Humor and the Feminist Classroom: An Experiment

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Sarah Kaufman

Critical Feminist Studies: Final Essay

Humor and the Feminist Classroom: An Experiment

I have decided that in lieu of the end of this class, I would attempt to make an argument for what I saw as the only vital thing missing from it: humor. My introductory disclaimer is that this is an experiment, and an incredibly risky one at that, because I am certainly not a comedy writer, let alone a funny writer, and I have never tried writing a comedic script of any kind. I do, however, have a lifelong passion for comedy, and generally find that topics that are able to incorporate some sort of cynicism are of much more interest. To begin this experiment, I will start with a post I made on Serendip during the week in which I found our discussions to be most valuable. It was the week in which we discussed our concepts of “home,” and I realized that each woman had such a distinctly different concept than I. It made me feel a bit lost, a bit disconnected, that everyone in the class had a different sense of home than I did. It perpetuated the sense of anxious alienation I had fostered, because a class of women that I wanted to trust was more independent and articulate than I was. I feared they could all verbalize more intelligently than I ever could. I had a feeling that I was not the only one who felt this way. Looking around the classroom, when mostly timid girls were called on unwillingly by the Professor, their faces would turn red and their arms would flail with uncertainly, and I would always see a part of myself in their eyes. And this terrible anxiety was not aided by the fact that every conversation in which the class partook was extremely serious, dealing with issues that were contentious and potentially volatile unless kept under politically correct wraps. Transgenderism, lesbian culture, the sensuality of food, the differences of universal feminisms, masculinity through a feminist lens, etc… all topics that haunt me in my daily life, wherever I go. With each nitty-gritty, first-hand experience with these things even in every-day life at Bryn Mawr, my brain creates sarcastic jokes about each of these topics as a comforting mechanism, doing its best to quell the painful fears that such subjects can often incite. I wrote this post on Serendip the week we discussed our own concepts of home:

In my Political Philosophy course this semester we read an article about a theory that people who live within diverse communities are the most inactive and most introverted and afraid people in the country. The theory was that there was more competition-driven productivity in more diverse areas, but there was less mixing of people and more people purposely excluding themselves from their neighborhoods. I think this is interesting when studied hand-in-hand with the "Home" article, which says that to not be home anymore means to realize that home was an illusion of coherence and safety based on exclusion of histories of oppression and resistance. It also states that there is a "jungle" outside of the home. Perhaps this theory of diverse communities being less able to trust each other has to do with the shattering of a sense of home or community. It definitely supports the theory that a community is based on shared and exclusionary values because if people in diverse neighborhoods do not have enough shared values or "homes" with the people who live around them, they lose their ability or motivation to trust one another.

This semester’s Critical Feminist Studies class was composed of an extremely diverse group of women, and we had very little in common to discuss except serious and controversial topics. If a diverse group of people co-existing in a community together indeed do not have enough shared values to trust one another, this might be an explanation for the anxiety many of us were feeling. The classroom was a bit of a “jungle” for me, opening myself up to some texts I had no interest in reading, answering some prompts I would rather keep to myself, expressing a statement in class that another student can twist and manipulate and misunderstand to her own advantage. The fact is, all of us in Critical Feminist Studies, and all of us at Bryn Mawr, are going through monumental developmental changes, and we all want our intelligence to be validated within a community that we can safely make our new home. We need something to unify us at the beginning of the semester so that we feel more comfortable to accomplish this. And, in my experience, the most powerful shared value is humor.

In order for women to trust each other, we have to go through wonderfully humorous experiences together. This belief was reinforced on the last day of class, when I finally felt that the class was unified by laughing at the comedy of some of the performance presentations. The presentation that Reina, Katie, Hillary, and Sarah put on received an especially great amount of laughter, in which Hillary portrayed Anne Dalke’s behavior as a Professor toward the class. Her performance as Professor Dalke was extremely humorous to the class because it essentially brought to the forefront feelings of discomfort and insecurity we all felt so long ago, at the beginning of the class. These feelings were brought on by Professor Dalke’s new ways of teaching in which she performed unconventional behavior as a Professor, and, more often than not, attempted to deflect the spotlight onto her students in class conversation. Almost none of us in the class were used to Anne’s unconventional ways of teaching that put more responsibility on us to be on top of our game, especially in terms of vocalizing our arguments. And for many girls at Bryn Mawr, verbalizing is a pretty terrifying feat in front of the women we most admire academically. Hillary’s performance of Anne’s unconventional behaviors was humorous to us because they were performances of actions that elicited tragic feelings from us at one time, but they were performed in the safe space of the stage at a time that was distanced enough from the tragedy. If only we could have had the hindsight to know we would all be unified through something that at one time gave us so much anxiety. This is why humor is essential for even the first day of class. It is extremely important to make every girl feel comfortable enough to express herself from the very beginning without worrying that she will be ridiculed or unable to defend herself when she is misunderstood.

