Funny Woman

What I learned from Molly Ivins.

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Molly Ivins

I didn’t know Molly Ivins, and most of you didn’t, either. But there was something about her voice—brash and bossy and warm—that made it easy to feel that we really did know her; she just hadn’t met us yet.

As both a woman and a writer, I cannot actually remember a time before Molly Ivins. And as someone who suspects that funny women writers can get away with things serious women writers cannot, it seems to me that every little girl in America should be forced to read an Ivins essay along with her American Girl and Traveling Pants collections.

Ivins, who died this week, was an unrepentant midcentury liberal, a rabble rouser, and a populist. She hated phonies and D.C. insiders and bemoaned the demise of independent journalism, writing: “If you are a younger journalist … how are you to know that there’s another way to do it? A whole different tradition? That success is not becoming a talking head celebrity, saying what everyone else says?” But above all, Ivins was funny. Stuff-out-your-nose, choke-on-your-muffin funny. And that fact alone should warrant a parade.

Christopher Hitchens’ recent musing on women and funniness will be treated here with all the seriousness it warrants.

That should about do it.

Ivins’ bag of comedic tricks included the perfect metaphor: “Being Canadian” was “like living next door to the Simpsons”; being “attacked by Rush Limbaugh on the air” was like “being gummed by a newt.  It doesn’t actually hurt but it leaves you with slimy stuff on your ankle.” She also nailed the genius turn of phrase: “Iraq is clearly hubris carried to the point of insanity—it’s damn hard to convince people you’re killing them for their own good.” (Ivins famously ended her career with the New York Times when she referred to a “community chicken-killing festival” in a small town as a “gang-pluck.”)

But her greatest gift as a humorist was her ability to put into words something everyone vaguely sensed but hadn’t yet named. She brilliantly dubbed George W. Bush “Shrub.” She relentlessly debunked the stupidism that “we can make ourselves safer if we just make ourselves less free.” And she could vanquish a widely held misconception with a well-placed “poot” or “piffle.” Of those who urged that “anyone speaking up for civil liberties is on the side of the terrorists,” she wrote, “that’s the kind of thinking that has earned syllogism the reputation it enjoys today.” Of the lingering outrage aimed at Hillary Clinton: “Most people have a very hard time forgiving those whom they have deeply wronged.”

Ivins once described her job as “to provide regular instruction in the science of how to keep laughing, even though you’ve considered all the facts,” and that command of the facts is what made her humor matter. Ivins wasn’t the one in the girls’ bathroom cracking on how tacky the other girls’ blazers were. That seems to me where women’s humor goes off the rails, whether it’s perpetrated by men or by women. No, she found a way to tell dirty jokes with the boys instead. She joked about budgets and arms deals and she used the word “balls.” She might have been scared, but she never let on.

Of her friend and hero Jessica Mitford, Ivins wrote: “[She] was not fearless. She was brave.” Ivins knew the difference. She once said her greatest compliment came from a Texas legislator who told her, in all sincerity, “Young lady. You got huevos.” And in Ivins’ view huevos means overcoming that fear and standing up for those without money, or power, or influence. It’s quite a trick to make single mothers or crumbling middle schools funny, but Ivins did it. And that’s why she loathed Limbaugh. Not because he wasn’t funny, and not because he preferred different politicians. But because targeting “dead people, little girls and the homeless” is cheap and cruel. Fair or not, Ivins had a humor code and by her law, satire “was a weapon of powerless people aimed at the powerful.” Reversing that order isn’t bravery. Ivins could be brutal when she went after the corrupt and the powerful: She lashed back at the media love fest over Richard Nixon when he died with one of the most blistering pieces she ever penned. But she saw that wit as a means to an end.

Ivins didn’t land every joke, but who does? And she wasn’t right in every instance, but who is? (Ivins wrote confidently in 1992 that “as we all get to know [Hillary Clinton] I suspect much of the controversy will die away.”) She was right about the big stuff. In 1992 she also wrote that the defining moment for her generation was “not whether you went to Vietnam or whether you didn’t …  the only question is whether we can find a president smart enough never to make a mistake like that again.”

But she did more than that. Molly Ivins taught a whole generation of women writers the most useful trick out there, more useful, even, than faking bravery: Get the boys to laugh with you, and you stand a pretty decent chance of being taken seriously.