Science, Diapers and Feminism: A Conversation with Megan Amram


LISTEN UP, LADIES: Comedian Megan Amram wants to explain science to you in the most patronizing way possible. And guess what? You’re probably going to like it.

Science…For Her!, Amram’s first published work, is a parody text book that makes fun of the dumbed-down voice that female-centered publications (cf. Cosmopolitan, Amram’s primary reference, and also my intro paragraph) often use when explaining things to their audience. Narrated by a deranged version of Amram, who is entirely different from the smart, funny, real-life Megan whom I spoke to on the phone, Science…For Her! explains biology and physics with flawed reasoning and misinformation like “The O-Zone: The Study of the Female Orgasm” (spoiler alert: according to Narrator Megan, the female orgasm does not exist) and “Fashion Staples for Each Step of Global Warming.”

Through absurdism, parody and a finely crafted narrative voice, Amram illuminates a broad, important point: The way the media talks to women fucking sucks. So we rang up the Parks and Recreation writer and Twitter whiz kid to discuss her new book, feminism, working with Amy Poehler and strapping on a diaper for love.

Jezebel: What was the inspiration for Science…For Her?

Megan Amram: A year and a half or two years ago, I decided that I wanted to write a comedy book, because I had been writing a lot of comedy prose on my blog and I found it very fun and different enough from my job—which is writing for Parks and Recreation—that I could do both at the same time.

But I didn’t know what I wanted it to be and I wanted it to be higher-concept than just a collection of pieces, so I went back through what I had written already to see if there was a thread, a premise that I had unconsciously been putting together under an umbrella. I saw that I had written a few pieces that were making fun of the tone of Cosmo. It occurred to me how fun that would be to write in that voice. People have written things to poke fun at that editorial voice, but I’ve never seen a full book about it.

I wanted it to be a feminist text. I wanted it to be making fun of what men and women think women should be thinking about all the time: a science text book where girls are given the sense that they don’t understand anything about any part of their day-to-day lives, right down to what gravity is. It also happened pretty organically: picking up the voice of a Cosmo writer, talking down to all these readers and trying to teach them very basic things. It was funny to me.

Why do you think women’s publishing has this voice that’s so condescending to their audience?

I think about that all the time. The people who I’ve talked to very briefly at these magazines, who are mostly women, seem to have a sense of humor, seem to be open minded people in real life. Which begs the question: “How are you still making these?”

To do research, I bought just dozens of Cosmos and Marie Claires and all these magazines and read them all at once because I wanted to lull myself into a hypnotic state and really internalize how they talk to their readers. It’s very conversational and very “YOU’RE MY BEST FRIEND,” but also pretty passive aggressive because they’re inherently telling you that there’s something wrong with you. “Why you don’t have a boyfriend?” or “Why are you fat?” or different versions of that. And they’re obviously very heterosexually-oriented. They never have pieces about why you can’t get a girlfriend, which I think would be very interesting because it so wouldn’t fit with the tone of the stuff they’ve been writing.

I’m getting off topic. But I think the bottom line is that this is how things have been done for awhile now and it’s easier to put out an issue of a magazine that’s very similar to the ones that have already existed than it is to completely change them. And there are these little attempts at modernization where there’ll be an insert that’s like, “How to Dress for your PhD Oral” or whatever and I’m like, “YOU’RE ALMOST THERE. You’re almost talking about independence and professional success and all these things that are very healthy for women, but you’re also talking about the pencil skirt you should be wearing.”

One thing I loved about the book was how Megan the narrator was so desperate for love, but then it’s just like you said: there’s also this really condescending aspect where she’s telling you everything that’s wrong with you. It’s a very hilarious balance of the “You can have it all/Go girl” attitude and straight-up woman-hating.

That’s what’s so interesting to me. It’s this weird push and pull to the extent that you feel like you’re in someone’s brain when you’re reading these magazines. You go “I can hear exactly the path that your brain is taking when you’re oscillating between self loathing and thinking you’re so fat and ugly and no one loves you, to then putting that all on your supposed best friend.” It’s a very great Freudian pattern of “I feel awful so I’m going to displace it on the people who are supposed to be close to me.”

It was a very fun thing to write. There are multiple parts of the book where narrator Megan calls all the readers fat then apologizes profusely and starts sobbing on her book and then tells them they’re fat again. She’s a truly crazy person. I feel bad for her, she should be medicated.

