In a recent blog post on Slate called “The Mockery Feminists,” Katie Roiphe writes that a new brand of smart, sassy feminism “contains the idea that feminism is cool, and that it will mock you like a cool and impressive girl at the lunch table if you are in violation of its principles.” This feminism, represented by writers like Tina Fey and Caitlin Moran and websites like Jezebel and DoubleX, aims to subvert stereotypes of feminists as stuffy and self-righteous. The problems with this, according to Roiphe, is that, “The tacit assumption is that we all take for granted a certain set of shared beliefs, and we should mock those few retrograde Neanderthals who do not agree with us.” The problem with irony, with writing the opposite of what you mean, is that it only really works if your audience already agrees with you, or at least already knows what you really mean. According to Roiphe, it doesn’t work that well at building bridges between people who do not share core assumptions.
The implication in Roiphe’s article that this “new feminism” can’t convince its opponents because it relies too much on shared assumptions, a common ironic knowingness and in-crowd mentality, is off base. Laughter is an involuntary physical response to external stimuli, and it’s a response that automatically makes you like the source of it.
However, I’m not sure irony is really what’s going on here. At least, I don’t think this “new feminism” (Roiphe’s term) uses irony in its humor any more than current popular culture in general. By irony I don’t just mean the generally arch tone Roiphe seems to be objecting to. I mean the expression of one's meaning by using language that normally signifies the opposite, typically for humorous or emphatic effect. (As a side note, when I looked up that definition another possible meaning suggested was “Similar to iron, iron-like,” which I think is funny.)
In the following discussion, I will limit my scope to the writers and websites Roiphe herself discusses, as her definition of the “new feminism” is so vague I don’t know what other examples would be germane.
None of the examples Roiphe cites technically qualify as ironic. She uses the example of Moran, writing, “When an article called “ ‘I love my boobs’ says Caitlin Moran” runs in a British newspaper, she writes, “Personally, I don’t have boobs. Not a one. It felt as odd as reading ‘I love my STRIPY PREHENSILE LEMUR TAIL,’ says Caitlin Moran.” This is an exaggeration for comedic effect, not irony. Irony would be if the joke relied on Caitlin Moran’s famously Brobdignagian tits.
She cites an example from Jezebel where the Erin Gloria Ryan wrote “In the Bible, Jesus's mother Mary is supposed to be like 15 and unmarried—what if The Lord were aborted?!" But both in the original article and in Roiphe’s piece, it is clear that Ryan had adopted the voice of an opponent of legalized abortion. Again, exaggeration, not irony.
The only example that is even arguably ironic is her reference to Tina Fey, who as a 13-year-old responded to a drive-by cat call by screaming “suck my dick,” which I guess could be considered irony but only in the sense that Tina Fey does not literally have a penis.However, as much as 30 Rock and Fey-era Saturday Night Live sometimes lean pretty heavy on irony, there is not a drop of irony in Mean Girls, which we all seem to have forgotten was written by Tina Fey.
Roiphe’s article ran before the third episode of the new season of 30 Rock, so Roiphe can’t be criticized for not taking it into account. In the episode, Tracy says that women can’t be funny, and Liz Lemon, played by Tina Fey, sets out to prove him wrong.
The best moment of the episode, maybe of the season so far, is when Liz and Jenna Marone decide to stage their award-winning two-woman show from their days in the Chicago sketch and improv scene. The show opens with a sketch where Liz plays a doctor and Jenna plays her young patient. Instead of showing the audience (of 30 Rock) how funny this show (the two-woman show) is, the montage of its performance is underscored by a song, the lyrics of which are “this song is hilarious, take it from me, women are funny we can all agree / Carol Burnett, Lucille Ball, no we’re not going to do it, it’s beneath us all / Cause we don’t need to prove it to you.” The song ends, and Tracy walks up to Liz, complimenting her on how funny it was to see a lady playing a doctor.
This scene isn’t strident or self-righteous, but it’s also not ironic. The message of the scene is way more complicated than just the opposite of the explicit text. It presents the weird and self-contradictory expectations around women in comedy in a way that takes some real interpretive work to understand. It’s light and hokey and fun, but it clearly comes from a deeply candid place.
Nonetheless, Roiphe writes that “whether this mode of humor works in the arduous and largely impossible business of changing the world, or even changing one single person’s mind, remains to be seen.” This, to me, is kind of patently absurd. Feminism, whether it deserves it or not, has a reputation as one of the less fun liberation movements, but this is changing.
Young people are increasingly likely to see feminist positions, if not the word “feminism,” as totally intuitive and as part of a life of normal, mainstream cultural engagement. This happens every time a college student links to Jezebel, every time Caitlin Moran lets readers all across Britain know that you don’t have to look like Kate Middleton to be famous, and every time Tina Fey destroys on 30 Rock, which lately she has been doing with staggering frequency.
People like things that make them laugh, and feminism is starting to make people laugh. That’s a very good thing.