Saturday at the Women’s March on Washington, I kept thinking of that famous quote often attributed to Margaret Atwood. “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them,” it goes. “Women are afraid that men will kill them.” While reporting undercover at the Playboy Mansion in 1963, Gloria Steinem came to a similar conclusion: “Men fear ridicule the way women fear violence.”
These quotes used to bring me down — reminders of yet another way the dangers and anxieties that women face on a daily basis are more severe and often invisible to men. But Saturday, as signs like “MY VAGINA HAS HAD BETTER LINEUPS THAN TRUMP’S INAUGURATION” and “PRESIDENT BUTTHOLE LIPS” streamed down the National Mall, I began to conceive of this idea as a new rallying cry, an expression of a mischievous kind of hope that can help us survive Trump’s administration. Seeing women march in solidarity on all seven continents sent a strong, invigorating message that cannot be ignored. For women, and particularly women living under the governance of a monstrously egomaniacal man, ridicule might be our sharpest tool of resistance.
We know Trump’s insecurities all too well by now. They reveal themselves every time he speaks in public and especially every time he tweets: He hates when anyone (SNL cast member or otherwise) makes fun of him, particularly when they attack his physical appearance, machismo, or virility. We know how sensitive he is about the size of things, be they an inaugural crowd or his hands. Anyone who thought this kind of petulance would disappear once Trump took office was proved wrong Saturday by White House press secretary Sean Spicer’s inane, can-we-even-call-that-a-press-briefing, in which he attempted to attack the media but really just revealed how deeply the tweets about inaugural crowd size had wounded our thin-skinned commander-in-chief. Although he may put on a good show in public of remaining impervious or perhaps oblivious to our methods of criticism, the bluster of his own tweets reveals that it eats away at him in private. Ridiculing Trump is perhaps the greatest power we have as women, the closest we can come to sparking in him the fear and despair that he has evoked in so many of us. And what we saw in the streets on Saturday and in the days after the election is that the women of the new resistance movement are seizing on this strategy en masse, giving a man who has proudly judged women on their appearance a taste of his own rhetoric.
At rallies around the world, the old stereotype of the humorless feminist was exposed as the lie it always was. The women I stood among — an acerbic middle-aged woman from Roslyn, New York, who said of the festivities, “This certainly ain’t Camelot”; a teen girl who, when we walked by a plaque about Jupiter in front of the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum, quipped, “Our president is a gas giant” — were witty and hilarious. “Hands too small, can’t build a wall,” went one of the most popular chants; Fiona Apple came up with a related rallying cry, which I heard making the rounds at the D.C. march: “We don’t want your tiny hands anywhere near our underpants!” “You’re orange, you’re gross, you lost the popular vote,” was another, which swelled in volume as we stood outside Trump International Hotel. Mocking Trump’s hair has, of course, been a popular motif at the rallies (“We Shall Overcomb”), as has Photoshopping his body to look like everything from a pig to an orange pile of excrement.
Women endure daily attacks and judgments on their physical appearance in ways that men do not and often cannot see, so it’s understandable that some might be reluctant to turn that same kind of ridicule back on Trump. It was Michelle Obama herself who told us, at the Democratic National Convention, to go high when they go low. But now that Trump has taken office, the situation is more dire than it was during his campaign. With plans to repeal the Affordable Care Act, defund Planned Parenthood, potentially overturn Roe v. Wade, strengthen anti-immigration laws, diminish civil rights, ravage our educational system like a hungry grizzly bear, and whatever other untold horrors they’ve got in the works, Trump’s administration has declared a war on women. We need to find the sharpest and most powerful resources available to fight back.
In March 2012, three members of Pussy Riot, the feminist-punk collective behind songs like “Putin Has Pissed Himself,” were arrested in Russia on the questionable charges of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred” and sentenced to two years in prison. (In 2012, that seemed unthinkable to an American. In 2017, I’m not as sure.) I interviewed two of the members, Nadya Tolokonnikova and Masha Alyokhina, after they were released in 2014, and even after all they’d been through, I remember being struck by how funny they were. They were constantly laughing, cracking jokes, grinning at each other in that conspiratorial way that women sometimes do. I was thinking of them Saturday, and what I wrote about them after the fact: “Pussy Riot remind us that, in the face of oppression, injustice, and profound bureaucratic absurdity, fun can be a revolutionary act.”
It’s also crucial to remember that dissent is serious business, and that protests are not and must not be all fun and games. Laughter and ridicule aren’t the only instruments of resistance. We have to confront some very grim issues head-on: sexual violence against women and the looming threats to legal and safe abortions. The fear of a Muslim registry and draconian anti-immigration laws. The prison-industrial complex and the ways in which an administration obsessed with “law and order” will likely make it worse. The attacks the administration has already launched on efforts against climate change and science writ large. Their distortion not only of freedom of the press but of facts and knowledge itself.
I was thinking Saturday of another, rather nihilistic sign I saw at a protest during the Bush years: “FUCK EVERYTHING.” In the past few weeks, as Trump has assembled his Cabinet of bigots, cronies, and climate-change deniers, it’s been easy to feel overwhelmed at the sheer volume of things wrong with this administration. But we have a choice as to whether we are going to sink into the paralysis of a kind of “nothing matters” nihilism, or to use this as motivation to mobilize, be specific about what we are protesting, and educate one another on the connections between the many injustices and oppressions this administration is proposing. In the weeks leading up to the Women’s March, I felt it could go either way, but everywhere I looked Saturday — around me and in the global panorama on social media — I saw people choosing the latter. Marching with a clarity of purpose but also a sense of scope. Marching with both glee and grit, compassion and conviction, humor and anger so vitally intertwined.
When I went to bed on Friday night, I was planning on making a solemn sign, one that captured how I felt the day of the inauguration. It was going to say “ASHAMED TO BE AMERICAN,” and I’m glad that I nixed that idea, because as soon as I walked out the door Saturday morning and felt the energy of these protests, I felt the exact opposite. Instead I scribbled Trump’s own words in Sharpie — “VERY SAD!” — and ripped a picture of him out of the “failing” magazine Vanity Fair. I added a couple of emasculating sad faces for good measure.
On my walk to the Mall, my heart swelled every time a young girl or woman laughed at my sign or stopped me to tell me they thought it was funny. About halfway into my journey, stopped at a crosswalk on K Street, I saw a woman across the street with a sign that said, simply, “SAD!” We lifted our signs in solidarity and threw our heads back. We laughed.
Millions of women around the world were laughing at Donald Trump this weekend, and as he continues his attack on our basic human rights, we will see to it that that joyful noise only continues to spread. Laughter, after all — like the spirit of dissent and the courage to speak out — is wildly contagious.