By Anna Fields, Columnist
During this current resurgence of ultra-conservatism, there’s a certain blowback when performers even attempt to confront the harmful effects of beauty culture and Lookism. When they push further into issues involving cross-dressing, transgender identity, butch femininity, and sexually fluid lifestyles, they’re often threatened into silence. When audiences see Kate McKinnon imitating Justin Bieber, for example, she experienced pushback by many who’d prefer women to stay in dresses and men in pants. These are the same viewers who viciously attacked Leslie Jones simply for appearing in a modernized, all-female reboot of Ghostbusters. These elements our society don’t care to live in the present, not do they care to see anyone on television who doesn’t perfectly mirror their American mythology of a country filled with white, heterosexual, upper-middle-class capitalists.
But despite their attempts to silence her comedy, the Justin that Kate McKinnon depicted remains interesting and smart. She was able to look well beyond his gender and embody his unique characteristics as her own, even temporarily – and, through this embodiment, she nailed something about him that is universally funny. I believe that this universality comes from her poking fun at this particular individual’s characteristics rather than attempting to lampoon all men as a whole. For while the tradition of men dressing up as women can sometimes be about poking fun at femininity, Kate McKinnon’s dressing up as Justin Bieber is poking fun at his celebrity – not his masculinity. It’s not about making fun of men or making fun of Justin’s maleness; Kate’s performance mocks any celebrity who also happens to be regarded as a lazy, all-around douche. She could be dressing up as a female celebrity, and the impression would still be just as funny. Is the same true when male comedians dress as women? Sometimes. Sometimes not. Try watching the cast of Monty Python imitate women in their own clothes and their own clothes and using their own voices, and then ask yourself: Is this still funny? Or, for a more recent sample, try watching Chris Lilley performing as J’amie Private School Girl, and imagine him wearing his own clothes, without any makeup or a wig, and without changing his voice to imitate his idea of a young girl’s. Ask yourself whether the jokes still hold up. Again, they might… but then again, they might not.
On the other hand, there are comedians who also happen to be ladies who consciously go out of their way to MAXIMIZE (rather than minimize) their gender and EMPHASIZE (rather than de-escalate) their gender-based experiences. And there are comedians who also happen to be ladies who don’t necessarily want to be seen as women at all. They minimize and de-escalate to the point of near eradication. And it seems like this is because they don’t want to be “othered.” They don’t want to be victimized because they no longer fit within the mainstream, where there’s safety in much greater numbers. They fear being vulnerable. Who can blame them?
Writer Carol Diehl perhaps put it best in her moving piece, For the Men Who Still Don’t Get It. “What if all women were bigger and stronger than you? And thought they were smarter? What if women were the ones who started wars? What if too many of your friends had been raped by women wielding giant dildos and no K-Y Jelly? What if the state trooper who pulled you over on the New Jersey Turnpike was a woman and carried a gun? What if the ability to menstruate was the prerequisite for most high-paying jobs? What if your attractiveness to women depended on the size of your penis? What if every time women saw you they’d hoot and make jerking motions with their hands? What if women were always making jokes about how ugly penises are and how bad sperm tastes? What if you had to explain what’s wrong with your car to big sweaty women with greasy hands who stared at your crotch in a garage where you are surrounded by posters of naked men with hard-ons? What if men’s magazines featured cover photos of 14-year-old boys with socks tucked into the front of their jeans and articles like: How to tell if your wife is unfaithful or What your doctor won’t tell you about your prostate or The truth about impotence? What if the doctor who examined your prostate was a woman and called you ‘Honey’? What if you had to inhale your boss’ stale cigar breath as she insisted that sleeping with her was part of the job? What if you couldn’t get away because the company dress code required you wear shoes designed to keep you from running? And what if after all that women still wanted you to love them?”
The point isn’t to shame them or label them “bad” for wanting to minimize their female gender in order to escape all of these physical and psychological dangers. Instead, we should try to determine why and how this situation arises, wherein women who also happen to be comedians very much want to become “one of the boys.” This is different from cross-dressing, and although it’s certainly not a transgender issue, it does bear some passing resemblance to “passing” (no pun intended) as it’s commonly known within the gay community. This term usually refers to a person’s ability to go through daily like without others making the assumption that this person is gay; however, according to GLAAD.org, the term itself is problematic because “passing” implies “passing as something you’re not.” When transgender people are living as their authentic selves, and are not perceived as transgender by others, that does not make them deceptive or misleading.
Cis-gender women don’t become “one of the boys” in order to literally “pass” for a biological male – they simply want to receive the same sense of equality, social protection, and professional respect that so often accompany this gender – both from other men and women. As a result, they often attempt to take a place within the Boys Club by surrounding themselves with men, claiming that they “don’t like” or “don’t trust” other women, by putting down other women while in the presence of men, or simply by failing to defend a woman as she’s being ridiculed based on her gender alone.
