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Lizz Winstead, political pundit and creator of The Daily Show, discusses the feminist elite, slut-shaming, and her book

May 10, 2013
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Comedian, pundit, author and outspoken feminist Lizz Winstead is musing on her apparent relationship with wild-eyed Republican Congresswoman Michelle Bachmann, with whom she has posted “selfies” on social media with alarming regularity. They share a home state (Minnesota), but they also share opposite sides of the political absurdity spectrum populating the evening news shows of late. “I’ve made lots of money making fun of her, and have been in the paper constantly, and I’m on TV making fun of her, and she doesn’t have a clue.”

A trailblazer in the relatively new world of political satire – Winstead is co-creator of Comedy Central’s The Daily Show and co-founder of the now-defunct Air America radio network – Winstead documented her history in an essay collection, Lizz Free or Die, last year in hardback. Now that the obligatory paperback version is hitting the shelves (with added material), Winstead, it seems, has even more to say. And, no, she won’t shut up.

It must have been hard to totally rewrite your book in paperback after having the luxury of trade cloth to leverage against the first time.
Lizz Winstead: Yes, you’re so right. Ding, ding, ding! OMG. You’re so honest. [Laughs] That is what one struggles with when one puts a paperback out. Have you ever tried to sign a check when it’s not on the table?

Seriously, was it easier for you to set out to write a “book of essays” rather than a memoir? Because honestly, Lizz, it’s a memoir.
It’s honestly sort of a memoir. But it’s only sort of a memoir, because I didn’t choose to focus in depth on one particular aspect of my life. … I decided to take a couple of different stories from certain parts of my life that had a specific purpose, for the most part, that just kind of showed something that got me going, propelled me, opened my eyes in some way, to get me there, to show me who the fuck I was and what I was doing.

Even when it’s not profoundly that, it’s more sort of cautionary tales of what happens when you take something on that you truly love, but you then have to learn how to do it, having already accepted the challenge. Which is kind of the way I seem to be living my life.

You also live your life as an outspoken woman. Where do you stand on Sheryl Sandberg’s book, Lean In, versus Anne-Marie Slaughter’s much-debated “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” – the new, nuanced feminism of the elite?
Feminism of the elite has always been the feminism that’s talked about the most. I haven’t read Sheryl Sandberg’s book, so I don’t want to totally comment on it, but I think that privilege with power and feminism with power is very different from feminism when you don’t have the power that she has. And I think when you are struggling, and feeling desperate for survival, tips like “Ask for what you really deserve!” aren’t really sometimes the tips that you need.

You’ve been a woman in an industry that is dominated by men. There are some bits in your book where there is some loosely gender-based friction, but you’ve also formed some strong alliances and created careers for people like Jon Stewart. Have you ever felt a glass ceiling shatter, or do you feel like it’s a more vague progression than that for you?
At the beginning, there was this very weird notion, shockingly, that all women were sort of the same, and so all women comedians were the same. They would never just have two women on the show because two women have a great tone that would mesh together in a show, [because] if it was more than a one-woman show, it would be a freak show. It [would be] the “All Woman Show” or, I did an HBO show called Women of the Night. … They figure we just talk about our periods and stuff. Which, by the way, if we do talk about our periods, so what! Men can talk about getting laid all day long, but if women talk about things that women are about, somehow it was devalued because it was uninteresting to men.

I don’t get the sense in reading the book that in any of your major projects – The Daily Show, Air America Radio – that there was any real gender conflict, and you actually do try to remain positive about all of the experiences. You come off more as someone who always said what she thought and then owned it, consequences be damned.
I think what I did was – it slows up the process – but I just avoided places and people that I saw were sexist or placed women in certain positions, and sometimes those people owned chains of comedy clubs, and sometimes that meant, “Don’t go work there.” Then I ended up being offered jobs and being in charge of things that didn’t have anything to do with my gender – that had to do with me deciding to plow ahead in places that were more nurturing, rather than having to battle who I was.

You got to document some of the reaction to the hardcover release of the book as you were editing the paperback edition, including the response to the chapter about your own abortion. Some of that came from the left, which wanted you to tone it down.
You can’t run away from abortion. And if you are, you have to ask why you are. Because when you do, you demonize the majority of women who have had one and you make them feel shame. And even if you think you don’t, you do. I just feel so strongly that if you believe that it is indeed a medical procedure, why are you letting the morality police define it as something else? You are slut-shaming by proxy. It’s not a message that some people want to hear, but I feel like it’s important.

The outpouring that I got of people saying “I agree” was very heartening, because I feel like if you want women to come out of the shadows and talk about their experience and be the base of reproductive justice and abortion rights – if one in three women have had an abortion at some time in their lives, that isn’t always the rape, incest or life of the mother. Keep it a hot button until all the rights go away, and then it’s not even a button, and then it’s not even an issue, and women are just having unsafe abortions everywhere. Good plan!

(Photo: Billy Manes)

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