Editor’s Note: This episode originally aired on October 23, 2015.
The only thing we have to fear is fear itself? Give me a break. What about being afraid of murder? Indefinite detention? Stand-up comedy? On this episode, we explore some of the many things that make us afraid.
The show begins with a story from filmmaker Assia Boundaoui, who grew up in a mostly Arab American neighborhood that was under FBI surveillance. Then, we have two perspectives on feminism and horror films: Writer Leela Ginelle discusses how films like Funny Games and Panic Room tie into real-life fears of domestic violence and film buff Sara Century looks at the history of queer women in horror (bring on the lesbian vampires!). We end the show with comedian Jenny Yang, who explains how the only way to get beyond your fear of getting onstage is to actually get onstage.
JENNY YANG INTERVIEW:
THE FEELING OF BEING WATCHED:
QUEER WOMEN IN HORROR:
THE KILLER WITHIN:
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Cheryl Green of Storyminders transcribed this episode. We’re proud to make Popaganda accessible to people who are Deaf or hard-of-hearing.
SARAH: This is Popaganda, the feminist response to pop culture podcast. I’m Sarah Mirk.
SARAH: When did you feel like your family was first being watched?
ASSIA: When I was about 14 or 15. And I woke up in the middle of the night once. It was like 3:00 am, and right outside my bedroom window on the street, there was a utility worker at 3:00 am installing something on the streetlight. And I was so frightened, and I remember waking up my mother and telling her, “Oh my god, there’s somebody outside the window that I see in the street, and they’re installing something on the lamp.” And I was really freaked out, and I remember her being not that surprised about it and really calm and just saying, “Well you know, yeah, that’s just probably the FBI again, and it’s okay. Don’t worry about it, and just go back to sleep.”
SARAH: You know that feeling? When you think someone is watching you? Maybe it’s late at night, and you’re at home, and you just get this prickly feeling. And you tell yourself you’re paranoid, but it’s sticks there. So you turn on all the lights and loud music to feel safe. Or maybe you turn off all the lights and draw shut all the curtains and check all the locks and crawl into bed and pull one hand out from under the sheet so you can text your friends, the phone glowing bright in the dark.
Yeah, I know that feeling.
That feeling is fear.
That’s what Assia Boundaoui felt a lot growing up. Only she was right. Someone was watching. This wasn’t a horror film. Her entire neighborhood—a suburban neighborhood called Bridgeview, South of Chicago—was under FBI surveillance. The neighborhood looks and feels like a standard American small town: modest houses, wide streets. It’s a predominantly Arab American neighborhood. The center of the community for many people is the mosque. And it’s still not clear why the FBI was monitoring the neighborhood during the 1990s. Assia is now exploring that question and the impact of years-long surveillance on the neighborhood in a film called The Feeling of Being Watched. I talked with Assia, who’s co-directing the film with Alex Bushe.
[from Feeling of Being Watched]
WOMAN: Growing up, we’d always whisper, even just sitting next to my sister, talking readily about things that happened during the day. And you think it’s the norm because you grew up always whispering. But you hit a age, and you realize that there’s a reason why we grew up whispering. It’s because our conversations are being recorded. People are watching us.
SARAH: So what did it feel like the feeling of being watched and to share stories with other kids of potential FBI surveillance?
ASSIA: Well, you know, we were kids, and so it was kind of a joke, actually. It was a funny thing. Like any time we would see a stranger in the neighborhood that we didn’t recognize, we would all be like, “Oh, that’s probably an FBI agent.” Sometimes we would go up to the cars that were parked on the street for hours on end, facing the mosque or around the neighborhood, and try to talk to these guys that are in the car. We’d be like, “Why are you here? What are you doing in our neighborhood?” and try to get to the bottom of something. But we never really got any answers. But it was kind of a joke. We treated it as a joke. And it’s something that’s still there that even my younger siblings–my little brother’s 10 years younger than me–and the way we talks about it is really similar with his friends. [Nowadays] even the names of the wifi networks–and this is something that’s in the film–are kinda like a testament to this inside joke. Because there’s so many of them that read things like FBISurveillanceVan wifi network or TheNSAsWatchingUs wifi network. It’s so pervasive it’s kind of banal, it’s mundane, it’s a bit of a joke. But where does it come from? Why did it happen? Why everyone feels this way? Why is it such a normal thing, is the question.
SARAH: What sort of stories about surveillance did you remember hearing growing up, and what stories do you still hear today?
