Female Comediennes are Changing Politics

They say, ‘laughter is the best medicine.’ This is true in politics as well as daily life. In fact, the rules of laughter (when are we allowed to laugh, how much can you laugh, and for how long) are key indicators of a healthy or anaemic Democracy. Today, female comediennes contribute to the political process like never before.

In an April 2018 academic article from the Australian Journal of Public Administration, Kristin Caporale and I argue that female comediennes are the new policy entrepreneurs. We argue that laughter changes public sentiment which brings invisible subjects into public view, and shifts the fundamental political horizon for taboo issues.

Policy entrepreneurship was defined by political scientist John Kingdon as, “advocates who are willing to invest their resources – time, energy, reputation, money – to promote a position in return for anticipated future gain.” We suggest that this is a golden age for female comics and highlight the importance of Amy Schumer, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Samantha Bee, Mellissa McCarthy, as well as Australians Hannah Gadbsy, Gretel Killeen, Magda Szubanski, Nakkiah Lui, Michelle Law, Julia Zemiro, Shiralee Hood and the late Stella Young on the public discourse. For instance, in 2016, Pew found that 25% of people get their news from late night comedy shows. This is a level of political legitimacy never before seen in comedy.

Indeed, there are many cases where female comics have led the way. Candice Bergen created space for a new conversation about single moms on Murphy Brown. Ellen Degeneres changed the way people thought about the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community coming out on her show Ellen. Gretel Killeen pushed back on the role of the sexes in government with her online comedy the Minister for Men. And more recently Tina Fey and Amy Poehler’s jokes about Bill Cosby at the Golden Globes shifted the emotional sensitivity about this issue as a precursor to the #MeToo movement.

Yet the standard regarding comics as shifters of public debate is about more than laughing. We propose five essential traits for policy entrepreneurship:

  • Serving as a relevant actor (Kingdon 1995);
  • Attaching their solution to a problem (Mintrom 2000);
  • Biasing political outcomes (Botterill 2013; Howlett and Ramesh 2003);
  • Gaining something from their engagement (Kingdon 1995; Schneider and Teske 1992); and
  • Changing the emotional habitus of socio‐political structures.

In line with this, we see comediennes like Amy Schumer playing a video game about the military where the female character is sexually assaulted. Samantha Bee has also attached feminist solutions to sexist problems. On her show Full Frontal, Samantha discussed proposed federal cuts to Planned Parenthood and used a “Nasty Women” t-shirt to raise more than 1 million dollars to support the organization. In our article, we also note that Tina Fey biased a political outcome when her impersonation of Sarah Palin rendered the former Alaska Governor unelectable. This was repeated when Mellissa McCarthy took on the persona of White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer. In each of these acts these comediennes shifted the emotional rules about what can be laughed at while also changing the national conversation and affecting the political process.

This change in the emotional habitus around sexual assault, female advocacy, traditional gender roles, and toxic masculinity shift the emotional organization around this issues and provide social support for groups trying to mobilize around these issues. So it is not simply that an issue can be made fun of, the socio-political rules around the issue have changed and this provides a new platform to contest incumbent narratives. Finally, this analysis is particularly critical of the media and reporting that shows women, the LGBTI community, and other minorities in a one-dimensional light.

The way an issue is talked about can build up intersectional identities and highlight structural disadvantage or it can erase or obscure them. We argue that such establishment can privilege the ways in which certain groups and identities are talked about and laughed about, which in turn gives power back to those who are in power. This can be seen by the ways in which those in the media talk about homosexuality, transgender people, poverty and mental illness. Oftentimes they are discussed in relation to how they differ from the norm which in turn further cements such accepted norms while further othering those who deviate. As we stated in our article: “institutional power dynamics pick and choose which identity to talk about and how to talk about it – so that those in power can feel comfortable. All the while, this ignores the real multi‐dimensional parts of ourselves (for all people) that operate together. It ignores particularly bad oppressions people face and it lets the media off the hook in the way they present different groups.”

The guttural power of female comics and intersectional narratives was exemplified by Hannah Gadbsy in her show, Nanette. In it she discusses the way lesbians are constructed in society and the structural limits that are placed on the way stories are told. She critiques the comic narrative, noting  “Do you understand what self-deprecation means when it comes from someone who already exists in the margins. It’s not humility, it’s humiliation.  I put myself down in order to speak, in order to seek permission to speak.” Her call to action is to talk in ways that connect our stories rather than put people down.

So while the public should look at female comediennes more critically, or as a possible canary in the coal mine of our Democracy so too should the media. Sometimes laughter is telling us more than a joke and sometimes comediennes are about more than comedy. These political actors can be highlighting what should not be laughed it. What should be taken deadly seriously. In all, female comics act as policy entrepreneurs when they demonstrate resistance to a way of thinking that disrupts the powers that be.

Dr. Christopher Pepin-Neff is a Lecturer in Public Policy at the University of Sydney.
Ms. Kristin Caporale is a student at Assumption College with a focus on organizational management.