Speaking about how nuts Megan the narrator is, there’s a very fine balance between the more obvious Cosmo-esque parody and some very delightful absurdism. At one point, Megan is literally writing to us from a dungeon where she’s being held as prisoner. Do you have a process that helps you decide when to get a little weirder or is that just a part of your natural comedic patter?

It is a part of my comedic patter and I don’t know if that’s good or bad. I would let myself go on for page-long tangents, which I think is my natural style of writing. It’s kind of manic, but also it fits really well with what I was trying to do because in those girl magazines, you see very small versions of it where they’ll bring anecdotes that are in no way necessary into articles.

But, yeah, the through-line of Megan trying to have sex with people to get over her ex and then becoming addicted to drugs and being in the hospital: all that stuff was not planned. I allowed it to get kind of crazy. I wanted it to be.

So Megan the narrator has just been fired from NASA.

Yes, from the Northwest division.

Do you remember that story of Lisa Nowak, the astronaut who wore diapers while driving hundreds of miles to try and confront/kidnap her ex boyfriend’s new girlfriend?

Um, do I remember that story? I think about her probably twice a day.

Did she inspire Megan’s NASA career at all?

Oh, my god. If I don’t mention her in the book—I think it’s crazy that we don’t talk about her every day. If I ever become a truly crazy person on the street corner, I will be screaming about Diaper Lady.

You’ll have an audience for it.

Oh, yeah. But that is totally the type of person that Megan is supposed to be—like, truly desperate, totally in her own deluded world where she thinks that she and her ex are going to live a long and happy life together.

She would definitely strap on a diaper and drive three states to prove her love.

She’ll put on a Louis Vuitton diaper. A beautiful designer diaper.

That’s a lovely image.

I feel like that’s what Kanye West is probably wearing right now.

I think we can assume that he is. So, there are some very dark jokes in the book. You have a whole section about “legitimate rape” and then there’s abortion stuff, the whole dungeon scenario and the way you lampoon the very subtle racism of women’s magazines.

That’s crazy to me, too, as a side note. I’m the type who is hyper-aware of different voices in media because that’s something I take very seriously: that different women’s voices, of different races and ethnicities, are represented. These magazines are so tailored to white women, straight women. I read a bunch of Cosmo Latina and it’s basically just the regular issue of Cosmo with every fourth word replaced by a Spanish word in italics. Anyway, that was something that I was really disappointed by.

Do the sensitive jokes take more planning or, because you’re already thinking about certain issues, do they feel very natural?

It took a lot of planning. I thought for a very long time about those certain areas and whether I should even include them because—if you’re someone who’s active on the internet or, for example, has ever had anything on Jezebel—you have to be so careful with what you’re saying, and even then it’s totally misinterpreted. There are so many different voices who are screaming at you all the time, basically, so I really wanted to make sure that what I was writing about was exactly what I wanted to say.

So that you can stand up for it.

Yeah. I really thought for a long time Am I in any way making fun of the victims of these things, like sexual abuse or racism? Or am I making fun of the people who let these things stand through satire? I really truly believe that the way it turned out is that it’s making fun of the people who believe in those kinds of things. So, the legitimate rape section—I really waffled a lot and didn’t know if I wanted to include anything about assault, but then I thought, “No, I’m writing a feminist comedy book, it would be irresponsible to not have something about sexual assault or rape, which is something that every single woman has either been a victim of or thinks about and worries about.”

I do think it’s funny that there will be people who buy this as an accident and think that it’s real science text book and give it to their young daughters. I really want to get into their brains when they’re very malleable.

We republished a piece of yours about being raised by a single mom.

Yeah, my mom raised my brother and me completely as a single mom. She’s a doctor, which I think is pretty incredible. She was a great role model for being an active feminist and knowing that there are pockets in society that are very insidious and sexist, and you might not think about them unless you’re hyper-aware.

By the virtue of her being the only parent in my life and also being a very successful doctor, I grew up thinking that there was literally nothing that I couldn’t do, which is a great, wonderful thing. Also, my twin brother and I are very close, so a lot of the stuff I was into when I was younger was him developing the interest first and then me gravitating towards it.

Just like a feminist to take a man’s interests away from him.

I know! It’s like, we can’t even leave Pokémon cards for the men? But, really, I have a deep love for video games, but I’m really bad at them, which is a very specific Venn diagram of people who like them but can’t play them and I’m right in the middle. So I love watching people play them, and raving about them, and that’s because I grew up with a brother who is a video game prodigy.

But that’s a-whole-nother—it’s why #GamerGate is so frustrating.

Have you been reading about it a lot?