ASSIA: You hear a lot of stories about the cars parked, strangers in cars. And this was something that was more in the ’90s. People talk about suspicion that their phones are bugged because they hear clicking on the phone, they hear feedback on the phone, or they see utility workers working on the phone lines at strange hours. And then also actual stories of informants in the neighborhood too. This was something that’s a part of our story and that happened where there were actually informants working for the FBI that lived in the community and that were part of the neighborhood. And all of the suspicion around who was an informant or who might be an informant was also something I remember always talking about it, people were very suspicious about. So there’s really just a sense of distrust, of not knowing who you can trust. And where is that coming from? And so in terms of our investigation, one of the things Alex was talking about that we found out when we started digging through old court records, through old news stories and microfilm was that, in fact, in 1993, the FBI did start an investigation. It was the largest domestic counter-terrorism investigation ever conducted before 9/11, and it was in many ways focused on Bridgeview. So we found out that all of these stories are actually coming from somewhere that there was, in fact, an investigation. It was code-named Operation Vulgar Betrayal. It’s another thing that we found out.
SARAH: Operation Vulgar Betrayal?
AMY: It’s a curious name for an investigation and obviously really piqued our curiosity. What a name, you know? So we’re investigating why this actually happened, but we’re really curious as to how it became so big, how an entire community would have been affected by the investigation of one or two people, and how it changed and transformed the community. I remember very clearly in those early days, when we really felt the heat in the neighborhood, that nobody talked to anybody. The mosque, which used to be a place of community and gathering suddenly turned into a place that people just went to for prayers and left. You would never talk to new people or strange people that you didn’t know before. Friends suspected each other of being informants, and so they stopped talking to each other. It was a very strange time. And so the idea is that this extended period of investigation and surveillance has had a profound impact on a very large group of people, and that’s the ripple effect.
SARAH: So speaking from a personal standpoint, how do you feel like the feeling of surveillance and being watched for years changed you?
ASSIA: I think that honestly, I’m quite paranoid [chuckles], and everybody that grew up in my neighborhood will say that about themselves. You know, I worked on a film, for example–and this is where I met Alex–we worked on an HBO documentary film called Manhunt, which was about Osama bin Laden and the CIA hunt for bin Laden. And that entire time I worked on the film, I never said the name Osama bin Laden on the phone once, not when I was talking to any of the producers or people involved in the film or people that we wanted to interview. I always managed to find a creative way not to say his name on his phone, not to say his name on the phone. And this was just conditioning from the way I grew up. I didn’t even think twice about it, but you just don’t say certain things on the phone. And this is something that was just kind of hammered, ingrained into me from the way I grew up, and there are a lot of things like that. You start to censor yourself. There’s some self-censoring that happens, but it’s just a way of thinking that develops from growing up this way. In terms of effect, I wouldn’t say, I mean in terms of negative effect, I think that’s a communal thing. Personally, I wouldn’t say that this had such a negative impact that it crippled me or had such a terrible effect on me. But it made me want to ask questions and look into what happened, certainly.
SARAH: Clips from Assia and Alex’s documentary, which is still in the works, are at the FeelingofBeingWatched.com.
SARAH: On this episode of Popaganda, we’re exploring fear. Personally, I am a scaredy-cat. I’m quick to admit that I get really into movies and TV shows.
SARAH: And so if something gets too suspenseful or violent, I have to turn off the volume or fast forward through the terrifying parts. I just can’t handle it. I have [giggling] basically a zero tolerance. I have to look away. Horror films really get to me, and that’s what they’re supposed to do: to push us to explore fear. Scary films make us stop to reconsider why we’re so afraid to begin with and why we feel vulnerable. Writer Leela Ginelle has this essay on the, in my opinion, most terrifying scary film genre of all: the home invasion movie. You know, where people are attacked or threatened while they’re just minding their own business at home? Why are we so terrified of that improbable scenario? Leela Ginelle explores.
LEELA: In the 1967 movie Wait Until Dark, a sadistic criminal played by Alan Arkin traps housewife Susy–Audrey Hepburn–in her New York apartment forcing her to fight him to the death.
[music from the film, crashing, screaming]
LEELA: Watching the film recently, my mind toggled back and forth between critiquing its ludicrous plot and surrendering to the terror it depicts. What lends such an absurd movie such real power over my mind? Home invasion movies like Wait Until Dark, Panic Room, Funny Games, In Their Skin, and When a Stranger Calls often feature women in peril but offer no shining knights to rescue them. Instead, the women are trapped with their perpetrators, forced to fight back or die. They are movies, I think, about a kind of sadism and sociopathy that fuels sexual and domestic violence in our actual homes, but which we have no language to address directly.
LEELA: The dark, dangerous side of masculinity in these stories is, instead, embodied by the invading criminals, while kind and generous men are portrayed as rather useless. In Wait Until Dark and in the more recent film Panic Room, men are compartmentalized. Audrey Hepburn’s character has a kind, somewhat codependent husband who’s inadvertently mixed up in the story’s convoluted plot, but who’s absent during the terrors that occur. In Panic Room, likewise, Jodie Foster’s character is a recent divorcee, whose wealthy ex-husband purchases the apartment that’s broken into as she and her daughter spend their first night there.
[from Panic Room]
WOMAN 1: [whispering] What’s going on?
WOMAN 2: People. In the house.
