“Theatre or politics, one and the same, right?” Chelsea Handler at the Union

Image credit: David Shankbone

Chelsea Handler admitted she was so inspired by her tour of the University that she wouldn’t mind going back to school herself. And what would she study? “Theatre or politics, one and the same, right?” she quipped with characteristically acerbic irony.  In fact, it was the mingling of politics with the theatricality of comedy which defined the evening. The comedian, actress, writer and television host spent the bulk of her time earnestly promoting activism in the face of injustice and inequality, only occasionally dropping in a comic moment and performing for laughs in the gallery.

Last month Handler announced that she would not be continuing her Netflix talk-show Chelsea, instead focussing on social activism and it was this theme which dominated her answers. With arms vigorously animated – as if campaigning for political change were indeed physical exercise – she parallels going out and helping people with the routine of “going to the gym – it becomes natural, it’s a mind gym and it’s an activism gym”. In one of her most entertaining anecdotes, Chelsea relays a trip to a women’s prison that she took simply because “I know I am going to learn something”, and can then use her celebrity platform to broaden awareness of what she has learned. However, once again, sincere discussion of political problems is offset by her self-deprecating sense of humour as she goes on to recall how she had to wear her driver’s trousers when she realised that jeans were prohibited in the prison.  Deadpan, she delivered her most resounding memory, “I was afraid that they were going to keep me”.

As she spoke, Handler became increasingly consumed by the gross injustice of current sociopolitical degeneration, both in the USA and around the world; she pinballed tangentially between issues of racism and gender equality, immigration and education. However, all roads, all questions, often lead back to President Trump. Fervidly, she revealed, “I am horrified by the potential of the damage that he has already done and will continue to do until he is removed - hopefully physically in his boxer shorts in the middle of the night!”. It is Trump’s election that has galvanised Handler and she is a resolute exponent of the fight against him “on the most granular level”. In an encouraging grassroots call to arms, she argued that “politics doesn’t have to be so scary and unknown, it can be intimate and small” and still have a meaningful impact.

As if in disbelief, Handler kept returning to the statistic that “54% of white women voted for Trump” despite his unapologetically misogynistic rhetoric and darker allegations of abuse; so now, she urged, a countering ground surge of women is vital to reverse this. Indeed, she attested, what America needs most urgently is more women in congress. Not for the sake of female domination but simply by principle of fundamental equality and fairness. “Women do the right thing overall, more so than men” she posited, but more topically “they’re not sexually harassing people in the same way that men are. Women aren’t whipping out their vaginas and making men touch them” she aptly pointed out with a contagious cackle.

In this way Handler came across as both serious and hilarious, genuine and outlandish. In terms of political analysis, she is a self-confessed student.  Her artless enthusiasm for the just cause, that she puts her money, time and energy where her mouth is, serve as a stirring example for everybody in attendance. The antivenom to Trump’s “hate and vitriol” then, seems to be the conscientious act of political participation, not taking oneself too seriously but becoming engaged through any avenue possible.

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