that Margaret Cho is pretty much the shit. Not convinced? Let me show you: 

1. Firstly, she is hilarious and witty about race. I mean, really hilarious and witty

2. Secondly, she has some funny stuff to say about contraceptives, feminism, and being and expert on North Korea.

3. Thirdly, she makes us laugh about monogamy, childbirth, and why she is not a mother.

One of the things that makes Margaret Cho so incredible is the person that she is behind the comedy. Growing up as the target of bullying, even Cho’s success as a comedian didn’t silence the people who have tried to change who she is. In her bio on her website, she speaks about the experience of having ABS “water down” her show, All-American Girl, to the point that it became “completely lacking in the essence of what I am and what I do.” Cho faced scrutiny so severe that she ended up hospitalized for kidney failure as the result of an eating disorder (an experience she talks about in the documentary Miss Representation). Despite these struggles, Cho has continued to focus on staying true to who she is and has worked to remain in charge of the production and distribution of her work so she can keep telling the jokes that need to be told. An active and ardent feminist, Margaret Cho has worked with a variety of anti-racist, anti-bullying, and gay-rights campaigns and has won award after award not just for her work as an entertainer but also for her dedication to social justice. At this point you’re probably more than convinced you’re in love with Margaret Cho, but, just to be extra helpful, here’s a link to her blog. My current favourites? “Why is it great to be a queer icon?“ and “You are not ugly. Don’t make videos“.  

Point #2: Amy Poehler: Amy Poehler has been knocking some improv socks off for pretty much forever, starting with her work in college as well as her time with Second City, Upright Citizens Brigade, and a variety of other improv groups. Of course, there was also that whole thing where she became a huge star on Saturday Night Live and we all had insta-crushes. Then, (THEN) as if we weren’t already convinced of Poehler’s greatness, this little thing called Parks and Recreation happened and now my partner and I have stopped going on dates because sitting on the couch laughing our asses off to Poehler and the rest of the Parks gang is always infinitely more enticing. In an article called “Sitcoms are the Golden Land of Feminist TV Characters,” Bitch Media writer Gabrielle Moss talks about the pattern of sitcom feminists who are either “flakes” or “ball busters”. That is until Poehler’s Leslie Knope came along and proved that feminism doesn’t have to be portrayed as a laughable and out-of-touch quirk in our so-called “post-feminist” world, but that it can instead be a part of a character that makes them endearing and, more importantly, relatable.

 One of the things I love most about Amy Poehler is just how open about feminism she is. In a time when women entertainers everywhere are avoiding the word “feminism” like the plague, Amy Poehler is off making a show for girls that focuses on highlighting just how badass they really are. Yep, just because they rock, Amy Poehler got together with her friends Meredith Walker and Amy Miles to create a show called Smart Girls at the Party which teaches girls all about their awesomeness. Part of her motivation for the show, as Poehler explained when she was asked about the over-sexualization of acts like the Pussycat Dolls, is because

“Once it comes into the adult realm it’s like, ‘Great, go for it, do your own thing … Sit on cakes. Do whatever the fuck you want.’ It’s just that I get worried for young girls sometimes; I want them to feel that they can be sassy and full and weird and geeky and smart and independent, and not so withered and shrivelled … More than it being the Pussycat Dolls thing? It’s just distracting from what is real power.”

Granted, I haven’t spent enough time perusing the website to be convinced that Smart Girls at the Party‘s approach to feminism is necessarily intersectional nor am I entirely sure how the show frames the issue of gender expression more generally, but when I watch videos like this one, I can’t help but feel at least a little excited about the whole idea. 

But enough of me blabbing. Here’s a video of Amy Poehler as Leslie Knope using every sexist stereotype she can think of to her advantage as she tries to distract and confuse a park ranger (this, for the record, is one of those rare occasions where ironic sexism is actually funny).

Point #3: Wanda Sykes: If you’re a friend, relative, or colleague of mine, there’s a very good chance you’re aware of my firm belief that Wanda Sykes is god’s gift to the world (which is saying a lot, coming from the girl whose relationship with god is rocky at best). Like Margaret Cho, Wanda Sykes has been rocking the standup scene in all the right ways for ages. Also, she’s written and performed for The Chris Rock Show in addition to starring and making appearances in the television shows Wanda at Large, Inside the NFL, Premium Blend, Crank Yankers, Wanda Does It, and The New Adventures of Old Christine. She’s also written a book called Yeah, I Said It which I haven’t read but am currently adding to my list of “absolutely must reads”. Just when you’re feeling like Wanda Sykes has already been awesome enough for one lifetime, there was also that time she was the featured entertainer at the 2009 White House Correspondents’ Association dinner(She made some comments about Rush Limbaugh that some people got a bit upset about but, really, I dare you not to laugh at them.) Super fun fact? In spite the sexism, racism, and heterosexism that creates immense barriers to queer women of colour’s participation in popular culture, Sykes was the first African American woman and the first openly queer person to be the featured entertainer at the White House Correspondents’ dinner. Like I said, she’s pretty incredible.

Wanda Sykes is so hilarious and well loved that, as I was researching to write this post, I got lost in a sea of blogs calling her “detachable vagina” joke the perfect example of a joke about rape that is actually funny and helpful. Instead of shaming victims, Sykes makes us think about how pervasive the fear of sexual violence can be in people’s lives and even makes us laugh while she’s doing it. Also on the list of Wanda Sykes jokes that we can’t get enough of? That time she talked about “dignified black peoplewhen she pointed out just how ridiculous “reverse racism” really isand when she imagined the experience of “coming out black”.

Sykes continues to make all of our lives better, not just by cracking us up, but also by speaking out about marriage equality, working with organizations like PETA, and by participating in anti-homophobia campaigns like the 2008 “Think Before You Speak Campaign. Sykes is such a gifted comedian that she even manages to make jokes about Sarah Palin without being sexist or offensive. While I couldn’t (for the life of me) find a clip of her interview with Jay Leno where she speaks about Palin, incredible feminist blogger Melissa McEwan did manage to create a transcript of it so we can still get our laugh on. Highlight? The moment where Sykes calls herself a feminist on television. WHAAAT?! (Sometimes… it really is the small things.) Haven’t had enough Wanda Sykes yet? Don’t worry, I’ve got your back. Check out her website for more feminist hilarity.

Now, I think if we take a moment to collectively consider the logical premise outlined by points 1, 2, and 3, we can come to the conclusion that I’ve just presented a rather compelling argument. Margaret Cho, Wanda Sykes, and Amy Poehler are really just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to women being hilarious and feminist in incredible ways. While the general purpose of this post has been to discuss this in good fun, I think it’s worthwhile to take a moment to consider the reality that humour is powerful and compelling and that it has an undeniable ability to bring people together. Comedy is one of the best parts about being alive. So, when I’m arguing against claims that women (and feminism) aren’t funny, I’m not just doing it for the hell of it. I do it because feminist comedy has given me the space to laugh like I’ve never laughed before. I wrote this because it’s women like Cho, Sykes, and Poehler who are the reason I haven’t given up on popular culture. When you tell me that women aren’t funny, I’m not just offended by your ignorant sexism, I’m hurt by your denial of the kind of humour that makes me feel like a healthy and happy human being. So, please, crawl out from that sad, lonely hole dug by the cold hands of patriarchy and watch Mindy Kaling be funny and awesome at everything she does or check out Aubrey Plaza in The To Do List and… don’t forget to laugh. 

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