Manic Female Nightmares: On the Comic Voices of Megan Amram’s ‘Science… For Her!’ and Mallory Ortberg’s ‘Texts From Jane Eyre’

When The Hairpin, The Awl’s sister blog for “weird girls” was at its peak, much of its personality came from the inimitable voice of its founding editor, Edith Zimmerman. She had a particular comic take, kooky and spooky, and she was liable to tell you how to make art out of your vegetables or where ghosts resided. She had a lot of strengths as a writer, but one thing that she was absolutely brilliant at was parodying a certain sort of feminine perspective, taking it to extra-outrageous lengths so you realized just how stupid compulsory femininity could be — and in that case, “Woman Laughing Alone With Salad” was her meme masterpiece.

Perhaps the surest sign that Zimmerman, who stepped down from the day-to-day duties of The Hairpin in 2013 and was recently announced as one of the high-profile hires for First Look Media’s Racket, left a mighty wake is that it feels like there’s a lot of wild, anarchic comic voices out there that are distinctly manic and female in tone. Post-Hairpin, if you will. Two of the funniest books I’ve read this year, Mallory Ortberg’s Texts From Jane Eyre and Megan Amram’s Science… For Her! feel like they owe some inspiration to Zimmerman’s work at The Hairpin, but where they truly take flight is the way that they take this skewed comic voice to the next level.

In the case of Ortberg’s Texts From Jane Eyre, The Hairpin played a literal role in its development — it started as a recurring column on the site in the summer of 2012. It was Ortberg’s first literary character parody, from which she moved onto the likes of The Babysitters Club and Nancy Drew. She wrote Texts From… columns for The Hairpin until she took them to her own site, The Toast, started in the summer of 2013. The idea was wildly popular from the jump, and it made perfect sense that somebody wanted to make them into a book.

textsWhen we first got the Texts from Jane Eyre book in the office, I flipped through it with some curiosity, wondering if Ortberg was going to search for meaning in these funny bits, whether she’d expand beyond the medium of text; and thankfully, the book doesn’t even attempt to be anything but texts from your favorite fictional characters. What makes it a complete joy is the breadth of Ortberg’s knowledge and love — she understands, perfectly, how the extreme passions of literary characters (or writers like Emily Dickinson) lead to ridiculous, dramatic, over-the-top texts, and the juxtaposition of all these feelings with the universal mundanity of technology is hilarious.

If Texts From Jane Eyre‘s pleasures come from its succinctness, from its commitment to rendering the whole of the western canon in quick hilarious bits, then Science… For Her! is kind of the opposite — it takes the idea of bite-sized jokes, then kicks it on the ground, beats it up, and keeps going until the joke turns into straight dadaist surrealism… and then spins back around into a joke. It’s even funnier to appreciate because Megan Amram is good at one-liners, which feels like the opposite of this book — after all, she came to fame as a “Twitter comedian,” and is now working as a writer for Parks and Recreation.

But there’s something heady and conceptual and gross at the heart of Science… For Her! and it’s really funny as a result. It starts with a sort of la-di-dah, feminized tone, the voice of a dopey gal who has taken all the lessons of vintage, Helen Gurley Brown-era how-to-find-a-man-and-keep-him Cosmo to heart, and is now writing a science textbook, but really it’s all wrong and mostly manic and insane.

You’ll know whether you’re into it by the first bit of book, “Dedication (to all my besties!!!),” a masterpiece of Amram dedicating the book to her best friends: “Kennedy (my best friend who was an MTV VJ), Lindsay (my best friend when I wake up with stigmata [only happened a couple of times]), Audrey (my best friend when I need to practice kissing).” This goes on for twelve pages. Eventually, Amram gets dumped by her boyfriend, goes on a downward spiral, discovers meth in order to get skinny, but most of all, she talks about science. And there’s a two page centerfold that is just the word KALE!!!! in beautiful type.

Like any joke, it’s better for you to experience it. But the ways in which this book takes the sort of faux you go girl! girl power-ism of lady mags and skewers it into something deep, dark, and twisted shows what a big, stupid lie it is in the first place. It’s a fascinating, high-wire performance piece of a book and it made me laugh like a loon and sometimes I had to put it down because it was just too much.

Where I think these two books meet is in a sort of jubilant embrace of what’s sold to women as femininity, but as they embrace ideas like “literary men have wisdom” and “lady mag techniques will help you get a man and understand the world,” they trip over the idiot concept, laughing all the way. If irony came first for a certain class of comedians, this one manages to be the work of enthusiasts on first glance and the irony comes with the implications, afterwards. It’s a very smart, tricky thing to pull off, and I’m happy to see more comic female writers taking what was so unique about The Hairpin when it was in its groove and pushing it into a completely different, bizarre place.