The Value of Feminist Humor


This essay was part of the final paper submitted for my ENGCOMP 3D course, which earned a grade of A.

Life in the 21st century is a race.  From the moment we draw our first gasp of air, with no conscious participation on our part, we begin to embark on a lifelong race—a race to utter our first sounds, take our first steps, write our first words. Then, we race to earn our first A’s, secure our first jobs, build our first homes—all to reach the arbitrary finish line of an imaginary success. The question here is, does everyone start on the same line? Let’s make an optimistic assumption that everyone does when they are first born. However, if at some point during the race, they’ve been told their gender is not suitable for their ambition, they have to take two steps backwards. The same applies if they’ve been taught to place their keys between their knuckles when walking alone at night, if they’ve been paid less for the same amount of work done, if they’ve felt intense guilt for prioritizing their career, and if they’ve been talked over when they voiced their opinions during a group discussion. Based on these 5 statements alone, most men would remain at their original spot, but a large majority of women would have taken 10 steps backwards. With these revised starting lines, all are expected to race towards the finish line. 

The analogy which I described above helps to put into perspective the severity of gender inequality that continues to pervade our society. It depicts how men are disproportionately placed in a more advantageous position to pursue their individual interests because women are expected to live up to static societal expectations and develop themselves to fit certain roles. Now, would the same effect have been achieved with a rage tweet about how ‘men are trash’? How does one reduce a sensitive topic convoluted with historical context, inherited culture and lived experience into 140 characters? Weighing in on important issues through social media does raise awareness and move the needle, but does it move the needle in the right direction? Living in the height of the political correctness era, these are the questions that plague me as I scroll through an endless feed of social media posts that claim to raise awareness but don't quite have the right nudge to spur action in society. By the most generous reading of the impact it creates, people learn what not to say, but not why not to say them. It fosters anxiety, not equality. 

In the past 10 weeks, I’ve come to learn first hand that stand-up comedy has the real estate to give these issues the nuance it deserves, and this potential, if harnessed correctly, can create a ripple effect that moves society forward by generations. In this paper, I will quote from Comedy Collection #2 and other stand-up comedies we’ve been assigned this quarter to show how humor plays into the notion that ‘the personal is political’. Humor advocates for changes in the social and political system that will level the playing ground for people of all genders, but it raises awareness to the masses by sharing personal narratives that help its audience comprehend what it means to be a woman in a male-dominated society. The point of stand-up comedy, I will argue, is essentially to make the audience feel like they’re catching up with a hilarious old friend that desperately needs to vent. By building familiarity and lowering the audience’s mental barrier, comedians help the audience “acknowledge the possibility that they can be wrong without necessarily experiencing this recognition as discomfort” (Verducci 123). Instead of tweeting about something that’s in the zeitgeist but doesn’t create a visceral impact, comedians use humor to pave the way for their social commentary on gender issues to reach the audience and nudge them to change for their friend, not out of fear.

In Comedy Collection #2, the comedian that best embodies the character of a brash, witty and frustrated friend is Ali Wong. In order to set the stage for her to comment on the need for paid maternity leave in the United States, Ali Wong first lifts the veil that shrouds the truth about the post-pregnancy mental and physical healing process that all mothers go through but so few men truly understand. As a comedian who recently rose to fame after her Netflix debut Baby Cobra, Wong understands that the red carpet deceives. The glam squads of the industry are professionally trained to create the illusion of a “mother’s glow”, in which celebrities who are new mothers are often dressed to the nines while cradling their baby, appearing flawlessly radiant with maternal joy. In Hard Knock Wife, Wong doesn’t just lift the veil, she tears the curtain down. The stand-up starts off with Wong admitting that while she loves her newborn daughter very much, she is “on the verge of putting her in the garbage” (2:12). Wong intentionally brings her voice to a bare whisper in this segment of the show, as if confiding in her audience a guilty secret. After all, who else but a close friend would dare share such an embarrassing admission? Right off the bat, Wong presents a persona on stage that has all her walls down in order to encourage her audience to lower theirs. Starting off her special with this segment also functions to send a clear message to her audience that there will be no sugarcoating in her performance and they can expect nothing less than the truth from her, effectively establishing credibility for the messages she aims to deliver in the show.

Later on in the show, Wong shares her confusion about the physical healing process when she learned that new mothers are required to wear diapers—one that the men among the audience no doubt share. It was only after her first pregnancy that she learned about “all the crazy shit that comes out” of a woman’s genitals after she gives birth (17:13). She immediately builds upon this segment by briefly describing the process of being in labor and undergoing C-section surgery, before vividly recounting how her female friend’s postpartum vagina resembles “two hanging dicks side by side” (22:02). All of these segments are raw and vivid in their own way, but they build upon each other to help Wong convince her audience of the necessity of paid maternity leave in the United States. Just as how the thought experiment I presented in my introduction effectively depicts the severity of gender inequality, Wong uses “charged humor” in these individual segments to convey the temporary loss of control over one’s bodily functions every woman undergoes after giving birth (Krefting 16). By first unmasking the Hollywood portrayal of motherhood and explaining how it takes a mental and physical toll on a new mother, Wong sets the stage for herself to challenge the normalized cultural attitudes about motherhood, which contributes to inequality in the country’s legal arrangement regarding maternity leave. She ends the segment on a strong note by emphasizing that “Maternity leave is for women to hide and heal their demolished-ass bodies”—an ensuing fight in America that other European countries readily treat as a woman’s right (15:52).

