Interrogating Comedy and the Feminine Grotesque
Whether or not women are capable of being funny is not important, but ascertaining when they are funny is. To the extent that comedy is a male-dominated field and even the anatomy of a joke “establishes male alliances at the woman’s expense and exiles her from the exercise of wit,” comedy often recreates the negative ways women are perceived in everyday society 1 If the subject-object positions were reversed, in which a woman tells an obscene joke about women, ostensibly said joke would lose its affective power because the comedic contrast would be gone. Instead, the female as joke-teller finds her body foregrounded in new ways. A dirty joke, for instance, will only be successful if “the female comic is perceived as libidinous, the possessor and purveyor or sexualized appetites.” 2 The body leads. Many comediennes have added the gross body joke to their repertoire to supplement the common sex joke. These include, but are not limited to, tales of pooping, farting, vomiting, and leaking—all things that are natural to the human body but incompatible with the feminine one. This is both a manifestation of a change in the way women are regarding their own bodies and a push against the socially enforced bodilessness of the female body, in that the female body is supposed to be free of the dirty parts of a body’s natural processes. This is how we get from Carrie Bradshaw in 1998 thinking that her relationship with Mr. Big is over because she farted in front of him, to Nikki Glaser in 2017 telling the ladies of the audience that they “will love anal if [they] love shitting.” 3 As an attempt to emphasize the natural state of the female body and push back against patriarchal structures, the “Dirty Girl” persona embodied in contemporary Western visual culture, especially in terms of “gross-out” comedy, is a worthwhile endeavor. However, its social and racial limitations prevent it from being truly radical.
All bodies are surveilled, regulated, and used by modern state apparatuses of control, but the female body is unique in that the standards it has to meet constantly fluctuate. Since femininity is historically, geographically, and socially contingent, women are tasked to keep up with “floating norms,” “elusive benchmarks of fleeting, aesthetic visions [that] do not adhere to any definite, objectively quantifiable standards.”4 Hygienic practices for women qualify as a floating norm because many have been lumped together with beauty practices, which are notoriously fluid, and what qualifies as a hygienic practice has been shifting for women because the bar for basic femininity is constantly being raised. Consider hair removal:
A woman’s skin must be soft, supple, hairless, and smooth; ideally, it should betray no sign of wear, experience, age or deep thought. Hair must be removed not only from the face but from large surfaces of the body as well, from legs and thighs, an operation accomplished by shaving, buffing with fine sandpaper, or applying foul-smelling depilatories. With the new high-leg bathing suits and leotards, a substantial amount of pubic hair must be removed too. The removal of facial hair can be more specialized. Eyebrows are plucked out by the roots with tweezers. Hot wax is sometimes poured onto the mustache and cheeks and then ripped away when it cools. The woman who wants a more permanent result may try electrolysis: this involves the killing of a hair root by the passage of an electric current down a needle that has been inserted into its base. The procedure is painful and expensive. 5
Hair removal exemplifies how what began as a manifestation of society’s control on the body became beauty labor and then a hygienic practice. Disciplining a body requires “a finer control of the body’s time and movements,” and in order for society to maintain that invisible hold on women they must be convinced that the arduous process of shaving daily, weekly, or bimonthly is not an exhibition of social control, but one of personal choice.6 As long as women have the option of not participating in beauty work and some of those that do actually enjoy it, the practice cannot be called coercive.
Hair removal is one once-voluntary beauty practice that has become coercive because of its association with standard hygiene. “The hairlessness norm” promotes the belief that hair is dirty and is meant to “produce feelings of inadequacy and vulnerability, the sense that women’s bodies are problematic the way they naturally are.”7 When women do not remove their body hair they become subject to myriad social consequences, from being perceived as more aggressive and less moral to being called “dirty” or “gross.”8 As the bar for acceptable femininity got higher so did the basic expectations of feminine performance, and Second Wave feminists of the 1960s and 1970s launched a crusade against the oppressive body/hygiene regime. With rights to self-governance already assured for the white, middle-class women who made up the majority of the movement, attention turned to the body’s private sphere. 9 Eschewing the growing strictures on a “normal” woman’s body was brought to the forefront of opposition politics 10 Bras were burned, armpits went unshaved, deodorant and baby powder were thrown away en masse.
