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Feminist Satire on Late Night Television Full Frontal with Samantha Bee

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Feminist Satire on Late Night Television: Full Frontal with Samantha Bee

Comedy Central

Shortly before the premiere of Full Frontal with Samantha Bee, Vanity Fair published a cover photo featuring “all of the titans of late night television.” Effectively editing the only female late-night comedy host out of the lineup, the magazine cover paraded 10 male ambassadors of the genre, three of whom happen to be named Jim (Corden, Fallon, and Kimmel), sipping cocktails and dressed in suits and ties. Samantha Bee set the record straight by tweeting a PhotoShopped version of the image, inserting herself as a laser beam-shooting centaur into the negative space between Corden and John Oliver. Since then, Full Frontal has continued to do just that: fill in the missing links in mainstream news discourse with incisive feminist satire.

Full Frontal premiered to 2.2 million viewers with a cold-open press conference, in which Bee responded to her own tokenization as the only woman currently hosting a late-night talk show: “What’s it like to be a female woman?” and “How should I watch your show as a man?” Since its February 8 debut, Full Frontal has insistently, rigorously, and hilariously provided a weekly feminist slant on current events, political news, and popular culture. Bee, who served as a correspondent on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart for 12 years, was never approached about succeeding Stewart. She recruited several of The Daily Show’s writers and producers, including Jo Miller and Miles Kahn, effectively staking out her terrain in the universe of late-night news satire.

Bee’s comedic presence couldn’t be more timely, as gender politics continue to take center stage in the race for the presidency—from Hillary Clinton’s historic nomination, to Donald Trump’s misogynistic period jokes and 10-point scale for ranking the hotness of female public figures, to the ongoing juridical struggles over the piecemeal erosion of women’s reproductive rights. Bee paves the way alongside an expanding field of female comedians, such as Tig Notaro, Maria Bamford, Issa Rae, Ali Wong, and Aparna Nancherla, using satire as a mode for contemplating the devastating absurdity of systemic gender inequality, sexual bigotry, and social oppression. Full Frontal revels in the black humor and joyful absurdity of even the most depressing news items.

One of the segment producers, Sanya Dosani, who formerly worked for Al Jazeera America, compared Full Frontal’s tone to Al Jazeera’s own: “In Al Jazeera, there’s not really a lot of room for humor in our newsrooms. We like to call ourselves the broccoli of news… [Here], it’s a lot of digging through the archives, and instead of finding the most depressing sound bytes, I now find the most hilarious and depressing sound bytes.” A number of the show’s writers and producers have affirmed this mission, in addition to their common investments in feminist politics, that no story is too depressing to represent satirically—and that comedy and gloom, or satirical mockery and sober analysis, are never mutually exclusive. Laughter provides a tool for confronting injustice head-on, rather than simply displacing depression and alienation through associative sight gags and light-hearted puns—which is arguably the modus operandi of much late-night topical news comedy.

Full Frontal has distinguished itself stylistically as well as substantively. Bee delivers the news standing up (she says she’s tired of seeing men satirize the news while seated), gazing directly into the camera, with montage video and audio clips projected onto a large screen behind her. She deftly integrates verbal commentary and bodily gesture with captioned videos, recognizable memes, and explanatory graphics. During a recent segment about the MJIA (Military Justice Improvement Act), Bee responds to video footage depicting female officers testifying about having been harassed, molested, and violated by their male superiors. Former Army Sgt. Rebekah Havrilla recounts how a high-ranking officer once told her that “the rape was God’s will, and that God was trying to get my attention so that I would go back to church.”

Bee will often warm her viewers to the comedy of an utterly depressing reality with a light-hearted joke or nonsensical comparison, a la The Daily Show. Here, she subverts this horrific testimony: “Jesus Cracker! Has God never heard of an evite?! If you want people to come to church, you have a fish fry, come on.” Cut to Bee PhotoShopped into an image of a family fish fry. From tragedy to comedy, the segment will always unfold as a battleground between these two incompatible feelings: between tears and laughter.

Bee adds, by the way, “If you’re someone who believes that women were asking for it by entering a man’s profession, please kill yourself.” From externalizing the violence of rape (a prevalent topic for Full Frontal’s comedic reporting on the news) to turning its aggressions back onto the perpetrator, barbed jokes and aggressive satire give Full Frontal a platform for envisioning alternative relations of gender and power.

The rest of the segment goes to town on this endemic sexual violence, refusing to resign the role of comedy to a purely conciliatory or observational function. A captioned graphic reveals that there were more than 20,000 cases of sexual assault in the military in 2014. “Though,” Bee notes, “those survey takers might be lying. I’d have to see what kind of clothes they were wearing.” Co-opting the false justification for a serious problem provides an effective tactic for Bee to awaken her viewer to what otherwise might risk appearing as yet another abstract statistic.