MAN: [shouts] Hey!
MAN: [hard to hear dialogue] I’m heading down.
LEELA: He shows up later, in ineffectual fashion, but has nothing to do with the menacing violence that transpires. Among these films’ villains, the sadism is confined to one lone madman. In Wait Until Dark, three men invade Hepburn’s apartment: the thuggish Carlino, who’s killed off early, Mike Talman, an ex-GI who’s turned to crime but who retains a conscience, and the sociopath Roat, played by Arkin. Of the three, only Talman emerges as a whole person, capable of making a connection with Hepburn. Roat, by contrast, is almost a specter, a character whose actions and words make no logical sense, but instead seem to anthropomorphize sociopathic aggression.
[from Wait Until Dark]
MAN: Did you know they wanted to kill me? I did. I knew it even before they did.
WOMAN: [heavy breathing]
MAN: They were awful images, and that’s why you saw through them.
WOMAN: [struggling to speak] I saw through you too.
MAN: No, not all the way Susy. Even now, not all the way.
LEELA: This pattern is repeated almost exactly in Panic Room. Jared Leto’s character is a sniveling drug addict who’s organized a robbery to seize the lost fortune of his recently deceased grandfather. Forest Whitaker, one of the robbers, has a conscience. Like Foster, he’s a parent, and at every turn he considers Foster’s well-being, as well as that of her young daughter, Kristen Stewart. Dwight Yoakam, conversely, as Raoul, is sinister, blood-thirsty, and seemingly more concerned with inflicting pain and spreading terror than with the task his group has gathered to accomplish.
Evil in these movies is consigned to figures like Roat and Raoul. The other characters, one senses, could be satisfied or reasoned with, but no such rapprochement can be reached with madmen like these two. Home invasion stories like these establish a richness in their heroine’s lives—a domestic bliss for Hepburn, wealth and high tech security for Foster—and then insert these sadistic criminals, to illustrate that no woman’s life, no matter how stable and pristine, is free from this danger.
[music, dialogue from movie]
MAN 1: Sorry to disturb you. I’m staying next door.
WOMAN: Please, come in.
MAN 1: Wow! That’s a really great set of clubs.
MAN 2: Mr. Farmer?
MAN 1: What?
[man yells, tumbling]
LEELA: Funny Games, by filmmaker Michael Hanneke, is a sort of heightened, meta-take on this concept. The American version features Naomi Watts and Tim Roth as a wealthy, cultured couple whose weekend getaway at a lake house is horrifically interrupted by two young, psychotic invaders, Peter and Paul, who hold them captive in the home.
[music, lines from Funny Games]
MAN: If he hollers, let him go. Eenie, meenie, miny, moe!
[screaming, music rises]
LEELA: Hanneke investigates an unnerving aspect of sadism by having his invaders speak with a heightened politeness, take exception to every perceived slight shown by their hosts, and display an immature preoccupation with games and rules. Like Raoul and Roat, the two reflexively blame their captives for every misfortune they visit upon them.
Hanneke’s film ultimately becomes about his relationship with, and indictment of, the viewer, which is disappointing. Paul consistently breaks the fourth wall, in attempts to make the viewer complicit with his actions, and by the end, the film ceases to be about Watts and her family at all, robbing the home invasion film, in my opinion, of its raison d’etre.
Authors Richard Gelles, Murray Strauss, and Suzanne Steinmetz open their book Behind Closed Doors: Violence in the American Family, a study of statistics regarding sexual and domestic violence in American homes, by stating, “With the exception of the police and the military, the family is perhaps the most violent social group, and the home the most violent social setting in our society.”
Our culture has shown very little facility with addressing the type of violence Gelles and Strauss document, however. Perhaps as a result, we create entertainment that depicts a wildly violent world, in which homes are peaceful oases, rather than the more statistically accurate opposite. We deny and repress the idea that partners ritually abuse one another, or that children are trapped with violent or incestuous parents. Such scenarios, while prevalent in our society, constitute an infinitesimal amount of our narratives.
How do we process these wounds and betrayals, then? To my mind it’s through stories like these. Storytellers distance the abuse, from the spouse to the anonymous criminal. Following that, they distance it further, quarantining the irrational cruelty present during abuse and violation within the stories’ irredeemable villains.
Home invasion movies offer a chance to see women and children confront violence within their homes. They must fight back, against homicidal adversaries. Viewers, who may have experienced unsafe living situations, can see them depicted, can watch actresses confront life or death moments in perhaps the only stories which offer such scenarios.
Shortly after watching Wait Until Dark, I saw the TMZ elevator video of Ray Rice punching his then-fiancée. I, like most viewers, was shocked. This was the violence Behind Closed Doors is talking about, and which we rarely, if ever, witness. Could a two-hour film be told about a relationship containing that moment? Do we have the capacity in our cultural imagination for a husband or father who commits such an act? If not, what does it say about our collective imagination, when our culture itself is brimming with people who commit such acts?
