A few minutes into Iliza Shlesinger’s Elder Millennial—the fourth special she’s released on Netflix and one that is branded on her website as “Comedy: Evolved”—she launches into a joke about going grocery shopping while engaged.
“You walk into a Trader Joe’s with a ring on your left hand, single women can feel the vibrations of the ring,” she explains. Women “come out of the frozen yogurt aisle, Lululemon, highlighted hair” and a single demand: “‘Tell us your ways! We wish to be betrothed as well! …. Tell us! Be a girl’s girl!’” she proclaims. Later, her routine covers why women go out with their friends: “Naturally we go out hoping to be discovered. There’s this weird thing where, a lot of girls, when we’re single, we don’t want to admit that we’re going out hoping a man notices us. Of course you are!” Shlesinger shouts.
The thesis of these jokes—and nearly the entirety of Shlesinger’s routine—rests on inflated, highly gendered stereotypes about men and women. In Shlesinger’s comedy world, all women want to be married off, striving for and conforming to the same standards of beauty in the process. This goal, she suggests, permeates all of their life pursuits to the extent that even spending time with friends is nothing more than a thin veneer covering an attempt to solicit male attention. Further, according to Elder Millennial, when women do go out, only those shivering like wet chihuahuas in the corner of a club will capture male attention.
Shlesinger repeats similar stereotypes throughout her routine. They categorize women and men in polarizing groups while entirely disregarding the existence of anyone trans, nonbinary, or queer who doesn’t fit neatly into a traditional box—all while Shlesinger brands her special as evolved, millennial content.
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It might be tempting to simply write off Shlesinger’s routine as a sadly rudimentary representation of gender stereotypes that garners a few laughs with no harm done. But the reality is that harm is done when the media perpetuates stereotypes that not only don’t serve anyone, but actively hold people back by boxing their complex identities into limiting categories.
“What you’re hearing in this special and other places is, ‘This is how girls are and how boys are,’ and on a certain level you’ll believe some of that,” said Julia Lippman, a research fellow at the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research, adding that research has shown a link between the amount of media consumed and the endorsement of the ideals portrayed in the media.
“My sense is she has sort of positioned herself as a sort of feminist—which, for me, I would tend to associate with a certain level of progressivism [that] isn’t really evident in her act,” Lippman continued.
Although Shlesinger represents herself as a millennial, her viewpoints are certainly not representative of everyone in her generation. Experts say that millennials, along with most everyone else, are wrestling with stereotypes about what gender means and how its roles can function—and certain groups are actually working to transform, broaden, and perhaps even eliminate them altogether.
“I think the criticism of gender and the way in which gender boxes people into stereotypes is felt just as strongly by men as women,” Barbara Risman, distinguished professor of sociology at the University of Illinois, Chicago, told Rewire.News. Citing a hypothetical example of a millennial man being berated by his friends for expressing sadness after a breakup, Risman explained that “men often feel gender constraints and, feeling constrained by stereotypes, this is how you begin to develop an understanding that these norms are dysfunctions and that’s part of being a feminist.”
Risman, who studies millennials’ relationship to gender, found that the work of a group of people she refers to as the “rebels,” made up of gender nonconforming people including queer and trans people, are behind many of the challenges to gender that the millennial generation has produced in that “they don’t think that men and women need to present their bodies in a certain way.”
Indeed, as a millennial, I was horrified by the blatant gender constraints propagated in Shlesinger’s act. I was surprised, though, when discussing the comedy special with fellow millennial women—who also consider themselves feminists in no uncertain terms—to find that they found Elder Millennial to be hilarious, raising no red flags at all.
Risman had the opposite reaction. “The first thing that I want to say is that it didn’t surprise me,” Risman said when I asked her about what I saw as a conflict between the millennial label and the traditional gender stereotypes found throughout Shlesinger’s act. As a millennial who was raised in North Dakota, I know plenty of people who still subscribe to traditional roles. But I still think the generation’s overarching view is that the gender roles and expression we take on are largely choices we make, more so than they are roles to which we subscribe.
But, said Risman, “Millennials are not all the same when it comes to gender and certainly not how they’ll live their lives.
“There’s a misconception that they’re all the same,” she said. Risman’s research found that millennials land all over the attitudinal spectrum when it comes to gender. There are some millennials who are strong believers in central differences between men and women and think that it’s a woman’s role to be nurturing while men are destined to run households. On the other end of the spectrum are millennials who don’t fit into the two boxes that Shlesinger offers in her comedy and are challenging the status quo for the generation.
In addition to the role feminists have played in questioning the value of the male gaze, Risman said, “There’s a distinct group of millennials … who are pushing gender in really radical ways. They don’t want to be considered a man or a woman, they’re in the middle and they’re using their bodies to reject gender and … they’re having major cultural impact on how we think about gender and categories.”
Unfortunately, these important groups of people are entirely left out of Shlesinger’s comedy special, one that boasts the millennial brand and the whiff of progressivism that comes with it without adequately representing it.
A central issue with Shlesinger’s act, and perhaps why it’s still attractive to even progressive millennials, is that it she touches on evolved notions. She does briefly expound on issues of consent in a way that most male comedians may have overlooked. At one point, for instance, she goes on a tangent about how what women believe about love isn’t their fault because of the stories imparted by Disney in their childhoods. Later she interrupts a bit about nipple tassels to state, “I am the woman who has stood here before and will stand here in front of you again and let you know you can wear whatever you want, it doesn’t give a man the right to put his hands on you, and no always means no.”
However, her statements are a far cry from a sophisticated, analytical takedown of the warped ways that our culture views consent: She follows this assertion about tassels with a joke about how, while women are technically allowed to wear whatever they want, they should consider how their choices make men feel. Women should opt to be “mentally kind” to men by not wearing anything too risqué. Otherwise, Shlesinger continues, “The guy is going to be like, ‘Oh my God’ and blood goes from [his head] to his dick.”
Shelsinger’s comedy works, said Lippman, “because it’s a very familiar narrative. It wouldn’t work if we didn’t all have a shared awareness of these stereotypes,” said Lippman. But rather than tearing these stereotypes down, Shlesinger perpetuates them—likely because they solicit easy laughs without risk. And we, the viewers, have been complicit in it since it’s only through viewership and numbers that content thrives on Netflix.
While Elder Millennial is disappointing, to say the least, there are things that you and I, the viewers, can do to essentially downvote problematically gendered comedy like Shlesinger’s. “Be aware of the things you’re watching,” Lippman advised.
“A big part is having a more critical awareness of what we’re seeing and what the tropes and implications are and what it’s ultimately saying,” she adds, noting that it’s within a viewer’s power to demand better. “Find the media that endorses the ideals you want … and put your money where your mouth is.”