Getting in the Way: On White Female Comedians Speaking Out

By Hilarie Ashton

Straight white women, including me, have a lot of unearned privilege to atone for, and we do not always atone usefully. In an America that was problematic on levels of race, class, and gender far before openly racist, faux-wealthy, women-hating men slithered into the White House last November, there are a plethora of examples of this kind of ineffective, often ignorant action purporting to be against white supremacy. Since the election especially, on the internet and in daily life, I have seen far too many white women uncritically extolling the feminist virtues of suffragists Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, both of whom are lauded for including Black women in their suffrage work without much acknowledgement of their respective racism. (It was Anthony who told Frederick Douglass, “I will cut off this right arm of mine before I will ever work or demand the ballot for the Negro and not the woman.”) Facebook profile photos and Twitter avatars perpetuate the ubiquity of the transphobic, white-centric “pussy hats” that originated as a grassroots art project for January’s Women’s March (and that were still around in my part of New York even in early summer, even though trans folx and Black women have spoken out against how the symbol at least partially excluded them, among them Katelyn Burns at The Establishment and Juniperangelica Xiomara at Wear Your Voice Mag. The pussy hats were a problem where police were concerned, too, another framework that cis white women too often ignore; Alison Reed’s incisive look at whiteness and carceral psychology in Abolition Journal gets at this all-too common phenomenon really smartly. Why, many before me have asked, would a symbol that centers cis women and white women, the Venn diagram of which is the group most responsible for getting Trump into office, seem appropriate for fighting for the rights of women who are marginalized?

Much of the online reaction to Heather Heyer’s senseless death during the Charlottesville counter-protest was a good, if extreme, example of this kind of well-meaning but awkwardly-landing attempt at solidarity. Heyer showed up to put her body between the white supremacists upset over a racist statue, and she died when one of them (who I’d rather not name, because naming is power) slammed his car into her. (He killed her while she was getting in the way of his racism.) The strength and grace of her mother, Susan Boo, in standing up to Trump’s mealy-mouthed non-sympathy in the immediate aftermath of losing a child is unfathomably powerful. Even here, though, so many white women (and some men) who praised Heyer failed by adopting her profile picture and, worse, by co-opting a hashtag, #SayHerName, coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw, creator of the concept of intersectionality, and the African-American Policy Forum to raise awareness of the murders of Black women by police and the other forms of state violence to which they are subject. The reflexive “But I didn’t vote for him” or the even more common “Not all…” beginning (which I mostly hear from white liberal women who don’t want you to even think they voted for Trump or did a racist thing) both come from white feelings. Structures of racism are more complex than individual reactions, of course, but individual reactions add up, get taught to children, get overheard.

And every white person is complicit in white supremacy. That fact can be hard for a lot of white people to hear, but all it means is that by virtue of being white, white people — all white people — benefit from the privilege it gives us and we are all implicated in the systems that uphold it irrespective of what other privileges we have. White people responding badly to racism, even in a well-meaning way, is not a new thing. As I tell my college students in my writing and literature classes, where I focus on structures of race, gender, and class supremacy and how we might dismantle them, part of trying to be a better fighter for justice is owning the times you fuck up, because you will. Sometimes the best way to not fuck up is to stay quiet; it’s also the best way to learn from marginalized people without requiring more work of them. The best response I’ve heard to the “Not all… ” whining in this context, almost uniformly as a weary rejoinder from thinkers and activists of color to indignant white people needing to feel needed or knee-jerk responding to a structural critique, is: Why are you entering this conversation if the original complaint doesn’t apply to you? What I tell my students is that it’s my responsibility as a white person to do what I can to take the burden of the undoing off of people of color, and to let the activism and writing of people of color guide me in that work. Undoing structures of oppression should be about listening to the people being oppressed, and so many of us — white women! — fail to do even that.