Yeah, because I think that being a feminist, critical thinker or writer in different types of media is very necessary because video games—if you choose to think about it, it’s horrible that players in Grand Theft Auto can beat up a prostitute.

It’s unequivocally wrong.

It’s unequivocally wrong! So I think that it’s necessary that people are speaking about it.

Anyway, I grew up with the sense that, as a girl, you can like whatever you like, and that includes video games. And that you can be whoever you want to be, which is basically the purest form of feminism for a child.

Were you into science as a kid?

Yeah, I’m super into science! My mom and brother are both doctors and I think that if I wasn’t so squeamish, I definitely would have considered doing that, too. But I am so squeamish that I didn’t for once think that I would become a doctor. The first job I ever wanted to be—when I was, like, 5 or 6—was a pharmacologist because I wanted to invent medicine and win a Nobel prize.

It’s so funny that I wrote this book because for so long—for longer than comedy—I’ve been a science and math nerd and I’m very grateful that I was able to marry that with comedy.

Shifting gears, your Twitter account has, for years, been considered one of the best comedy accounts out there. Do you feel like posting jokes online opens the door for more criticism than you would have gotten otherwise? Do you get harassed by people on Twitter?

Less than you’d think, based on how horrible some people on the internet are. It’s a little self-selecting. Most people who are following me enjoy what I’m writing, which is great. That being said, there are people who go out of their way to follow you just to write “Fuck you, kill yourself ” and I understand that that doesn’t mean anything, but it’s still like, “What are you doing?” I just want to sit these people down, give them a little shake and say “What are you doing? Why do you do this?” Because it’s a little scary when you think of all the anger that’s just lurking in people who may never act on it in public.

I think that I have buffered myself a little bit against physical attacks because my profile picture is so awful that it’s sort of like “Fuck you, guys. You can’t call me ugly because this is the person that I’ve chosen to portray.”

How have you described it? Jabba the Hutt at his super sweet sixteen?

I did call it that! But anytime I post anything sincere, like my father’s day essay or a nice picture of me, I get so much flack for it. I want to tell people, “Calm down! We’re all going to die in, like 20 years!”

We’re all about to get Snowpiercered.

I’m very apocalyptic. 20 years is a very modest estimate on my part. It’s probably more like 5.

The world is about to melt, no question.

Yeah, but a part of me thinks that my book is the last book that’s ever going to come out. And for me, that’s worth it.

Ignoring that the world is going to end any second now, what’s it like working for a show as feminist and inclusive as Parks and Recreation?

It’s incredible. And it really comes from the top down: Mike Shur, who created the show, and Amy [Poehler], too. This has been such an incredible place to work because we talk about [inclusivity] and it’s a lot of men and a lot of women who all feel very strongly that the show should be representing people. It’s very wonderful and refreshing to talk about, especially when the people here are so funny. We’re not just sitting around, angrily discussing racial issues. We’re just making great jokes that happen to be very inclusive.

I think your show and book both prove that feminism can be fun.

If you can funnel all of your righteous outrage into really stupid jokes.

That’s my life goal! So say there’s a little girl out there who’s dreaming of becoming a comedy writer. Do you have advice for her?

That scenario already is great because I think part of what will hopefully be happening soon is that more women start considering this job. A lot of women don’t think of comedy writing as a possibility of something that they could jump into.

To that girl, I would say don’t feel like you have to change who you are to be a comedy writer or hang with guys. Also, you can be a super “girly” person and still be really funny. You don’t need to mask that. When I was writing, that was something that my mom pointed out to me. She said, “I really like your writing because I can tell you’re a girl.” She was like, “I think that that’s great. You’re a writer who women gravitate towards,” and that had never occurred to me before.

I think men and women will like Science…For Her! hopefully equally, but if women like it more, then that’s fine.

So you and your boss Amy Poehler are publishing books at the same time. Have you bonded over the process at all?

Mostly, we’ve talked about how hard it is to sit down and actually write a book.

Amy is writing exactly what she should be writing, which is a super hilarious retelling of things that she’s been through. Obviously, she has more to offer in terms of advice than I do. When I was looking to sell my book, some publishers wanted me to write a memoir. I don’t have any advice to really offer people at this point in my life. That’s not what I wanted to use this platform for. I wanted to use this platform to make a weird artifact that makes people uncomfortable and hopefully think about the things I think about all the time.

Like NASA diaper lady.

Like NASA diaper lady.

Minor edits were made to the conversation for clarity. Buy Megan’s book here!

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