In writing about Law & Order: SVU, New Yorker critic Emily Nussbaum argues that the show offers the fantasy of a “controllable” world.
“As in a dream, SVU takes the grisly stories that dominate the news—Steubenville, Delhi, the U.S. military, the torture house in Cleveland—and reorganizes them, reducing the raw data to a format that viewers can handle,” Nussbaum writes. “For young women, who are endlessly bombarded with warnings of how to avoid assault, watching can feel like a perverse training manual.”
Home invasion movies operate similarly. The terror only occurs when one’s partner is away. The women try to reason, but, when all else fails, they fight back, and, in most cases, win. It’s a parallel world, where one can vanquish an embodiment of evil, which bears no relation to the day-to-day life they inhabit. A happier development for our culture might begin with more transparency about our homes and the admission that cruelty need not always break in there because its name is already on the lease. When we can face that, we may no longer need bogeymen like Roat and Raoul to bear the burden of humanity’s dark side for us.
SARAH: That was writer Leela Ginelle. You can read more of her work at BitchMedia.
SARAH: You’re listening to Popaganda, the feminism and pop culture podcast. Today, we’re talking about fear. Movie buff Sara Century—who has the claim to fame of having watched every single lesbian film ever available on Netflix—wanted to discuss the role that queer female characters have played in horror films. Horror films explore what we’re afraid of, both the things that make us vulnerable and the taboos of society, and queerness is certainly part of that, as Sara explains.
SARA CENTURY: October is like Christmas for horror film fans. Although many people categorically dismiss horror as a misogynistic genre, many feminists have discussed the ways that horror can be used to great effect as social commentary.
Taboo subjects and stigmatized identities have always been fodder for horror films, which—at their best—poke and prod at the fears and biases of their audiences. The first horror films to feature queer female characters are some of the first films of any kind to portray queer women. Though there were a few not-horror-related queer female characters before her, one of the earliest examples of a queer character in a movie was the Countess in Dracula’s Daughter. The film is the 1936 sequel to 1931’s Dracula, starring Bela Lugosi. Like her blood-sucking father, the elegant Countess has a bizarre, murderous interest in young women. She seduces them with extravagant gifts and a hypnotizing stare. This makes her one of the first over-the-top queer villains to appear onscreen. The Countess is a character who helped define what would become a trope. The film’s poster clearly plays into the psycho-sexual drama of the film, with actor Gloria Holden’s eyes peering at the viewer under the slogan, “She gives you that WEIRD FEELING.”
In her book UnInvited: Classical Hollywood Cinema and Lesbian Representability, Patricia White makes the point that even sparse, slight, or negative images of lesbian women in film helped form lesbian identities. Audiences had to read into what they didn’t show as much as with what they did show. In one scene, Dracula’s dark Countess stares at her sleeping victim with intense sexuality, her lips drawing ever closer to hers, until at the last minute, she’s interrupted. It is only the implication of gayness, but it’s a very strong implication, to say the least. It’s difficult to imagine how truly powerful these suggestive images must have been to queers during this time, as well as how foreboding they must have been for straight audiences.
Actually, the predominant image of queer women in horror much of the 20th century was the lesbian vampire. There are a great deal more lesbian vampire movies than pretty much any other kind of queer movie. Calling these films “queer” is, of course, dicey territory, considering the fact that they were almost exclusively created by straight people with straight audiences in mind, but the story has appeared again and again. After Dracula’s Daughter, there was Blood & Roses in 1960, Daughters of Darkness, Vampyros Lesbos, and the films of Jean Rolin in the 1970s, The Hunger in the 80s, Nadja in the 90s, The Countess and We Are the Night for millennials, and on and on and on. There are dozens of films with the same essential plot: one or more lesbian vampires roll into town, steal someone’s girlfriend, and get killed by a dude in the grand finale. The vampires in lesbian vampire movies are evil, murderous, and cruel. But, honestly, I tend to sort of like them. Sometimes I even relate to them. When you’re struggling to find empowered queer women onscreen, scarcity dictates that sometimes you latch onto some problematic favorites.
No character is more problematic than the villain of 1971 German lesbian vampire masterpiece Vampyros Lesbos, aka Countess Nadine Carody. This is a character who is definitely evil. But I still relate to her so much because 1) her fashion is on point, 2) her crush on professional girlfriend Linda Westinghouse is on point, 3) her tearful origin story is on point, and 4) she’s a well-read queer performance artist with a passionate feminist perspective that wears black dresses with red lipstick and scarves a lot. I’m literally describing both her and myself right now. There is a four-minute long scene where she dances around the stage with a naked female mannequin, touching herself erotically. I can’t watch her death scene; it’s way too real for me.
