This we know: women have to work harder to be taken seriously. AND to be taken funnily. And usually you don’t get to do both. So to me, the best is when we get to see the “serious” ones be hilarious.
TAKE FOR EXAMPLE…
Ruth Bader Ginsburg
When I say “hilarious,” I’m leaving a bit of wiggle room, OK? Because Ginsburg is an 80-year-old lawyer-lady from Brooklyn, and when I read her bon mots, I can almost see my grandpa pursing his lips in amusement at his own dad-jokes.
But the fact is, Bader Ginsburg is er-mayzing in a lot of ways. Look at her river-rafting and riding an elephant! (With my least favorite Supreme, which is weird. It’s like this elephant contains the best and the worst and a trunk and a flower.)
And check this seriously witty shade in her dissent in Shelby v. Holder:
“Throwing out [the Voting Rights Act[ when it has worked and is continuing to work to stop discriminatory changes is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.”
And then there’s the meme that took off a couple years ago, calling her Notorious RBG. She told NPR’s Nina Totenberg that “…a law clerk told me about this tumblr and also explained to me what Notorious RBG was a parody on. And now my grandchildren love it and I try to keep abreast of the latest that’s on the Tumblr.”
THE TUMBLR, YOU GUISE. #ginsburgsqueeeeee
And then she wrote to a little girl dressed like her and I died THE END.
As the first female Secretary of State (under Bill Clinton starting in 1996), Albright walked some incredibly delicate lines and made incredibly tough decisions—the kind that give most of us nightmares. And she’s an incredibly tough dame, who responded to a shocking, heartbreaking divorce by re-starting her career at 45 and becoming SoS a dozen years later. Damn, girl! Who could blame you if you became a steely-eyed virago? (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.)
Ah, but one of Albright’s great gifts as an international diplomat and negotiator was her ability to poke a hole in the massive hot-air balloons of world-leader egos. First proof: See her collection of giant, bejeweled pins, which she chose carefully to send not-so-coded messages and start difficult conversations.
She, too, appeared as herself on The Gilmore Girls, as Lorelei’s dream mom (hilarious in itself) and played the role with as much quirky lovability as Lauren Graham. In fact, any close follower of Madam Secretary (she appeared on that show, too) already knows how magnetically charming she is.
Oh, and then there’s the time she tweeted back at Conan O’Brien.
It’s a testament to just how seriously I take George W. Bush’s Secretary of State is that I’m kind of embarrassed to talk about her being funny or sexy. She kept it on the down-low. But when you read about her, the articles are all “OMG she is a concert-level pianist and she runs marathons and she dates sports celebrities.” And I’m like “is it okay to talk about this? Because I want people to know her for being Secretary of State erg erg erg am I hurting feminism?”
But then she goes and appears on 30 Rock as Alec Baldwin’s ex, and I’m like STOP THAT MS. RICE. YOU JUST STOP THAT RIGHT NOW. And by stop I mean CONTINUE.
(Sorry about the state of that clip. It’s hard to find and keeps getting scrubbed.)
Now, is she a natural on camera? No. Do I have any immediate proof that she’d crack you up if you ran into her in the ladies’ room? None. What I do know is that every time I find out some new fact about this woman, she becomes more and more compelling.
We’ve established that we have to run farther and faster than the average dude to get to the same finish line. And in order to do that, we often take on the mantle of something that comes across as the opposite of frivolous. And if that’s true to us, fine. But don’t ever, ever let anyone tell you that cracking wise, making a joke, or having a sly, offbeat take on something serious is professional poison. It’s not. In fact, it’s often the magic ingredient – the Chemical X, if you will – that can propel us up and over the top. Or at least keep us sane when the world turns upside down.
When we talk about powerful women using humor as a combined shield and weapon, well, there’s really just one O.G.: Ann Richards, Southern woman, Texas governor, cultural icon. Being a Democrat in Texas is no picnic, and she worked her way up, even running training sessions for other women seeking office, throughout the ‘70s. She became state treasurer in the ‘80s, and began attracting attention for her combination of sass, smarts and more sass.
Her keynote at the 1988 Democratic convention was when she burst upon the national scene. Watching it now feels like you’re watching a late-night talk show host deliver a flawless monologue before she gets into the meat of her message. In fact, her life made for a fabulous one-woman show, written and performed by the also-faboo Holland Taylor, that seems to be touring constantly.
“Poor George,” she famously said about George Bush Sr. “He can’t help it. He was born with a silver foot in his mouth.”
People will tell you that you have to be super tough to succeed in business, in politics, in this kooky ongoing Bonnaroo festival we call life. But Ann Richards didn’t turn every insult upside down and force it to work for her because she was tough. She did it because she felt the sting of every pointy word hurled at her, and this was the way she knew how to neutralize an enemy. And that’s the takeaway: Find your tender spots, and come up with your own, unique defense shields. One size does not fit all.
Make no mistake: Being America’s First Lady is a job. Not an easy one, and not one that would naturally to most people: You’re suddenly in this national (and international) diplomatic role, and everything you say and do is scrutinized. And you’re expected to pick a charity or cause and run with it – without making people mad.
Well, Michelle Obama ran with it – and danced with it, and did karaoke with it, and did Funny or Die videos with it. She gently made fun of her husband and even charmed former president George W. Bush, who has cited her sense of humor – well, her appreciation of his sense of humor, bless his heart – as the reason they get along despite ideological differences.
Maybe that’s the best part of being a woman of funny. Connecting. Even with dudes who get it, even when they don’t seem to. You laugh, and then you talk. It’s worth a try. From now, your power pose is mid-guffaw.
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