by Catriona Mitchell

When I told an acquaintance recently about the work I was doing with feminine empowerment and women’s stories at BRAVA, her immediate response was, “Won’t you get bored?”

After I’d recovered from choking on my coffee, I realized that – while loath to admit it – somewhere in there, she had a point.

Not because I don’t love what I do, or don’t believe in it fervently, or have any doubt about how much the feminine perspective needs a massive re-entry into the world to re-balance all that has been lost through time (for starters, the massive storehouse of feminine wisdom that’s been suppressed through centuries, through practices as varied as burning ‘witches’ at the stake to genital mutilation to locking women up in madhouses for such mental disturbances as ‘reading novels’).

I thought she had a point because in amongst all the amazing social shifts that are underway in the world today, from a gendered perspective, there’s the possibility that a certain ‘feminist fatigue’ will set in…. and this is dangerous because it can risk seeing things settle back to how they were before.

To me, fatigue can take hold when earnestness has too much of a presence, and humour doesn’t have a seat at the table.

What do you think? I fear I can hear the expostulations from here: Humour? It’s too soon for humour! Our wounds are open, raw, festering. Our collective rage needs to come out, with force. We can’t trivialize this with comic throwaway. It’s time for fury…..

And it is.

But wouldn’t it be a little sweeter for all of us – and more effective – not to mention less divisive between the sexes too – if that fury were also to include a teensy weensy bit of humour? So we don’t all lose our minds in this process?

“Not living in fear is a great gift, because certainly these days we do it so much. And do you know what I like about comedy? You can’t laugh and be afraid at the same time — of anything. If you’re laughing, I defy you to be afraid.” – Stephen Colbert

This week, I’ve been reading a book that came highly recommended by author friends: Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, by the wonderfully quirky Anne Lamott (who, incidentally, penned one of my all-time favourite quotes: “My mind is like a bad neighbourhood. I try not to go there alone.”)

In her book, Lamott explains how she came to be funny:

I started writing when I was seven or eight. I was very shy and strange-looking, loved reading above everything else, weighed about forty pounds at the time, and was so tense I walked around with my shoulders up to my ears, like Richard Nixon… I was clearly the one who was going to grow up to be a serial killer, or keep dozens and dozens of cats. Instead, I got funny. I got funny because boys, older boys I didn’t even know, would ride by on their bicycles and taunt me about my weird looks. Each time felt like a drive-by shooting. I think this is why I walked like Nixon: I think I was trying to plug my ears with my shoulders, but they wouldn’t quite reach….

Doesn’t this make you fall in love with her right there?

Wouldn’t you now follow this woman anywhere she wanted to take you? Swallow any pill she wanted to give you?

And isn’t it the combination of tragedy and comedy, of piercing vulnerability paired with wit, that is so winning in this extract? The vulnerability makes you feel her, and the humour makes you love and trust her and want to spend time with her, no?

“It is a curious fact that people are never so trivial as when they take themselves seriously.” – Oscar Wilde

With humour in mind, I’ve also been looking at some comic memoirs written by well-known female personalities (there are not enough of them, by the way. Funny memoirs, that is). Tina Fey’s Bossypants is one. She doesn’t mess around with forging an intimate author-reader bond by addressing the ‘trust’ factor right away. This is how she introduces herself to the reader in the first pages:

Anyone who knows me will tell you that I am all about money. I mean, just look how well my line of zodiac-inspired toe rings and homeopathic children’s medications are selling on Home Shopping Network. Because I am nothing if not an amazing businesswoman, I researched what kind of content makes for bestselling books. It turns out the answer is “one-night stands,” drug addictions, and recipes. Here, we are out of luck. But I can offer you lurid tales of anxiety and cowardice….

She goes on to tell some strongly flavoured stories of her early life that mark the development of her comic personality – including, for instance, the following scene at her first ever pap smear:

It may have been a mistake to have my first ever gynecology appointment in a Planned Parenthood on the north side of Chicago. I was twenty-three and honestly, there was no need. My whole setup was still factory-new. But I had never been and I had some insurance, so why not be proactive about my health like the educated young feminist I was…?

I was taken to an examining room where a big butch nurse practitioner came in and asked me if I was pregnant. “No way!” Was I sexually active? “Nope!” Had I ever been molested? “Well,” I said, trying to make a joke, “Oprah says the only answers to that question are ‘Yes’ and ‘I don’t remember.’ “ I laughed. We were having fun. The nurse looked at me, concerned / annoyed. “Have you ever been molested?” “Oh. No.” Then she took out a speculum the size of a milk shake machine… I had never seen one before. “What’s that device f-?” Before I could finish, the nurse inserted the milk shake machine to the hilt, and I fainted.

It strikes me that there is enormous power in opening up the most vulnerable moments of life and taking command of them by infusing them, in retrospect, with a comic perspective.

“There is nothing like a gleam of humor to reassure you that a fellow human being is ticking inside a strange face.” – Eva Hoffman

And so, if you’re someone who needs to share your personal story for professional purposes – in the telling of your story, wouldn’t it be fun to look into some of your most awful moments (assuming that you survived them without trauma) and to ask yourself how you might narrate these with humour? Try writing them in a serious way, and then with a comic voice, and observe the difference. How does each version open up the person reading / listening? Which part of them are you trying to touch? Try this, if only as an exercise for yourself, or perhaps for a couple of friends, if the incident is too vulnerable or inappropriate to share more broadly…?

Let’s see if we can find our power by owning our wounds through comedy.

“Laugh as much as possible, always laugh. It’s the sweetest thing one can do for oneself & one’s fellow human beings.” – Maya Angelou

Of course we aren’t all born with the comic gifts of a Tina Fey or an Anne Lamott. But surely we’ve all got comic potential in us somewhere. (Which scientist was it, who said humour is what distinguishes humans from other animals…?)

Humour is a fast track to intimacy, my friends, and even in a professional context it’s the warmth and the glue that will bind you with potential clients more quickly than anything else – when used appropriately of course.

As John Cleese said: “If I can get you to laugh with me, you like me better, which makes you more open to my ideas. And, if I can persuade you to laugh at a particular point that I make, by laughing at it you acknowledge it as true….”

About the Writer

Author

CATRIONA MITCHELL is the creator of BRAVA, and the editor of Walking Towards Ourselves: Indian Women Tell Their Stories (HarperCollins India, and Hardie Grant Books Australia & UK, 2016), a non-fiction anthology exploring what it means to be a woman in India today. She has an M Phil in Creative Writing from Trinity College Dublin (Ireland).

 

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