Feminists joking and angry

Alum Caitlin Kunkel reimagines the form and content of erotica for 2018

Comedy writer Caitlin Kunkel spent a few months this year zeroing in on those everyday moments that make women so angry they have to laugh. "I wrote about a woman walking into an office building and pressing the up button on the elevator," says Kunkel, A&S '06, "and then a man next to her presses the button again just to be sure. When we showed that to women, many said, 'That happens to me every day at work—and it drives me insane.'"

Kunkel lets out an exasperated laugh. "Someone assumes I don't know how elevators work, which is funny," she continues. "But do you really think I don't know how to push a button?"

New Erotica for Feminists book cover

The elevator bit didn't make it into her upcoming New Erotica for Feminists: Satirical Fantasies of Love, Lust, and Equal Pay (Dutton/Plume), but it spotlights the way Kunkel and her co-authors—Brooke Preston, Fiona Taylor, and Carrie Wittmer, who co-founded and launched The Belladonna comedy site for women and other marginalized genders in early 2017—satirize the way women's lives, and their desires, are often absurdly sidelined or totally ignored. The book grew out of a short piece they wrote for the McSweeney's Internet Tendency comedy site in February, which hijacked erotic fiction's silly plot setups and lusty tone and twisted them into short scenarios of deadpan parody. One reads, in its entirety: "He calls me into his office and closes the door ... to promote me. He promotes me again and again. I am wild with ecstasy."

The post went viral, and they were contacted by a publisher in the United Kingdom, asking whether they could turn the idea into a book. They collaborated online over the next few months—Kunkel, Preston, and Taylor live in New York, Wittmer in Ohio—expanding the erotica idea to riff on other conventions. They divided their ideas into seven chapters—"New Workplace Erotica for Feminists," "New Historical Erotica for Feminists," et cetera—throwing out comedic premises, honing them, and then seeing which ones did and didn't work.

As they note in the book's foreword, aptly titled "Foreplay," the more they wrote, the angrier they got. In one of the original post's bits, a woman's partner sexily whispers into her ear, "Congress is now 50-50 women." When writing, Kunkel says, they were thinking about Ruth Bader Ginsburg's response to the question, When will there be enough women on the court? Justice RBG's answer: when there are nine.

Illustration of a woman and man

Image credit: Emily Flake

"People acted like that's insane, like she's off her rocker for saying that," Kunkel says, pointing out that having nine male justices was perfectly acceptable for most of U.S. history. "When we wrote that line, we were laughing, 'What a good joke.' And then we realized, That shouldn't be a joke.

"We're all deeply avowed feminists, but it did seem funny to us that Congress could ever be 50-50 women because that seems like something that can't be real," she continues. "That's when we started to go down the anger path, that some ideas seem so far out of our grasp that it literally has to be classified in the realm of fantasy."

New Erotica for Feminists operates in a similarly heady, if less autobiographical, register as Nanette, the Netflix special in which Tasmanian comedian Hannah Gadsby dissects the form and content of standup comedy to burn a hole through the dismissive, misogynistic, and abusive cultural attitudes that underlie certain jokes. Kunkel and her co-authors are taking a genre—that niche of ostensibly sexually arousing material—and using humor to spotlight the political and cultural norms that prop it up. It's not the preposterous scenarios of erotica—those ridiculous encounters from a guy's perspective involving a co-worker, a delivery man, a plumber, whatever, that lead to sex—that are problematic. Everything that centers heteronormative maleness at the expense of everybody else is.

Wrapping up final edits on New Erotica for Feminists with these three geniuses. So many good things started to happen in my career once I met and started working with them on The Belladonna. Find your people, the ones who want to work hard for a long time to make something only you can see. Collaborating with them on @thebelladonnacomedy has been one of the best things I've ever done, and can't wait for what we do next! Also I dressed like a theater tech for our group author photo and honestly I am feeling it. Photo by @jenbrown_photography! #amwriting #author #authorsofinstagram #bookstagram #satire

A post shared by Caitlin Kunkel (@kunkeltron) on Jun 29, 2018 at 10:19am PDT

The book, basically, says something that remains unfortunately radical in 2018: "We're people, and like people, women do have sex," Kunkel says. "So much of your own sexuality is having control over your own body and being in control of yourself. If you're a man, I'm sure it's hard to understand what it's like when we might be getting a Supreme Court justice who will want to overturn Roe v. Wade. That's frightening. And it's not a joke when women say, 'I'm going to buy five years of birth control.' Those are the kinds of things people are doing right now.

"We kind of hope this book can make people laugh while reminding them of these same issues," Kunkel continues, adding that the book comes out the week after the 2018 midterm elections. "So people either will be in a slightly better mood or an even worse mood. We'll see."