Joanna Schroeder thinks feminists should take another look at the Louis CK joke that pits feminists against comedy.
I love me some Louis CK.
And so do most of the feminists who’ve been calling-out Daniel Tosh for his rape “joke” at the Laugh Factory last week. Writers like Jennifer Pozner and Lindy West (and me!) used Louis CK clips to demonstrate the ways in which rape jokes can be done right. But CK’s appearance on The Daily Show Monday night has made some of these same writers question their allegiance to the masterful artist of comedy.
Here’s the thing, I don’t think CK’s joke about feminists was even remotely anti-feminism.
See, good comedy works best when it pokes at the truth with a little needle, as if it were a boil. It pokes and some pus comes out and sometimes that helps the healing. Daniel Tosh’s crappy rape joke failed because, as Jennifer Pozner explained in a brilliant break-down of the joke, it was lazy and simply un-funny.
However, the healing thing (the pus, if you will) that came out of Tosh’s boil of a joke was that we, as a society, have begun a conversation about one of the hardest things to talk earnestly about: Rape. We’re talking about rape culture, we’re talking about comedic boundaries, we’re talking about power and obedience, we’re talking about fear and making people feel afraid. I doubt the conversation was Tosh’s intent, but it has happened nonetheless.
Monday night, in an appearance on Jon Stewart’s Daily Show, Louis CK talked about the Tosh controversy and called it, “a fight between comedians and feminists, who are natural enemies,” and explained that “stereotypically speaking, feminists can’t take a joke… and on the other side, comedians can’t take criticism. Comedians are big pussies.”
And many in the audience boo’ed. I would’ve too. But I also would’ve laughed because you know what? In broad strokes, we’re not famous for our humor! I’m not talking about laughing at Daniel Tosh’s joke (which sucked), and I’m not talking about how you Susie Feminist or me, Joanna Schroeder, or even Jennifer Pozner or Lindy West react to specific comedy. I’m talking about “feminists” as a whole, or feminism as a movement.
Why does our movement have this bad reputation? Well, there are some really good reasons and also some bad ones. First the good ones: As a culture, there is this notion that women are supposed to be pretty and pliable. During the Cold War era, women were expected to become June Cleaver, and they were supposed to view their husbands as the head of the family and to be their personal servants. Sure, there were some notable exceptions, but in general women were basically silly putty to be jammed into the mold of “Wife” and “Mother”. And we were supposed to like it! We were supposed to smile and shut up.
But second-wave feminists didn’t like it. They wanted more. They wanted their little girls to grow up to have all (or nearly all) the opportunities men had, such as careers in science and politics and medicine, reproductive rights, and equal pay for equal work. And guess what? We’re getting closer to achieving those goals. Nice work, Second-Wave Feminists!
Part of not wanting to be putty was women finding their voices and saying, “This doesn’t work for me. You don’t have the right to tell me I can’t do something just because I’m a woman.” Which also meant not smiling to appease people when you didn’t feel like smiling. Not smiling when people said things that hurt you, or hurt women in general. Not smiling even though you were supposed to in order to appease. Women are human beings with our own feelings, and if something isn’t funny to us then God damn it, we don’t have to smile.
This was important, and it is important. We see something similar happening with the various men’s rights movements, too. Jokes about women beating men up simply aren’t funny to a lot of these guys. And they don’t have to smile when people tell them that these jokes are funny. They can say, “violence isn’t funny simply because it’s committed against a man.” And as feminists we should get that, because we were saying the same thing about ourselves 50 years ago (and ever since).
So back to my point. Feminists got the reputation of being un-fun because we were raising our voices and making the status quo very uncomfortable. Feminists were the ones who said we deserved to be in workplaces free of sexual harassment, and a lot of people thought this was very un-funny of us. I can’t tell you how many guys told me, “Aww, you’re no fun!” when I didn’t want to take off my bra and participate in a wet tee shirt contest in the kitchen of the restaurant I worked in.
In my social life, I wasn’t interested in making out with another girl to turn on a group of leering guys, or stand up on a bar and dance like I’m in frickin’ Coyote Ugly. I will defend the right of any woman who wants to do those things, but those things weren’t for me. And it displeased many of the fellas (and some of the ladies, too). I got labeled a prude, or stuck-up, or a bitch. And those three things have become equated with feminists as a whole because, well, you know, we just aren’t fun.
And those are the good reasons why we’re sometimes considered not very funny.
Onto the bad reasons. We take ourselves very seriously. We stage take-downs of epic proportion (Laci Green and Hugo Schwyzer come to mind) and sometimes these take-downs block real conversation and the opportunity for growth and forgiveness. Take-downs by a few very loud extremists will make any movement look monolithic and blood-thirsty.
Again, boycotts and grassroots efforts to make change have important historical roots, and are still important tools (i.e. Chick-fil-A), but many have gotten out of control as the Internet has helped mobilize angry, active feminist voices into radical and violent mini-movements. Clarisse Thorn calls this a Full-On Internet Feminist Scandal in a beautiful story that is somehow about rape, feminism and take-down culture all in one. These mini-movements don’t necessarily reflect who we are as a whole, but they become the face of our movement. Hell, even Marissa Mayer says she isn’t a feminist because of how negative we seem!
Louis CK’s Daily Show joke is the perfect example of how sometimes we take ourselves too seriously. We’re so convinced that everyone’s out to get us that we missed the point. Part of what Louis CK did on The Daily Show was poke the boil of the self-importance of the feminist movement. And he’s so masterful as a comedian that he got the exact response he was expecting—a resounding “Boooo!”—so that he could put the final touch on an incredibly well-crafted joke with the unexpected but perfectly-timed “See?”
Watch the video (below). If you think the boos and the follow-up punchline of “See?” were a coincidence, you’re underestimating CK. The punchline wasn’t “feminists can’t take a joke” the punchline was “See?”
We played right into his hands.
And what is that joke saying? Seems to me it’s saying, Aren’t we, as humans, predictable? Isn’t it crazy how we create binaries where there don’t necessarily have to be any?
Good jokes have a resounding element of truth to them that everyone can recognize. Sometimes, as in the case of Louis CK’s Daily Show joke, the fact of whether or not we can take a joke is irrelevant, the truth is that the world sees us this way and our first response is to fulfill that expectation.
Louis CK’s joke about feminists not being able to take a joke is funny. It’s very funny. It is not lazy or cruel or told out of reactive anger like Daniel Tosh’s gang-rape joke was. Because CK’s was well-crafted, nuanced, and artfully told.
Beyond that, in the interview CK talks about the thing that actually matters in all of this Daniel Tosh controversy. He talks about how the conversation that has happened since Tosh made his rape joke has educated people, how it’s drawn out tough conversations, and how it helped him gain empathy for the experience of women in this society:
“To me, all dialogue is positive… I think you should listen. If someone has the opposite feeling from me, I want to listen so I can add to mine. I don’t want to obliterate theirs with mine.”
And if you think Louis CK was defending Daniel Tosh in his sit-down with Jon Stewart, take a moment to reflect upon what he says about comedians: “Comedians can’t take criticism.”
Who do you think he’s talking to?
So think again before you slam Louis CK for what may feel at first like an attack on feminists. Look at Louis CK’s work as a whole. Go back to the clips that my feminist cohorts and I posted. Study the body of his work.
He’s not attacking feminism. He’s asking us all to look at ourselves a little bit closer and to take a little criticism.
For more on comedy and social issues, read Jeff Cohen’s This Town Needs a New Sheriff