Comedy is Part of Feminist History—and We Need it Now More Than Ever

“Men are afraid women will laugh at them. Women are afraid men will kill them.”
— Margaret Atwood

The patriarchy has always tried to stereotype feminists as humorless killjoys, the anti-pleasure police or shrill sticks in the mud. As we have seen, nothing could be farther from the truth. The contemporary feminist movement is mobilizing through collective joy—from Samantha Bee’s satirical Full Frontal and the stand-up of Wanda Sykes, Margaret Cho and Tig Notaro to the explosion of playful memes and witty protest signs that forcefully satirize the current presidential administration.

There is no fiercer political weapon than laughter. Feminists have known that all along.

In my book, Specters of Slapstick and Silent Film Comediennes, just out from Columbia University Press, I emphasize the importance of insightful satire and exuberant laughter during the early years of the feminist movement. The biggest myth of anti-feminist propaganda—both in the present moment, but also regarding the history of the struggle—is that wanting equal rights and having a sense of humor are somehow mutually exclusive. In fact, when women laugh too loudly or pointedly, they’re often disregarded as “hysterical,” and not in the positive sense as a figure of speech, but in the pathological sense—i.e. I’m going to send you to a mental institution and poke at your uterus to figure out what’s wrong with you.

Comedy, though delirious and light-hearted, is often extremely violent and vividly obscene. It is a fine line between edgy and insulting, and it’s long been the role of the clown to continue testing the boundaries of that line, which change rapidly over time particularly during moments of escalating social and political activism. Women, LGBTQ folks, people of color and other marginalized communities have effectively used satirical comedy to “punch up” against authority and speak truth to power. As Lindy West has put it, there’s a difference between “a joke about women getting raped” and “a joke about the way that rape culture—which includes rape jokes, makes women feel.” But regardless of the comedian’s identity, even if you have to live the aftermath of your own punch line, a joke that goes too far, or that risks exploiting its topic rather than exposing it, will typically fall on deaf ears.

The refusal to laugh is not always intentional. After all, laughter is supposed to be involuntary: it erupts in spite of ourselves, often in response to the images or ideas that actively confuse us. We laugh when we’re not completely sure how we want to feel about something and are still thinking it through. To this point, the funniest feminist film that I write about in my book is, without a doubt, Mary Jane’s Mishap, a slapstick comedy starring Laura Bayley from 1903 about a housemaid who spontaneously combusts out of the chimney while trying to light a fire. Mary Jane erupts out of the chimney, and then her dismembered limbs and torso rain down over the village skyline, and finally she returns as a ghost to haunt her own gravestone. (It bears the epitaph: “Here Lies Mary Jane. Rest in Pieces.”)

Women have always had a marginal position in physical comedy because audiences often feel uncomfortable laughing at comical images of violence against women, but I’m really attracted to these types of films in which gendered violence is rendered totally absurd. That’s what slapstick is all about: the exaggerated representation of make-believe violence, but violence that strikes us as somehow too ridiculous or cartoonish to be really threatening. Amy Schumer takes a page out of Mary Jane’s Mishap in her sketch comedy show, which frequently features skits about women who spontaneously combust, self-decapitate or commit absurd ritual suicide when their ability to derive meaning from their everyday lives stands in vivid contradiction with their own utopian gender ideals. (“Trouble Accepting a Compliment,” “I’m So Bad” and “Allergic to Nuts” all exemplify Inside Amy Schumer’s slapstick feminism ad absurdum.)

In popular media from the early 1900s, like today, female slapstick comedy was a major avenue for feminist activism and social protest. For example, the only way for Mary Jane to break out of the home and onto the public sphere is apparently through the chimney. In another film I talk about in my book, Daisy Doodad’s Dial, a bored housewife trains to compete in an amateur face-making competition—so avidly that she is arrested for public indecency after she grimaces at random men on a street car. She then shuts herself up in her bedroom and has nightmares that she’s haunted by spectral superimpositions of her own disembodied face-making. In another film, Laughing Gas, a black woman is given nitrous oxide—i.e. “laughing gas”—by her white male dentist, and then spreads her laughter contagiously through the streets, including to several police officers who can’t arrest her because they’re all laughing together too uproariously.

Social satire in these films arises from the jarring clash between how women and minorities are traditionally expected to behave and how they actually want to live. I write about suffragette protest comedies, trick films in which women metamorphose into giant spiders or man-eating dolls and domestic disaster comedies where women “blow up” and bust loose from their normative gender roles and domestic duties in a variety of astonishing ways.

It’s also important to remember that cinema was the most popular form of new media in the 1890s and early 1900s. There was something about the power of cinema to display movement as never before—housemaids exploding, automobiles crashing, miniature nicotine fairies melting—that was really fertile terrain for social protest and cultural experimentation. Women’s bodies were ideal toward this end, because they were believed to be physically malleable and less resistant to external manipulation. (Just look at the corsets women were expected to wear in the early 1900s that contorted their bodies into crazy human hourglasses!)

New media images, like gendered bodies, are celebrated for their limitless capacity for physical manipulation and visual invention. We’re drawn to new media throughout history because we believe in the transformative power of radical images to effect social and political breakthrough. Female-identified and gender fluid bodies—the clothes they wear, the positions they assume, the way their bodies occupy public space—are markers of how much social norms and cultural ideals change over time.

I see so many parallels between the feminist protest culture of the early 1900s and our present-day moment in 2018, when satirical laughter and new media experimentation are again such vibrant parts of our collective imagination and activist resistance. One of my favorite protest signs at the Global Women’s March in 2017 was proudly raised by a group of women dressed as suffragettes: “Same Shit, Different Century.”

That could’ve been a caption for my book.


Maggie Hennefeld is an Assistant Professor of Cultural Studies and Comparative Literature at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities and author of Specters of Slapstick and Silent Film Comediennes.