In late 2012, I sat opposite a Women’s Studies department chair at a fairly well-known university, late in the PhD candidate selection process, and attempted to explain why her department should invest its limited funding in my tuition, thesis, and general future in academia. My proposal at the time: research on how negative perceptions of women in comedy shape perspectives that lead to policy outcomes and deeply entrenched cultural attitudes towards women in general. It was something that had been on my mind for a long time – namely, since I was 17 and someone said to me “girls aren’t funny, but you’re kind of an exception.”
“Comedy,” she mused. “Women in comedy!” She was interested. I was pleased. The conversation was good. The right buzzwords were dropped, and I had high hopes. But then came the inevitable question:
“But what about Lucille Ball?”
I’ve got nothing against Lucille Ball or her creative empire. I have fond childhood memories of falling asleep to “I Love Lucy” reruns on TVLand. I eagerly ogled everything in a traveling “I Love Lucy” museum at the county fair. I laughed/was secretly jealous of Lucy and Ethel every time I saw that episode where they shove chocolates in their faces at the candy factory. I even wrote a book report in middle school about the autobiography of Vivian Vance (aka Ethel), and gave an in-character presentation to my entire English class (hello, excuse to wear bright red lipstick at age 12). There was never anything not to love about her, as far as I remember. Lucille Ball was clownish yet beautiful and admired, and wildly commercially successful – there’s really no way to hate her if you grew up in America.
But the thing is, I’m a little sick of hearing her name invoked whenever I want to open up a discussion of women in comedy in America and other societies with a hegemonic, click-hungry media culture. Actually, though I’m a little reluctant to admit this, I’m sick of all invocations of Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, Mindy Kaling, Amy Schumer, Rebel Wilson, Sarah Silverman, Abbi Jacobson & Ilana Glazer of Broad City, Joan Rivers, Lily Tomlin, Chelsea Handler, Betty White, Bea Arthur, and so many more, for that matter (though I hope they’ll forgive me, because I’d love to be all of their best friends and for Bea Arthur to be my guardian angel).
I am in no way flippantly throwing decades of progress out the window. That would be dumb and catty and totally unproductive of me. However, every time someone says “What about ____?” and invokes one female comedian when I raise a point about the differences in perceptions of women v. men in comedy, it’s like saying “But what about the McWrap?” when you point out that McDonald’s doesn’t have a huge variety of healthy options on their menu. Like any consumer/audience of comedy, some McDonald’s lovers might not even see the necessity of healthy options, or complain that that’s not what McDonald’s is about, and that anyone who tries to point out the flaws in their system is a whiny, kale-excreting Whole Foods spoilsport. But some people can’t afford Whole Foods, and man, is McDonald’s everywhere in America.
See where I’m going? I’m not discounting progress – I just want to dig deeper.
The way I look at it, when someone says “What about Lucille Ball?” in response to a statement about the persistent lack of an even playing field and deeply entrenched negative perceptions of women in many forms of comedy, it shows that our collective consciousness has taught us to brush off inequality in one of the greatest expressions of power in our society (according to canonical male philosophers including Henri Bergson, as well as Joseph Boskin and even Nietzsche, to an extent).
The study of comedy, and the performances by and perceptions of women therein, can open up incredible perspectives on the shaping of actual policies that dictate our lives and, yes, our perspectives. That’s why I’ve launched Funnynism, a space to discuss elements of the gender/comedy/policy dialectic with the occasional fart joke.
Statistically speaking, isolated success by any measure isn’t indicative of full equality in any uneven playing field – does Mary Barra’s job mean that we don’t need to worry about income inequality or power imbalance anymore? Did Sheryl Sandberg’s how-to guide for corporate gurrrlz totally fix all sexism and microaggression in the office?
Did Lucille Ball incinerate any need for questioning the forces a woman must overcome to be seen as funny, intelligent, multi-dimensional, and therefore human, while she blazed trails through network TV?
The “What About Lucille Ball” (WALB) point of view is pretty dismissive of the fact that comedy, and thereby the power to elicit laughter, is kind of a big deal. It’s a mechanism through which we frame, understand, and project our desires onto the world around us – and thereby exert a subversive form of power by diffusing difficult situations or winning people over to our side. Moreover, the WALB POV doesn’t address the fact that comedy, one of the most potent tools for the expression of power within human expression itself, is an ever-evolving apparatus. Obviously, it’s not entirely without formulaic elements, but as a form of communication it is essentially dependent on cultural norms and the human perception thereof.
Cultural norms change. Human perception changes with age, experience, trauma, major life events, etc. Even different nationalities think different things are funny. So, why should one really famous “lady comic” fix everything? If anything, this should be an ongoing conversation. Why? Because, as I’ll explore in Funnynism through future posts, being seen as funny equals power, which means the right position to alter policy (you know, the stuff that affects people).
I should admit, I wasn’t able to explain myself to that Women’s Studies department chair during that interview. The eternal WALB question had stumped me, and I didn’t know what to say – or if I did, I didn’t know how to phrase it eloquently enough. I should hope that through this forum, I can explore the processes at work behind WALB, and examples of how funny=power=policy, and why we should be paying far more academic attention to this debate.
Much theory will be dropped, and copious cultural references will be made – pop, high and low. Essentially, every branch of the humanities will be dug up, re-animated, and cobbled together in an attempt at relevance. All of this will be done with the aim to open up debate, make my case to the already-robust feminist academic community online, and possibly, once and for all, break down the WALB.