*Note: I’m going to be adding in some more writing on gender and feminism to this site. I’ve created a “Feminism” category to make it easier to search for them. I’ll continue to write on the kinds of things that are already here that I feel equally passionate about. Thanks!
I recently fired up an episode of Broad City titled “2016” (how epically long ago that seems) that featured a cameo by Hillary Clinton. Broad City is a fantastically smart, funny fresh take on the buddy comedy series starring Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson who also write and produce the show. The show takes place in New York City. Part of the plot of “2016” involves Ilana accidentally finding herself in the campaign offices of Hillary Clinton where she ends up volunteering to help elect the first “Madam Presidente.”
Hillary makes an appearance at the end of the episode, dropping by the campaign office where she runs into Ilana and Abbi who proceed to lose their damn minds over Secretary Clinton or, as Ilana calls her the “She-king.” They film her in slow-motion. She saunters into the room, tossing a sly wink to her left and, for good measure, another sly wink to her right. As crushy, fangirls Ilana and Abbi come unglued Hillary laughs gamely. Ilana and Abbi are professional funny people, meaning they carry the comedy. Hillary was meant to be the relatively straight figure in the scene, a foil for the girls’ goofy adoration, which is what makes the comedy hang together. Hillary doesn’t have to play too far from her candidate self and still manages to be warm and playful in the episode.
Oh Hillary, I thought, as I watched the episode from the less than savory vantage point of our present day, with the cancerous orange rat king installed in office. I wanted to thrust myself through the television like the little girl in Poltergeist, defying everything we know about messing with the space-time continuum to warn her: “Go to Wisconsin, you brilliant idiot! Go to Michigan! Those goddamn emails!” Nothing could have saved her, certainly not a two-minute guest appearance on a sitcom, even this really great sitcom.
The first woman to win the nomination of a major party for president was never going to escape nanoscopic scrutiny. Earlier in the Broad City episode Ilana gets trained on how to field typical questions from callers. The campaign coordinator, played by Cynthia Nixon, coaches her volunteers: “No, Hillary does not cry at the office; Yes, Hillary can read a map; No, Hillary is not a witch.” Everything was fair game with Hillary, not just her professional record or her personal life, but also the pant suits, the pallor (or not) of her skin, her cough (she’s dying! Wait, she’s dying AND hoarding the cure for herself!), her smile, her scowl, and even her sense of humor (or not) got fed through the political meat grinder.
As I watched Hillary amiably play alongside Ilana and Abbi, I thought about how she had put in her time on all the late-night talk shows, on SNL (playing a bar tender in a truly funny, self-aware sketch opposite Kate McKinnon’s “Hillary”), and even on one of Zach Galifianakis’ wickedly irreverent Between Two Ferns video shorts. She worked just as hard to advance her platform as she did to convince us she could take a joke.
When it comes to the job description for “leader of the free world,” why must there be the disclaimer “sense of humor a plus?” Why was this such a weirdly fraught arena for Hillary who had to vault herself through a comedic obstacle course to “prove” the existence of her sense of humor? I don’t recall think pieces about the sound of George W. Bush’s snuffling chuckle that made him sound like a character from a Hannah Barbara cartoon. I don’t remember listening to talking heads admonish Barack Obama for being “too jokey” or “not jokey enough” on Conan O’Brien. We can say that the 2016 election broke every political and media mold that existed, which wouldn’t be wrong, but that doesn’t quite satisfy the reason for the preoccupation with Hillary and her humor. It’s a gender thing, a lady thing; it’s cultural and political pearl-clutching over the real possibility of seating a woman behind the desk in the oval-thing.
Humor is power. We use it to highlight truths, especially ones that are inconvenient or messy. We employ it to address hypocrisy, corruption, and injustice. We reach for humor to critique and tear down, especially those in positions of influence. That’s a lot for something as seemingly innocuous as levity. For a long time, men enjoyed the automatic privilege of being the purveyors of wit. They got to fling their funny arrows at various targets and watch what happened as they hit their intended marks. Women stepping onto the playing field equipped with their own sense of humor disrupted the game. They could take aim at the ones wielding influence who they deemed hypocritical, tyrannical, or just idiotic. In other words: men.
To staunch the flow of lady-funny-business running amok, people aggressively shilled bunko ideas about women and humor that date back to the early 1900s. The notion being, specifically, that women had no sense of humor. As in, they believed she was not physically, mentally, or emotionally equipped to appreciate the one about the priest and the farmer’s daughter. Heart, check! Lungs, check! Funny bone, nope. Sense of humor was a bit like an appendix—for women it didn’t really serve any purpose.
A truly bizarre, highly enthusiastic, entirely too protracted debate took place in American newspapers during the first decade of the twentieth century over this very topic. The amount of time people devoted to either defending or dismissing a woman’s sense of humor should be tucked into the file of “don’t you people have anything better to do like cure small pox or invent the Internet?” But to folks back then it was pretty straight forward: women were not meant for humor’s “coarse” nature; their sensibilities too fragile, too proper, too gentile; their nature too virtuous to ever entertain the notion that the one about the priest and the farmer’s daughter was hilarious and, while we’re on the subject, Gertrude, have you also heard the one about the one-armed stable boy and the Queen of England? I haven’t, but I be it’s a real corker.
Reading these newspaper articles now, we think they belong in The Onion. Of course women have a goddamn sense of humor. How else do we put up with male nonsense on the regular? The stakes were higher when it came to Hillary. She was not just any woman, rather she was a woman vying for the most powerful job in the world. That in itself poses an existential threat, like Stephen King’s maniacal Pennywise—the clown who lurks in the sewers luring kids to their grimy end. Only in this scenario it’s the end of the tenuous hold on gender roles poised to get swept down the storm drain. Add in sense of humor to this equation and My. God. End of days. Defcon 5. Panic at the disco.
Writing about Hillary’s sense of humor in 2007 for the LA Times—nine years before the anti-Hillary machine would scream into overdrive–Meghan Daum succinctly nails the humor gender double-standard:
If there’s anything that can hinder a woman’s credibility faster than becoming visibly pregnant or getting caught watching Lifetime, it’s revealing the ability to be genuinely funny. Funny men, after all, are considered smart, confident and sexy. But wisecracking chicks risk accusations of bitterness, hormonal instability and the assumption (no matter what they look like) that they’re using wit to compensate for physical unattractiveness.
The question, “Why is Hillary trying to be funny? What is she compensating for?” became another sly way to stoke the ruinous refrain, “What is she hiding?” that attached itself to Hillary throughout her torturous presidential bid the way a leech latches onto soft flesh. The idea that Hillary could be funny in her own way, that she could possess her own kind of quirky wit and comic sensibility was not worth considering. To acknowledge that meant conceding, “No, Hillary is not a witch;” she’s a complex human woman who is going to challenge your ideas about gender, power, and, yes, even humor.
When Glazer and Jacobson announced Hillary would make a small appearance in that season of Broad City, they were immediately asked if the episode served as a political statement. Both creators were quick to deny this, insisting that their first priority was making strong, funny television. Watching it again, I think it successfully and provocatively did both.