Last week I attended an English department lecture about writer Anita Loos. Confession: I attended it foremost because free food was promised (#gradlife) and secondly because I saw the word “feminism” in the talk’s title. The lecture, “Putting his Pictures in the Papers (1916): Anita Loos, Douglas Fairbanks, and the Technologies of Indirect Feminist Rhetoric,” was given by scholar Jason Barrett-Fox.
In the lecture, Jason introduced the audience to Anita Loos, one of the primary writing forces behind many important films in early American cinema. Loos was the woman behind screen legend Douglas Fairbanks. What was particularly interesting about Loos was how she snuck questions of gender into and poked fun at hyper-masculinity in her comedic movies.
This clever modern woman was able to introduce feminist questions into the mainstream simply by disguising them with humor. This “indirect feminism,” as Jason termed it, was a clever way for Loos to present gender inequality to the masses. Her indirect feminism was comparable to Jon Stewart delivering biting liberal commentary by way of a satirical news show, Jason noted. People seem more open to new ideas or questioning of old ideas when they are presented in a humorous way.
Following the lecture, I started reading the book Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, arguably her most famous work. I had only known of it as a Marilyn Monroe vehicle, but the book was written in the mid-1920s. At the same time F. Scott Fitzgerald was having wealthy white man problems and earning literary fame for writing about them, Loos introduced the world to her protagonist Lorelai, a beautiful blonde socialite who is never seen working, but rather flits about New York (and later Europe) on other’s people’s dimes (re: men).
This is an incredibly funny book. Initially, I felt as though the humor was at Lorelai’s expense–she’s clearly under-educated (the story, told in a series of diary entries, is full of misspellings). As I continued to read, I realized the humor was at everyone’s expense. Lorelai, who presents herself to men as naive and in need of their education, is actually very successful at using men to get ahead. This is not a book about a woman looking for marriage. This is about a woman who wants to travel, wear expensive jewelry, and have a little fun. Say what you will about her manipulations or her dependency on men, but Lorelelai benefits from playing into the male fantasy that all girls just want to be taken care of.
Underneath Lorelai’s gold digger surface, Loos gives a harsh commentary on male and female relationships. Throughout the book, Lorelai talks about how men want to educate her. They give her books, tell her to keep a diary, and send her to Europe for the culture. But for all these attempts to better her, their true intentions are obvious: they want her as a sexual plaything. Many of her lovers are married men–they aren’t looking to make a well-read wife out of her. As the title suggests, they adore her for her physical attributes. Loos delivers a pointed look at these society men–as much as Lorelai should be shamed for being a gold digger, so should these men be shamed for being superficial.
Now I want to take a leap to contemporary culture. Does indirect feminism still exist? Does it help or hurt our cause to disguise questions of gender inequality behind humor? For the first question I’ll offer up two blondes: Chelsea Handler and Amy Schumer. Handler has made a name for herself for her E! talk show and for her antics–many of her jokes revolve around drinking a lot and sleeping with many partners. Schumer isn’t a household name–yet. I came across her new comedy sketch series the other day and was caught off guard by an entire stand-up act revolving around whether a woman would ever be okay with her partner ejaculating on her face (stay with me). Both women present unabashed commentaries on modern sexual relationships–veiled with vulgar humor.
I don’t know whether either woman would call herself a feminist (Loos didn’t identify as one). I’m also not saying they’re advancing gender equality by making dick jokes. But I think it’s worth noting that men have made successful careers out of unabashed art centering on sex (Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint is an entire book about masturbation, for goodness sakes). So perhaps it’s worth noting that two women are making careers out of talking about subjects traditionally reserved for males, and making us laugh while they do it.