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Why Did The Activist Cross The Road: What Happens When Comedy Gets Serious
The Quietus , June 20th, 2020 08:18

In this exclusive excerpt from their new book, A Comedian and an Activist Walk into a Bar: The Serious Role of Comedy in Social Justice, Caty Borum Chattoo and Lauren Feldman look at how the collaboration between civil rights activist Amanda Nguyen and comedy website Funny or Die succeeded in changing the law about victims' rights

Amanda Nguyen was angry. Her opening remarks to the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee were blunt: “On the day that I was raped, I never could have imagined that a greater injustice awaited me than the one I had already been forced to endure.” Assaulted as a college student, Nguyen was shocked to learn how difficult her journey to justice would be, thanks to an inadequate criminal justice system – a scenario faced also by millions of Americans. Crucial medical evidence was routinely destroyed. Case backlogs prevented the crimes from being investigated. Without basic rights afforded to sexual assault survivors, including access to their own rape kits containing physical evidence of the crime, the possibility of justice was minimal.

In 2014, after launching a nonprofit advocacy organization called Rise, Nguyen set out to change federal and state law in order to expand legal rights for sexual assault survivors – herself and others: “I started it because I needed civil rights and nobody else was going to write them, so I decided to write them myself.” Powered by data, motivation, personal stories, and supportive legislative allies, Rise was methodical. Success – though daunting considering the bureaucratic intricacies of legislative advocacy – seemed hopeful. But in 2016, Nguyen and her Rise team – after collaborating with members of Congress to craft federal legislation, the Sexual Assault Survivors’ Bill of Rights Act – were stalled. Although momentum had been building for the bill, and despite bi-partisan congressional sponsors, it was an election year – a historically difficult time to get things done within the complicated, gridlocked engine of Congress.

Enter comedy. After meeting with Brad Jenkins, former White House official turned director of the D.C. office of Funny or Die, Nguyen decided comedy was worth a try alongside the Rise team’s other organizing tactics. The result of their first creative collaboration, a short-form YouTube comedy sketch video produced by Funny or Die, titled “Even Supervillains Think Our Sexual Assault Laws Are Insane,” illustrates the stakes: Sitting around a gloomily-lit room, five cartoonishly ridiculous and terrible “supervillains,” while fiendishly plotting to defeat heroic “Captain Brave” with a litany of evil tactics, reflect on the idea that requiring sexual assault victims to pay for their own rape kits is shockingly “too far” – it’s just too evil and outrageous for them to even consider as an option in their menu of nefarious machinations.

The timing, comedy content, and accompanying call to action were all strategic. According to Jenkins: “When we did the Senate bill drop, we did it with the Funny or Die video, and it got a ton of attention. First time in the history of Congress … Politics and power really do come down to, ‘how do I get this person’s attention?’” The attention-grabbing video-based campaign humorously skewered and explained the absurdity of the structural challenges facing sexual assault survivors navigating the criminal justice system. With a call to action directed from the Funny or Die video, the accompanying online petition on Change.org garnered thousands of signatures, which the Rise team then delivered to Congress to demonstrate public demand.

On October 7, 2016, President Barack Obama signed the Survivors’ Bill of Rights Act of 2016. The new law, unanimously supported by Republicans and Democrats, “codifies a basic set of comprehensive civil rights for at least 25 million rape survivors across the country.” Funny or Die and Nguyen continued their creative comedy collaboration as Rise moved next into a state-by-state legislative advocacy effort. To date, at least nine state versions of survivor bill of right laws have passed, modelled after the federal legislation. In Brad Jenkins’ estimation, the comedy elements of the Rise advocacy campaign were vital to the victories, in large part due to the creative collaboration with Nguyen as a social justice leader who wholeheartedly embraced the genre:

When I tell people we have done this [comedy] for sexual assault – the least funny issue, and the most harrowing and personal issue that you can think of – they are amazed. Amanda is the perfect partner because she thinks comedy is all about empowerment. Sexual assault isn’t funny, but what is funny and what we make fun of is the status quo … That’s where the humour comes in.

In 2018, Amanda Nguyen – the 26-year-old accidental activist and emergent social justice leader – was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in recognition of her successful civil rights advocacy, which has effectively transformed decades of ineffective policy to empower millions of sexual assault survivors to pursue justice. Armed with a sophisticated understanding of the interplay between participatory civic practice, public engagement, and policy – and the dynamic role of culture and creativity – she has migrated her efforts onto the world stage, working with the United Nations to pass a global survivors’ bill of rights. In her unflinching use of short-form, shareable YouTube comedy videos as an anchor for civic practice alongside traditional advocacy tactics, Nguyen epitomizes a contemporary generation of social justice advocates that seeks “to change the world through any media necessary.” For Nguyen, comedy is – and continues to be – a vital cultural tool in her global activism:

We were able to do this with humour in particular: Basically, it’s like taking the medicine with a little sweetener, or taking your vodka with a chaser. This issue is depressing. It’s difficult. It is my personal belief that social movements cannot be sustained on anger. Anger will burn out. Rather, they need to be sustained on hope…. Humour was a way to entertain people while also hiding a really important message in it, and on top of that, being able to get people to learn about the issue. There is lot of activism fatigue that is happening in today’s world. Every issue needs to be worked on. How do you get people to actually care, and get people outside of the low-hanging fruit – [those] who already care? Yes, you’re trying to activate them too, but you’re also trying to get people who may not be predisposed to care about this to care about it.

The synergistic, creative engagement between Amanda Nguyen’s sexual assault policy advocacy initiative and the cultural prowess and cache of Funny or Die illustrates the power and promise of cross-sector collaboration between two disparate professional worlds: social justice advocacy and comedy. In this example, comedy aimed a glaring spotlight onto the outrage of the existing institutional status quo. In so doing, the humorous, critical treatment of a tough issue garnered attention, and its digital dissemination and call to action provided a crucial public engagement mechanism – a way for newly enlightened publics to engage in civic practice, pressuring lawmakers to make a change.

A Comedian and an Activist Walk into a Bar: The Serious Role of Comedy in Social Justice by Caty Borum Chattoo & Lauren Feldman is published by University of California Press

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