"Parks and Rec" writer Megan Amram: Rape apologists are like internet trolls

The comedy writer has written a hilarious feminist manifesto for the modern era

Published October 14, 2014 2:40PM (EDT)

If you love feminism, hate '50s gender norms, and find the tone of women's magazines maddening, then you will love Megan Amram's upcoming satirical book "Science...For Her!" Finally, a textbook that teaches women the manly pursuit of science in terms that our feeble, submissive lady brains will understand.

Amram's hilarious book includes an "About the Author's Ex-Boyfriend" page next to it's "About the Author" page, a chapter called "Women with Jobs?! ("This chapter brings up a broader topic to discuss-- women and employment. I'm sure it's been weighing on your mind throughout the whole book. Should women even have a job? It's one of history's greatest unsolved mysteries"), a diagram that explains Todd Akin's phrase legitimate rape, and, of course, a chapter devoted to "KALE!!!!" It's a brilliant parody that heightens the absurdity of women's magazines and the gender norms they perpetuate by delivering them in the format of a 9th grade biology textbook packed with quizzes, infographics, charts and mini-assignments.

Though this is the first book by the "Parks and Recreation" writer, there's nothing amateurish about it. That's not surprising to anyone familiar with Amram's career, which took off when her hilarious Twitter feed landed her a job writing for the 2011 Academy Awards not long after she graduated college. Her writing credits include Disney's "A.N.T. Farm" and "Kroll Show." In 2012, she joined NBC's critically acclaimed comedy "Parks and Recreation," which will enter its final season in 2015.

"Science...For Her!" is so sharp and funny that after feminist icon Gloria Steinem read it, she not only wrote a positive blurb for the book (If there’s one thing more important than science, technology, engineering, and math, it’s laughing!”), but invited Amram to her invitation-only 80th birthday celebration in New York City earlier this year.

"I still think if that's the only thing that I got out of this book is that Gloria Steinem read it and wrote something for it, I am just done," Amram said to Salon over the phone. "This is all I need for the rest of my life."

Still, she'd probably like it if you read the book -- or at least had a few pro-women musings during your lifetime. Amram humored us with an interview, talking to Salon about feminism, gender-based magazines, and her experiences as a comedy writer.

How did you come up with the idea?

It did sort of stem from other pieces I'd written. I knew I wanted to write a book before I knew what I wanted to write it about...I decided to look back through, this was like a year and a half ago, pieces I had already written for my Tumblr and for other publications, and realized that I already had written a bunch of parodies of women's magazines-- in that voice.

I realized that was something I was drawn to, so I thought, that would be super fun to make a parody that looked very, very close to a real magazine. And it sort of organically, out of the satire, grew. I thought visually it would be such a fun artifact to have, half textbook, half Cosmo magazine. And it happened very organically out of that.

Did you end up going through actual science textbooks and copies of Cosmo for research for this?

Oh, yes. That was one of the fun and sort of maddening things. The second I started writing this book, I went to the bookstore and I bought a huge stack of magazines and two ninth-grade level science books. I would say that's the level that my science reaches. As shallow as possible. I hope I'm the first person to ever have made this exact purchase.

I feel like it's such an exercise in like several things: to read a ton of Cosmos or Glamours or whatever, all at once. Because you start realizing how they're just talking about nothing for many pages, and they sort of lull you into this hypnotic state. I'd be reading magazines, and would be trying to read actively so that I could take notes or ideas for stuff for the book, and then I would just end up reading them and realized again, "Oh, I just read this." And trying to figure out what shoes are best to get your boyfriend with or whatever.

Was that a soul-crushing experience, or did you find there is something bizarrely interesting about these magazines?

I think that's what is so intriguing about these types of magazines, it's like, I grew up with them, I never was super into them, but I'd read them on the plane or at like slumber parties. I would say it's both. Part of me is so despondent, when I'm like, "Is this really all we're supposed to be thinking of, is how to shape your eyebrows?" But to be fair, it's not just women's magazines, it's men's magazines too that totally reaffirm pretty outdated gender roles.

As much as I'm making fun of it, I'm also like, "That is a cute top from Forever 21, I'm gonna buy that." I think that's sort of the fun thing about being a woman now, is you should be able to be any type of thing you want to be. Like, I love science in real life, and I also love nail art, and I like that I get to sort of combine both of those whenever I want them.

My experience in reading this was I thought it was hilarious, but I also found it a little painful, because I was not a feminist growing up. A lot of these messages were not outlandish at all for me back then, and reflecting on that makes me cringe.

Yeah, the thing about these magazines on the whole is that I think they're telling you how to be in order to please other people, like men mostly, or your friends or your parents or whoever. And that's kind of the crux of it is “what is wrong with me?” If you want to dress in a certain way, that's fantastic. You can dress any way you want. But it shouldn't necessarily be to please other people, it should be to please yourself.

