Catapult Instructors An Interview with Reductress
Catapult instructor Elissa Bassist chats with the founders and editor-at-large of “the one and only fake women’s news magazine”
As a young girl, when I grew up I wanted to be a woman straight out of a woman’s magazine. Reductress is a kind of treatment and recovery program for that.
Since 2013, Reductress—“the one and only fake women’s news magazine”—has lampooned the billions of cultural messages that have bombarded women since the womb.
Reductress has branched out with the podcast Mouth Time , the variety show “Haha, Wow!” at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater in New York, pop-up satire classes in New York and Los Angeles, and with the paper book How to Win at Feminism: The Definitive Guide to Having It All—And Then Some (Harper One), co-written by founders Beth Newell and Sarah Pappalardo and editor-at-large Anna Drezen.
The site and its offshoots offers a new way to process and purge misguided information that hits female-identifying people all the time, everywhere, from all angles. Reductress writers satirize the eye-rolling tone and self-not-helping formula of media aimed at women: self-improvement through self-destruction, and empowerment through disempowerment. The voice is in turns pointedly infantilizing, vicious, and artfully funny.
Those of us in the feminism industry know “feminism” is having a hot moment. (See: the Reductress primer on “ The Waves-of-Feminism Timeline ” on NewYorker.com) But we’ve muddied the meaning along the way to equality. We’ve commodified feminism, branded it, used it to sell more of what we don’t need.
Reductress consistently weaponizes humor to call out the sexism and commercialism masquerading as feminism.
Often compared to The Onion , Reductress is even more goal-oriented, as I find it at the intersection of satire, feminism, and activism. Personal fury comes with their comedy. As one example, they dedicated their homepage to rape culture ( #DismantleTheRapiarchy) after a serial rapist was outed (and defended) in the NYC comedy community.
I emailed Beth and Sarah while they were traveling, and we went back and forth about the future of feminism and satire, intersectionality, my ex-boyfriend, and what constitutes a good rape joke.
Magazines for women are progressing and diversifying. Do you feel you had anything to do with that? Is “change” your “mission”?
It seems like [glossy magazines] were heading in that direction due to various cultural forces of which we are one small part—but yes, we’d love to take credit for it.
“Effecting change” is something that is both ever-present in our minds, and also too bold a goal for us to openly claim as comedians who joke about our boobies.
I’ll never forget #DismantleTheRapiarchy , when your homepage consisted of rape jokes (e.g. articles titled “I Anonymously Reported My Rape for the Anonymous Attention”; “Man Who Sexually Assaulted You ‘Likes’ Your Facebook Post About Assault”; “How to Stop Listening to What a Woman’s Outfit Says and Start Listening to Her Mouth”; and “This Rapist Has Figured Out a Way to End Rape Culture”).
I tell my humor writing students that a “good” “rape joke” targets rape culture, not survivors or any oppressed person living in a constant state of fear. How would you explain that your rape jokes are different from other, bad rape jokes?
We aim to make fun of the rapist or those who contribute to rape culture, wittingly or unwittingly. We’ve come to focus more on the latter, because we find it’s easy to make fun of cartoonishly horrible people like Bill Cosby—while there is a lot more to be said about the people who support them and allow them to keep abusing others to varying degrees.
Four-part question that is all basically the same question:
1) How has humor writing changed since 11/9/16? Some of us are more determined than ever to make our work about something of substance. Some of us are just beginning to infuse comedy with social justice. Some people will continue to just make jokes about farts. Many of us will do a mix.
2) Do we need humor now more than ever? Y/N? We kind of have always needed it? Oppressed groups throughout history have had better senses of humor than the people doing the oppressing. We’re just the latest wave. It would be ignorant of us to claim that we’ve got it worse than women who experienced literal witch hunts. Those women probably had some great jokes that were lost to history.
3) What are our responsibilities as writers and witty people now? We were doing jokes about rape culture and police brutality before the election, and if anything, the election has justified these focuses.