After reading Peggy McIntosh’s essay, I realized that Anne’s “deflected spotlight” method was actually representative of McIntosh’s described “Phase 5” way of teaching. Anne was attempting to dig us out from our sheltered, safe havens in which she believed we were too comfortable playing the roles of passive students. What she didn’t keep in mind, though, was that Phase 5 is disconcerting to us as students because we grew up with Phase 2 in high school, and most Bryn Mawr classes, especially in other disciplines, are Phase 3 at best. JLustick offers a valuable criticism of McIntosh’s theory on Serendip:

By staying in the realm of abstract theories, McIntosh evades reader criticism...her ideas sound good, but she gives us an insufficient amount of information to decide if they are actually valuable. In other words, can she suggest a new kind of training for teachers?

 

            I would like to propose a suggestion that this new kind of teaching be as humorous as and as self-aware as possible. In my experience, the ways of teaching a feminist classroom have been anti-traditionalist to the point of being too open-ended. This open-endedness combined with the pressure of the seriousness involved in the controversial issues discussed is, at times, extremely anxiety-provoking for me as a student. Perhaps this nontraditional, open-ended method of holding class should be experimentally transformed for a class period into the most traditional, formulaic way of structuring class. ANorton wrote a commentary on Jessy Brody’s essay, “See Minotaur,” on Serendip that informs this theory:

            In "see minotaur," Jessy writes, "There aren't any words for what I am, not real words, that just anyone would understand" (2).  This sentence seems to capture the trouble we've been having in trying to define "feminism": We can't say the word in a broad context—a context of "just anyone"—and expect that it carries the same connotations for our listeners as it does for us.   This can be problematic when we care how people are interpreting our words, twisting them to mean something other than what we intended.  Maybe we don't care enough about the opinions of people who think "feminist" = "man hater" to explain our personal philosophies to them, but surely sometimes we want to express our versions of ourselves using conventional language.

            “Surely sometimes we want to express our versions of ourselves using conventional language.” Sometimes it becomes exhausting and irrelevant to discuss new versions of feminism when we know that much of the world outside of the classroom still thinks of it on the same level as the other “f” word. This same phenomenon is seen in an episode of 30 Rock which I wrote about in one of my previous essays for this course entitled “Liz Lemon’s Feminism.” In this episode, one of Liz’s employees calls her a “cunt,” and in her angry state her male co-workers try to help her invent words that are male equivalents to call him back. There is creativity within their little circle, but in the end, the words they come up with do not have the same meaning as “cunt.” In fact, they are the butts of the joke because the entire audience knows they will never be offensive. This is an argument for an attempt at using more conventional language and a more conventional structure within the classroom in order to elicit responses from students that are more impassioned because of their deviation from the conventionality of the classroom.

This is the type of response comedy elicits from its audience. In her essay, “Sitcoms and Single Moms: Representations of Feminism on American TV,” Lauren Rabinovitz argues that the formula of a sitcom is actually rooted in melodrama, which is considered to be media in a feminine aesthetic:

Melodrama is the preferred television aesthetic form and the “feminine” its pervasive spectatorial address… Not classifiably “comic” in the sense of theatrical traditions, the sitcom admits humorous dialogue in self-contained plots that revolve around characters, and it constructs intensified psychological relations in intimate (often domestic), detailed settings. It relies on exactly those codes of film and television melodrama that have marked melodrama as “feminine.” (5)

 

