Stand-Up Feminism, The Subversive Power of Laughter

Stand-Up Feminism, The Subversive Power of Laughter

by Norine Dworkin

“It’s not that I have penis envy. It’s just that the people with them seem to go further in life. I wouldn’t use it wantonly.. just when I wanted to be taken seriously.”— Reno “Men love looking at pictures of two naked women together in their Penthouses but only f they’re pretty. You get oV Marge and Madge stepping out of a big rig after a long day in the seat, and guys are like, ‘Hey! That ain’t natural.'”— Brett Butler “This cost almost $2,000. You’re supposed to wear it once? Bullshit! I wear it to work, to the toilet…” — Claudia Sherman, about her wedding dress

Who says women don’t have a wicked sense of humor?

Women have a long history of creating and exhibiting what Roseanne Arnold calls “funny womanness.” With varying degrees of political stridency, depending on the social climate, women’s comedy has always communicated the female experience in frank, intelligent and, at times, refreshingly brash and ribald manners. Unfortunately, as is the case with so much of women’s culture, the history of female comedy has been, until recently, largely forgotten.

Women comics have certainly come a long way from the time when they were forced to cloak their identities with pen names. And even further from the time when groundbreakers like Phyllis Diller, Totie Fields, Lucille Ball andjoan Rivers — who all made it possible for women comics to finally be taken seriously — earned their laughs at their own and all women’s expense.

Today, the advent of cable television has opened up a number of venues — HBO, Comedy Central, Showtime, Lifetime Television — to comedy, propelling more women than ever before into the stand-up arena, says Karen Glass, producer of Comedy Central’s popular talk show/stand-up hybrid, “Women Aloud.”

Nonetheless, women’s humor has always been viewed with some trepidation, explains Regina Barreca, author of They Used to Call Me Snow White.. .But I Drifted, a book about female humor. Although male humor is traditionally considered more hostile, women’s humor is perceived as more “dangerous” than men’s because it “challenges authority by refusing to take it seriously,” says Barreca.

Just how challenging is an articulate, funny woman comic onstage? When male comics like Eddie Murphy and Andrew Dice Clay refer to women as cunts and bitches, they reinforce the traditional male hierarchy. In contrast, the subversive potential of female comics is to shatter the patriarchal definition of’ ‘Woman” simply and solely as the receptacle for the penis, and to render traditional constructions of power completely impotent.

When women comics make their own experiences and perspectives — sexuality, in particular — the subject of their onstage acts, they also expose the cracks in the patriarchal order. By galvanizing women’s responses through laughter, they are creating alternative communities. As Roseanne Arnold puts it, comedy is the “last free speech art form,” the only place “where a woman can speak as a woman, as a stranger in a strange land, as part of a group that defined itself in its own view and with its own words in a manner that seemed to heal instead of wound.”

Importantly, women comedians usually perform in mainstream comedy clubs, on TV, or in concert halls, where they attract a mainstream audience with woman-positive messages. “I’m an affordable, relatively palatable female headliner,” says female powerhouse stand-up Brett Butler. “I’m in enemy territory. Now, they say I’m selling out, but I’m also making a nice living, and I know people are hearing things they don’t hear from other headliners — men or women.” On a recent Sunday night at New York’s Improv comedy club, Butler was practically the only comic in the lineup generating more than bemused stares from the audience. While all around her male counterparts were getting the deep freeze from the icy crowd, her jokes and stories, some autobiographical, some political, but all told in her deep throaty voice laced with Southern drawl, warmed the room.

“When comedy works perfect, we are a big circle,” Buder had told me a few days earlier over coffee in the theatre district. “It’s a circle of fire, like a power circle. When I rock a room that’s got every kind of political belief in it, that’s like holy. That’s what I’m striving for.” She adds that “When I’m onstage in a lineup, I’ll lean down and say to somebody in the front row, ‘A man will be back in a minute; just like God intended.’ They look at me like ‘She read my mind, and if she read my mind, she can’t be that dumb.’ I just do my little thing. They don’t know what to do with me, so most of them just go for it.”

But should women comedians, who are artists in their own right, really be held accountable forpromotingwomen’s causes? Only if the audience laughs.

“The world is imploding,” Butler says. “Countries are changingborders. There’s a hole in the sky. Our rights are being taken away. In Germany, the Nazis are back. I don’t know how anyone in good conscience can go, ‘Don’t you hate it when a person gets in the express lane at the grocery store with more than 10 items?’ It takes a lot of time, energy, and passion to combine a belief system with an art form. Some of my favorite political comedians will no longer play in conventional arenas, and now they basically preach to the converted. Yes, we have an obligation to think about what matters to us, what’s important to us and see if there’s a way to bring it onstage. However, the joke is what we’re in it for. And if I go onstage and most of my act is judging and being an intolerant, closeminded person, I lose. There’s a way of coming in another way, kind of surreptitiously.”