So like that's the perspective of a teen girl reading this and being like, I want to be cool, so I'm going to do these things so that other people think I'm cool. And that's not a new idea but it's like, no, you should be doing these things if you like them, and then the coolness follows. I'm very wise.

Did you watch the Emmy Awards show that had Sofia Vergara on a pedestal?

That was completely demeaning. How did this get through so many channels and no one said that this was crazy? My friend noticed that it kind of totally would have been changed if it was two people on a pedestal if it was two people on a pedestal, like Sofia Vergara and Matthew McConaughey or some hot dude. Still not maybe preferable but it's like, how do you not know that literally making a woman a trophy is not maybe the best message to send to the country?

Right, and then people were comparing that to Beyonce declaring she's a feminist. She's also put on a stage. The conversation devolved and just got absolutely ridiculous--

That's the thing too, as someone who is like very strong feminist, and also one who is hyper aware of every sort of possible sexism or latent stereotypes in any media-- I really do think that is because I wrote the book. I wanted to be very informed when I was writing the satire, that I sort of knew what message I wanted to send.

But I now go to almost every movie, like I just saw "Gone Girl," and I was like, I can't not think that there are things in here that are potentially stereotypes that are not great. And it's a hard thing, because you don't want to come off as a harpy -- which is what everyone loves to call vocal feminists. But almost every single thing you see has something that could be better. Like Sofia Vergara on the pedestal, or a lot of children's movies, and it's difficult. Most of it I don't really talk about because I guess you have to choose your battles, but it is like you can't turn off that part of your brain once you've sort of opened your eyes to it.

Speaking at the Geena Davis Institute on Gender and Media recently, AMC executive Elizabeth Frank recently said that 70 percent of moviegoers are satisfied with gender portrayals in film, and this prompted her to increase outreach, education about the media's portrayal of women. Basically, a lot of women promote stereotypes unwittingly, and that's also certainly their right to, but then it also alienates them from feminism. I often struggle with how inclusive feminism can be and should be. How you deal with that as a comedian and a writer?

Yeah, I think that's such a good point. It's coming at it from all sides, and I think when I was making fun of women's magazines, too, I wanted to be... I'm not really trying to berate them.

I think the people at the magazines that I talk to, they have a really good sense of humor, especially about themselves, and liked the book and thought it was funny poking fun at them, and it's a lot of women who work at these magazines. Part of me is like, I don't know if you should be doing this. I think it is pretty anti-what you're-going-for to be portraying women like this.

But it also is like, part of the machine that has been running in America for hundreds of years. Again, where do we start chipping away at this? It isn't necessarily the most productive to just be like try to fix all the big things all at once. But until you are shown by other people, really, like I didn't know half of these things... not didn't know, but I just didn't think about things... It's so easy to consume movies or TV or a book or just general life, and just take it for granted, like, this is how things are, this is how men are, this is how women are, and it's very easy, and it doesn't feel harmful to anybody, but you really have to take a step back and be like, “This might be how it is, but should it be like this?” And once you do that, it's like, no, no, there's tons of stuff we can finesse.

Was there a turning point for you that made you become critical?

Yeah, I mean I think that it really was... part of the reason that I wrote this book when I did is that a couple years ago, there was a ton of stuff, and it's not new, but that happened to be in the press all at once about white men telling women that they don't understand their bodies. And some of that is sexual health, and birth control and abortion, but there was the infamous Todd Akin stuff that I wrote about in the book, where he said that there's no real pregnancies that come out of rape, it's just if it's a legitimate rape the body has a way to “shut that whole thing down.”

I know it's like the equivalent of a troll on the Internet. It's so crazy that you probably shouldn't even pay attention to that, but that was sort of a turning point for me: “Oh my God, this person, to whatever extent, believes this.” That is so hard to stomach. Just the fact that, not only would Todd be telling you how your own body works, but that he would be so wrong. And it was like, “I don't think this is a funny thing that I can slowly, passively accept anymore.” Not that I ever thought that it was a funny thing, but like I feel like before then, I sort of was like, well, I'm acting as a feminist by hopefully being successful at a job that is still gender inequal in terms of how many people are comedy writers; there's a ton of women comedy writers, but it's still mostly men. And after that happened, I was like, no this is something that I really want to talk about.

Do you find that, because the comedy world is so male, sometimes you have to explain yourself more than you'd like to, or that you feel like ideas are sometimes rejected because they're not mainstream?

I've only had the most wonderful experiences with my co-workers and my friends. My boss has created an environment at "Parks and Rec" that is extremely thoughtful about gender issues and social issues and economic issues, and it's pretty much just like every social echelon you could be talking about. And I also haven't had other experiences, so I might be totally fooled but for me, I've had a lot of co-workers who really like talking about this in a very respectful way.

A few months ago, Sarah Silverman was labeled "offensive" basically just for saying the word "vagina" on TV. I never thought doing that would be such a revolutionary act. But your book in a way is sort of doing the same type of thing. Have you received any similarly insane comments in response to the book?