Whether she’s a vampire or mere mortal, the seductive lesbian out to ruin the lives of innocent young ladies quickly became a film trope. In the 1940s to the 1960s, the “evil lesbian” was profoundly effective in shaping public consciousness of gays. At the time, many institutions had personal vendettas against gay people and the development of queer subcultures as well. The J. Edgar Hoover-era FBI villainized queers with unsettling propaganda that sometimes blatantly endorsed homophobic violence. Anti-gay themes are found in a lot of pop culture from the era, but horror films gave us a unique window on this fear. In 1940, Alfred Hitchcock released his film Rebecca, based on the 1938 Daphne du Maurier book of the same name. The story follows a young woman who enters a marriage with a reclusive millionaire whose first wife “mysteriously” passed away. The younger woman, who is tellingly nameless and referred to only as the “the second Mrs. de Winter” throughout the film, must navigate living in a secluded mansion where all the other characters, her husband included, are haunted by the metaphorical (or not) ghost of Rebecca de Winter. In Rebecca, there is not one, but two queer characters.
One is Mrs. Danvers, is a famously wicked housekeeper who tries to drive the second Mrs. de Winter to suicide multiple times throughout the story. The other, the deceased Rebecca, who is described in reverent, haunting tones by those who knew her. She is remembered as being strong-willed and beautiful, with many lovers outside of her terribly unhappy marriage. Even in the afterlife, she has a forceful spirit. Of course, it’s 1940, and that means that we find out that she was definitely evil by the end of the film.
This exact relationship between a ghost and her incredibly violent lover is almost identically repeated in 1944’s The Uninvited. One queer woman is completely intangible, appearing only as a ghost, and yet, she is the malevolent force that causes every problem the main characters have in the film. She eventually tires of scaring cats, making flowers wither, and causing drastic temperature shifts, so she escalates to trying to convince a teen girl to walk off a cliff. Like Rebecca and her Mrs. Danvers, this film’s ghost has an implied sexual connection with a similarly murderous middle-aged woman now obsessed by her memory. It’s 1944, so they don’t explicitly state that they two were girlfriends, but there’s a lot of scenes of the living female character sighing dreamily at, oh right, the gigantic portrait of her dead friend in a sexy pose that she keeps in literally every room she ever stands in.
The evil lesbian trope carries on well into the modern era, with movies such as 2003 French film High Tension, which is not so much about a lesbian relationship as it is about a lesbian fixating on her straight friend to the point of utter insanity.
One exception to the endless images of the mentally ill or wicked lesbian is in the 1963 film, The Haunting. (We don’t talk about the 1999 remake.) This was based on the Shirley Jackson novel, the Haunting of Hill House, but there is one surprising change: the character Theo, whose queerness is implied only briefly in the novel, shows up in the film version as a full-out gay psychic.
I can’t stress enough that Theo from The Haunting is probably my favorite character in all of horror. Why? Because she’s a psychic lesbian. She flirts with the main character and almost punches a bro for trying to rub her shoulders. Because who wouldn’t! Theo, I love you. Besides my personal affection for her, Theo does what has been proven time and again as almost statistically impossible, which is to be gay and survive a horror film. She is visually fascinating, with a starkly different wardrobe than the rest of the cast and a cryptic half-smile. Theo is pretty much the cover of a lurid 1950s pulp novel about lesbian witches come to life, and it is glorious. The mysterious way she discloses her homosexuality is brilliant: Theo discusses an apartment she shares with someone, leading the confused main character Eleanor to ask, “Are you married?” Theo looks her in the eye, and softly says, “… no.” Later, Eleanor openly calls her “a mistake of nature,” and Theo’s mouth opens slightly to respond, then closes again, in a moment which I feel somewhat profoundly demonstrates how difficult it is to respond eloquently to that level of homophobia.
Modern horror, on the other hand, has developed a penchant for the martyred or “innocent” lesbian character, who is unfailingly brutalized or murdered by the end of the film. These are horror films, and brutalization is to be expected, but there’s something unsettlingly specific about the idea of the angelic queer woman who is punished quite literally to death for her sexuality. In 2012 film Here Comes the Devil, the movie begins with a young, closeted queer woman having sex with her girlfriend before being attacked by a possessed male in an exceptionally violent scene. The girl is never seen again, and mentioned in passing only once. The opening scene seems to be a way to slip a hot lesbian sex scene into the film.
In the 2008 movie Martyrs, a young woman is trying to help her violently mentally ill friend. Our queer hero undergoes what can only be described as some of the most intense and horrifying situations conceivable to the human mind as a result of acts of altruism towards her friend-crush. Her queerness is conveyed only by a very brief scene in which she tries to kiss her friend but is immediately rebuffed. It’s practically invisible, yet it’s the whole reason for the film.
