On Sunday night, The Huffington Post turned their Twitter account over to Chelsea Handler. Who better to live tweet the Oscars than a comedienne who has made her career by playing the raunchy part of celebrity hater? Handler's tweets — ranging from racially tinged jokes about Oscar winner Lupita Nyong'o to juvenile jabs at Angelina Jolie's international adoptions — set off a bit of a firestorm. Her awful jokes aren't worth defending, but the response to them, excoriating Handler for not being "nice enough," is about as unsophisticated as the jokes themselves.
The criticism of Handler's "cattiness" stems from the very prominent voice she's given to women in comedy in the past few years. Most recently, she received widespread attention for an op-ed in which she pushed back against a New York Times story about late night television that mentioned her only parenthetically. And at the woman-focused Makers Conference, Handler spoke frankly about choosing the nightly lineup for her E! show Chelsea Lately. "As a woman," Handler said "you have the responsibility to take care of other women."
But some seem to have confused Handler's advocacy for women in comedy as synonymous for "being nice" and never making jokes about women. One writer intoned that Handler's bad jokes about Jolie in particular "fly in the face of Handler's stated goal of being a pathbreaker who helps other women." But let's be clear: Professionally supporting other women doesn't equate to being nice to all women all of the time. It simply means that Handler has given herself the public obligation to advance the careers of women in her field.
Handler has fulfilled that obligation; the writing staff for her show is one of the most diverse in late night. And she's welcomed a sizeable number of female comedians onto her show. It's no surprise that fellow mean-girl Amy Schumer credits Handler as a "revolution."
Handler's comedic personality isn't always easy to love; like Schumer's and Sarah Silverman's, it's aggressive, raunchy, and thrives on shock value. Ultimately, though, these are all personas meant to undermine the cultural expectations we place on women's speech. In this particular comedic performance, no one is proverbially safe and there's little room for niceness.
It's a biting double standard to suggest that cracking a bad joke about Angelina Jolie somehow undermines feminism writ large. It's a standard, of course, that Handler's late night counterparts never have to live up to: Conan O'Brien, David Letterman, and Jimmy Kimmel can joke about whomever they wish because they don't have to advocate for men in comedy. They only represent themselves, and they're doing just fine. But the expectation of "nice" is doubly challenging for comediennes who, like Handler, styles themselves a la Joan Rivers.
Handler's jokes don't always work; as her Oscar tweets demonstrate she can be as boorish as she can be funny. There's plenty of smart criticism of Handler to be had, but "be nice" isn't one of them.
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