“People Expect Me Just to be Funny.” Musician and Comedienne Ali Spagnola on what #YesAllWomen Means to Her

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(Photo: www.alispagnola.com)

By now, we should be used to Salon.com writer Mary Beth Williams perfectly articulating our collective feelings in one sentence or less (Exhibit A: her comment about Gwyneth Paltrow on Today) but she often strikes a note of such profundity that she will summarize entire social movements with a few simple words. On May 27th, she wrote an article in response to the UK Daily Mail labeling mass murderer Elliot Roger as “The Virgin Killer.” There was so very much wrong with that headline that most of us could only yank at our hair and grunt angrily. Mary Beth Williams responded by saying: “’Virgin Killer’ neatly puts ‘virgin’ and ‘killer’ on equal descriptive planes, along with a not so subtle insinuation – one that plenty of females have to put up with on a near constant basis – that one possible cause of male aggression is a lack of female sexual acquiescence.”

As a journalist, Williams (along with many others) championed the hashtag #YesAllWomen on Twitter and she shared that nearly every female journalist she knows has experienced rape and death threats. The point of #YesAllWomen was and is not to shame men. The point is to shine a light on the fact that all women – our wives, mothers, sisters, and friends – deal with misogyny in varying forms. The solution told to many women who are faced with sexual harassment is, within itself, the problem. Women are told to ignore it. #YesAllWomen shone a harsh light of criticism on this rationale and as I considered all of this, I thought of a conversation I had a while back with musician and comedienne, Ali Spagnola.

If you’re familiar with Ali’s act or her online personality, you know that she is perennially upbeat, confident, funny, and quirky. When I spoke to her previously, she was quick to focus on the positive and fun aspects of her career and did not want to talk about the more unsavory aspects of being a well-known person (Ali has 1.5 million Twitter followers). In fact, she said outright (when I asked about uncomfortable fan interactions) that she didn’t want to talk about it because it would simply encourage more bad behavior. A week or so ago, Ali shared (on Instagram) a message that someone sent to her which read: “SEND NUDES YOU FAMOUS BITCH” which she posted with the hashtag #YesAllWomen and the comment “Because this is not a thing guys endure repeatedly.”

Though I do not know Ali well enough to call her a “friend,” I do know her as a thoughtful, intelligent person who enjoys engaging her many fans whenever possible. After reading the varied commentary beneath her photo, I wanted to speak with her about #YesAllWomen and what was behind her decision to speak out on a topic she’d previously avoided.

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(Photo: www.alispagnola.com)

Tuff Gnarl: When you saw #YesAllWomen trending, did you feel obligated to participate?
Ali Spagnola: I was thrilled when I actually discovered [#YesAllWomen]. It was actually an article I was reading and I was going through it and there was just some amazing stuff people were saying. I love that it’s a dialogue that’s happening now. So it wasn’t an obligation, it was just sort of “I would love to contribute.”

What does #YesAllWomen mean to you, personally?
It means discussing things. It means not just ignoring it…like I did with you [laughs].

Social media is a great tool for someone like you, someone trying to build an audience and get her art [out there] but because social media lets people hide behind anonymity, do you think that can discourage people, women in particular, from putting themselves out there?
There’s never been a time where I’ve thought: “Oh no, something negative may come of this.” It certainly makes the experience in general online more unpleasant but, speaking personally, it hasn’t deterred me but I can definitely imagine that happening to other people.

Since it hasn’t deterred you – since you do what you do in spite of that – have you ever found yourself doing something because of that? Have you ever thought, “Because of people like that, I’m going to do this?”
Probably the first time was with #YesAllWomen. Before that I wasn’t too vocal about that kind of thing. I had actually filmed a video – I never put it out because my mother was in it and she didn’t want me to do it – but I did have an idea to put all of these violent and sexual and horrible YouTube comments on a piece of paper and I just made [my mother] read them in front of the camera. The goal of that was to be like, “Okay, people, you’re saying these things and I really do see them and so does my mom and it feels awful!” I went through a range of emotions where I was laughing, feeling discomfort, feeling upset, and it’s quite poignant actually. I would have loved to have put it up but I have to respect my mom for her saying, “No, don’t do that.” That was the first time I wanted to make a reaction to that sort of thing and that was months ago.