Images of queer women as saintly or martyr-like honestly freak me out a lot more than the images of us as evil, sycophantic murderers or vampires, because it displays us as eternal victims. Martyrs is famously one of the most unflinchingly violent and gory films of all time, and I can only recommend it to those who have the ability to watch extremely shocking imagery for 90+ minutes straight. As a horror fan, I think it’s really good and interesting. But as a human—a queer human—I definitely had to stop and recollect myself after watching it. It’s not always easy to perpetually watch the few representations of queer women onscreen meet such violent and horrifying ends.
While modern horror films are more likely to feature queer women—and not just lesbian vampires—than early films in the genre, they still often frame queerness as taboo. Even these days onscreen, lesbians have something different about them; they’re set off from the rest of the characters by their sexuality. Just like Dracula’s countess, filmmakers still set up queer women to give us that “weird feeling.”
SARAH: That was writer Sara Century. You can look her up on Twitter where she describes herself as the Joan Crawford of the queer avant-garde underground.
SARAH: You’re listening to Popaganda, the feminism and pop culture podcast. Today’s episode is all about fear. For our next segment, we’re gonna talk with somebody who’s not afraid to get onstage. Amy Lam did this interview with comedian Jenny Yang. Hi, Amy.
SARAH: Who is Jenny Yang? Can you tell us about her?
AMY: So she’s a Los Angeles-based comedian and writer. And I kind of want her to be my life coach.
AMY: Yeah, but I think her fee is too much for me. I offered her shrimp chips.
SARAH: Shrimp chips?
AMY: Yeah, a lifetime supply, which would be a bag or two a week, and she was like, “I don’t think that will work out for me” [laughs].
SARAH: She wants cold, hard cash to be your life coach.
AMY: But she’s great, and in this interview, she just talks about how she uses fear to work for her. It drives her work, and that’s something that I think that for many of us who kind of let fear hold us back, it’s amazing to hear a woman talk about, “No, I use it to drive me. I use it to work for me.” And it was super fun talking to her.
SARAH: Let’s listen.
AMY: So I’m here now with comedian Jenny Yang to talk about dun dun dun…fears [chuckles].
JENNY: [horror film scream] That was not a recording. That was me creating a little sound bite for you.
AMY: Thank you. So maybe we can start off by talking about your background a little bit.
JENNY: Oh gosh. I was born in Taiwan, moved to Los Angeles when I was little, and thought I was just gonna be some kind of young professional buying full price at Anthropologie. And I was doing that for a while. I love Anthropologie candles. They’re like $100 each. But anyway, I did that for a little bit. I worked in a labor movement, I worked in politics, and then I decided life’s too short, Amy. I need to go and be a comedian.
AMY: Was that–
JENNY: That’s the short version.
AMY: Was that a easy decision to make?
JENNY: You know what? It was really tough because what we’re talking about, fear, right? I mean, I think I get a lot of people’s contact fear because they see that I’m doing a job that’s not “traditional,” and they feel like they could just kind of confess to me all their fears around how much they either hate their job or they wish they were doing something more creative. And so I actually am around fear a lot, both in trying to perform regularly and trying to be a creative and trying to sell my ideas to the world–not literally. Sometimes literally, but not. And so I don’t know. I feel like managing fear and [smarmy voice] being a friend of your fear–Be a friend. Let’s make this an NPR podcast.
JENNY: Being a friend of your fear I think is a huge part of the work of being self-employed and entrepreneurial and a creative.
AMY: How does that play into being a stand-up comedian? Because I imagine that first of all, you’re getting up there by yourself.
AMY: The spotlight’s on you, and I feel like when you’re onstage like that, you can barely see the audience cuz there’s lights in your eye, right? And a lot of your comedy talks about your own background, your own identity, your ethnicity, and you’re exposing yourself in so many ways.
AMY: When you first began, did fear play a big role into you coming into comedy, and what did you do with it? Did it help you?
JENNY: Yeah. I mean, I think what happened for me is the pressure to want something different in my life overwhelmed the fear that probably paralyzed me. Does that make sense?
JENNY: So it’s not that fear goes away. I love the saying that they circulate. I don’t know. Google it. It’s somewhere–where when people say, “Gosh I’m”–whether it’s comedy, they’re always like “Oh my gosh! You’re so brave! You’re so brave to do stand-up comedy!” Like I’m fighting cancer or something. You know what I mean? Like really?
JENNY: Is this? You’re so brave? Is that what you say to comics? Come on. So it’s really, I feel like it’s more that we are managing our fear. Fear doesn’t go away, but we try to have the courage to overwhelm the fear with a desire to perform or create, you know? And so I think yeah, for me it just came to a point where what I was doing in my career, which was like burning myself out to fight for social justice, blah blah blah in this professional capacity. That was not rewarding me as much anymore. And I needed to find something to replace it, and that sort of, honestly, the fear–actually, it’s still fear–the fear of not doing the thing that I know I could be capable of–that is, expressing my creativity–the fear of not doing that started to overwhelm me, right? And so I turned that into a motivation and a direction.
AMY: So you used fear as your power source.
JENNY: I did. This shit–We’re gonna get martial arts on this shit, Amy.