            In my essay, “Liz Lemon’s Feminism,” I argue that if comedy is indeed tragedy plus time, then it is the most powerful tool for the teaching and demonstration of feminism: it has distanced itself from the tragic feelings of disempowerment that perpetuated power structures, and can now find amusement and thus agency within the consent and the interpellation. I then argue that Liz Lemon is the ultimate embodiment of that empowering comedy, and she exists in a sitcom. Because the sitcom is home to her productive influence on the oppressive forces of the patriarchy, I thought it would be useful to take the structure of the sitcom and apply it to the classroom. I then thought that because the structure of the sitcom is arguably rooted in “feminine” structures of melodramatic television shows, it is indeed a conventional, patriarchal structure that would be a nice change of pace from the most liberal, free-minded structure Anne Dalke has created for her classroom. The nice change of pace would be a useful experiment to see if students do indeed feel more comfortable expressing their ideas within the classroom when there is humor and the conventional structures associated with humor within that classroom. As Rabinovitz reminds us, “the threat of sitcom feminization… dovetails with the genre’s recent articulation of a specifically feminist discourse, which, in turn, inscribes liberal ideological positions as well as positions of refusal” (5). And as Critical Feminist Studies has taught me, don’t we learn the most from experiencing two phenomenon that dovetail each other in such a controversial way? I believe this is called Interdisciplinality.

            Lastly, before I embark upon this journey that will probably be a great embarrassment, I would like to use the entire 30 Rock show as a metaphor for the classroom using an editorial from Jezebel.com, a modern feminist blog. The blog writes:

When Liz Lemon falls into the common tropes of single womanhood (choking on a TV dinner in her kitchenette), it's supposed to be parodying precisely the kinds of media that reinforce ideas that unconventional women are unworthy.

               

                Perhaps if students find themselves falling into the common tropes of hegemonic classrooms (answering questions for which the Professor already has answers in mind, using stereotypes to support their arguments), it is precisely for the reason of parodying the kinds of Professors that reinforce ideas that unconventional ideas are unworthy. If the Professor sets up this type of conventional classroom in a satirical way, students might be more inspired and comfortable to express their eccentric ideas.

 

In an ideal world, yes, we'd all feel just dandy about ourselves and greet each day with animated canaries perched on our shoulders. But most women? We have many moments of self-doubt, and seeing someone as successful as Tina Fey be self-deprecating gives us all permission to be imperfect. Also, it's damned funny. Having a completely well-adjusted television mogul as a main character? That sounds boring as fuck.

           

            In an ideal world, yes, we’d all feel just dandy expressing every idea that comes to our head and responding with each stream-of-consciousness thought we deem necessary for the productivity of the class conversation. But most women? We have many moments of self-doubt, and seeing someone as successful as Professor Dalke be self-deprecating could give us all permission to be imperfect in the classroom. Experiencing a role model such as a Professor’s lack of fear in poking fun at topics that are difficult to discuss would probably be extremely eye-opening. And lastly:

30 Rock is a comedy, which is not to excuse comedy from having a conscience, but expecting it to tow the line of extreme P.C. body image standards is barking up the wrong tree. 30 Rock is a damned sight better than most shows on television in showing women with "real" bodies and addressing body image issues, like when Jane Krakowski's character, Jenna, gains weight and Jack Donaghy says, "She needs to lose thirty pounds or gain sixty. Anything in between has no place on television." With lines like those, Fey incites a jumping off point for discussion, and isn't that what the best television should do?

            Critical Feminist Studies, in the end, is not a comedy. It is a classroom in which serious discussions are expected to come up and new synapses are expected to be developed. All the more reason why students and Professors should not expect it to “tow the line of extreme P.C… standards.” If we discuss “real” issues that we face within the jungle of the classroom, and attempt to satirize them, we will not end up losing sight of their importance, but instead we will be more apt to discuss them in an honest and passionate way.

            And now, for my possibly horrible, possibly offensive, possibly irrelevant attempt at a satire about my experience in Critical Feminist Studies this semester:

            Professor Dalke: Hello, and welcome to your first day of Critical Feminist Studies. First I’m going to go over a thing I call a syllabus, in which I’ll talk for a half an hour about the texts you will have to read and all the essays you will have to write about texts you have not yet read and thus have no interest in yet, reminding you that your first semester of the year will be full of work and stress just like any other semester in your life as a Bryn Mawr student. If I don’t go over a syllabus first, I’ll do an exercise that I like to think makes the class more comfortable with each other, like a game in which we try to memorize as many names as possible in order to say that we’re getting to know each other but really you’d all just be trying to impress me with your short-term memory skills, which I already know are fabulous, so let’s not go there. Instead, I’m going to present you with a painting and have you all sit in awkward silence writing in your notebooks what you think is in the painting and doubting everything you have to write because you have no idea who these chicks are around you and you have no idea what I want you to say as a Professor, and to top it off you all are probably not art history majors in any sense of the word so what you have to say will only be valuable in a classroom that devalues the hierarchy of academia, which is a concept you have not learned yet so you are sitting in silence wondering what the point is of analyzing this painting when the only thing you can think of is a political science metaphor that means nothing to you but you remember from a theory you read by a theorist who is famous enough for you to trust regurgitating. Okay! Everyone start looking down and trying to act pensive… NOW.