You obviously have a lot of confidence because what you do – getting up and singing in front of people and trying to make strangers laugh – is something you have to be pretty brave to do. Do you use that confidence when you want to confront this stuff head-on?
It takes way more courage to say something like #YesAllWomen than it does to tell jokes. Sure, it takes confidence to tell jokes but that’s so wussy compared to using my voice as a platform for social change or at least putting a magnifying glass up to the things that are happening in our culture. Hopefully I’ll stop being so wussy [laughs] and start using my platform for a reason, but there was a backlash when I did and, you know, people expect me just to be funny and so I guess I need to toe that line and figure out how I should handle it.

I wanted to ask you about that. I was reading some of the response comments and I remember one guy saying, “I follow Ali Spagnola to read about beer and jokes,” which was crazy to me. Now that you’ve done it and seen the response, do you think you’ll do it again, make more of a point about it? 
I’m glad you noticed that comment because of all the ones that were super-insulting, talking about my appearance or whatever, that [comment] was actually the most hurtful. It was just like, “Shut up, woman. We don’t want to hear it. We want you to quit whining.” It was like, “Dance, monkey!” It was the most upsetting in terms of my career and how I think I’m viewed online. But yeah, I think I should get more courage and figure out how I can use my platform for the positive as well as joking.

Is there a line there as an entertainer or should you just say, “Screw it, this is what I’m about?”
Yeah, there’s definitely a gray area. I’m still figuring it out in terms of what my audience will take.

Several women I’ve spoken with have been told to ignore that sort of thing. Isn’t that the problem? should more women hit back, metaphorically speaking, and publicly shame people like that?
The reason I put that screen shot and not just a statement – and I still kept him anonymous – was because I wanted to give my experience. I wanted people to understand, especially guys, that this is something that I deal with on a daily basis. That didn’t come across well enough and what I think I should execute better in the future is that everyone was saying, “Oh, that guy sucks, forget him,” but that’s not the point. The point is this happens to me on a daily basis, right? I wanted people to understand what it’s like to have that barrage of that type of thing and it’s not just a single condition where I can throw this guy to the side. So it really wasn’t about publicly shaming him. I didn’t respond to him via message and I didn’t want to make it about him specifically. When you say “hitting back,” I think that’s more about retaliating against the person and I disagree with that. I think the “hit back” should be about talking and opening a dialogue in our culture and it’s obviously heading in that direction which is awesome. So make it more of a discussion for everyone as opposed to shaming the one guy.

One of the things that came in response to #YesAllWomen what the #NotAllMen hashtag. Do you think those men missed the point, that they were reacting and being defensive rather than listening? I know that’s kind of a leading question.
I read that #NotAllMen spawned #YesAllWomen. After [Rogers] killed those six people in Santa Barbara, people started saying, “Well it’s not all men that are like that!” and then #YesAllWomen came because of it and, sure, not all men but YES all women do have to deal with this on a daily basis. It’s in the forefront of their minds. It’s an experience that guys can’t understand what we’re dealing with.

I’m sure this is something you consider walking around every day.
Absolutely.

Not to make this the point of the piece but rather to make it the catalyst for our conversation, I’d like to go back to the Instagram comments. Is it ever OK for someone to comment on the appearance of another person when they don’t know that person?
I’ve been thinking of that a lot since then and I’m not sure now. I don’t know where the flattery ends and the discomfort starts. It’s different for different people and…[laughs] I really don’t have that answer.

For you is there a line between what’s respectful and friendly and what’s not?
It’s definitely a gray area for me.

Do you think that now that this dialogue is starting to evolve, and with social media taking hold of it, that schools do enough to protect young women from sexual harassment and sexual violence?
No! Because it’s not gone. There still needs to be more done and we certainly are headed in the right direction.

Is it an individual responsibility for men to behave like human beings or should it be a joint effort between institutions and individuals? Should schools do more to educate or do more to punish?
I would say educate, and it’s not just men; it’s women too. You’re getting into sexual equality as opposed to just sexual harassment, but there are things that are holding women back and we don’t even recognize it. Even I’m sexist, because saying “I’m not sexist” makes you sexist. There are things under the surface of our culture that is limiting women, so yes, it definitely needs to be an education thing for men and women.

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Matt Forster

Originally from Miami, FL, Matt graduated with a B.A. in History from Randolph-Macon College in 2004. He is the author of Perfect Dark, a musician, and an all-around strange person. He resides in Asheville, NC with his wife and two dogs. Follow him @Dalton_Forster

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