JENNY: Just because we’re two Asians, we’re gonna yin and yang on this. You gotta transform that fear like it’s aikido. You hear what I’m saying? You gotta go defensive with the offensive.
JENNY: That’s what’s gonna happen. That’s basically what happened, you know? I quit my job because I knew I didn’t wanna do that anymore, and I wanted to just take a break. Because Amy, I’ve been a recovering over-achiever. I’ve been with a briefcase and shoulder pads since fucking 5th grade, okay?
JENNY: So just imagine little Jenny with bangs, okay, just killing it, right? Nonstop. Taking calls, taking meetings, and finally, right, finally I said to myself, “I’m in my 20s. I’m gonna die….”
JENNY: And I don’t wanna die doing this anymore. You know what I mean? And I need to frickin’ stop it. So that was the first motivation. It’s like I’m gonna die. That’s fear. So let’s stop this job that was burning me out, even though I still support the labor movement. And then I took a break. That literally was the first time I took a break, where I didn’t have to do anything.
AMY: And how old were you when this happened?
JENNY: Mm, I don’t know. It was like late 20s. So I was like, I need to take care of this; I need to take care of myself. I went to group therapy. I don’t know. I was like on my last dime, and I threw up a Hail Mary like okay, maybe I need to just get a full-time job as an assistant, as one does in Los Angeles if you’re not killing it as a self-employed creative. And I got a job. And so I got a job on Whitney on NBC, the second season as an assistant to the producer. And from there, I just was able to make contacts on that level but also continue to improve my stand-up and kind of build that hustle. And it was during that time three years ago that I was able to produce the first ever mostly-female Asian American comedy tour called Dis/orient/ed Comedy. It was like on the downtime of that full-time job that was paying for my bills that I was able to set up and create this new tour that actually ended up being one of the main ways that I could make a living and get a platform out there.
AMY: So you were talking about how, when you were a kid, you were a master over-achiever [chuckles].
JENNY: Oh yeah. Killing it.
AMY: [laughs] With your shoulder pads and your briefcase.
AMY: So while you were doing that, I’m assuming that you were over-achieving in really traditional ways like getting good grades in school or–
JENNY: Oh yeah.
AMY: Yeah, and then knowing that you were going to become like a real professional after you–
JENNY: Whatever that meant, yeah, yeah.
AMY: So where did your creativity, where did you house your creativity at that time, while you were over-achieving in all these other things that didn’t nurture your creativity?
JENNY: Oh, it was called extra credit, Amy. Don’t you know about extra credit at school?
AMY: [laughs] I was an under-achiever.
JENNY: And student activities. That’s where I channeled my creativity. Honestly, there was a joke that I tell about how if you really wanna understand who I am as a person, all you need is one fact, and it’s that my freshman year of high school, I rewrote a Snoop Dogg rap song for trigonometry class.
AMY: [laughs] Okay, if you remember–
JENNY: Extra credit.
AMY: You have to spit some of the bars.
JENNY: Extra credit, Amy. You missed that part. It was for extra credit. I didn’t even have to do it.
AMY: Did you do it for the class?
JENNY: Oh yeah. I fucking laid down some tracks.
AMY: Okay! Do you remember any of the bars?
JENNY: And then we cut it together as a video, like a compilation video that you sell on TV.
AMY: Like a mix tape?
JENNY: Mmhmm. And it was about the rapping function, tangents, cosines, like it’s outta control.
JENNY: You guys. It’s like:
“1, 2, 3.14
Jen Doggy Dog like–”
JENNY: 3.14. I made a pi joke on a fucking Snoop Dogg track. You know, I get always asked–I’m not even that much of a veteran in stand-up. I’m still considered a newbie in stand-up. And I’ve gotten amazing opportunities in just this short amount of time, but people think that I could give them advice. So sometimes people are like, “Oh, Jenny. So what’s your advice for someone who’s starting out in stand-up?” And it’s like, “You just do it. That’s literally, that’s all.” It’s, more than any other comedic format actually, it’s actually the thing where, from zero to doing it, is just doing it, right? There’s no other thing. You just get up on stage, and you talk to people. Now, it doesn’t guarantee that you’re gonna have a joke, right, or that they’ll laugh. But what it does is it gives you the muscle memory of how it feels to try to communicate an idea and to hear feedback around whether something hits as funny.
AMY: So it sounds like you’re fearless in attacking the work of comedy, but I wonder if, in the sets that you do, are there any topics or subjects that you are afraid to talk about, or that’s something doesn’t work for you?
