This feminist walks into a bar: Using humor to change the world

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This feminist walks into a bar: Using humor to change the world

by Brenda D. Frink on Monday, August 15, 2011 - 2:10pm

Ms. Magazine cover November 1973I told my friends I was writing an article about feminist humor. That's when the wisecracks started. "So," said a family member, "will it be a short article?"

Despite the pervasive perception of feminists as humorless, there is a long tradition of feminist humor, says Professor Shelley Fisher Fishkin, going back more than 150 years.

Humor, says Fishkin, can be serious business. By pointing up the absurdity of social and cultural barriers that create inequality, activists can use humor as a tool for social change.

Drawing on literary, journalistic, and visual examples, Fishkin has identified three persistent strategies that feminist humorists employ: illumination, inversion, and impersonation.

Great Housewives of Art

Grafton Books, 1988


The strategy of illumination uses humor to highlight a hidden truth.

Humorists have frequently used this approach to point out the invisible labor involved in the traditional women's work of cooking, cleaning, and mothering.

Sally Swain, for example, uses illumination to draw attention to the not-so-glamorous work that is left to wives, even as their husbands reach public acclaim. In her book Great Housewives of Art, Swain modifies famous paintings in order to pay tribute to the artists' wives—often with hilarious results. Swain's reimagined classics include "Mrs. Degas vacuums the floor" (shown right), "Mrs. Renoir cleans the oven," and "Mrs. Matisse polishes the goldfish."


Alice Duer Miller, Are Women People?, 1915A second strategy, inversion, swaps traditional male and female roles in order to point out the injustice of current social attitudes and policies.

In "Why We Oppose Votes for Men" (1915), suffragist Alice Duer Miller reworked common anti-suffrage arguments, applying them to men rather than women. In this piece, originally published in the New York Tribune, Miller joked that men were “too emotional to vote” and that they preferred to solve disagreements through fighting rather than though peaceable means such as the ballot.


A third strategy is impersonation. As Fishkin explains, "Impersonating the voice of the person who holds attitudes you want your reader to reject is a dependable staple in the satirist's bag of tricks."

See, for example, Kristina Wong's website, Big Bad Chinese Mama: Your Source for Meeting a Nice, Subservient Asian Bride (BBCM). The BBCM website parodies the real Asian bride websites, and in fact, Wong designed her site to come up during Internet searches for the real thing.

Big Fat Chinese MamaBBCM achieves its edgy humor by juxtaposing impersonation with righteous anger.  Although the website's tagline, promises a "Nice, Subservient Asian Bride," visitors are instead confronted with "Ass kicking anti-geishas, mail order brides from hell, and what Hello Kitty was thinking all these years under the mouthless/speechless facade of cuteness."

In the site's question section, readers can find the following exchange:

Q. I am a generous Caucasian man looking for a loyal, soft-spoken, and dainty Asian woman (sorta like the exotic Suzy Wong in "The World of Suzy Wong"). Can you assure me that you will find me such a demure creature on your site?

A. Are you so preoccupied with your patriarchal colonialist longings of global conquest and cultural commodification that you think those kinds of mythical people exist? Reality check. The women that are featured on real mail-order bride websites are Third world women who come from poor families and social status who are forced to enter the multi-billion dollar sex industry….

Humor as a tool for change

What is the point of feminist humor? For an answer, Fishkin turns to comic Kate Clinton, who argues that humor can work slowly and gradually to create social change, just as lichen works slowly and gradually to eat away seemingly immovable rocks. "Feminist humor is serious," says Clinton, "and it is about the changing of this world."

What is your favorite example of feminist humor? Tell us in the Comment field below, or visit us on Facebook.

Nellie McKay sings about feminist humor



Shelley Fisher FishkinShelley Fisher Fishkin is a 2011 Faculty Research Fellow at the Michelle R. Clayman Institute for Gender Research. She is the Joseph S. Atha Professor of Humanities, Professor of English, and Director of American Studies at Stanford University.

Responses to This feminist walks into a bar: Using humor to change the world

wanda corn
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18 August, 2011 wanda corn (not verified)

Great topic Shelly--don't forget the Gorilla Girls who use wickedly funny humor in the visual arts, starting with their anonymity, costumes, and bananas.

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20 August, 2011 rsalassi (not verified)

This debate over whether feminism has a sense of humor or not is akin to the current debate over whether The Help is too funny to be dramatic, or too dramatic to be funny. White critics tend to feel one way, and black critics tend to feel the other.

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18 August, 2011 Karen (not verified)

Irit Linor, an Israeli author, once quipped regarding abusive men who "lose control" and perpetrate domestic violence: "I wonder if they would lose control as easily if their wife was 6 ft 3 and 200 lbs". Yep, says it all

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18 August, 2011 Sharon (not verified)

Ha! I think the ones that say that feminists have no sense of humor are the ones that feel the smart of the truth of the humor. Try this one in a mixed gender crowd. My experience is that the only ones laughing are the women. It's a bit risque, and I don't know if you'll print it.

- Know why women have such bad depth perception?
- Because they've always been told that THIS (hold fingers 2 inches apart) is six inches.

"How many feminists does it take to screw-in a lightbulb?"

"One, and it's not funny."

I heard this first in the 1970's during the fight for the ERA.

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18 August, 2011 Ron (not verified)

You found my favorite example of feminist humor: I can't read the date on that Ms. magazine cover, but I'm guessing 1975. I can tell you where I first saw it. Everyone who saw it on the newsstand or a friend's coffee table smiled at its truth. Most of us haven't seen it in the 35 years since, until now, but remember it fondly.

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22 August, 2011 Paula (not verified)

Love this -thank you for helping me laugh today and giving me more fuel for my fire!