Comedian Lizz Winstead on Making Abortion Activism Funny in Her New Special, Controversy
Lady Parts Justice League founder Lizz Winstead
Lizz Winstead can't help but be funny. Even in the middle of a Minnesota thunder snow (“it’s a thing,” she insists), she quips about being the youngest of five, saying she always had to work to get attention. But now she’s not just trying to get her parents to listen. She’s trying to get America to listen too.
By her own admission, Winstead cares “about a lot of shit.” She’s always been opinionated and vocal, but it wasn’t until the Gulf War of 1990, the first to be televised live, that it hit her how powerful the media could be in shaping global politics. “There were graphics and theme songs. It was like a miniseries... a game show. Are they reporting on the war or trying to sell me a war?”
After that, she began caring even more, and her comedy slowly grew to include more political satire, pulling from the current events around her. As co-creator of The Daily Show, Winstead knows a thing or two about how to respond to the world from a commercial space, but she wasn’t satisfied.
“My job was to be funny and raise awareness, but my job wasn’t ever to have a call to action, and I felt very frustrated by that,” she recalls.
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When she began contemplating how the second half of her career would take shape, she decided to concentrate on abortion and its access — and use comedy as her platform, just as she always has. She wanted to talk about it in a way that differs from the standard rhetoric because “it always has stigma. It’s always way too many people who are trying to control the narrative that takes it out of the hands of women and doctors. It shouldn’t define you. It shouldn’t make you feel guilty.”
In 2015, she created Lady Parts Justice League (LPJL), a coalition of creatives dedicated to responding in real time to legislators who are trying to limit abortion access. The group uses memes and videos, such as the spoof of Beyoncé's “Formation," titled “inFormation,” which takes aim at anti-abortion TRAP laws in states like Louisiana.
The entire cast and production team for the video were women of color; Winstead, the only white woman on set, worked as a gofer. Intersectionality is at the core of Winstead's philosophy, she explains: “I’m a white feminist and I founded [LPJL], so it’s rooted by a white feminist, which is why we don’t refer to ourselves as a reproductive rights organization... We don’t want to co-opt any reproductive justice work from the women of color who started that and are doing that.” When LPJL goes on the road, doing a comedy music show followed by a talkback with a provider and a clinic escort leader, at least half the team is of color and includes trans women and men as well. Each community is different and might need something different, Winstead says, just like the clinics they assess.
But the shows and talks are only part of the LPJL mission; the group also takes action to help abortion providers. In November, for example, the group did a show in North Carolina and ended up helping a local clinic combat the effects of protesters. The clinic had large holes in a fence surrounding its property, allowing anti-abortion protestors to yell within earshot of the procedure rooms. After their performance, LPJL bought a bunch of holly bushes to plant in front of those holes, forcing protestors to move to another area where their shouts can't be heard inside the clinic.
The League is planning a two-month tour across 16 states this summer, but you don't have to wait for the tour to visit South Florida to see Winstead in action. Her comedy special, Controversy: A Hilarious, Tragic Review of 2016, is available for purchase, and the $9.99 donation goes directly to the nonprofit Lady Parts Justice League.
“I always say to people, it’s like when you go see the Rolling Stones, you’re not gonna hear all the hits, but you’re gonna hear a lot of stuff that you remember,” Winstead says of the special. There’s certainly a lot to remember from last year, from the deaths of childhood heroes and creative geniuses to the election results. "I've been doing political comedy for 25 years," she says, "and this year was the biggest avalanche of material I have ever had to dig out from under.”
Naturally, Winstead's most horrible moment of 2016 was the presidential election. “It was... the profound reminder of how many people disregarded what is at stake for women and people of color and voted for Donald Trump anyway," she remembers. "That’s the part for me that’s having a reset: The white women on our team were crying their eyes out the morning after the election, and the women of color were like, 'Yeah, it’s Wednesday. Now you know how we feel every fucking day.'”
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