This choice is largely subconscious, and almost entirely motivated by a deep unhappiness with gender constraints and an even deeper desire for safety – physical, emotional, mental, and financial. It’s a kind of camouflage that recalls the many centuries of history where women practiced the art of dressing as men to avoid rape, to escape oppressive domestic roles, to enjoy basic everyday liberties like voting or driving or transacting business without fear of reprisal, or even to go to war. To express, in essence, their innermost selves apart from the trappings of their outer appearance.
Again, this doesn’t mean that they wanted to literally transition, but they did desire the safety that society attached to men as the “superior sex,” and, perhaps even more keenly, they craved other men’s acceptance. They wanted to know it felt to finally take a seat at that table. They wanted to join The Club, at least for a little while, and I know what that temptation is like. Getting a seat at that table is just like getting to sit with the popular kids in a high school cafeteria. It’s still desirable to sit there because guys are still more powerful than women in our society, just like it’s exciting when you’re in high school and the popular older kids actually want (or are, at the very least, willing) to hang out with you. If our society is a high school, guys are the popular older kids and women are the freshmen. If we get to hang out with them it’s really cool, and so, for women who are allowed into the Club, there’s this gleeful sort of joyful feeling. Oh wow! They think I’m worthy of attention now! I must not be as inferior to them as I thought! Look at all those other, uncool girls down there, on the floor! THEY aren’t sitting up here, are they? I must be so much better than all of them! And because the guys invited me up here, they must believe it, too! I definitely won’t be raped or condescending to or grabbed by the pussy now! In fact, I bet they’ll even start paying me the same!!! RIGHT?
This especially happens to women who also happen to be newer, less well-known comedians. And it especially especially happens when the ones inviting those women to the table happen to be men who also happen to be older, better-known comedians. And sometimes it happens to women everywhere, in all industries, where you want to be cool and, sometimes, being cool means putting yourself and/or other women down. And other times that means pretending to love misogynistic shit that turns women from three-dimensional characters into mindless fuck puppets. For example: writer/director Christy Stratton Mann of King of the Hill, Everybody’s Crazy But Us, and Modern Family had to learn the hard way that getting a seat at the Cool Club’s table usually means eating a lot of shit. When her first TV lit agent sent her a pile of scripts that were being picked up for that season, she read them and they were horrible. She asked him “what am I going to do?” And he said, “just so you know, everyone that goes in before you and everyone that goes in after you are going to talk about how great they are. So, you know, get in line.” Because that’s how the Club keeps its seats: By making all the masses of “others” standing on the floor below fight over table scraps instead of leaping onto the table for the real meal.
But what’s even cooler is the phenomenon that began with women like Lucy and Ethel and has continued to expand from their time to ours. Over the past century, it’s grown to include Rosie and Gilda and Mary and Rhoda and Tina and Amy and Issa and Molly and countless others. Over time, as more and more women have become more and more powerful in comedy, they’ve made it safe for us to actually be nice to one another. The popular, cool kids in school aren’t just a table full of guys with one (maybe two) girls laughing nervously at all their jokes. There are tables full of women to sit with now! Perhaps, in many ways, this Girl Club has always existed – from Sarah Bernhardt and Mae West on up to Abby and Ilana – but now, it has its own obvious table. The word has never been quite as totally out before today. So, now, when I consider all that’s changed and all that’s stayed the same from then to now, I think about Lena Dunham. I think about Amy Schumer. I think about Abbi and Ilana. I think about Tiny Fey and Amy Poehler. I think about Sarah Silverman. I think about Ellen DeGeneres. I think about Mindy Kahling and Phoebe Robinson and Jessica Williams and Issa Rae and Aparna Nancherla and Tig Notaro and Maria Bamford and Janet Varney and Mo Collins and Molly Shannon and Naomi Ekperigin and Livia Scott and Laura House and Janine Brito and Virginia Jones and Sara Benincasa and Susan Rice and Ayanna Dookie and Eliza Skinner and Angelina Spicer and Bonnie McFarlane and Allison Flierl and all the other different colors and cultures of Cool Girls forming their own Clubs, and who are all killing it right now in their disparate yet interconnected ways… my breath stops sometimes with excitement. How connected we all are is the absolute best part. It feels really good. It feels like there’s a place for all of them, and all of us, and all of you in the show.
Anna Fields is an author and independent filmmaker, whose various works have been published, produced, developed, and awarded by Penguin Putnam, Skyhorse/Arcade, The Daily Beast, Newsweek, Forbes, Marie Claire, Bunim/Murray, PB&J Television, CBS, ABC, Turner/Cartoon Network, LaMaMa Etc., and the Austin and Toronto Film Festivals. Her latest book, The Girl in the Show, is available now wherever books are sold.