4) How do you think humor chips away at oppression? Bullies love to start shit but hate being laughed at. They can argue with any criticism, but they can’t argue with a roomful of people laughing at them. The fictional men in our satire often serve as a cautionary tale to real men. When bullies see these articles being shared by women in their feeds, it gives them a taste of not only what’s being said behind their backs, but also what women are afraid to say outright to angry mansplainers like them. A lot of bullies are fine with making one woman mad, but the terrifying notion is of all these women getting together and laughing at them as a group. Bullies abuse women to make themselves feel less small, and our ability to find humor in it flips that power dynamic.
Comedian Aparna Nancherla once tweeted : “What is it like to be a woman in comedy? I would say it’s 1% jokes & 99% answering this question.”
Would you RT this or just “fav” it?
As the editor of a humor column, I see a lot of good people doing comedy all wrong. What’s your best advice to aspiring humorists?
Make sure you have a strong concept and that you’re making that concept clear. Rewrite, punch up, and edit. Come back to it to make sure what’s in your head is really coming out on the page. Comedy is all about clarity and beating people over the head with the joke.
Also, do your own thing. Don’t worry about what other people are doing. Treat it like a full-time job. Don’t give up. Stay positive.
How do you run Reductress differently than a “traditional” writers room where men self-admittedly don’t “get” humor about women’s totally normal and very human experiences?
We generally don’t let men in the room. That 100% solves the problem.
How far would you say is too far to lean in?
Give yourself a good foot and a half from being in people’s faces. Otherwise you’re dealing with their bad breath, or they’re dealing with yours.
What are your predictions for feminism going forward?
Feminism will continue to push forward to gain ground for women’s equality, with many missteps along the way. People who don’t identify with feminism will continue to co-opt aspects of the movement to suit their own purposes without understanding it fully. Reductress and Oprah will become best friends, and someday men will no longer be allowed to hold office.
When I realized I was a “white feminist,” after it was pointed out to me, I went through the 25 phases of NO I’M NOT; YOU ARE. Turns out, I am bone-white, cisgender, a feminist, privileged AF, and a part of the problem. As white feminists, how can we be better feminists? Asking for a white friend.
We need to work harder at promoting diversity and dismantling systems of oppression in our own communities and our own fields. We need emphasize this work as actual work that takes effort, and to stop expecting a few token gestures here and there will solve a systemic problem.
Feminism contains multitudes. As you say, we must “diversify [our] feminist goals.” How to Win at Feminism! could be titled How to Win at Intersectional Feminism! Many feminists miss the intersectionality part. In terms of privilege, white feminism is on par with patriarchy.
How are you actively intersectional on the site, in your podcast, in your live shows, in your classes on satire? I ask because we can’t talk about this enough, and we haven’t.
Our in-house staff is diverse. We try to feature a diverse range of talent on our podcast and our events. We admittedly hadn’t thought about that in relation to our workshops, so it’s good that you bring it up.
Then I’ve done my part today.
Briefly, what homework would you give us to dismantle the patriarchy as part of our daily routine?
Stop propping up mediocre white men. Many of them wouldn’t flourish without our support. Stop performing professional favors for them beyond what you’re compensated for. Many of them will neither appreciate your efforts nor return the favor. Don’t inflate their success by watching shows you don’t like. Be more open with the men around you as to why those shows aren’t serving you, and maybe they’ll start to question their own unconscious bias.
On average, how many times a day should whitestraightcismen check their privilege?
86,400 times. Every second of every day.
I believe my ex-boyfriend is trolling me by tweeting about gender disparity in his male-dominated profession. Do you think he misses me?
He is both trolling and missing you. He only knows how to deal with the emotions of missing you through trolling.
Elissa Bassist is teaching two courses in New York with us this winter: a two-day intensive Humor Writing Master Class and a six-week Humor Writing Workshop. Sign up now!