To further illustrate what societal expectations on motherhood entails, Wong exposes her colleagues’ assumption that she would remove herself from the limelight due to her maternal duties. This speaks to the sexism that continues to pervade the 21st century, when society is more progressive than it has ever been, we still expect women to sacrifice their individual career goals in light of their new domestic roles. Even if a woman were to continue pursuing her career, they are conditioned to believe that the duty to nurture and care for their child is primarily their own. Hence, they impose a crushing pressure on themselves to compensate by spending all the time at home taking care of the child, leaving no time for their own well-being. Men, on the other hand, even if they earn less, as in the case of Wong and her husband, are released from the bulk of the domestic responsibilities guilt free due to society’s narrative that a mother’s main duty is to care for the child. Wong details the work of parenthood, or rather, the work of motherhood. She explains how she is expected to do every mundane, exhausting and demoralizing aspect of the job—unpaid, because Americans don’t get maternity leave—with no thanks. While her body becomes a walking cafeteria for her baby and the newborn “shits on her chest” during their daily skin-to-skin contact ritual, her husband gets confetti and is declared the world’s greatest dad for occasionally changing a diaper. Wong uses these personal anecdotes to show that although both father and mother carry the title of ‘parent’, there is a distinct difference between the standards set for men and women when it comes to caring for the child. When she confesses her irritation with the age-old question of how she balances her family and her career, she responds that “men never get asked that question, because they don’t” (26:49). This all goes to show that when a man is the breadwinner, he has one important job; but when a woman is the breadwinner, she has two important jobs.

Besides advocating for changes in the political system, Ali Wong also acts a friend when she encourages women to speak openly about difficult topics such as miscarriage. If it's not burdensome enough for women to deal with the physical changes that take place during their pregnancy, they also have to cope with the mental stress and emotional guilt that comes with the social stigma that is associated with miscarriage, as if its their fault for not protecting the fetus well enough. In Baby Cobra, Wong openly shares how grateful she is that she’s seven and a half months pregnant because the year before, she had a miscarriage of a pair of twins during her first pregnancy. Rather than hiding the losses that are by no means her fault, Wong shows to her audience that she can embrace her life experiences with dignity and strength, and even manage to create laughter out of setbacks. Wong also effectively removes the dramatization surrounding the dark stigma of miscarriages when she tells her audience to not take sympathy on her miscarriage because “they were the size of poppy seeds” and she’s “picked boogers larger than the twins” she lost (51:41). By opening up the window of being unashamed about painful topics, Wong empowers women to start conversations about hardships that they endure during pregnancy. Leading by example, Wong demonstrates that once you bring personal experiences into the open and embrace them as your own, they no longer have the power to bring shame or guilt. 

Similarly, in Can I Touch It, Whitney Cummings discloses how she wrestled with shame about her eating disorder in her teenage years which led to her undergoing multiple corrective surgeries due to an unbalanced breast development. This then segues into a question that has lived rent-free in the minds of women: “ Is the impossible standard of beauty that women are killing themselves to achieve what all men want?” (36:45). She then proceeds to share that in a sex robot factory, she learnt that men were willing to spend $1400 to ensure that their robot dolls have pubic hair and the factory workers put extra effort to ensure the nipples attached on these dolls are uneven —interesting revelations that goes against the consensus of beauty standards that women are expected to achieve. From narrating her embarrassment about her own body to sharing about what sex robots taught her, Cummings empowers the women among her audience to embrace their body as it is instead of attempting to live up to what society deems pretty. 

Steering her stand-up in a slightly more political direction, Cummings stops herself when she talks about chastising a friend who makes blanket statements about men and women: “I know it’s weird that I’m criticizing that, because generalizing about men and women did pay for my house” (12:19). Cummings isn’t afraid to admit that she was wrong, and as she grows, she sees how it is necessary to delineate from the concept that feminism is about men and women being at war with each other, in a way that is neither nuanced nor helpful. She talks about the #MeToo movement, which primarily aims to give young women who experienced harassment a sense of empowerment from understanding that they are not alone in their circumstances, but in recent years, it has rapidly developed into a rage-fueled war against men. Cummings doesn’t hold back from taking women to task for this outdated behavior and encourages them to adjust to the post #MeToo world in a mindful way. When she realizes that the world is suddenly concerned about women’s opinions when they have been disregarded for centuries, she squats down and invites the female in her audience into an imaginary huddle to strategize. She tells them to put away the “Rosé All Day shirts”, stop calling each other “hooker” and “level the fuck up right now” (8:38). Beneath all the jokes, Cummings is challenging females to do better, much like an honest friend would, and saying something not all women want to hear right now: being taken seriously will require seriousness, creating change will require changing, and uniting 50 percent of the population will take more than a hashtag.

