On Monday morning, the new editor of T magazine, Deborah Needleman, tweeted, “The sexy (sorry, feminists), smart, sassy Katie Roiphe live on stage @nypl on Wednesday night." Was she poking fun at perceived feminist ire over women intellectuals being described as sexy? Was she saying feminists aren’t interested in being sexy? Was she just faux-apologizing for promoting a controversial figure like Roiphe?
Needleman’s tweet prompted feminist writers Anna Holmes and Irin Carmon to start a #sorryfeminists hashtag, which was quickly appended to a legion of jokes about breaking with feminist stereotypes. Of course, not everyone read the hashtag the same way. For some feminists, it was an inside joke — a cathartic reaction to both negative stereotypes and feminist self-policing. (“I waxed my upper lip today. #sorryfeminists”) To others, it was a clever way to point out how Roiphe has built a career railing against feminist straw women (“I’ve had five abortions! #sorryfeminists”). To still others, it was a commentary on how popular media is quick to blame feminists for, well, just about anything. (“I forgot to pay my bills. #sorryfeminists.”) And then there were the people who took it straightforwardly, tweeting about things they assume all feminists hate. (“Adam Carolla. #sorryfeminists.”)
What does it all mean? Who is this hashtag really making fun of? What is it commenting on? At Slate, Amanda Marcotte explains: “The #sorryfeminists meme is, as I type, expertly tearing apart the idea that feminists hate fun, hate sex, and hate beauty. (It's also, like any other Twitter meme, devolving into layers of irony and meta-jokes that pretty much stop making sense altogether.)” Like most of the intra-feminist conversations of the past 40 years, the #sorryfeminists hashtag fails to yield conclusive answers to fundamental questions about the “most feminist” approach to sex, beauty, and, yes, humor itself. Unlike most intra-feminist conversations, though, this one is funny.
The timing is perfect. In Slate last week, Roiphe herself wrote about funny feminists like Tina Fey and Caitlin Moran, proclaiming this as a whole new feminist archetype. ”One can’t help wondering if the era of earnest popular feminism is over,” she wrote. “Are serious, straight feminist figures less in vogue than the ironic, the funny, the hard-drinking, the wisecracking?”
Of course, not everyone who cracks feminist jokes is a self-proclaimed feminist. (I’m thinking of Joan Rivers’s pathbreaking abortion schtick.) But it’s perhaps one marker of progress that, these days, a lot of women’s humor comes with a feminist bent — especially among the under-40 set, and especially online, where most self-identified feminists are unafraid to make jokes (even rape jokes) and embrace pop culture. Sure, some feminists have always been funny. But for years, the big women’s organizations have struggled to interest apolitical women in the cause. We’re not humorless man-haters, they insisted. Feminism is fun! But reality never seemed to back up their protestations. Professional activists and organizational leaders have serious agendas to push. Typically these leaders are already under political attack and spend much of their lobbying time trying to convince more sympathetic politicians that their issues are, in fact, matters of life and death. They’re not hired for their joke-writing ability.
But now everyone has a platform to weigh in on the controversy of the moment. As the Internet has democratized social movements, making clear that full-time figureheads aren’t the only ones who claim an ideology, humor has emerged as a primary weapon for foot soldiers in political combat.
The #sorryfeminists example is pretty meta. For a more representative look at how humor has helped the modern feminist cause, just think back several weeks to the response to Missouri Representative Todd Akin’s comments about rape. In an interview with a St. Louis TV station that aired on August 19, Akin said, “If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut the whole thing down.”
First, feminists mocked the comment. At the Awl, writer Mallory Ortberg created her own list of preposterous uterus “facts”: “The natural enemies of the uterus are the locust, the hawk, the carpenter ant, and the witch. The average uterus is ‘cash only.’" Then the rest of the Internet snark machine jumped to life. “In cases of legitimate murder, the victim's body can usually deflect bullets,” tweeted screenwriter Guy Endore-Kaiser. Over the next few days, the Akin jokes trickled up to the late-night talk shows. Soon, the unending belly-laugh at Akin’s expense was prompting demands from his own party that he bow out of the race. Republican puppeteer Karl Rove joked, in a closed-door meeting, “If he’s found mysteriously murdered, don’t look for my whereabouts!” Weeks later, we were still sharing links to parodies, like a faux-public-service announcement about “legitimate drowning.”
Akin’s comments were also met with righteous indignation, and justifiably so. But it was humor that really made them take flight, highlighting the outmoded agenda of the Republican right and prompting a real conversation about abortion access and rape culture that reached beyond the typical feminist circles. Humor has long bolstered a whole host of social and political causes, but now effective activists seamlessly integrate calls to action and consciousness-raising with memes and GIFs. To paraphrase an old activist catchphrase, it’s not my revolution if I can’t LOL at it.
But in the world of online snark, there is no such thing as a straightforward joke. And there is precedent for Needleman’s inadvertent meme-inspiration as she ascends to the helm of T magazine. One of the first things Needleman predecessor Sally Singer did as editor of T was whip the Internet into a feminist furor over her comment that Michelle Obama should leave the McQueen gowns to younger, more petite women. Perhaps Needleman had Singer in mind when she tweeted her response to the #sorryfeminists meme, hours later: “Hello twitterers in knicker twist: JOKE!!”
“All I can say is : JK! It may have been a lame joke but it was a joke,” Needleman told me in an e-mail. “Geez.” Apparently we’re all just after a good laugh.