For me, comedian Tina Fey was among the most cringeworthy of the white liberals responding to Charlottesville. Her SNL Weekend Update appearance the following Thursday was a hamfisted attempt at humor that managed to gloss over enslavement and rape, awkwardly needle drag queens, and, for most of the bit, let white women (and perhaps white men) completely off the activist hook. She’s been discussed enough, and by some really smart people, but I bring her up in the context of what’s lurking in her “satire”: hurt white feelings. Hurt white feelings have always sustained white supremacy, of course, but in recent decades, when we — white people — have ample information to learn from and are supposed to know better, they have run amok and gotten in the way of both listening to marginalized people and learning from what marginalized people have already been working on and writing for centuries. The bedrock upholding police brutality and the impunity of the KKK in Charlottesville and all over the country is white feelings. And you can’t even have a conversation about Tina Fey (or the screech of “it’s just a joooooke,” a cousin in reflexivity to the “Not all…”s) without talking about white feelings.

It’s not that feelings themselves are bad, after all; it’s what we do with them and whether or not we let them get in the way of understanding broader structural issues and of understanding the plight of those with less socially-determined privilege. If we white people worked harder to understand why intersectional and inclusive solutions on the left are the only way forward, a lot of marginalized people could stop having to do most of the work. The people on the left I most often hear saying “stop complaining [critiquing, actually], enough about [insert issue here], we have to unite,” are almost all white and cishet, like Fey. A lot of white people, and several news outlets as well, read Fey’s commentary as somehow brave and bold: she “slammed” white supremacy, said Philly Voice and the Guardian and CNN. In a bit of linguistic variance, Mother Jones claimed that she “blasted” it. But those readings only skim the surface of what she was saying — and in many ways, ignore the surface itself, on which she’s asking white women like herself to stay home instead of put their bodies on the line. Not to mention that there are many other ways to contribute to activist efforts besides marching, but hiding in your living room eating cake as a matter of course, fingers firmly in your ears — an internationally dismissive gesture since the days of Marie Antoinette — isn’t one of them. Since I’m cishet and white as well, my word on this is far less important than the words of the writers of color who came out in blazes of brilliance against Fey’s lily-livered whine: Damon Young at VSB/The Root, Gregory Parks at CityPages, The Race Card at Afropunk, and the intersectional feminist crew at Bitch headquarters.

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Fey and her antics reveal the negative space around the reasoned, heartfelt, and brave comedic work that fellow white female comics Maria Bamford, Jackie Kashian, Cameron Esposito, and Rhea Butcher are (and have long been) up to. If you’re going to listen to any funny white women, these four are good bets. Since art is always political, comedy can be a visible flashpoint for both these good and the bad sides of white lady activism. The subversive genius of a Brooklyn performance last month by quicksilver comedian Bamford and her steady, stellar opener Kashian, friends for over two decades, frequent collaborators, and now on tour together, helped me see a more useful side. These white women’s political comedy, at work on the audience in different ways (Bammer more subtle and Kashian more open), stands in stark contrast to Fey’s craven and opportunistic work. In her set at the Bell House in Gowanus, Brooklyn, Kashian talked about her privilege as a white woman — one who, she says, looks like everybody’s mom — and the freedom that allows her to say what she wants to say. That freedom requires her — and those of us with her privileges as well — to speak up about injustice and brutality. In one of her most poignant bits, Kashian underlined the importance of white women getting in the way of what she calls “bad behavior,” a phrase I love, because we can and because we should. Her screamingly funny example of “bad behavior” started with the admission, “I pushed an old man,” and unfolded to reveal her own: We need to put our bodies and our words in between white supremacists and marginalized folks. (There’s a hierarchy of danger here, and we white women are pretty close to safety.)

