Funny Feminists? Some Reflections on Research

The myth of the humorless feminist has deep, resilient roots in American culture. It has taken various forms over the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, shifting from the stern, sexless suffragette, to the hairy-legged, man-hating women’s libber, and now, the performatively woke PC-policewoman. It is reflected, concisely and cruelly, in jokes like the following: 

Q: “How many feminists does it take to screw in a lightbulb?”

            A: “That’s not funny.” 

            Personally, the humorless feminist stereotype has always struck me as odd. I grew up watching funny women: my youth was informed by the comedic stylings of Whoopi Goldberg, Gilda Radner, Margaret Cho, and Janeane Garofalo. I’ve also had the pleasure of working with a number of feminists who approached their work with wit, joy and, at times, gallows humor. My suspicion of the “humorless feminist” trope further deepened in graduate school. Though my dissertation explored feminists’ scientific writing on sexuality in early twentieth century Europe—an unexpected place to find humor, to be sure—in the course of research I discovered that feminists’ scientific texts were often laced with irony. Feminists skillfully deployed reason and sarcasm simultaneously: reason to build and advance their empirical arguments regarding female sexuality, and sarcasm to expose and deride the arrogance of their male interlocutors. My broader graduate training in feminist history further attuned me to the fact that, from the “first wave” onwards, feminists had consciously mobilized an array of humorous practices—from written parodies to street theater to outlandish t-shirts, buttons, posters and songs—as part of their protests. It became abundantly clear that feminists had been wielding humor as a political tool for at least a century.

So, proceeding from my own love of comedy and my knowledge of feminism’s humorous history, I decided that my next book project would be dedicated to documenting and examining the roles humor has played in feminist history. The article on the Guerrilla Girls that will appear in the forthcoming issue of the Journal of Women’s History, “Art, Humor, and Activism: The Sardonic, Sustaining Feminism of the Guerrilla Girls, 1985-2000,” is part of a larger research project that examines both activist and cultural practices. While the assertion that feminists are humorless may seem like one of the least significant charges leveled at feminists, it is an incredibly important allegation to confront and counter for two reasons. The first relates to the power of humor as a political tool. Humor has a unique ability to mobilize both our intellect and emotions. By creating a sphere of play, humor frees people to explore new ways of thinking and being, entertains challenges to the status quo, and perhaps even transforms their attitudes. Humor can also help cement solidarities and build community through shared laughter. Further, by relieving tension, humor can sustain activists in the pursuit of social justice. In light of humor’s power, it isn’t something that feminists should concede to poisoned popular opinion.           

The second reason motivating the project stems from the political and existential consequences of the humorless feminist stereotype. To deny people and groups a sense of humor and the ability to create humor is to cast them beyond the pale of social experience and human existence. As history has shown time and again, once you’ve dehumanized a group or people, abuse becomes much more permissible. Although it may seem harmless and inconsequential on its surface, public perceptions of an individual or group’s sense of humor hold great stakes. 

As soon as I decided to research the history of humor in U.S. feminism, a number of methodological challenges presented themselves. How could one go about studying the history of humor in feminism, exactly? What archives exist for such work? What theories, concepts, and methods are available to analyze past examples of feminist humor? How can a researcher assess humor’s effects, specifically their effects in the past?  And how can one account for the dynamics of race, class, and sexuality, alongside gender, in the creation, circulation, and impact of feminist humor?

My research methodology was admittedly idiosyncratic. Because there isn’t a robust secondary literature on the topic to consult, I proceeded along two tracks. First, I wrote to archives dedicated to feminist, women’s, and LGBT history to explain my project and ask whether they held any collections that would be relevant. Second, I mined the footnotes and bibliographies of existing scholarship from all disciplines that concerned groups and figures I knew would be important to the project, such as the Guerrilla Girls. Thanks to the generosity and expertise of archivists around the country, I have discovered an array of examples that demonstrate how feminists have engaged humor in their activism and culture, ranging from the  “Hookers’ Masquerade Balls” of the pioneering sex workers’ rights organization COYOTE (Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics), to the iconic posters created by the Guerrilla Girls, to the parables and protests orchestrated by Black feminist Florynce Kennedy, to the carnivalesque street theater of the Lesbian Avengers, to the satirical cartoons of Alison Bechdel and Diane DiMassa, to the abject and hilarious lyrics of the body-positive punk trio Yeastie Girlz. I decided to focus my research on the 1970s through the 1990s, with a particular focus on the 1980s and early 1990s, as this era has received less historical attention yet is rife with rich examples such as the aforementioned. 

One thing I’ve discovered over the course of working on this project is the necessity of adopting an interdisciplinary approach. In my article on the Guerrilla Girls, for example, I drew on literatures stemming from humor studies, art history, activist studies, and communication, for both scholarly context and analytic methods. I’ve also had to think creatively about the challenge of assessing the impact of humorous activism. In the Guerrilla Girls’ article, I triangulated between contemporary media accounts, oral histories, and retrospective anecdotes. I also analyzed the work of twenty-first century artists and activists to find evidence of the Girls’ aesthetic and political influence. All the while, it was important to maintain a critical distance to assess what the Girls’ humor was and wasn’t able to achieve, and what their humor revealed about dynamics and problems within the group itself. 

Reclaiming feminism’s humorous past is not straightforward work, to be sure. Yet it is pleasurable work. It has been a delight to encounter evidence of feminist play, creativity, and joy to bring this material to light and to reflect upon its meaning. Particularly in these past few months of pandemic and political upheaval, retrieving this history has seemed more urgent than ever. I hope this history can inspire feminists to reclaim their humor and its power. I also hope feminists will recognize that our pleasure, play, and laughter matter—for they are practices of freedom. Freedom to think differently. Freedom to act, to take risks. To be bold. To break taboos. To manifest new and different ways of being and knowing. Humor and play are world-building acts. Moreover, they will sustain us in our struggles for social, racial, and gender justice, now as they have in the past. As we look toward the possibility of building a “new and better normal” in 2021, perhaps it’s time to reclaim and treasure the vibrant humorous impulse that has animated feminism all along. 

Kirsten Leng, University of Massachusetts Amherst