Honoring History’s Forgotten Women, One-Too-Many Chardonnays At A Time

Mary Dyer

Winona Ryder as Mary Dyer, executed for taking a stand against religious intolerance in the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

There’s something strangely empowering about hearing that Mary Dyer, the 17th century Quaker who dared to challenge the Puritans’ religious intolerance, “freaked their dicks off.” On Comedy Central’s Drunk History, which premiered its second season this month, crass is king as comedians rely on a little liquid courage to help them retell overlooked episodes in American history.

Here’s how it works: The show finds a comedian willing to play historian for the evening. After a bottle of wine (or three) the storyteller recounts a forgotten historical tale for the camera. Later,  Derek Waters and Jeremy Konner, the creative minds behind the show, find famous actors (Winona Ryder as Mary Dyer, for example) to faithfully reenact the story exactly as told by the drunk historian, lip-syncing the narrator’s slurred words, unrelated tangents and occasional burps and hiccups.

The results are often hilarious: It’s hard not to laugh in satisfaction when entrepreneur and early civil rights leader Mary Ellen Pleasant implores abolitionist John Brown to “make some shit happen,” or when Claudette Colvin, the teenager who became the inspiration for Rosa Park’s bus heroism, says to an angry white woman: “Fuck you. I’m fucking sitting. Take a seat.”

Beyond just being funny, however, Drunk History refuses to tell only the stories of men. In fact, almost every episode has prominently featured the tale of a historical woman. Even when episodes don’t feature any women, you can at least count on the presence of female comedians, who struggle in their own right for a place in the boys club that is comedy. Drunk History simultaneously proves that women, as human beings, are as important a part of history as they are a part of comedy.

Some probably find this reduction of history into curse words and silly re-enactments hard to stomach, or even outright insulting. They’d be correct to point out that Drunk History isn’t a substitute for real history, and that stories on TV hardly make up for gender biases in classrooms and textbooks. Still, to see women’s history incorporated so seamlessly into a historical program, however silly, is a small triumph.

Sure, hearing Rosa Parks tell Claudette Colvin, “You’re the shit” feels disrespectful out of context, but when you sit and watch these stories, you realize that crude speech most often emerges out of deep passion in response to a dual injustice: the injustice of the historical events themselves, and the injustice of their being largely forgotten after the fact. These women are telling stories of people who fought violence, discrimination and rejection; their casual words aren’t meant to dishonor or discredit them but, rather, to capture and channel their historical indignation to a contemporary audience. In this way, Drunk History offers a kind of populist women’s history, aiming first to entertain but managing to enrage and encourage as well.

Of course Drunk History is not without its flaws—like its depiction of Native Americans in its Lewis and Clark story, for example. And its reliance on binge drinking as comedic conceit ignores the serious health-and-welfare concerns of alcohol abuse. At least Drunk History has come a long way since its early days as a web series on Funny or Die, when it often seemed like the comedic historians had gone too far, collapsing in front of toilets or vomiting on the ground. Today, as Waters told The Huffington Post, medical professionals monitor the historians’ blood alcohol content via breathalyzer and remain prepared to step in if necessary. Puking is no longer a staple of the program’s third act.

So while the drunk in Drunk History is best left to the professionals, this new season has the potential to retain its status as an important mainstream source of forgotten women’s history. Here are clips from all of the Drunk History segments told by women, about women, or both:

  • Jen Kirkman on Mary Dyer (played by Winona Ryder) (she also did a segment on Oney Judge in DH‘s web series days)
  • Suzi Barrett on Sybil Ludington (played by Juno Temple), a 16-year old hero of the American Revolution
  • Artemis Pebdani on Mary Ellen Pleasant (played by Lisa Bonet), entrepreneur and early civil rights leader
  • Amber Ruffin on Claudette Colvin (played by Mariah Wilson), the inspiration for Rosa Parks
  • Natasha Leggero on Patty Hearst (played by Kristen Wiig), kidnap victim turned bank robber
  • JD Ryznar on Nellie Bly (played by Laura Dern), pioneering investigative journalist
  • Erin Rohr on the unsolved Isabella Stewart Gardner (played by June Diane Raphael) Museum art heist
  • Paget Brewster on the Kellogg Brothers (played by Luke and Owen Wilson), inventors of corn flakes
  • Jenny Slate on John Pemberton (played by Bill Hader), inventor of Coca-Cola
  • Alie Ward and Georgia Hardstark on Lewis and Clark‘s (played by Tony Hale and Taran Killam) journey
  • Morgan Murphy on Joe Louis vs. Max Schmeling (played by Terry Crews and Tim Heidecker), an iconic boxing match
  • Seth Weitberg on Dolly Parton (played by Casey Wilson) going solo

James Thumbnail

 

James Hildebrand is a senior at Amherst College and editor-in-chief of the independent student blog AC Voice. He is interning this summer at Ms. magazine.

Comments

  1. Kathy Ruffner-Linn says:

    Yay, women in actual history! Even if they are playing extras it still more than most of us learned in school! (If I hear about “The Founding Fathers” one more time…)
    But I wish the ‘debut’ of some of these characters was not on this drunken humor show. I guess its better than nothing.
    KRL

  2. Thanks for telling us about Drunk History. But we still have more work to do.

    Ms Magazine Online needs to pay its respects to the Seneca Falls conference this July, and to insist that all media outlets honor the first major women’s rights conference in the United States. I also wants Ms Magazine Online to pay its respects to Olympe de Gouges and the great feminists of the French Revolution, and to insist that the media stop ignoring them. Even feminist zines ignore the great activists of the past and that’s a huge shame. Because of activists like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Olympe de Gouges, Western women are not treated as badly as they were in the past and feminism has been able to make more inroads.

  3. I agree with Kathy that we still have more work to do in paying our respects to our 19th-century Feminist Foremothers. I remember seeing an earlier article here about Patricia Nugent’s stage play featuring our forgotten feminist heroes, which is a great start, and I’ve written a work on them as well, although in a screenplay. When it comes to telling the story of our Feminist Foremothers, I think we can tell it in all the current media outlets available to us, and there’s no such thing as “too much information” on that subject. Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, Lucy Stone, Victoria Woodhull, Sojourner Truth, and all our feminist heroes, in the 19th century and beyond, deserve no less.

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