It is interesting to note how Cummings openly calls out women who generalize about men and reminds them that they, too, play a role in the change they envision. Yet, when she wants to help the men in her audience understand the sexual harassment that women endure daily, she employs a much subtler approach. Instead of taking jabs at men who underplay the severity of harassment, Cummings claims that she understands the impulse to touch a “freaking cute” woman (1:35). She draws an analogy about seeing a cute service dog in the airport that is wearing a vest that says “Dog Working. Do Not Pet.”, which makes her want to pet the dog more. The crux of the joke comes when she reasons that the dog “obviously wants [to be pet]”, because it’s a dog (2:04). This dichotomous approach she employs when talking to men and women is effective because it opposes the tone that society adopts towards these genders when approaching sensitive issues. In Can We Take A Joke, it is apparent that today’s society walks around eggshells when talking about any topic remotely relating to gender for fear of being labelled as insensitive. On the other hand, there is no lack of women in society who publicly project their anger towards men and blame every member that belongs to the gender group for any existing problem in society. By opposing these narratives, Cummings introduces a fresh perspective into the conversation, delivering a wake-up call for women as well as helping men to understand how women experience harassment. She even gives the benefit of doubt to men who underplay the severity of sexual harassment and assume that woman are exaggerating the situation because they themselves would never harass a woman. However, she reminds these men that while they wouldn’t behave indecently in front of a woman, it doesn’t necessarily mean that other men wouldn’t. She breaks down the concept of harassment through her analogy and patiently explains that women have to “take a class to learn how to go outside” because of men who would potentially harm them (19:05). By sharing her own vulnerabilities and treating men as comrades instead of rivals, Cummings reminds her audience that feminism is a fight for females, not against males.

Although Ali Wong and Whitney Cummings have distinct performance styles, a common strength that they share is the ability to relate to the audience. As Wong shares her difficulties adjusting into her new role as a mother, the women in the audience are able to relate and roar in agreement. When she talks about the different standards that men and women are held to as parents, she is merely lifting the rug and exposing the dust that we’ve been sweeping away for years. Similarly, Cummings ensures that her male audience are able to understand women’s perspective on harassment by drawing a carefully thought-out analogy. In fact, it is because Wong and Cummings’ ability to ‘tell the truth like it is’, much like an honest friend, that their message is delivered so effectively. Their audience know that they can readily accept what the woman on stage tells them because they believe that she will tell the truth. In comparison, the biggest flaw with Growing is Schumer’s attempts to relate. She makes generalizations about what women go through that are either so specific to herself that her audience can’t relate, or so broad but doesn’t apply to her. For instance, Schumer started off the show by talking about how her youthful self used to blame her actions on the city she was in. Not only was it something that only comics traditionally do and hence not a joke her audience can relate to, it didn’t lead to a deeper thought or contribute to the central theme of her show. She also distanced herself from millenials, despite being one at 37, by assuming that they don’t know what a pad is (35:00). As a result, both these jokes fell to awkward chuckles and a few claps. Besides, Growing also lacked a structure that gives her audience a sense of direction. As she hops back and forth between her pregnancy, she nimbly introduces secondary themes of the show which she didn’t give enough real estate to explore. For instance, she addresses her arrest while protesting the Kavanaugh hearings before jumping back to her pregnancy by sharing that her main worry about being arrested is to go hungry while carrying a child. It came to me as a loose grabbag of jokes strung together by some half-hearted transitions. Throughout the special, I failed to identify a central theme which her performance was built around and there were feeble attempts at a deeper dive that resonates outwards into a broader consideration of the society we live in.

Life is a race, and humor helps us understand the track on which we’re racing. Humor reminds those who are privileged to turn around and assess if everyone is on the same starting line; humor pushes those who are less privileged to run faster, and more importantly, in the right direction. In Comedy Collection #2, Wong and Cummings successfully embody the role of a friend and personifies the female characters in one’s life, exposing the universal experience that most women share in this male-dominated society. Through establishing credibility, these comedians help men develop an empathy and understanding of what the female characters in their life endure daily, and in doing so, moves the conversation forward and closes the gap between the starting lines. 

Works Cited

Verducci, Susan. “Narrative Openings.” Developing Moral Sensitivity, edited by Deborah S. Mower et al., 1st ed., New York, Taylor & Francis, 2015, pp. 96–102.

Krefting, Rebecca. All Joking Aside. Amsterdam, Netherlands, Amsterdam University Press, 2014.