Iliza Shlesinger Is a Standup Who Wants to Educate You…Kind Of
There’s something about Iliza Shlesinger’s feminism that feels, well, off. Some might even call it problematic. If we’re being completely honest, part of that stems from how the standup comic looks: We’re suspicious of women who talk about equality yet conform so completely to socially entrenched beauty standards. “How can you dismantle a system you’ve clearly bought into?” the thinking goes. “People don’t always like the idea of a woman who isn’t humiliated by her face,” says Shlesinger. “They don’t like the idea of a woman being proud.” Fair point.
But it’s also how she talks about feminism—and women in general. Shlesinger is one of a handful of female standups dominating this modern comedy boom. She made a name for herself by becoming the first woman to win Last Comic Standing. She also happened to be the youngest. Obviously Shlesinger isn’t the first comedian to point out the differences—and the resulting comedy—between men and women. The gender stereotypes she uses when she describes a night out, say, or a failed romantic encounter, would seem outdated and un-woke if she didn’t unapologetically point out—and find the comedy in—the social, economic and political differences between men and women, too.
Take her book, Girl Logic, published late last year. “Girl logic” is how women think—the natural, instinctual, nearly subconscious way they consider what they want by comparing their past experiences, the future they hope for, how they would like to be seen, their safety and pretty much every possible outcome. It’s not untrue, but it seems wrong, post-Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus, to admit that men and women are inherently different.
But if that seems problematic, Shlesinger doesn’t really care—which might be the biggest indication of her feminism: She’s confident enough to present herself and her observations without apology, even if she knows that some, on both the right and the left, will take to social media to register that they’ve taken offence. That’s nothing new for her; she’s used to defying expectations.
Your comedy is sometimes very conversational. How do you balance those conversational jokes you come up with onstage with actually writing down jokes?
“I don’t write anything. It’s all done onstage, which is why I always tell younger comics that they just have to go do it. You have to get up, talk and take a thought or a word and just expound and you find it in there. I don’t sit down and write. Also, my jokes are like long stories—there’s a narrative—so it’s about a stream of consciousness; you pick and choose what you want to say, but there’s no writing anything down.”
You often see male comedians adopting a self-loathing persona, but they still obviously have the confidence to do it. Does it take a different kind of confidence for women?
“Some comics are self-loathing, but at the root of it, no matter your gender, no matter how introverted or awkward or ‘alt-y’ you are, you still think you’re goddamned good enough to get up there and take up someone’s time. So I think it’s a bit of an act. There are people with crippling insecurities, for sure. But you still put on your shoes, you still came here and you still think you’re smarter and funnier than most of the people in the room. I do think it’s an affectation a lot of people put on to ingratiate themselves. I happen to go the other way. I firmly believe in standing by what you are. I was never taught to dim my light to pacify other people. But I also don’t think that anything I’m doing or saying is wildly offensive. If you’re weirded out by it, it’s probably because you don’t love that a woman is talking.”
In your last Netflix special Confirmed Kills and in Girl Logic, you’re doing a bit more educating. What do you think your responsibility is with your comedy?
“It’s weird. There is some responsibility that people put on you. And you see this with actors and singers—people are always saying ‘You need to be a role model.’ Nobody is really saying that about comics—because we’re comics. I have an obligation to myself to be vulnerable and not say things or do things that aren’t authentic. I think with that responsibility you get the best version of me. No matter what you do, you’re going to piss people off. Whether you are talking about feminism or your government, you’re going to upset some people. I figure that if you’re going to upset group A half the time and group B half the time, at least 50 per cent of the time someone is OK with you.”
Like what happened to you online recently.
“I did this entire interview about feminism and how pro-female I am and how my whole career is a love letter to all that. And I had one sentence about how women are so multi-faceted, and so smart, yet you see a lot of women making lazy vagina jokes. The vaginas aren’t lazy; the jokes are. I’m in comedy clubs, and I hear these jokes often. And a couple of bloggers got upset. When you’re a woman and you say one thing that women disagree with, they want to crucify you. Never mind the book, the specials, the entire interview that was pro-women; you say one thing that hurts their feelings and therefore they want to see you die. And that is a big problem with humans in general. We love to tear people down; we love to tear women down.”
Girl Logic is based on the premise that women and men think differently. Do you think that that is a biological difference or a social construct?
“I think it’s both. It can’t be fully social because women have ovaries and a biological clock and periods, and in terms of safety, women aren’t as strong as men physically. But a big touchstone of the book is that women have to be so many different things to so many people at once, and it’s because of these expectations that we’re constantly filtering out what works for us—past, present and future. It’s this constant measuring yourself against other people, against other women, against how you want to feel versus how you do feel, because you’re expected to be a certain way and act a certain way, which is exhausting, and we do it naturally. And so a normal person might say ‘Why do you care about what other people think? Just be yourself.’ And I agree with that, except that oftentimes what society, men or other women project on you can have detrimental effects, physically, emotionally and career-wise. You know, like ‘She seems like a slut’ or ‘She seems stupid.’ And then they treat you that way. And sometimes you don’t get a chance to prove them wrong. And we deal with this on a minute-by-minute basis. ‘She’s blond so she must not be smart.’ ‘Oh, she’s a different colour so she must not be XYZ.’ It’s a constant struggle: How much do I want to take in? And we suss out and do this naturally. That’s what girl logic is.”
Talking about feminism seems dangerous—not only because non-feminists will get mad at you but because other feminists will.
“That’s a very real thing. I have talked about this in hushed tones with other women. One of the huge dangers people face in this movement is other women. And people can roll their eyes at that, but Abraham Lincoln said, ‘A house divided against itself cannot stand.’ Women are always pitted against each other, and women pit other women against each other. Before I knew about the movement or Gloria Steinem or any of the literature, I was always the kind of woman who stood up for herself and didn’t understand why I shouldn’t be treated the same as the guys. I definitely thought I was smarter and funnier, and I just didn’t take any shit. That’s not to say that shit wasn’t put on me. I only started using the word ‘feminism’ maybe two years ago, as a way to make it more accessible, but talking about feminism doesn’t mean anything if you aren’t doing things to move that issue forward.”