The “Dirty Girl” re-emerges in the 2010s with a different goal and socio-political context. While the armpit feminists of the 1960s and ’70s and the new millennium are similarly interested in normalizing the unclean body to forge a society where women are free to be real people, the latter remains divorced from any real political impact since it must abide by the norms of visual culture, which are undergirded by capitalist aims. The purpose of the “Dirty Girl” in contemporary Western visual culture, specifically comedy, is to shake the table without toppling it, mirroring Tyra Banks’ explanation of modeling, “acting like a hoe but making it fashion.”11 Abbi and Ilana of Broad City poop while on FaceTime with each other, and on a recent episode, Ilana soiled her body suit in a crowded party from the stress of seeing her ex-lover in a happy relationship with another woman. These displays of social or public defecation are palatable because Abbi and Ilana are relatable and quirky women living the cool, soul-crushing, funny aesthetic of living poor and being young in New York City. Nikki Glaser can joke about her farts and poops until the day she stops being thin, white, blonde, and sexually desirable. The key to making dirty more synonymous with normal is reassuring the public that being dirty will never threaten or overthrow sexual availability. The “dirty-but-make-it-normal/hot” logic ensures that corporations can profit from both sides of the issue — they can tap into the cultural zeitgeist by portraying women with normal, gross bodies while maintaining the long-standing patriarchal image of women that has been proven to make money. In contemporary visual culture, the “Dirty Girl” often ends up reproducing or reinforcing the dominant structures that she was created to push back against.
Judd Apatow’s Bridesmaids (2011), hailed in its time as evidence that women can indeed be funny, exemplifies the discursive limitations of re-presenting the female body as dirty. It is true that Bridesmaids did break ground with its all-female cast, showing women being in charge of the joke and letting themselves wallow in their misfortune instead of making light of it. Emily Eyre writes on the film’s iconic bridal shop scene as direct action against the patriarchy in “A Female Homme-Com?: Genre, Gender, and Sex in Bridesmaids (2011)”:
After contracting food poisoning , the bridal party causes chaos in an upmarket boutique, vomiting and defecating all over the lavish, white decor . . . There is no non-diegetic music to distract from the bodily explosions graphically presented on screen. The women stain their expensive dresses, and Lillian relieves herself in the middle of the street. The New York Times observes that ‘too many studio bosses seem to think that a woman’s place is in Vera Wang,’ and here Lillian’s excrement in the dress can be interpreted as a blatant refusal to adhere to this stereotype, as she physically and symbolically defecates on this restrictive ideology.”12
No other “chick-flick” or romantic comedy had ever dared to foreground the female body being gross before Bridesmaids and for that it deserves recognition, but a closer look at the plot reveals that it too follows the “dirty but” blueprint. The film is a female take on the “homme-com” subgenre of romantic comedy that arose in the late 1990s, “which [combined] the narrative convention of a monogamous relationship with moments of gross-out comedy” in order to make the film’s romantic subplot more tolerable for men.13 American Pie (1999) and The 40-Year Old Virgin (2005) are two of its most famous examples. Even though Annie Walker, played by Kristen Wiig, repeatedly hits rock bottom over the course of the movie, all of her unbecoming physical and emotional behavior is forgiven by the end when she winds up in a relationship with the sweet, encouraging cop. Annie is dirty, an emotional mess, but it is palatable because she achieves her happily-ever-after despite it. Broad City, Nikki Glaser, and Bridesmaids show how the “Dirty Girl” has transitioned from political statement to plot device due to socio-economic interests in the woman’s body that remain conservative. It is possible for the female body to be shown without the veil of social propriety, but only if that reveal is immediately followed by an element that ushers it back into the culturally accepted feminine world—the quirky aesthetic, the sex object, the promise of heterosexual love despite the odds. The “Dirty Girl” cannot be revolutionary if she is always qualified.
