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Hysterical Feminism: Humor, Affect, and Comedy’s Role in Feminism’s Second Wave, 1955-1980 Open Access

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The dominant narrative of second wave feminism assumes that feminist activism was motivated primarily by anger. Second-wave feminists, in this picture, are understood as grumpy and without a sense of humor. “Hysterical Feminism” joins scholarship invested in revisiting the second wave to disrupt this notion that feminism of this period was unfunny, even anti-funny, suggesting that comedy was a crucial site in which ideas about feminism were expressed, negotiated, and critiqued. This dissertation looks closely at the work of women comedians from 1955 to 1980 to argue that humor did in fact play an important role in second-wave feminism. Because of comedy’s license to play with language and transgress normative boundaries, it was a rich site of challenges to confines around gender that may not have been possible in other forms. Relying on recent queer and feminist theoretical works, it claims that tracing the movement through comedy offers an alternate timeline and enriches current understandings of the affective framework of feminist activism that traditionally focus narrowly on anger. Looking at humor we can develop a narrative of the second wave that is bookmarked at moments of pleasure and play. This dissertation offers close reading of comedic performances, focusing specifically on Phyllis Diller, Lily Tomlin, and the original cast of Saturday Night Live. The project emphasizes the affective element of humor, drawing on theories of group affect from feminist and queer theory as well as social movement studies to suggest a method for reading humor that speaks to its role in social organizing and group formation, and to reveal a feminism with pleasure at its core.

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