Not Funny #LaughingAtGirls

This post originally appeared on March 3, 2014 written by Mara Dauphin. This was Mara’s first for Hashtag Feminism.

On Thursday, February 20, Michelle Obama appeared on The Tonight Show as part of a longstanding media campaign to support healthy lifestyles for children and teens. The didactic sketch into which she was inserted was “Ew!”, a recurring skit that originated on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon.  In its new iteration on The Tonight Show, host Jimmy Fallon and comic actor Will Ferrell present as teenage girls Sara and Stacey whose response to everything (except a Harry Styles poster) is “Ew!”

What struck me most about this sketch was that it seemed devoid of an actual joke. The sketch’s main source of humor, at least according to the laugh track, could be explained by the portrayal of extreme feminine vapidity and by its embodiment in grown men. Ultimately, the joke here is that girls are idiots. That’s it. That’s the joke.

Forget, for a minute, the problems inherent in marketing a campaign for teenagers to make “healthy eating choices” through a representation of female shallowness and cattiness. How have we allowed teenage girls to become the last socially acceptable target of misogynistic humor? When we encourage representations of vacuous girlhood, we do more than promote actual vacuity; we’re perpetuating anti-woman humor, which shapes real-life interactions between girls and society, and using ageism to cover it up, saying “it’s not sexist; it’s about how silly teenagers are!” In fact, however, the perception of youth “silliness,” or the types of silliness available to youth is inextricably tied to gender.

The male embodiment of the ridiculous straw-girls Sara and Stacey serves to complicate the matter even further.  Eric Shorey, frequent contributor at New Now Next, LogoTV’s gay-male-focused media news site, headlines his brief article on the sketch as “Jimmy Fallon and Will Ferrell in Drag” and refers to their “best boy-crazed teenaged girl realness.”

What does it mean in this instance for Fallon and Ferrell’s performance to be claimed as drag?

At one level, much as drag performance does, their sketch denaturalizes gender and reveals it to be constructed. This does not mean, however, that all cross-gender performance is radical or queer. As Judith Butler tells us in her 1993 work Bodies That Matter,

“there is no necessary relation between drag and subversion, and that drag may well be used in the service of both the denaturalization and reidealization of hyperbolic heterosexual gender norms.”

While the gay men at New Now Next are celebrating what appears to be a media affirmation of gender construction and fluidity, this “queer” celebration of the sketch at best relies on and at worst actively supports the image of girls and the women they grow into as intellectually bankrupt.

Ultimately, how do we understand drag’s relationships to feminism and to the misogyny of both gay and straight men? Is there a difference between a professional drag queen and a straight male comedian’s representation of a teenage girl? If so, how does the gay community value that difference? Finally, how does femininity detach so easily from female embodiment in the quest for “humor?”

Share your thoughts on Twitter using the #LaughingAtGirls hashtag