Oh yeah, it's crazy. I mean, I take that as a great compliment. Sarah Silverman is incredible and also is such a great activist in her own way.

I sort of leaked little bits of my book so far. I wrote a thing about the legitimate rape comment, a diagram explaining why Todd Akin was completely correct and why it's exactly scientifically sound, and it's how the body defends itself. And it's satirical, and I think that's very clear. I was still a little nervous, because I wonder if people are going to get it or whether people are going to be angry. But it seemed that that particularly was super well received. The people who understand satire and agree with me in the platform of what I'm saying are really going to like it. And then the people who think that it's... who are, for lack of a better word, sexist, and don't like what the satire is saying will hate it, and that's fine. And then there'll be a large number of people I'm sure who agree with stuff and then don't think it's funny, and that's fine, too.

But I wrote a serious but light essay about my mom who raised my brother and I completely as a single mom, and I wrote an essay about how we wish her happy Father's Day, because she essentially was a mother and father to me. And it posted on Jezebel, and I'd never really written for Jezebel before, and had not had the first-hand experience of the horrible comments that people leave.

That essay was so touching, I can't believe people would troll that.

Thank you. I also thought it was very benign, and I went out of my way to say, “This isn't about everyone, this isn't about all men, this is about my mom and myself.” And the comments are crazy, and I don't care about them.

I mean I kind of liked them. They're very funny. They were like,, "She already fucking has Mother's Day, why does she have to come and take Father's Day away from us, too?" Which, that's crazy. Like Men's Rights Activists are so crazy. They don't understand that every day is Father's Day. It's like every day is man's day. So that's why I'm taking two days for my mom.

The voice of the character in the book was very strong, but when I tried to imagine this woman as a character on TV, I felt like she wouldn't be so satirical. She would come off as someone who was perpetuating a stereotype. Do you agree that some of the satire would be lost if this were a character on screen?

That's a very insightful question/statement. The thing I loved about writing this book, rather than turning the character into something else that you see, is that those women's magazines are written in such a specific fashion which have a lot of parentheticals and are very casually talking to the reader, and I was like, “I am very excited to try to emulate that style but pushed to a point that it's almost unreadable.” My book has so many parentheticals and saying hello to the ladies who are reading it. It keeps getting away from the topic at hand.

I feel like written prose comedy is not the most popular form. A lot of people watch TV and movies for comedy, but it is, when it's done correctly, and I don't mean to refer to myself, I'm referring to like the masters, it's incredibly fun and a very cool style of writing. So, I agree with you. I don't think it would get across everything I'm trying to get across if you just heard the character speak. I think the actual written word on the page is part of the satire I want.

I wanted to ask you about another one of your writing projects -- The Sally Pemberton introduction on Bob Odenkirk's book, "A Load of Hooey," about a woman who runs a Finishing School. Tell me the story behind that.

First of all, I still can't believe I got to do that. Bob was like an icon and a hero of mine, and is also the nicest person ever. He's so open to supporting younger writers, which he's done for his whole career.

He basically was like, "I have this idea for a character who would talk about how to read my book," and so the character was his idea. And I was like, “That sounds amazing, I'm just going to give it a shot and do my crazy, manic thing.” And he really liked it. I really like writing these insane female characters.

When I read it, I was confused about what the relationship was between you and the piece, because your name appears just in the acknowledgements as making the introduction to Sally.

I like that. I think it's funny to just imagine that it could be anyone. It could be a real person, it could be Bob, it made me laugh a lot to write as this student.

Yeah, I Googled Sally Pemberton and I found that she was the granddaughter of a New Yorker art critic. Is there any relation there?

I honestly think it was like a name. I think Bob came up with that name. That just sounds exactly like the person who would write that. Any relation to anyone living or dead is purely coincidental, that's what I'll say usually. But it's just like, I think etiquette schools, and that sort of world that I haven't really seen exist, are so funny to me. They're just such a like waste of time, at least now. Probably back in the day they were like the only reason to live.

Of course I have to ask you about "Parks and Rec." I'm assuming you probably can't reveal much about the final season, but--

It does exist. It is the final season. I can't reveal anything because there are so many amazing surprises that we're doing, and I'm not just saying that. It's going to be so great, I think, in my unbiased opinion.

It's very funny because I've never worked on like a movie or anything before where you have to keep everything confidential, but that's what we're doing this year. So hopefully it will just keep you on for surprises when you watch it.

"Science...for Her!" (Scribner) goes on sale Nov. 4.

By Prachi Gupta

Prachi Gupta is an Assistant News Editor for Salon, focusing on pop culture. Follow her on Twitter at @prachigu or email her at pgupta@salon.com.

MORE FROM Prachi Gupta

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Bob Odenkirk Books Cosmo Cosmopolitan Magazine Gloria Steinem Megan Amram Science...for Her!