Political Comedy’s Gender Gap

I had no idea whether current events would overlap with Splitsider’s Women in Comedy week, but then Michele Bachmann happened. At first I was like, that’s great! Her Tea Party State of the Union response was like a media coverage suicide bombing. Bachmann blew herself up for a greater cause: to keep Obama’s speech from dominating the news cycle.

This should be political comedy gold, right? Indeed. On Thursday afternoon there were four video parodies of Michele Bachmann’s rebuttal just on the Huffington Post Comedy page, plus one of those things Andy Borowitz does. It worked!

The appeal for comedians is clear: Bachmann is a nut job. This is not new, and Bachmann has been a dependable object of satire since the Tea Party’s founding. But thanks to Thursday’s insane rebuttal fiasco, political comedians can show a much larger audience what a nutjob she is, and learning this the audience will reject the allure of the crazy. It’s like John Boehner loves to say: sunlight is the best disinfectant.

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Except sunshine isn’t the best disinfectant. Bichloride of mercury is. Which is to say, I can’t help but feel a little uncomfortable about the exposure Representative Bachmann is getting. Are we focusing on her because she’s crazy, or because she’s a crazy lady? Is Bachmann, for example, really crazier than Jim DeMint? Or Steve King? Or Rand Paul? Or Joe Wilson? Or have political comedians fixated on her, in whole or in part, because she was a woman?

Not to belabor this point, but: Or Peter King? Or Darrell Issa, the carjacking arsonist, forchrissakes? Or David Vitter, the reelected john (that’s john as in, goes to prostitutes john)? Or Joe Barton, the guy who apologized to BP? Or Eric Cantor, who refuses to discredit the birthers? Or Mitch McConnell, who just defined bipartisanship as the President doing what Republicans want? Or, I don’t know, Paul Ryan, Tuesday’s “moderate” GOP responder, who wants to abolish Medicare? Or Chris Smith, who wants to define rape down? Or any of those politicians who went around shooting guns in their political ads? (Liz Lemon: “What is it with men and guns?” Tracy Jordan: “Well I think I speak for the both of us when I say, they’re metal penises.”) These are some crazy, dangerous, twisted people. As crazy if not crazier than Michelle Bachmann. They will shut down your kids’ grade school before they’ll ask a millionaire to pay a marginally progressive tax rate. But none of them are getting the Michelle Bachmann treatment.

Is it possible that political comedy still has a problem portraying female politicians? Which women have been most frequently portrayed in political comedy over the past year? Sarah Palin, Christine O’Donnell, Sharron Angle, Linda McMahon. All extremists. All portrayed, deserving or not, as idiots. But only one of them even holds elected office. So why do they get so much attention? It is a weird phenomenon, because this focus doesn’t at all reflect the many elected, sane, moderate women in political power today who also still need to be made fun of. Sure, there was some Elena Kagan humor last year, and Nancy Pelosi has been targeted (though arguably many Pelosi jokes are flat-out sexist, like the disproportionate amount about plastic surgery). But now that Hilary Clinton works mainly behind the scenes, only this small batch of loopy extremists are being portrayed in political comedy.

It’s not a harmless question. Every time we focus on someone like Christine O’Donnell, someone worthier of our attention gets off the hook. In the weeks before we learned about Christine O’Donnell’s witchcraft days, we were reeling over Rand Paul’s primary victory and the revelations of his Aqua Buddha adventures. And then that stopped. If not for Christine O’Donnell massive distraction, I don’t think Rand Paul would be a senator right now.

Okay, some of this could be driven by the news, which pays too much attention to these otherwise marginal figures. But comedy, you’re better than the news. Your audience is smarter than news watchers. Comedy is supposed to call news out for problems like this. Don’t just sink to the news’ level.

I don’t want to end this on a bum-out-everyone note, so let me try to make it a call to arms. Yes, you can make fun of Michele Bachmann when she does her crazy thing, but don’t limit yourself to this tiny group of crazy women. There’s a whole congress full of crazies. Pick on them all.

Stephen Hoban is a writer living in New York.

Political Comedy’s Gender Gap