Can Pregnant Feminists Be Funny?
How Ali Wong’s “Baby Cobra” can change perceptions of women in comedy
We’re so close to gender equality now. First, women had to prove they were rational beings. Then we worked so hard to show we wouldn’t fuck things up by voting. After that, we demonstrated our knack for making guns and bombs. It only took a few more decades to prove we could kill strangers overseas during wars. Meanwhile, we worked on gaining the public’s trust with things like our wombs, books and libraries, the nightly news, and traffic court. Pretty soon, we’ll finally have a female president.
One thing remains, and that’s convincing people women can be funny. Apparently, Golden Girls wasn’t enough. For real, I don’t care how much you pay me, just laugh at my jokes. I’ll take 77 cents on the dollar or whatever.
The debate over women’s humor goes back hundreds of years. Just ask Bitch magazine, where Gabrielle Moss composed a lovely timeline of comedian misogyny, including a brief review of the “scientific” theory supposedly proving men were biologically designed to be funnier.
Before we go any further, please don’t judge my gender’s comedy skills based on me. I’m just typing aimlessly to cure my insomnia.
If you’re not sure women can be funny, you should watch Ali Wong’s highly-acclaimed Netflix comedy special, “Baby Cobra,” which she recorded while seven months pregnant. Guts, girl. Even The New Yorker was impressed by her performance and did a major feature.
I’m not just writing about Wong, of course. I’m writing about her as one great example of how women are developing their own brand(s) of raunchy humor for a general adult audience. Times have changed since Christopher Hitchens’ now outdated piece, “Why Women Aren’t Funny,” which offers the unintentionally hilarious argument that humor evolved as a mating ritual, and that “dykey” women make the best female comedians. Anyway, in a few months that essay will be ten years old.
Like any great comedian, Wong doesn’t care about your feelings; she goes straight for the genitals on issues regarding gender and sexuality. Even miscarriages aren’t sacred here. I loved the skill and wit she used to navigate through controversial topics ranging from race to anal sex to feminism. For example, she describes housewives as geniuses who enjoy the luxury of shits from home, compared to the rest of us who rough it in public restrooms. Amen to that. I hate the bathrooms on my campus.
In fact, my building doesn’t even have restrooms. (We’re humanities professors, so we’re naturally located in the oldest structure that hasn’t collapsed yet.) Whenever I work on weekends, I have to walk all the fucking way over to the library for a dump. If I don’t make it in time, I wind up waddling the rest of the way like a penguin with a butt plug. Once, I considered squatting over my coffee pot. Hence, I’m seriously contemplating Ali Wong’s advice here and can’t wait for marriage, except I make slightly more money than my boyfriend, so…
Anyway, Wong sneaks some spot-on social commentary into her jokes, just like other well-known comedians. The best stand-up, after all, forces us to confront ugly truths. She gently mocks male comedians who incorporate fatherhood into their routines while their wives stay home nursing the kids. For female comedians, though, motherhood poses a serious threat to their careers. I won’t even try to overview all of the studies showing the persistent pressure women face from both directions: if you stay at work, you’re a selfish mom. If you stay at home, you’re a bad feminist. If you kill your kid, you’re a murderer. I mean, Jesus, there’s no way to win.
Offstage, Wong explains her views about gender in comedy even more clearly. As she says in an interview with The New York Times.
Comedy has so much to do with honesty, and women can be more open about their emotions. Men aren’t as honest about their feelings of desperation or things sagging on their body. Women choose not to do it for a living because there hasn’t been enough precedent for a way that it can work…The life of a true, traditional stand-up is really unappealing for women…Stand-up requires you putting your body out there, constantly, at night. Twitter doesn’t require your body to go out deep into Brooklyn on the train for 45 minutes to get paid nothing.
Even Hitchens acknowledges that “in some ways men do not want women to be funny,” because that means giving up some of their privilege. Allow me to build on this point: Women have been pushed away from public discourse for thousands of years—sometimes indirectly, sometimes with extreme force. American culture regulates everyone’s speech, especially women’s. From childhood, we’re discouraged from using dirty language and telling raunchy stories. A male teenager learns to tell pussy jokes in the locker room. Meanwhile, girls learn to say:
Please forgive me for leaving this conversation on such short notice.
If it’s not too much trouble, would you mind looking at my eyes as we
I’d love it if you helped me do your job, and
Thank you very much for treating me with all of this respect.
Sociolinguists like Robin Lakoff, Elinor Ochs, and Penelope Eckert have long studied these kinds of gendered speech norms in American culture, analyzing the stereotype of the super-polite feminine woman. Ali Wong breaks that image with a sledge hammer.
Olga Khazan makes a similar point in her Atlantic piece, “Plight of the Funny Female.” Perceived differences between men and women’s humor have social rather than biological explanations. Khazan cites a 2011 study by Intelligence that men are funnier because they make more attempts at humor. They make more jokes overall, including the least funny ones. Meanwhile, women tend to hold back for a number of reasons, including lack of confidence. The study found that women consistently rate themselves as less funny than men rate themselves. Gee, I wonder where women’s humility comes from. Other studies have found that women value men who can make jokes, but men value women who laugh at their jokes.
Here’s two real kickers: First, studies cited by Khazan show a tendency among men to find funnier, smarter women less attractive. Second, studies have also found that women joke more when men aren’t around.
One of the comedians Khazan interviews— Sara Benincasa—illustrates why women are conditioned to act less funny around men.
Benincasa said that when she was younger, in her teens and early 20s, she would soften her personality in order to please the men she was chasing romantically. She’d tell fewer jokes and laugh more heartily at theirs. Her friends would tell her that she acted differently around her boyfriends.
“I tried to play-act at being a woman,” she said. “This false me was always pretty and always ready for anything, and fun, and carefree. And the real me had a lot of things to say. The ‘me’ I created was not bold and outspoken. She was not very funny.”
So women can be funny in all kinds of shapes and sizes. Fewer female stand-up comedians exist because, like everything else, there’s a lot working against us.
I’m sure as hell not interested in doing stand-up. If I’m going to make jokes for free, I might as well stay home and drink coffee while doing it. What Wong says about stand-up applies to the literary world as well, in fact, something I’m more familiar with. Despite all the glowing reviews and awards heaped on my first novel, which had a lot of dark satire, I learned firsthand the difficulty of putting my body out there and talking about sex and madness, driving cross-country by myself and winding up in lots of uncomfortable situations. It wasn’t uncommon for a guy to stand around my signing table and awkwardly flirt with me, and I couldn’t leave because there was a slight chance someone might buy my book. Once, a guy even told me my novel sounded pretentious, then found my email address and asked me out for coffee.
I was also lonely as hell, spending every weekend for six months in some dump of a hotel. At my last reading ever, a snob said some pretty rough things to me, my publisher “forgave me” over email for only selling half of my print run, and I cried myself to sleep on bourbon paid for by the last $20 in my bank account. If a career in stand-up is even worse, then Wong isn’t just funny, she’s also brave and tenacious. What a nice combination.
Images are screengrabs from Netflix.