I got kicked out of a feminist club a week and a half back. Much like the last time someone kicked me out of an organization, it’s a tale of my foot in my mouth that raises thought-provoking questions, like why the hell my foot keeps ending up there. Let’s hear it!
So I hear from this woman in my Poetry class that she’s part of this feminist union that meets on Mondays, and that for the past few meetings it’s only been her and boys attending. At which point, I think, “Hey, The Iowa City All-Male Feminist Union sounds like the title to my next short story.” But I’d just read about feminism online if I didn’t care about the actual movement; feminism interests me, and I’d call myself a feminist if I actually did feminist stuff like, say, go to meetings. So here’s a way to take out two truffles with one bite.
When our class met again next week, I mention to said woman a skit idea I’ve knocked about upstairs: a parody of The Cell Block Tango called ‘The Nice Guy Tango,” replacing sex-based murders with would-be sex-based murders if the “Nice Guys” on the Internet did anything more productive than lick the Cheetos stains from their fingers and headbutt their keyboards. She said it sounded hilarious. So the next time the feminists meet, I’d a) make like a minor-leagues player watching a Cubs game with pen and paper, and b) draw a few laughs at the expense of people this club probably hates. One of these went wrong, and it wasn’t like they knocked the pen out of my hand, strapped me to a chair and force-fed me bananas until I confessed.
At the end of a dry, but informative and actually gender-balanced meeting, I passed around “The Nice Guy Tango.” They read it. They don’t laugh, but neither do I when reading or watching funny stuff by myself, so my nerves are still quivering to burst out with either a THANK YOU or I’M SORRY. The girl from Poetry class says I really captured the voice of these assholes, which I take for the half-compliment it is. Ah well. It’s probably not my best skit, or even a good one, but it gave me an excuse to leave my bed and soak in the Chicago soundtrack. I lose track of how many copies I take home with me.
Spring Break follows, then a jolt back to earth where I realize I did nothing over Spring Break and have to work instead of attend meetings. Next time I see the circle of old couches and well-dressed members of the Iowa City Feminist Union, it’s almost the end of March. Only three people show up besides me, and we just shoot the shit for 45 minutes. When I leave, the one non-binary member asks if they can join me on my walk back. They mentions my skit, and the “oh” out of my mouth is as deep as my heart feels. They said that “The Nice Guy Tango” was potentially triggering to others and reinforced sexist notions and would I mind sitting out the rest of the semester instead of sitting in with them. We talk in that stilted, polite way used when people who barely know each other have to discipline someone. They mentioned how, even though I made my intent clear and wasn’t trying to be sexist or trigger more than a laugh, the characters I wrote hit way too close to home for a cis white male to expect to bring anything but hurt. They (the group) couldn’t trust me to not say anything stupid/harmful at these meetings. Said member didn’t take me for a Jeff Dunham (or what others think of him), a comedian using the guise of parody to protect his or her bigoted ways, but confirmed that the board-imposed exile was unanimous. We parted with small smiles and light steps, and with me thinking about Stephen Colbert, Mel Brooks, tumblr, and how stupid it was of me to answer the “preferred gender pronouns?” at the first meeting with “he/him/his/Your Magnificent.”
I know what y’all are gonna say, and I’m here to tell you you’re directing your blame to the wrong place. The fact that they didn’t like my skit speaks to my failure to properly convey the joke, not their inability to “get” the joke. If Nancy Pelosi only drew coughs and silence at the DNC with a “How many Republicans does it take to change a lightbulb” bit, it’s not like blue doesn’t hate red, but rather the former Speaker telling a joke without its most essential ingredient. Right? Right. I’m glad we had this talk.
The real question here is how far one should go when parodying or representing something. I’m reminded of Poe’s Law, the internet truthism stating it’s impossible to tell a satire of something like Creationism apart from actual examples without the Creator confirming or denying intent in court. And when you’re bombarded with hate and ickyness tweet after tweet, like many women on the Internet are, words like the ones I used in “The Nice Guy Tango” start to hurt no matter who they’re coming from or what the intent is. But let’s not beat around the wasps nest: this is a writing blog, after all.
It’s timing, by the way.
If you want to convey that a character’s racist, should he or she speak the six-lettered n word? Depends on how much they like nougat, har har joke. But this is something The Iowa City Normal Feminist Club might say ‘no,’ to, arguing it’s triggering and harmful and promotes bigotry. That’s how they reacted to my skit speaking a word rhyming with ‘punt,’ even though it wasn’t directed at anyone within the work. Quick Heads Up: If you ever ask me, “Am I allowed to (blank) in my writing?” I’ll say “Yes! If the story calls for (blank) and you can write (blank) well, then (blank) until your (blank) lasts longer than four (blanks), at which point you should call a doctor.” But this doesn’t mean what you write will be free of consequences- not censorship, just negative feedback. And having a character criticize another for their ‘nasty rigor’ is the sledgehammer as opposed to the feather-duster or vibrator of characterization. Do some anvils need to be dropped, as TV Tropes so aptly puts it? Yes. And even though the pervading problems of racism today are more systemic than bigoted, there are still people out there calling others their favorite Winnie the Pooh character out of hate, and who denies that it’s fun to see such characters drink boiling black tar strewn with broken glass? Admittedly, little comeuppance happens to the characters in my skit throwing around derogatory terms for women, other than the audience laughing at their insecurities and their moral failings. My skit functioned as a character portrayal, and my commentary essentially read “Roll up, roll up, everyone come see the freaks.” And I’m not calling for heavy moralizing like in the Hays Code days, where each character that starts a sentence with “I’m not sexist, but-“ ends it with “-how’d all these spiders get in my pants?” Yet I feel such a tactic would’ve earned me more points with the Club. Direct and moral consequences may not always reflect reality for these types of cretins, but that’s the fun thing about writing- you can choose whatever reality you want to portray. Even cartoons and musicals depict strong emotional truths, divorced from the nitty-gritty as they might be. And that focuses in on why my skit didn’t work with this particular audience: it provided an all-too accurate painting of these jerks, and did little beyond that. I should’ve had some consequence within the world of my work, be it positive or negative. That hour googling “fedora shaming” meant I placed this piece in a more-or-less real world, a real world where these feminists live and rage against this exact type of person. I’ll post the skit later this week, and you’ll see what I mean.
I don’t know if realizing this will make me a better feminist writer, since I never know when I’m going to write “feminist” material. But this experience will better me, if only by letting me focus on what aspects of real life I consider funny based on my distance from said subject.
Tune in next week when I lose my bartending job asking my boss what it “means” to be a martini anyways!
EDIT: HERE’S “THE NICE GUY TANGO“!