Old joke: Question: How many feminists does it take to change a light bulb? Answer: That is not funny.
It turns out: Feminists are damned funny. This includes Michelle Wolf.
Confession: For about five years now, I have wanted to learn how to write, launch, and perform a stand-up routine. That’s why I’m fascinated with the television show “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” created by Amy Sherman-Palladino and starring Rachel Brosnahan. In the show, 1960s upper-crust housewife and mother Midge Maisel learns to fashion “the tight ten,” the perfectly pitched ten-minute routine of the stand-up comic. I am not hilarious, but I am sometimes pretty good at recognizing and recounting unusual stories, which might work towards a tight 45 seconds. Gender-bending situations, misunderstandings between and among languages, and mishaps of menstruation, maternity, and menopause would have to be developed to get the other nine minutes and 15 seconds. I would want to undo some of the work of the Andrew Dice Clays of the world and celebrate the hilarity of more contemporary comedians, who are accomplished and much less overtly misogynistic, if not outright feminist. Who knows, a girl can dream, right?
Full disclosure: I think it would be funny for a 52-year-old woman to start with, “So, I went to the dentist and the gynecologist today. Only two cavities.” I can hear your groans from wherever you’re reading this, but wouldn’t the shock of a large-bosomed 52-year-old woman saying this make it even funnier? Okay. A large-bosomed woman can dream. Isn’t it funny to use the term “large-bosomed” more than once? Not a single person I know—not even the kindest and most loyal among them—thinks this dream of mine is a good idea, so that should probably tell me something.
For these reasons and more, I have been following with keen interest the kerfuffle surrounding Michelle Wolf and the White House Correspondents’ Dinner (WHCD). I didn’t know of Michelle Wolf before this occasion, but I sure do now, and I would bet many people could say the same. She is really funny. Her irony and deadpan delivery slay. She is a comedian, and so she is supposed to be funny, edgy, surprising. The WHCD allowed her to display all of these talents, which she has developed over the past few years through improv classes, writing for and performing on Late Night with Seth Meyers and The Daily Show with Trevor Noah, doing her own HBO Comedy special, and now having a regular comedy show on Netflix.
If you didn’t catch the full routine or haven’t seen snippets of it, where the hell have you been? Just kidding. You can check out Wolf’s own website, which offers the night’s highlights by category: Sarah Huckabee Sanders; Ivanka Trump; Donald Trump; Democrats; the media. The website also emphasizes the ultra-serious conclusion of Wolf’s routine, “Flint still doesn’t have clean water.” In this piece from Cosmo (4/30/18), Jill Filipovic astutely examines the White House’s hypocritical response to Wolf’s remarks in the context of the WH hostility towards the press/media and the increased danger for the press corps during Trump’s time in the presidency. Filipovic writes, “Flint still doesn’t have clean water. That line was in the same speech as the one that mentioned eye shadow and Aunt Lydia. Only one of those things is truly offensive, and it didn’t seem to register on the list of outrages felt by members of the White House Press Corps. There are wives and mothers in Flint, too – if Michelle Wolf talks about their eye makeup, will we finally care about them? Reporters should make the powerful very uncomfortable. Their obligation is to reveal the unvarnished truth, no matter how awkward the facts are or ill-mannered one seems for delivering them. Luckily, someone at the White House Correspondents Dinner did that. It just wasn’t any of the journalists.” The beauty magazines definitely understand fashion, and it’s clear that, in the age of Trump, Vogue, Teen Vogue, and Cosmopolitan see feminist protest and humor as appropriately fashionable. (I won’t get into the multiple hypocrisies of this in today’s piece. I’m busy trying to figure out eyeshadow names, like “Smoky Ash” and “Large Bosom Gray.”)
Comedian Elayne Boosler also rises to Wolf’s (unnecessary) defense in this Time Magazine piece (5/1/18). Boosler has it right: comedians are to be judged on the quality of their humor. I would list intelligence, surprise, bite, and social commentary as key elements to be critiqued. Boosler says, “Outrage is how you know you did well.” This Washington Post piece (4/29/18) also claims that “Michelle Wolf got it just right.” Indeed, she did, and I love that each negative comment about Wolf makes this talented comedian more certain that her performance achieved exactly what she wanted.
In this interview (5/1/18) with NPR’s Terry Gross, Wolf says, “I think sometimes they look at a woman and they think “Oh, she’ll be nice,” and if you’ve seen any of my comedy you know that I don’t — I’m not. I don’t pull punches. I’m not afraid to talk about things. And I don’t think they expected that from me. I think they still have preconceived notions of how women will present themselves and I don’t fit in that box.” Indeed, Wolf’s high-profile performance allows her to remove the box, occupy a physical and metaphorical space most frequently inhabited by male comedians, give voice to funny women, and remind us of severe social ills. Those who want her to play nice have to undo their own biases, as Wolf seems to take on the cloak of irresponsibility so celebrated in the context of men comedians and so little appreciated among funny women. Of course, age-old tropes tell us that “public women” are to be feared, silenced, and placed back into the box. Wolf’s principal transgression seems to be her refusal to comply with these antiquated expectations.
Question: How many feminists does it take to turn on the lights? Answer: All of us.