JENNY: Oh, yeah. I definitely feel like I still have so much to grow in terms of talking about stuff publicly. This is ideally what I would love for myself to be able to do, which is to grow in my craft of being able to perform and tell jokes in such a way that I would feel very confident talking about topics that are very sensitive, whether that’s very personal or it’s politically charged. So I’m dabbling with that right now, but I feel like with stand-up–with many crafts–you have this aspiration of being able to be brilliant at talking about something that might be really hard. And that’s usually when it’s great cuz people need to hear those things. But your skill level and craft needs to meet up to be able to handle that. Otherwise, you wanna talk about rape, sexism, gender issues, sexuality, usually those are tough issues for a reason. Anything that’s taboo or that’s tough to talk about in polite conversation, if a comic wants to talk about it, it’s like handling radioactive energy. And so if you are not skilled enough to handle it, then you’re gonna fucking die. You’re gonna fuck it up for yourself, and people are gonna hate you. That’s what’s gonna happen.
And so I would like to come up and get to a point where the stuff that I talk about with the people closest to me around the things that I care most about, which is some weird kind of mesh of like personal growth self-help book arena, shame, and vulnerability, and being an immigrant, and being a woman, and sexuality, and politics. All of that, if all of that was mooshed into a thing, cuz that’s what I talk about with my closest friends: how do we grow, how do we be aware, conscious people, how do we have an impact on the world, how do we confront our own personal fears about our own skills and abilities, how do we live a happy life, and how do we take care of ourselves, feel love? I want to talk about all of that onstage in a way that honors the authenticity of what I care about as well as entertain people and make people laugh.
JENNY: Let’s talk about other stuff. Let’s talk about your fears, Amy Lam!
AMY: [laughs] This isn’t about me.
JENNY: We’re gonna turn this back on you. Fuck this mess! This is some bullshit, Popaganda. Whatever, Bitch Magazine.
JENNY: Whatever! Imma fight the power right now! What are you afraid of, Amy Lam?
AMY: Well, I think my biggest fear is of failure, right? I mean, it seems like you–
JENNY: Why you turning it back on me, Amy Lam?
AMY: [laughs] That’s my job! Otherwise, I’ll fail at my job!
JENNY: Failure. That’s true. No, failure. That’s true. I mean, comedy’s really good, doing stand-up’s really good for [chuckles] being a recovering perfectionist.
JENNY: It is. And actually, part of what I’ve been doing with my friends who–I’m surrounded by an amazing community of creatives–even just to practice it on something new. I wanna do it again, but I ran a thing called Five Days of Fail, where I scheduled a Saturday where we have a mini-share session with friends of different formats and genres where we commit to, every day for five days, doing one thing of a craft that we are doing or that we wanna try. And then every day, we submit it–they emailed it to me–and then I would post on my blog everyone’s two sentences of how it went that day, just so that everyone has a level of accountability. And then, on that Saturday after Monday through Friday every day submitting something, on that Saturday, we do a little showcase with each other, intimate showcase. And so, for example, my friend Priska–Priska Musik–Priscilla, she wrote a song every day. Who does that? Well, she did it. She has a day job, but she wrote a song. Let’s just make our goals to fail in a safe way cuz sometimes stakes feel so high. The hopes and dreams of our parents depend upon us–this is assuming you’re an immigrant child or whatever–that we need safe places to play and to fail.
SARAH: That was Amy Lam talking with comedian Jenny Yang. You can watch all of Jenny Yang’s great videos at JennyYang.tv
I hate the feeling of being afraid. That’s why I can’t watch scary movies; I just don’t like that prickly feeling where I start envisioning all the things that could happen. But what’s clear to me is that fear is useful. It tells us something. It’s a feeling that we should pay attention to. Fear communicates what we’re unable to say, sometimes. It expresses without words how we’re vulnerable as people, as women. Sometimes it tells us what we don’t think we can do: why are we afraid to get onstage? To take the mic? To make a joke? And fear left undiscussed and unexplained and unexamined can tear us apart, as individuals and as communities. We’re so often taught, especially as women, to ignore our feelings. To be tough. But instead of denying our fears, we should investigate them, to say, “yes, that feeling I have is real.” Maybe it’s irrational, but it’s there, it’s real, I feel it. I don’t want to live with fear, but I don’t want to just tell myself to “get over it” either. If fear is an alarm bell, what’s ringing the alarm? Peering into that dark question…well, that takes some bravery.
But don’t think with all this philosophizing I am going to ever EVER watch Funny Games. Or Panic Room. That sounds horrible. I will stick to the spookiness level of the X-Files, thank you very much. That’s fear enough for me.
Popaganda is produced by the team here at Bitch Media. Bitch is an independent nonprofit feminist media organization. We’re entirely funded by our beehive members, subscribers, and like-minded sponsors. So if you liked today’s episode of Popaganda, please become a member online at Bitchmedia.org today. Let us know you liked the show in your order comments. Our jingle is by Mucks and Owen Wuerker. Additional music was provided by Blue Dot Sessions. Look up their creative and minimalist sounds by going to Google and typing in Sessions.Blue. And the show is produced by Alex Ward at the studios of XRAY FM, an independent radio station in Portland, Oregon. Thanks for listening.