The monster is created by the system: It turns out that most unit commanders frequently neglect to indict accused rapists, not just out of ingrained misogyny (Havrilla also describes her sergeant once stripping naked and dancing on a table during a compulsory military sexual harassment training session), but because they themselves would be held responsible as a result of said indictment; they’d ostensibly be prosecuting themselves. (The key provision of Senator Kirsten Gillibrand’s MJIA bill is to take the jurisdiction of rape outside the chain of command and give it to trained military prosecutors.) Bee adds, topically: “And then the judge knocks the sentence down to six months because your rapist swims fast.”

Bee always concludes a contentious segment with either pointed disbelief or with a rousing call to action. Here, she urges viewers to pressure their senators to vote for the bill, calling out Obama for not doing enough himself: “You’ve spent the past year heckling Republicans and burning through your political capital like a hooker with Richard Gere’s credit card.” Gendered aggression and sexually tendentious sight gags, evidently, aren’t solely the domain of male comedians.

This is Full Frontal’s feminist wager: The only way to defend women from violence and misogyny is by inflicting the very same (at least symbolically), not just on the overt misogynists, but on the patterns of thinking and inaction that reinforce misogyny and violence against women on a systemic level. Similarly, Bee wraps up a segment about baby diapers—driving home the point that working mothers cannot earn enough to afford the expensiveness of childcare—with a cutting joke about infantile sexuality and Republican ideology: “Like it or not, [Republicans], there are a lot of poor babies. And it sounds like all you’ve got for them is the same useless advice you’re giving their mothers: Keep your legs crossed.”

Humor, when it’s truly funny and surprising, can provoke a visceral reaction. Laughter is often described as convulsive, writhing, contagious, and hysterical. Full Frontal doubles down on the violence of the words and images that elicit our fully embodied participation as laughing spectators. In one interview, Dan Flynn, member of the Texas House of Representatives, justifies the legislation of an anti-abortion bill he co-authored: “Any time you start cuttin’ on people’s bodies, you need to have it in a procedure where it can be healthy.” Bee retorts, “Of course, though, you don’t cut a woman in an abortion.” (From this impasse between pointed fact and gross misinformation, the segment pivots to a fittingly grizzly sight gag of—what else?—the butchering of Talisa Stark during the Red Wedding on HBO’s Game of Thrones.)

Again, this is the show’s project: to confront the most disturbing, unsettling, and nauseatingly nonsensical aspects of the news and contemporary culture, and to mine them for their dark humor. Full Frontal challenges us to recognize the connections between the things we laugh at, the spectacles we gawk at, and the issues that we have a tendency to avoid.

After all, not everyone has the luxury of avoiding such realities. As Bee comments, in her preface to a segment about online harassment: “Being a woman on the Internet means receiving frequent bouquets of chivalrous offers to tear you in half, cunt first—especially if you have the nerve to run for president, talk about politics on TV, or criticize literally any video game.” This segment, titled “Seattle Seawards,” focuses on the Seattle city councilwomen who received death threats and obscene, sexist messages after voting against a plan to build an expensive new sports arena that would have returned the Supersonics to their hometown. Eliding the pun with its sad omission, Bee quips: “Ports before sports! Because those big, throbbing, civic-pride hard-ons that stadiums give a city are typically used by taxpayers to screw themselves.”

Though allegedly no topic is off limits for satirical rumination on Full Frontal, the joke writing must still be able to parlay horror and disgust into comedy and laughter. Many lines end up on the cutting room floor, not because they aren’t incisive (which is, to be sure, the most frequent cause of late night joke casualties), but perhaps because they’re too immediately resonant: Laughter requires at least a bit of distance and mystification. For example, there was a close call with a piece titled “Job Fair for Future Women.” The segment poses the realities of sexual harassment in the workplace against the mythos whereby young girls are encouraged to “dream big” and “lean in.”

Given its depressing, troubling, and often seemingly hopeless news content, Full Frontal emphasizes the catharsis that arrives at the end of the segment—which the network’s ad schedule limits to only eight minutes. Moreover, this catharsis must awaken viewer alertness and potentially lead to decisive action, rather than merely offering relief that would then reinforce further disavowal and avoidance.

Bee closes the “Future Job Fair for Women” piece masterfully. Impersonating the hypothetical male complaint and then definitively shutting it down, she intones: “What am I supposed to do? Stop asking women out at work because it makes them uncomfortable?” She then declaims: “Yes. You are at work!” Simple, but effective, as it can take very few words to demystify a fetish. The show, after all, isn’t called Partial Frontal.

Feminist Satire on Late Night Television: Full Frontal with Samantha Bee

Full Frontal with Samantha Bee airs Mondays at 10:30pm EST on TBS.