Comedy works in politics. There’s nothing quite as effective at breaking through talking points than a sharp quip or bit of satire. To many, a good and poignant joke with a purpose is all that keeps them interested. For others, it’s all that keeps them awake. This is rough on politicians, who — not to definitively typecast — suffer from a reputation of not being very funny. At least, not when they’re trying to be.
Lizz Winstead is funny. Very funny. The Minnesota native, comedian, author, radio and television personality is also very political. She co-created The Daily Show on Comedy Central, co-founded the now defunct Air America Radio, and toured the country (including a stop in Anchorage in 2011) in support of Planned Parenthood. Since then, she’s been hard to miss, becoming a staple on MSNBC cable news programs and progressive circles across the United States.
Her latest project goes by the name “Lady Parts Justice.” It may be Winstead’s loftiest ambition to date: Getting people — especially women — engaged in local politics.
The effort comes in response to the rash of new laws, passed by state legislatures, aimed at curbing women’s access to reproductive health. As the Guttmacher Institute points out, an “unprecedented wave of state-level abortion restrictions swept the country over the past three years.” Guttmacher added that “more state abortion restrictions were enacted in 2011-2013 than in the entire previous decade.” In that span of time, over 200 such restrictions were enacted.
Alaska is no different. In 2014, the legislature enacted two major laws focused on women’s reproductive rights. State Senator John Coghill’s (R-North Pole) Senate Bill 49 (SB49) was passed and signed into law, changing the definition of what constitutes a “medically necessary” abortion, limiting it to 21 specific physical conditions. Last month, an Alaska Superior Court judge put a temporary block on the law, after the ACLU and Planned Parenthood of the Great Northwest challenged it’s constitutionality. Lawmakers repeatedly cited that the proposal was not about abortion access, but about Medicaid fraud — a claim which to date has not been substantiated.
Senator Pete Kelly (R-Fairbanks) passed another bill that landed in national headlines all over the country. Senate Concurrent Resolution 13 (SCR13) was an omnibus attempt to combat fetal alcohol spectrum disorder. The proposal quickly became known for a single component: state-funded pregnancy tests, which would be placed in 20 bar and restaurant bathrooms across the state. The explanation offered was that women, who otherwise might binge drink, would stop and check to see if they were pregnant first. In an interview with Alaska Dispatch News’s Kyle Hopkins, Kelly said that he preferred pregnancy tests over access to birth control. “This assumes that if you know, you’ll act responsibly. Birth control is for people who don’t necessarily want to act responsibly.”
Winstead said that what has been happening in Alaska is indicative of a push by state legislatures throughout the country. Lady Parts Justice began tracking them all, and between February and July shot 50 videos — one for every state — taking a look at what the laws could look like in application. Each video has local input, by actors, writers, or consultants. That includes Alaska’s video, which covers Sen. Kelly’s bathroom pregnancy tests. It’s definitely worth several watches:
Winstead said she had initially begun work on a video featuring Coghill’s “medically necessary” bill, but Kelly’s viral ADN interview interrupted that effort. She said two things bugged her about Kelly’s approach:
One is, to pretend you care about women and then remove access to affordable birth control and reproductive health care is bullshit. [To suggest] that women who use birth control are irresponsible, and that birth control is an irresponsible thing to do just shows that you really don’t care about the baby at all. You care about controlling women. If you wanted to reduce the number of abortions, and the way you want to do that is to say that birth control is irresponsible, you’re bad at life. You’re just bad at life. And then, second of all, to assume that anyone who’s gone to have some drinks at a bar is going to go, ‘Oh, gee, I wonder if I’m pregnant. Maybe I’ll pee on a stick first. And then go get totally wasted and be so fucked up and not be responsible and not use birth control,’ is a level of rationale that — I can’t. I mean, I literally cannot form words. It makes zero sense on a logical level, a compassion level, or even on a tough love level. On all the levels it fails.
Getting people to dial in to state level politics is no easy chore. “I mean, there is nothing more boring than talking about state politics for people who are just trying to live there lives,” she conceded. “But once you realize, like, in 2014 alone there have been over 750 pieces of legislation either passed or proposed that have tried to curb abortion access, and not even all of the state legislatures are even in session. And we’re in August.”
To Winstead, too much attention has been afforded the inaction in Washington D.C., while the states have been busy passing a flurry of restrictive measures, with few signs of slowing down. Lady Parts Justice is playing a game of catch up with many conservative groups already active in state legislatures.
It’s basically “Funny or Die” meets, sort of, socking you in the stomach with some information. And then, once you laugh, and then read some facts, you can immediately go to a place where you can register to vote, or you can donate to a local place that helps lower income women get any kind of health care that they might need. And eventually we want it to become [a place] where people come together and, locally, decide to drink some wine and stir some shit up; pay some attention to politicians. Or if they have an election where they don’t have anything crappy on the ballot, or there isn’t a particular shitty politician, maybe a bunch of women adopt and help somebody else, like adopt a district.
Lady Parts Justice is launching a national event on September 27, called “V To Shining V,” aimed at doing just that. “We thought, let’s pick a day in the fall that will hopefully become an annual event where two things can happen. You can get together, throw a party, play party games, drink, talk about what’s at stake in your state and scheme towards the midterm elections,” Winstead said. “If there’s a party every year that’s super fun and you’re getting together with people and plotting how you’re going to affect change, you’re reminding people that there’s an election every year.”
So far, eight major cities, including Minneapolis, Nashvile, Los Angeles, Austin, Madison, and Detroit are planning large public “V To Shining V” events. Winstead and many others, including comedian Sarah Silverman and musician Ted Leo, have signed on to participate. More announcements will be made on the group’s website on August 18.
As of yet, Alaska has not registered a house party. “So, feel free. Anybody can feel free,” Winstead added. “I’d love to have there be an Alaska one happening.”
Lady Parts Justice is encouraging people to live tweet their events with the hash tags #LPJ927 and #V2V14, and spread the message of activism through social media. It’s more than about getting together for one night only, it’s about standing up for rights, Winstead said.
The right wing seems to own the language. And for a long time, I think that traditional feminists have been tip-toeing around things that don’t need to be tip-toed around, and shouldn’t be tip-toed around, like the word abortion. I feel like when people say, “You know, women use birth control for other reasons.” It’s like, what other reason? A woman can use birth control whatever the fuck reasons she wants. And the second you start saying, ‘She also uses it for her acne,’ or whatever people use it for. It’s like, yeah, but, so there’s good women who use it for the acne and then there are whores. “So don’t spoil it for the good women.” Stop saying that. Every time our side starts using the language of shame, it kind of destroys it. We won’t get anywhere. So, we’re trying to do a reset on women being able to be sexual people and not have shame about it.