This article is the second part of a research which is divided into two parts. The first part is titled “African-American Feminism Meets Humor” and includes a theoretical background of Black feminist humor. If you have not read it yet I recommend you to enjoy it so you get a historical background on Black feminism and humor in the States.
My aim for this dissertation is to analyze how Roxane Gay bears the difficulties of being a feminist today by means of humor in her work Bad Feminist. Especially Gay's thoughts on gender, sexuality and race in the eyes of mass media and culture will be discussed regarding different social issues in the US. In particular, if I had to highlight one of the main ideas of her work, it would be that Black women feel abandoned by society and the media due to the poor representation of those who do not belong to established beauty standards. This situation is aggravated when it comes to race or sexual orientation.
Gay, as an author and a Black woman, clearly perceives a lack of representation in the media: she feels neglected. The main conclusion of this thesis would be that representation matters, specifically for those minorities that have been pushed aside or made invisible for so long. The usual criterion is that, if women on the big screen decide not to follow patriarchal rules, they are portrayed as irrational, criminal, or non-heterosexual. Furthermore, racism in the United States and among producers creates constant obstacles for Black leads outside of slavery-related roles (Gay 194-5). It seems that American producers are not interested in dealing with the racial problems of today, so they only record problems from the past.
Roxane Gay starts Bad Feminist sarcastically with comments like this: “not sure what’s more of a pain in the ass—being Black or being a woman” (Gay 23). She continues in a passive-aggressive sarcastic tone (Spacey), clarifying that although she feels proud to be both, “the world continues to intervene” (Gay 17) causing discomfort to her. This is how Gay reflects upon several issues and scenarios through humor. Nonetheless, because of my personal interest given the current situation of the world, this BA thesis will focus, firstly, on some thoughts on gender such as representation issues, misogyny in the mass media, and Black beauty; secondly, on the subject of sexuality and birth control; and, finally, on race and the slavery (in films).
To begin with, Gay criticizes the fact that regarding reproductive freedom and sex, women still have to confront the institutions of power who decide for them how to live their lives. She continues discusses how politicians forget that women have always done what they had to do to protect themselves from an unwanted pregnancy. Whenever any government wanted to achieve some end, principally population growth, they would restrict access to birth control unless, of course, it referred to the poor, in which case contraception was encouraged (Gay 227-8). What should matter is the fact that there are women and girls, who risk their lives every day in order not to continue with a pregnancy that would condition them for the rest of their lives: “we will risk our lives if these politicians, who so flagrantly demean women, force us to do so. Thank goodness women do not have short memories” (228). Gay is clearly making use of verbal irony by playing with the sexist myth that women are more forgetful than men. She is unapologetically referring to how Senate Republicans continued to undermine The Affordable Care Act, a plan that has been “vital for protecting women’s reproductive rights” (Okeowo).
Women have never forgotten how difficult and painful it has been to obtain their rights. Many of them have not yet been fully achieved, principally for women of color. The fact that government institutions manipulate the laws for their convenience at the expense of women—in this case African-Americans—is unfair. It is due to the constant struggle of feminist groups that the rights that have been obtained after so much effort and dedication continue to be maintained and society is beginning to change, albeit at small steps. However, it is not the first time the American Senate has threaten the reproductive rights of women. In 1970, the health risks of the pill brought the attention of the nation and “Feminists now saw the pill as yet another example of patriarchal control over women’s lives” (“The Pill”). This context resulted in American women asking the question: “Why should birth control be a female responsibility?” (“The Pill”). Women feel obliged to take care of their future by taking constant medication which result in daily side-effects, some as hurtful or as burdensome as nausea and depression. In addition to this, Gay refers to birth control as a “pain in the ass” (Gay 235). According to her, “It’s a medical marvel, but it is also an imperfect marvel” (235). The author is using the idiomatic expression ‘pain in the ass’, the focus of her comment, because even though the pill has changed women’s sexuality for the better, it is still harmful and self-defeating. Gay is criticising the hard relationship women have with birth control: it is not easy, it is another responsibility all women have to handle, but still, it is worth it. Gay published these essays back in 2014; nowadays, some birth control advances have been invented for men, all of them with no side effects. Nonetheless, it is shown through studies that women do not distrust their lovers but would gladly share the responsibility of birth control. Thus, this actively demonstrates that there is a whole new “potential market” which is being neglected (Anakwe et al. 646).
In the second place, Gay explains how the representation of gender in the mass media has always been concerning. A great source of women’s representation is Girls, from 2012 on HBO, where one of the main characters, “Hannah Horvath, doesn’t have the typical body we normally see on television” (Gay 49). “There is some solidity to her. We see her eat, enthusiastically. We see her fuck. We see her endure the petty humiliations so many young women have to endure. We see the life of one kind of real girl and that is important” (49). Gay’s humor is once again, witty and dark: the metaphor “there is some solidity to her” is explicitly referred to Horvath’s obesity. This figure of speech, in conjunction with the emphatic tone that the reader imagines in the fragment “we see her eat, enthusiastically” creates a comical and dark symbolism. This is because it is not socially accepted to be a woman who enjoys sex or eating, especially if she is not conventionally attractive. Besides, Gay is being sarcastically flattering (Spacey) with the euphemistic term “petty” (Gay 49), because those humiliations she is referring to go from body shaming to being called by one of her best friends a “big ugly fucking wound” (Wong). Also, the alliterations “we see” (Gay 49) through the whole paragraph is prototypical of other Black women comedians in their stand-up shows like, for example, Tiffany Haddish.
