With Donald Trump as America’s president-elect, we need women to tell their stories now more than ever. And that’s especially true when those women are talking about reproductive justice, misogyny, racism, and xenophobia. Enter Jena Friedman, 33, a bold new voice in feminist comedy, whose one-hour comedy special, American Cunt, debuted last month on Seeso, NBC’s new digital platform, and who appeared on Colbert’s live election night coverage, imploring women to “get your abortions now, because we’re going to be fucked and we’re going to have to live with it.”
American Cunt is incisive, timely, and takes a penetrating look on what it means to be a woman in the world today, particularly in response to the election, the war on women’s reproductive rights, Bill Cosby, and, of course, the titular C-word. In the special, she explains, “Part of the reason I like the word cunt is because there’s no male equivalent. And it’s not even the worst of [the things you can call women]. Because if you call someone a cunt it’s on you for using that language, but if you call someone a bitch, she’s probably a bitch. There’s one word worse than bitch – crazy. Crazy is the worst word you can call a woman because it’s just dismissive, it mutes her, it denies that bitch a voice.”
Friedman actually wrote the show around the title, when she was preparing a set for the Edinburgh Fringe. She asked herself, “Who am I to them?” Hence, American Cunt. “It’s such a dirty word now..." she opened, “American.” As she modified the material for an American audience there were more nuanced points she wanted to make, especially as the election (d)evolved. “The one C-word more offensive to half of America than cunt is Clinton. And that’s not even her real last name! America has more words for why we hate Hilary than Inuits have for snow. But it’s not because she’s a woman, right guys? But it’s not not because she’s a woman, right ladies?...If only there was some way to gage the misogyny in America. If only we had the worst candidate known to mankind running against her and could see how we’d react. Then we’d know.”
Her take on Trump is sharp and biting – she compares him to Bin Laden, “they both used daddy’s money to fuck up New York’s skyline.” But she also recognizes Trump as shining a light onto a vulnerability that was already there, making visible the otherwise hidden but pervasive racism, sexism, and xenophobia that lurks in our country.
Friedman is an accomplished actor, writer, and filmmaker who’s worked as a producer at The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and has written for Late Show with David Letterman. Her written work has appeared in Newsweek, Glamour, Time, The Wall Street Journal, and more. Friedman wrote, co-directed, and co-starred in the web series Ted & Gracie, a spoof on the New York Times Wedding Videos, and Mothers Without Boundaries, a fundraiser for Doctors Without Borders. Most recently, Friedman wrote and directed A Message from Grandma & Grandpa: We've Seen This Before, a video in which elderly Jews attempt to scare their grandkids into voting for Hillary.
However, my two favorite parts of the show weren’t about the election. One came in what she calls “the abortion portion,” referring to abortions as “abobos” and calling for a rebranding to help bolster support in red states. She encourages her audience to imagine how much more popular abortions would be in Texas if they were called “fetus hunting,” in Florida if referred to as “early retirement,” and in Alabama as “death sentence.”
My other favorite joke was one in which she stood up for Bill Cosby, even though he’s so easy to joke about. “I'm conflicted,” she said, “to this day he's still my favorite anesthesiologist.”
While her humor can be dark and morbid, she didn’t come to comedy the usual way – through being depressed or socially outcast and turning to humor to bludgeon the pain. “I was totally well-adjusted,” Friedman told me. “I was an anthropology major at Northwestern and for senior year, we spent a year observing a community. I chose the improv community in Chicago. That community was really magical and the comedy was an art form,” she said, which inspired her as a writer, performer, and director. “Improv is a really good gateway drug to comedy because its like pot whereas standup is like crack. It wasn’t anything I was encouraged to do — my mom is an accountant and my dad is a doctor. Being an artist isn’t in my family lineage, I thought it was something I could do before I got a job.” Lucky for us, Friedman is still in the game.
When I asked Friedman where would she like to be professionally in five years, she answered without missing a beat, “I would like to be making films under America’s first female president and moving the needle on important issues.” She said that the best part about working at the Daily Show was making pieces that changed policy. “A piece I did with Asif Mandvi was used as evidence in a court decision to change racist North Carolina voter ID laws,” she recalled. Friedman believes that inherent racism isn’t over, and she hopes to continue to use comedy and her growing platform to illuminate that as well as other injustices whether they be environmental, political, or feminist.
“The cat’s out of the bag,” she says in her special, “I’m a feminist. I know it’s kind of edgy but I support equality.” And while her humor includes and is for everyone, she especially wants to reach women. She made her special because she wanted women to feel less alone but also scared. “We’re all in this together,” she said. “That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be scared. But we can laugh at what we’re afraid of.”
Photos: American Cunt, jenafriedman.com
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Gila Lyons' work has appeared in Salon, Cosmopolitan, Vox, GOOD Magazine, BUST Magazine, The Rumpus, The Millions, The Morning News, Ploughshares, Brevity, Tablet, Fusion, and other publications. She holds an MFA in literary nonfiction from Columbia University, teaches college writing and literature, and is at work on a memoir about seeking a natural cure for anxiety and panic disorder but falling prey to the underbelly of the alternative health movement. Links to published work can be found at www.gilalyons.com. Follow her on Twitter at @gilalyons.