Yet to characterize women’s humor as a single-voiced, monolithic entity is to miss its rich diversity. As this past election year has shown us, women themselves are deeply divided over “women’s issues.” Women do disagree over fundamental issues such as what our role should be in society and reproductive freedom. Out of these divisions comes a humor that represents a multiplicity of views and voices, some of them certainly more (or I less) radical than others.

It’s heartening that women are feeling confident enough to joke — as the offBroadway comedian Reno does—about the S & L crisis, abortion, drugs, the Gulf War, gay rights, and the recession. She’s also the only comedian I’ve come across to discuss mammograms and breast cancer — which has killed more women than AIDS — in her performances. But a good portion of women’s humor remains a ghetto humor, stubbornly focused on beauty, men, divorce, single living, housewifery, the office, etc. And for some comics — particularly those who are just starting out and finding their voices — self-loathing, woman-hating comedy continues to prevail.

Researching this article, I sat in on an all-female lineup at Glady’s Comedy Room atop New York’s Coldwaters restaurant where I was treated to an array of woman-bashing like I haven’t heard in a while. A heavy-set woman with teased blonde hair went so far as to appropriate Andrew Dice Clay’s obnoxious cat calls as she attacked women for having smelly vaginas.

Even HBO headliner Joy Behar, who has a wonderful bit that points up the faddishness of women’s body shapes and skewers the obsession with skinny bodies, persists in perpetuating the stereotype of the ugly feminist. “I’m a feminist,” says Behar, “not a radical feminist. I don’t belch in front of men, and I wear a brassiere.”

It’s a queasy experience, watching this odd sort of gender-disassociation dance. But not everyone hears the same tune. “It doesn’t matter,” says comic/actress Louise DuArt, applying makeup in her dressing room before a Sunday matinee of “Catskills On Broadway.” “Male or female, funny’s funny.”

A stand-up who has performed corporate gigs for the last seven years, DuArt asks, “Have we come all that far?” and then answers her own question with a wry laugh. “No. We have not. If anything there’s sort of a backlash because women who have tried to be on equal terms with men have been put down for that.”

Although she considers herself a feminist, DuArt intentionally keeps her act— impressions of women and men — devoid of anything that could be construed as feminist. For her it’s a question of dollars. “Being a feminist and taking that chance, you’re limiting your audience considerably,” she says. “I have to feed the entire family; I’m the main breadwinner, so I have had to be careful what I say. I do a lot of corporate dates so you pretty much have to appeal to a wide audience. I’ve been told several times that they don’t want to hire women. They’re so afraid that women are going to talk about childbirth, PMS, or put men down that theyjust don’t want to be bothered. You really can’t have a strong feminist view on something or else you won’t be hired. That’s the bottom line.”

But as an impersonator, DuArt’s subtle nod to feminism is evident in the kinds of women she chooses to showcase in her act: Katharine Hepburn, Barbara Walters, Jane Fonda, Bette Midler, Whoopi Goldberg, Mae West. Imitating these strong women, DuArt creates effective counterpoints to the negative images of women so readily consumed by this culture — ditz, slut, bitch, gold-digger.

Even as non-confrontational as her act is, DuArt says she occasionally feels the backlash against women. At a recent benefit in New Jersey, she found herself on the sidelines with the only other woman comic present when the publicity shots were taken and the news cameras rolling. “They didn’t want the women,” she said. “It was very upsetting. I went out of my way to be there, there’s a prejudice, and I’m doing something for nothing to help a cause. I thought, ‘That’s the last time I do that.'”

Although she rants like a truck driver and fancies herself the female Sam Kinnison, comic Claudia Sherman is the picture of femininity in her virginal wedding dress. “There are times when men like me more than women,” Sherman says. “I get these guys in a headlock, and I yell at them, ‘You swine!’ And they love it.”

Juxtaposing her behavior with her attire, Sherman mocks the “nice girls don’t say such things” stereotype. And by wearing her dress repeatedly, she’s commenting on the massive expenditures women undertake to get married. “The wedding gown is the epitome of’Where am I going to wear this again?'” she says.

Yet there is also backlash rhetoric present in Sherman’s routines when she reinforces other negative stereotypes about women: “On your wedding day, you think you look the most beautiful, but the other girls are saying, ‘I can’t believe she got her fat butt into that dress.'”