The “Dirty Girl” also cannot be revolutionary if she is always white. “The symbolic potency of white femininity [has been] shifting” due to an increased awareness of and ultimate capitulation to white privilege. 14 Cisgendered heterosexual upper-middle class white women know that they will be socially and politically safe if they deviate from beauty norms, and this both comforts and frustrates them. If they accept the safety of being in a dominant class then they cannot be part of the resistance, which they still feel a need to be a part of because they know the world looks at them like pets of the patriarchy, and they are desperate to prove that they feel crushed by it just like everybody else. The “Dirty Girl” persona adopted by many a white feminist is a representation of “the white impulse to shake the stigma its mainstream status affords while simultaneously exercising the power of whiteness.” 15 White women are the only social group with the luxury of declaring that hygiene is optional. There are no videos in the “Featured” section of the Snapchat dashboard playfully asking me to guess which black celebrity does not wash her hair for months at a time. Nobody lauds Latina, Native American, or Indian women for their hairy arms and fuzzy upper lips, naturally occurring and unused for political purposes, but everybody has something nice to say about the white feminist with bubblegum pink armpit hair. Since race, “classism, wealth, and privilege play a part in how we choose to show up in the world” it is impossible to divorce the body from its socio-political implications.16 White woman have an easier time raging against the machine in ways that centralize the “de-feminized” body because their bodies will always be accepted and re-feminized through other means. This is why the “Dirty Girl” is a reductive response to a systemic and multifaceted problem whose impact cannot be universalized.
In contemporary Western visual culture it is unclear whether or not there can be a way to normalize the female body’s processes without capitulating to socio-economic investment in a woman’s perpetual attractiveness. The “Dirty Girl” arose with admirable political intentions in the 1960s and 1970s but has since devolved into another portrayal of women where the need for social acceptance and capitalist interests trump radical change. Her whiteness also prevents her from doing something truly revolutionary because it is racial privilege that enables her to eschew beauty practices that have become standard hygienic practices, like shaving or wearing deodorant, without social repercussions. For these reasons, dirtiness is a limited praxis; ultimately it does not matter politically whether or not you choose to shower. It is a systemic problem that women are socially forced to engage in many time consuming and steadily escalating beauty practices and something should be done about that. However, the “Dirty Girl,” as she appears now in visual culture, is not a radical reaction against those practices. Rather, she is a convenient mascot in an age where opposition politics are en vogue. Whatever dirtiness claims to be doing politically pales in comparison to what it is actually doing socially, which is being an expression of individual choice. Yet, if we must depict women striking back by throwing up or smelling to high heaven we must do so without apology. No redemption arcs, no “buts,” no qualifications.
- Jennifer Foy, “Fooling Around: Female Stand-Ups and Sexual Joking,” Journal of Popular Culture, vol. 48, no. 4, 01 Aug. 2015, 705. doi:10.1111/jpcu.12222
- Ibid., 703.
- “Nikki Glaser,” The Stand-Ups, season 1, episode 4, 2017, Netflix.
- Ashley Mears, “Becoming A Look,” Pricing Beauty: The Making of a Fashion Model, (Berkley: University of California Press: 2011), 92.
- Sandra Lee Bartky, “Foucault, Femininity, and the Modernization of Patriarchal Power,” Feminism and Foucault: Reflections on Resistance, edited by Rose Weitz, (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1988), 31.
- Ibid., 40
- Rebecca M. Herzig, “Unshaven: ‘Arm-Pit Feminists’ and Women’s Liberation,” Plucked : A History of Hair Removal (New York: NYU Press, 2015), ProQuest Ebook Central, 15-16.
- Breanne Fahs, “‘Freedom To’ and ‘Freedom From’: A New Vision for Sex-Positive Politics,” Sexualities, vol. 17, no. 3, 01 Jan. 2014, 280. doi:10.1177/1363460713516334.
- Rebecca Herzig, “Unshaven,” 129.
- Ibid., 130.
- Eleni Mitzali, “Tyra Banks’ Best ANTM Moments, Because It Will Never Truly Be the Same Again, ” The Tab US, 13 Dec. 2016, https://thetab.com/us/2016/12/12/tyra-banks-best-antm-moments-will-truly-missed-55835.
- Emily Eyre, “A Female Homme-Com?: Genre, Gender, and Sex in Bridesmaids (2011),” Film Matters, vol. 7, no. 1, Spring 2016, 61.
- Ibid., 59.
- Ayesha Siddiqi, “Can the White Girl Twerk?,” The New Inquiry, September 5 2013. www.thenewinquiry.com/can-the-white-girl-twerk/.
- Brielle Nicole Williams, “$$$ickening: A Black Trans Woman’s Reflections on Femme Identity, Class, and Privilege,” Fashion Studies Journal, The Fashion Studies Journal, July 2017. www.fashionstudiesjournal.org/4-what-were-wearing-1/2017/7/30/ickening-a-black-trans-womans-reflections-on-femme-identity-class-and-privilege.