Sarah’s thoughts: This will sound good if I say it because it goes against feminist stereotypes.

[Sarah raises her hand]

Professor Dalke: Yes, Sarah.

Sarah: That painting appears to be a profound statement against the stereotypes of women.

Professor Dalke: (Looks perplexed.) Okay… but what does it mean to you?

Sarah’s thoughts: Shit, regurgitation ain’t gonna fly. But I can’t talk with my mind full. I can only say the equations that have been laid out for me before. Adequately explaining a fresh idea in class is like trying to take the best pieces of popcorn out of the popping machine while it’s not finished, being constantly distracted by the sound of more bursting kernels.

Psh. If only this was a creative writing class. That was a pretty lyrical metaphor, the popcorn and all.

Sarah: Ummm… it means… feminism… [pop, pop, pop] theory… tears, happiness… [pop, pop, pop] sexual stereotype… and… [POP, POP, POP, I don’t have any idea where I’m going with this, I sound like Sarah Palin, I don’t belong at Bryn Mawr, POP, POP, POP, POP, if only I could see my thoughts written as full sentences coherently in my brain and read them aloud from the eyes in my brain, POP POP POP POP]… yeah.

Professor Dalke: Okay… your Serendip posting about the same topic sounded smarter, maybe you regurgitated that as well?

Sarah’s thoughts: Wow, well the popcorn I just spit out was way overcooked and stale. I can say anything now and be smarter than I just came off. I wish there was room in this class for me to laugh at myself. I wish I could tell the girl next to me that instead of reading The Book of Salt tonight I’m going to watch the Britney Spears “Tell-All” special on MTV, and I’m not gonna regret it.  You know what, screw it, as I will learn by the end of this class, Phase 5 education involves a movement from the down up so I’m going to magically start one now.

[Sarah raises her hand and is called on.]

Sarah: Professor Dalke, I think I would rather watch Britney Spears on MTV than read The Book of Salt. I also, at times, think I would rather be able to spend that 20 bucks from our curriculum packet on vending machine treats such as Mr. Goodbar and Cheetos. I don’t care when my female friends call me a cunt, and I regularly call my friends “bitches.” I get mad when people trash gender queers, but I sometimes don’t speak up about my anger. I want a man to think I’m beautiful more than I want a woman to think I’m beautiful, and sometimes I look at a picture of a woman who’s skinnier than I am in a magazine and want to cry. I know these behaviors don’t mean I’m not a feminist because after this class, there are so many definitions of feminism that a feminist can still be a girl like me who degrades her own kind in order to make the boys laugh and gets empowerment from sitcoms which, although they are progressive, they probably are excellent examples of an art form failing to break out of the hegemonic structure keeping it in business.

 

            Sigh. Looking back on the writing of this “sitcom,” I realize it is probably just a stream-of-consciousness of my many doubts about my location within the classroom and my place as a feminist in a world that is constantly exerting its powerfully subtle patriarchal powers over my psyche. But there is nothing wrong with stream-of-consciousness, as I don’t want to submit to the hierarchy of academia, and I want to experiment in creating an essay that does not always follow itself from one end to the other. The important thing is that I’ve accomplished the goal I set for myself in writing this. I learned something new. I didn’t regurgitate. I didn’t disguise my honest, personal arguments with jargon from theorists just because I don’t trust myself as much as a I trust the “accomplished” academics. I threw all caution into the wind and denied my paralyzing fear of breaking away from the boundaries of things I know I’m good at. I could write an essay about the political feminism of Russia any day, and I probably will when I come back from studying abroad in St. Petersburg. Perhaps I will have more of a significant presence as a location in that paper when I come back from studying there, which, as we’ve learned in this class, is a good thing. But this time, I chose to write something I didn’t just have to search for in the texts. I searched for it in my dark humor, in my fear of failure, in the parts of me that I am most terrified of in a class such as Critical Feminist Studies.

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