As I discovered, humor by women does not always guarantee pro-woman humor. There is a very real difference between generic women’s humor and the often acrid feminist humor that, according to feminist scholar Nancy Walker, not only illuminates societal discrepancies between the genders, but the greater social structure in which people are oppressed according to gender, race, class and sexual orientation.

“Feminist humor is not a compendium ofjokes or reversals,” says lesbian comedian Kate Clinton in “The Politics of Humor: A Feminist View,” a videotape made by Gloria Kaufman and Madeline Pabis. “It is a radical analysis of our being in the world, based on our commitment to our right to be joyful.”

The number of women actively practicing feminist comedy is still very small. But they are out there, and they are talking about sex and power. For instance, when lesbian comic Suzanne Westenhoeffer imitates a man preparing to go down on his girlfriend by stretching her mouth, taking one lap at the air, then announcing proudly, “Done!,” she’s firing offa double barrel. She is articulating classic male fear of female genitalia, while at the same time taking a shot at the sacred realm of male sexuality — and finding it lacking.

“I love to do thatjoke,” Westenhoeffer confides between bits. “You watch the couples, and the women go [laughter and then go, ‘Oh, not you, honey.'” Headliner Elayne Boosler plumbs women’s fears of assault and rape as well as the “blame the victim” mentality that frequently results when women are sexually violated, when she talks about the Ft. Lauderdale man acquitted of raping a woman who wore no underwear because the jury believed she was “asking forit.”

“Now when I go out,” Boosler jokes, “I wear two pairs of underwear so that they know, not only am I not asking for it, I ‘m not even thinking about it.” While the idea of wearing two pairs of panties for “double protection” is amusing, it cuts to the heart of the still prevalent notion that women who dress provocatively, act sexy or have too much to drink are in some way asking to be assaulted. In the same routine, Boosler further highlights women’s safety concerns when she answers her boyfriend’s suggestion that they stroll by the river with: “I’m not going down by the river. I’m wearing jewelry, I’m carrying money, I have a vagina on me.”

In her one-woman show, “Reno: In Rage And Rehab,” which was developed on the “downtown” performance circuit, moved off-Broadway and was later featured on HBO, Reno offers up a scathingly funny deconstruction of slang words for vagina that exposes the whole slew of euphemisms as a mask for male fear and powerlessness. “Snatch!” she shouts, letting the word hang in the air. “That’s so Freudian: I’m gonna snatch that thing, and I’m not going to give it back.”

A highly energized performer, Reno segues into a shuddering imitation orgasm during part of her show that would put Meg Ryan (in “When Harry Met Sally”) to shame, pronouncing her sexuality in a most vociferous way. And in her latest show, “Reno: Once Removed,” she takes on, among other things, the masculinization of language. “It’s impossible not to be sexist in this world,” she says. “Wo-man, Per-son, You guys, you got all your words shoved into ours. We have nothing of our own. There’s no per-daughter.”

But to say Reno is a feminist comic is only to scratch the surface of this truly intellectual performer. Reno is one of those rare funny women whose repertoire eschews the traditionally “female” subjects — in fact, she barely touches them at all. She prefers to examine the personal and political contradictions that pervade our lives: High-priced nouvelle cuisine; yuppie ice-cream parlors springing up in ghetto neighborhoods; IranContra; Iraqgate; growing up Hispanic in a white, adopted family; and one of my personal favorites, a commentary on Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” anti-drug slogan.” Particularly in die ghetto, they’ve heard ‘no’ all their lives. Got any opportunity? NO. Got any money? NO. Any Hope? NO. Then just say NO because George Bush isn’t gonna give you any of that shit either!”

As another contemplative, funny woman, Whoopi Goldberg tends to focus more on global issues than her peers. Like Reno, Goldberg’s feminist material, explored through superb characterizations and stand-up bits, tends to be just part of a routine that questions everything from religion, abortion rights and AIDS awareness to misperceptions of the handicapped, racism, politics and drug addiction. When Goldberg describes how not to perform cunnilingus (“This is not a cow chewing grass, babe…When it’s done badly, you get up, and you’re pissed.”) in one of her many comic relief bits, she’s voicing a dissatisfaction with her partner’s performance that many women might be uncomfortable expressing, while at the same time toppling the ivory tower of male sexual prowess. In her HBO special, Goldberg, as a young Black girl pretending to have long, blonde hair by wearing a shirt over her head, takes on the white standard of beauty fantasy (“I’m gonna have blonde hair, blue eyes, and I’m gonnabe white”). The young girl tells the audience she tried to bleach herself white with Clorox. But this is only Golberg’s starting point. She carefully draws the analogy out so that it includes everyone in the audience as the girl peers out and says, “Nobody on TV looks like none of y’all. Who those people look like?”