Bamford is a lot harder to describe; even if you see a lot of stand-up, you may not have seen anything like her work before. Her quicksilver wit, presented in apparent stream-of-consciousness format, is so fast that it takes the audience an audible second to laugh, and while they’re catching up, she’s off again. Her face and her voice both lilt up and down in service to her humor and she uses the whole stage, at one point wrapping herself in the proscenium curtain. She is the kind of performer you have to see, because all of the individual elements come together like magic. Bamford has long been lauded in the comedy community for both her creativity and wit as a performer and her openness about mental health, including her hospitalizations, which often comes up lightly but importantly in her work, which is deeply rooted in autobiography even by the autobiographical standards of comedy. (Her Netflix show, Lady Dynamite, made much reference to it in its first season, as does her new standup special, Old Baby.) I was expecting Bamford to say something about the state of the world, as Kashian had done, but she kept her set fairly far from politics until close to the end. (A riff on the problematic genius of Richard Pryor would’ve bombed in the hands of a lesser artist; Bamford left me, a Pryor devotee, hoping that someday her name enters the pantheon of comics alongside his, Gilda Radner’s, and all the white men who usually crowd it.) What Bamford did do surprised and pleased me; it was more about action than about words. She made murmured reference to the state of the world and how hard it all was, and then brightened a bit and suggested that we do something together about it. (I wish I could recall her exact words; part of the indescribability of her live stand-up is that the whole experience washes over you like, for me, a rock concert does, and the rest of my energy was spent keeping my jaw off the floor at her genius.) The political act she suggested that night was to livestream all of us — herself, and the audience — screaming at Trump. Last week, Bamford told the N.C. News & Observer, “I’ve never felt that confident with political material, but maybe it’s not important that I feel confident. Because the issues, these days, these aren’t wonky policy issues that you need to know a ton about. These are basic human rights issues. Our president is inciting violence worldwide.” At the show I saw the month before, where people openly cried with laughter (including me), and where mine was one jaw among many hanging open, the communal catharsis was real and true and, in the heart of deep-blue Brooklyn, deeply necessary.

Esposito and Butcher, two L.A.-based comedians and wives, do a lot of their work together, on their incredible UCB-LA stand-up showcase “Put Your Hands Together” (which you can and should attend or listen to in podcast form); their witty and imaginative show Take My Wife, one of the first sitcoms to focus exclusively on queer women through the fictionalized lens of comedian characters named Cameron and Rhea (a show which now needs a new home with the folding of Seeso, an online comedy channel); and, currently, on the road in their dual-headlining tour. Many of the comedians Esposito and Butcher bring on to PYHT are women or non-binary folks, and many are people of color. Inclusion is deeply part of the ethos of the show, reacting against a comedy landscape that is too often, at least in the popular imagination, dominated by straight white cis men. What I value most about then, as a unit and separately, is how strongly they use all of their platforms, including Twitter, to speak out against injustice whether or not it affects them. When they attended the Women’s March — where they also hosted the official after-party, a fundraiser for Planned Parenthood — both women saw unexpected racism toward Black and Native women and transphobia that they later talked about on PYHT. Rather than gloss over problems and wave their pussy hats high, they called those problems out front and center, unafraid to take the audience through their nuanced views on the March itself. Butcher, an Akron native and a baseball fan, has used her time at PYHT and has regularly tweeted about the racism of the Cleveland baseball team, whose name she purposely stopped using last year. Both comedians are politically outspoken on Twitter, as well, with their anti-Trump and and anti-misogyny and anti-white supremacy tweets frequently going viral. (Both are worthwhile follows: @cameronesposito and @rheabutcher.)

Butcher and Esposito’s responses to current global and domestic tragedies are no less measured and meaningful. Wanting something to do besides donate money to reputable charities (which they did, as many celebrities have, documented on Instagram, where you should also follow each of them). On last week’s PYHT, they’d thought through, on stage, the process of donating tickets and openly considered the difficulty of paying the venue, seeming to settle on the idea of having some tickets be free. This week, they offered free, first-come first-served tickets to anyone attending their September 30 Houston show as a small (they said on PYHT) way of helping people who are suffering in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey. Their Instagram announcement (which here is linked on Esposito’s account) is quiet and straightforward. Also this week, they were among the first celebrities to publicly #TakeaKnee in support of Colin Kaepernick’s protest, which is now getting blurred into the now-concurrent protest against Trump’s disparaging and racist tweets about the NFL. Butcher’s post offers a quietly eloquent caption that neatly and specifically frames their values as performers and as people: “We took a knee in protest against police brutality Saturday night before our show in San Francisco. We chose Whitney Houston’s rendition of the Star Spangled Banner… #TakeAKnee #TakeTheKnee”; Esposito posted the same photo with a shorter caption: “Last night in San Francisco. Solidarity now / forever.” (Both also credited Twitter user Bronwyn Lewis for taking the photo.) The symbolism is especially meaningful when for the better part of the year, the only white athlete to join Colin Kaepernick in his protest, which is indeed against racial injustice and police brutality and not for diversity or unity, as some would have you think, was Megan Rapinoe. A small gesture becomes unstoppable the more people do it. In one week, Butcher and Esposito did more for suffering people than Donald Trump has done in his whole life.