It has been shown that humor can be useful in feminist claims and protests, creating a strong sense of unity among participants and strengthening feminism. Because the focus of this dissertation are Black women and feminism, different movements have been discussed in relation to Black feminism and Gay’s work. Hence, movements like Black Feminism, Women's Liberation and Black is Beautiful have been examined; I have also highlighted the importance of Black female comedians throughout history, like Moms Mabley and even Sojourner Truth. In relation to this, the common categorization of Black women as Sapphires when protesting for their rights has also been analysed through the figures of Yara Shahidi and the former First Lady of the United States, Michelle Obama. Moreover, the controversies related to the Fourth Feminist Wave and the #MeToo movement have been commented upon because of Gay’s insecurities regarding her own contradictions.
Taking everything into consideration, this undergraduate thesis has shown that humor can be useful for the feminist cause and its claims, especially for minorities like African American women. Next, I will acknowledge some reflections on what I learned during the research process and how the initial objectives were met. After completing this dissertation, I have realised that it is not only the feminist message that permeates society, but also the way in which ideas are exposed before the public (through humor) that help its cause. Human beings are social creatures by nature: this means that humor may have been around since the beginning of time to communicate all kinds of information, but especially to express an opinion about difficult topics. An example is African-American women, for whom comedy is an inherent way of communicating their life experiences: it does not matter if they are pleasant or not. For example, humor allows Gay, as well as those who are oppressed, to speak about taboo topics such as, sexism, rape, slavery, etc.
Nevertheless, if I were to highlight one single topic of Bad Feminist, I would call attention to gender representation in the media. Regarding race, it should be noted that Black feminism, because of being at its peak during the Digital Age, is particularly popular in the media and the arts, for instance, Black Panther. Instances like this remind us that there are not many movies starring a cast made up mostly of people of color. In addition to this, interracial relationships are also rarely depicted, even friendships. In terms of daily public treatment, while African-Americans are often portrayed as violent and unlawful, white criminals tend to play much more positive roles in the media, conditioning public opinion. Besides, there is almost no mention in the media about the influence that Black slaves had on contemporary North American culture. Female representation is still categorizing women for their value in men’s lives; in addition, their physical appearance still matters excessively, as can be appreciated in the case of Horvath, Cardi B or Washington. In short, representation matters, especially for those minorities who have been neglected or misrepresented. Although this are very serious issues, Gay alludes to them by means of comicalness (e.g. sarcasm, irony, self-deprecation, etc.), achieving that readers empathize with her and her cause.
In all, it is because of movements like Black feminism that women of color are finally making their voices heard in society and their message is more effective when transmitted through humor. Hence, I have analysed and classified Gay’s humor as containing witty, dark, observational, self-deprecating and other stand-up comical methods, like repetitions and rhetorical questions, among others. It is because of authors and comedians like Roxane Gay that human rights and taboo topics like rape culture are discussed in the present day. It takes a special courage and strength to criticize society and fight for the rights of those who have been neglected for too long. Black women have always been objectified and undervalued by everyone due to their past in slavery. It is thanks to humor and the new times that issues such as gender, sexuality and representation as well as race are being discussed in a safe space thanks to comedy in essays like Bad Feminist or on the stage. In fact, it is because of the special ambience that laughter and entertainment builds in the audience that protest claims start to sink in society by creating a debate among the different parties involved without recurring to violence between the oppressed and those in power. The world is changing and how we communicate our thoughts is the reason for it—and Roxane Gay is the perfect example of this phenomenon.
Anakwe, R., R.A. Anderson, L. Cheng, D. Everington, et al. “Would Women Trust their Partners to Use a Male Pill?” Human Reproduction, vol. 15, no. 3, 1 Mar. 2000, pp. 646–649.
Gay, Roxane. Bad Feminist. Harper Perennial, 2014.
Okeowo, Alexis. “The Threat to Birth-Control Access in the Trump Era.” The New Yorker, 1 Aug. 2017.
Spacey, John. “11 Types of Sarcasm.” Simplicable, 19 Nov. 2018.
“The Affordable Care Act: A Brief Summary.” States Implement Health Reform (National Conference of State Legislatures), Mar. 2011.
“The Pill and the Women's Liberation Movement.” American Experience.
Tyagi, Shagun. “45 Types of Humor with Examples.” Humor Nama, 2020.
Wong, Kevin. “The 15 Most Cringe-Worthy Moments on HBO’s Girls.” Complex, 11 Jan. 2015.