Bingo. Goldberg starts with a “Black” image problem, and by making a general statement that the TV and mass media images pounding us daily truly don’t represent or relate to any of us, manages to include everyone.

Later, Goldberg nests a searing indictment ‘against the Church and so-called “family values,” this time in the character of a sun-kissed Valley Girl who accidently gets pregnant. This bubbly, beach blanket tale takes a sudden plunge when the Valley Girl botches a coat hanger abortion in a beachfront bathroom, leaving her sterile at the age of 14.

Goldberg so immerses herself in these characters that, if only for an instant, they become real. In that instant, Goldberg manages to humanize abstract concepts, and bring them home for her audience.

As an offshoot of feminist humor, lesbian humor deals with the absurdity of homophobia and societal pressure to keepsame-sexrelationshipsunderwraps. Lesbian humor seems to be growing in popularity among straight women as well, because it establishes a sense of shared community not contingent on identification with men. And, as Rhett Butler illustrates with her quip about Marge and Midge getting out of the big rig, you don’t need to be gay to do lesbian humor or to enjoy it.

Lisa Kron, an out lesbian performer who plays the “downtown” performance circuit, describes her humor as “straightpeople friendly.” She explains that “I want to be inclusive. I don’t want to do my shows just for lesbians; I like to include straight women as well.”

“I don’t think I gear my audiences toward lesbians” adds Kron. “I talkabout myself, and that means I talk about my girlfriend, I talk about my experiences in a homophobic world. Basically what that comes down to is talking about fitting in, and that’s universal. My experience has been that it does play to a straight audience. Essentially, what I’m talking about is day-to-day absurdities and the feeling that you don’t fit in. Often my specific examples have to do with my being lesbian in a primarily heterosexual world. There’s an incredible amount of meanspiritedness, an incredible amount of sexism, and an incredible amount of racism and homophobia in mainstream clubs,” says Kron, who refuses to work those venues. She recalled a booking conference where she was rejected out of hand by an agent simply because she is gay.

Westenhoeffer, however, spins that kind of homophobia into easy fodder for her act. Tossing her lion’s mane of blonde hair, she explains she’d like to play other New York clubs, but that managers have told her although she’s good, they groom their talent for TV, which will never accept lesbians. “I’m like, no lesbians on TV?” Westenhoeffer gripes. “Whatabout ‘Hazel?’ What about Alice on the ‘Brady Bunch?’ And I guess you didn’t know about Miss Jane Hathaway on ‘The Beverly Hillbillies.'”

As an out mainstream lesbian comic, Westenhoeffer uses her humor to attack the blind ignorance about homosexuality that exists in our culture with her routine about classically dumb questions heterosexuals always ask about gay people:

“So, what do you guys do in bed, anyway?”

“Well it’s a lot like heterosexual sex, only one of us doesn’t have to fake orgasm.”

“How do people get to be homosexual?”

“Okay, homosexuals are chosen first on talent, then interview, and then the swimsuit and evening gown competitions.”

While feminist humor attacks the covert sexist assumptions that lurk in our culture, lesbian humor adds to that an active undermining of the heterosexual assumptions that also pervade our culture. Take a typical rite of passage such as weddings. While Claudia Sherman takes apart the Cinderella mystique shrouding weddings, Westenhoeffer uses her humor to point out that weddings are a social construct that celebrate heterosexuality while marginalizing homosexuality, since same-sex unions are not legally recognized: “What’s a bridal shower if you’re gay?” she asks in performance. “It’s the parade of gifts you’ll never get because you’re queer.”

For all the progress women comics have made, comedy industry insiders — club owners, agents, promoters, even the women comics, themselves — still regard stand-up comedy as an unequivocably male domain. There will always be “exceptions”: Sandra Bernhard, Roseanne Arnold, Judy Tenuta, Brett Butler, Joy Behar — all loudmouthed women who bring in good box office. But club owners such as Stand Up New York’s Cary Hoffman continue to believe that because comedy is such an aggressive act, men are simply better tailored for the job, leaving female co-mics forced to define themselves against the stereotypical notions of femininity and womanhood. In the world of comedy, this means that nice girls laugh at others — they don’t make jokes themselves, that good girls don’t speak out, and — that age-old kicker — that having a great sense of humor translates to being “really ugly.”

This is a tough challenge for women comics. Luckily, they can joke about it.

Norine Dworkin is a freelance writer living in New York City.