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Last week, I got to see them, this time in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, on the NYC stop of their “Back 2 Back” tour. I’ve been such a fan of both of theirs for many years, but it’s really been in the last year of wrangling with the run-up to the election and then its catastrophic results that I’ve realized how much they both shore me up on a regular basis, through their Twitter and Instagram presences and on PYHT. I felt a little out of my body when they took the stage, as though two lesbian Elvises had entered the building and sucked out the air. (They are better than Elvis: neither one would ever steal work from Black women.) The show was joyous, political, and seamlessly done by both of them; just as I was expecting them to, both comics took on racism centrally and almost effortlessly. After a dual into set featuring their vaudevillian banter, Esposito introduced Butcher for the first solo run of the night. After critiquing her problematic fave, the “Cleveland baseball team” (named with a racist slur she will not use), Butcher seamlessly segued into what happens when white people hear the phrase “white guilt” and either cringe or deflect. Looking at it head on is the way to make change; she flatly remarked, “Yeah. I’m white. I’m guilty.” And her frame for the internal logic of racism is one I’ll be using as one of the set of definitions and analogies I offer my college students: “That’s how racism works. It’s just two white people giving each other a pass, back and forth, for centuries.” Her segment on gender was even more heartfelt, plumbing the depths of her own experience being consistently misgendered; of bathroom and other spatial discrimination based on the silly notion of what body parts people are born with, Butcher rehearsed a show-stopping conversation: “Hey, that’s the men’s section.” “I’m sorry, is that the wrong side of history?” And she dismantled the gender binary with nine small words: “There’s a lot of people for just two answers.” The audience roared, and I caught myself expecting the roof to lift off the venue.

Esposito took the stage for her solo set with a bang, invoking the creature that any human being with empathy wishes we’d never have to hear from again: “Fuck the president. But also, don’t fuck the president.” Those of us in need of new ways to winnow down the idiocy, virulence, and incompetence of the racist slimeball now have, courtesy of Esposito, a few new snappy turns of phrase: “He has no discernible skills except racism; “He’s a tie salesman who cannot tie a tie,” and — boom — “He’s a plague larger than the Bible can conceive of.” In between that and her show-closing impression of her teenage self at a Celine Dion concert, a bit she’s famous for, Esposito, like Bamford, moved so quickly and easily from bit to bit that it was hard to take down what her topics were, let alone jot her jokes. (Butcher has this quality too; it was easier for me to write her words, but in so doing I lost some of her killer deadpan and geniusly screwball physical comedy.) Esposito was less squarely focused on racism than Butcher was, but they both, as is their wont together and as individuals, brought together the strands of discrimination they see and the strands they experience without letting anyone with privilege off the hook in response. They are helping support and maintain a crew of new and established stand-up comics — a short summation of whom has to include W. Kamau Bell, Hari Kondabolu, Michelle Buteau, Aparna Nancherla, Hasan Minhaj, Aziz Ansari, Ali Wong, Dean Obeidallah, Charlie Telphy, Beth Stelling, Marcella Arguello, Eman El-Husseini, Debra DiGiovanni, Baron Vaughn, Maysoon Zayid, Nicole Byer, Laurie Kilmartin, Jackie Kashian, and Maria Bamford — for whom intersectionality is a lived reality, either because it speaks to their identities or because they deeply understand how perniciously different kinds of injustice work together to hold marginalized folks down. Bamford, Kashian, Esposito, and Butcher are four deeply funny white women who, I think, are doing much more of the work and deserve more name recognition than Tina Fey is or does, not only for their amazing comedy but for their ability to show up and do what’s right. Each in their own way, they take up the problematic activist history of Stanton and Anthony (among many others) and help reshape the role of white women in feminism as inclusive, as good listeners, and, as Esposito and Butcher frequently reference, as white women who learn from women and folx of color and center their anti-racist practices in that work and in that learning rather than in themselves. Perhaps the white whining and outright racism of folks like Jerry Seinfeld and Michael Richards, among many others — and maybe even Tina Fey — is mercifully on its way out, and I’m ready for any of these comics to take their spot in our cultural vernacular.

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