The Performance of Intersectionality on the 21st Century Stand-Up Comedy Stage
Blackburn, Rachel Eliza
University of Kansas
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In 2014, Black feminist scholar bell hooks called for humor to be utilized as political weaponry in the current, post-1990s wave of intersectional activism at the National Women’s Studies Association conference in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Her call continues to challenge current stand-up comics to acknowledge intersectionality, particularly the perspectives of women of color, and to encourage comics to actively intervene in unsettling the notion that our U.S. culture is “post-gendered” or “post-racial.” This dissertation examines ways in which comics are heeding bell hooks’s call to action, focusing on the work of stand-up artists who forge a bridge between comedy and political activism by performing intersectional perspectives that expand their work beyond the entertainment value of the stage. Though performers of color and white female performers have always been working to subvert the normalcy of white male-dominated, comic space simply by taking the stage, this dissertation focuses on comics who continue to embody and challenge the current wave of intersectional activism by pushing the socially constructed boundaries of race, gender, sexuality, class, and able-bodiedness. Utilizing performance analysis, gender theory, queer theory, critical race theory, and humor studies, this dissertation unpacks the ways that stand-up performers engage the comedic stage as their own form of public intellectualism and social critique in the #BlackLivesMatter era. This dissertation is driven by a central question: what performative strategies – defined throughout as ways in which comics structure the content, delivery, and space of their performances in specific ways that convey meaning – do stand-up comedians use to invite audiences to see them as intersectional subjects that live in the wholeness of their identities? Throughout the dissertation, I examine how comedians are using specific tactics of performance that reflect a fullness of identity as intersections of race, gender, class, sexuality, and (dis)ability. The first chapter examines the work of specific performers to demonstrate ways in which stand-up comedians blend public intellectual work with social activism through their comedy to convey intersectional standpoints in the 21st century. The second chapter explores the work of Black female American stand-up comedians as a challenge to the ways in which the normative whiteness of fourth wave feminism fails to acknowledge the labor of women of color, despite its purported ethos to do so. Chapter three considers the work of performers examining gender, sexuality, and (dis)ability from a white positionality and critiques such work in terms of ways it does or does not engage with race and whiteness as a core component of intersectionality. The final chapter ponders how the use of humor, as a tool of intersectional activism, loses or gains efficacy when performed from transnational perspectives. Ultimately, this dissertation argues that 21st century stand-up answers hooks’s call, serving as a site to address and perform social justice activism by using humor as the connective tissue between these spaces of social discourse, comedy, and traditional street protest.
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