Local books: OSU professor looks at comedy through lens of race and gender

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From the April 24, 2014 edition

When it comes to the sexist question of whether or not women are funny, women are killing it.

“It’s so important that right now the two most famous feminists in America are comedians,” said Linda Mizejewski, a professor of Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies at Ohio State University and author of the new book “Pretty/ Funny: Women Comedians and Body Politics.”

The two feminists she’s referring to are Amy Poehler and Tina Fey. That the funny pair could host a nationally televised and beloved awards show not once but twice and work in feminist comedy on that stage is “outrageous,” Mizejewski said. “That’s astonishing.”

Why? There is, of course, the notion that women aren’t funny still out there and remnants remain of the antiquated moral ideal that a woman doesn’t belong on stage because the stage is a place of power and control, realms that traditionally belong to a man.

But what is fascinating from the feminist social movement perspective, Mizejewski asserts in “Pretty/ Funny,” is that feminist ideals — which have been subject to demonization and associated with lacking a sense of humor — are being showcased and celebrated in such a funny form of entertainment. And it’s one that many people get to experience, not just those interested in the movement or witness to protests.

“Pretty/ Funny” compiles six case studies of famous female comedians who write their own material — Fey, Kathy Griffin, Sarah Silverman, Margaret Cho, Wanda Sykes and Ellen DeGeneres. Particularly, it focuses on how each woman’s comedy challenges the pretty/funny binary that has shape-shifted as women making their own comedy expands.

A synopsis of the binary: During the early stages of feminism and modern standup comedy, women would play up their ugly looks in their acts. To be pretty was to be assumed to not be funny and, moreover, humor was a way to feel empowered if you did not fit the traditional definition of beauty (white, slim, blonde). Today it can feel almost reversed — you have to be pretty to be taken seriously as a funny woman on a national stage.

Race and sexuality fittingly play a big role in the book’s analyses as well, looking at how these comedians’ writing challenge and poke fun at how gender appears in sexism, racism, anti-semitism and homophobia.

“Pretty/ Funny” is a fun and revealing book fit for anyone interested in the academic underpinnings of the anti-authoritarian bastard children (lady comics) of a cultural bastard child (comedy).

AP photo

This image released by NBC shows co-host Tina Fey, left, and Amy Poehler on stage during the 70th Annual Golden Globe Awards held at the Beverly Hilton Hotel on Jan. 13, 2013, in Beverly Hills, Calif.