Women Making History
Chelsea Handler’s Political Awakening
The comedian left a successful talk show to use her immense platform to help the cause she calls an "emergency": electing more women to public office, and ensuring that everyone votes.
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Chelsea Handler summarized her motivation to get into stand-up comedy more than 20 years ago with, “It was more of a fuck it, why not?” moment. Hardly the same can be said about her foray into political activism. The longtime outspoken Democrat (and sometimes Independent) has inserted politics into her comedy since before she became the first woman to host a daily late-night talk show (Chelsea Lately aired on E! From 2007 to 2014) or a best-selling author five times over.
In October, 2017, after just two seasons of her Netflix talk show, Chelsea, Handler announced that she was leaving show business to focus on something even more important: Taking back our country from the man in the Oval Office who stole it from us. She joined EMILY’s List as the co-chair of its Creative Council, established to help engage younger voters, and bolster support for the pro-choice democratic female candidates the organization supports. The council includes celebrities and influencers such as Uzo Aduba, Shonda Rhimes, Ashley Nicole Black, and Natasha Case.
For the past year, Handler has been filling auditoriums at college campuses to discuss critical issues with young voters, and listen to their ideas and hopes for the nation. And while she may not be performing in clubs or fronting a comedy talk show, Handler’s provocative—and oftentimes controversial—voice is alive and well on her Twitter account, which reads like a ticker tape of the latest horrors suggested or carried out by the Trump administration—and reaches 8.6 million followers. Her Facebook and Instagram account for another 6 million. But Handler’s social media influence isn’t the only reason EMILY’s List recruited her as its most famous mouthpiece.
“Chelsea is willing to do the work and be that strong voice and activist for our mission, but on top of that she is someone who wants to bring more people to the table,” says EMILY’s List Executive Director Emily Cain. “When the announcement went out in the fall that Chelsea would co-chair our group, we started getting not only people saying yes to joining, but people calling us saying, ‘Can I be involved in this too?’”
This week, Handler hosted a pre-Oscars brunch and panel on the importance of electing women to office. Speakers such as Barbara Boxer, actress Constance Wu, Amber Tamblyn, Padma Lakshmi, and former Teen Vogue Editor-in-Chief Elaine Welterworth joined EMILY’s List candidates to discuss what’s at stake in upcoming elections. It was a private Hollywood event, but one that aimed to leverage the power of the celebrity platform–one that will no doubt be in play during Sunday’s Academy Awards.
In a recent conversation with DAME, Handler talked about how her passion for voter education, elevating women, and taking down Trump have become more than just her new brand, but her life’s mission.
I think many of us can look back on the past two years and pinpoint the moment we decided to become more engaged—whether it was provoked by the positive momentum of a female presidential candidate, or the trauma of hearing her rival brag about sexual assault and then win the presidency. Would you say you had a political awakening of your own?
Almost daily. The outrage is real and it’s existential. There are so many distractions right now: Mueller, Russia. But we have to keep our heads … I don’t like the expression, “keep our heads down,” because I feel like it intimates some kind of phallic view of the world. But we have to keep on the straight and narrow. We have to get out the votes. It’s about galvanizing every community that we can. We need Blacks, we need Latinos, every single Millennial, every single person who voted for Obama. We need everybody voting in the midterms. This isn’t a general election so we have to work twice as hard to get people out to vote.
But we can’t be angry every second. In order to be helpfully engaged in what we’re doing, it is a requirement and a necessity to take a time out and recharge your batteries in order to harness your energy into something powerful.
When you announced you were leaving your Netflix show to join EMILY’s List and become a full-time activist, you stated that one of your motivations was to engage young voters. Have you learned anything new about young people’s wants and needs as voters since spending more time with them?
For a lot of them, politics seems so big. There’s this big wall of knowledge people are scared to tap into, but it’s so easy to learn more, to know more. You just have to impress it upon these people that the first time you get involved in an election, and you have a hand in a candidate winning—whether it’s a city council, or your school board—you’re shaping people’s education, and their lives. You have to find what matters to you. Do you care about marijuana legalization? Start there and find a candidate who represents that. Do you care about having a choice with your own body, and not having a man decide whether or not you should terminate a pregnancy? If that’s the issue that’s important to you, find the candidate for that. Do you care about the planet, or nuclear war? Whatever matters to you, whatever scares you, should be your impetus for getting involved.
You have to be involved in a fundamentally granular level in your local political elections, and the national elections. I was talking to someone at the hair salon the other day who said, “I just don’t get involved.” And I said, “But you are involved.” Everyone is involved. You don’t have to campaign or knock on doors, or run for office, but you do have to vote. Sitting out voting should be illegal.
Do you think young people are more apathetic than other voters?
The largest group of the population who didn’t vote in the last election is millennials, so, yes, I take issue with that for sure. But I would have that criticism of anyone who didn’t vote. For me, it’s not a millennial issue, it’s bigger than that. It’s a matter of being engaged. It’s a matter of caring. I don’t accept “I don’t care about politics.” I don’t accept women taking their husband’s voting habits and espousing them. It’s not about you getting an opinion from someone else; it’s about gaining knowledge for your own benefit so that you have the power to decide, and make a decision.
A lot of us grow into ideologies like feminism over time—or after going through really shitty, oppressive circumstances. When would you say you discovered your feminist activist voice?
I used to always be like, “Okay, let’s stop bitching and just do it! Act instead of talking.” That was me being naive and younger, and not being completely evolved, which I’m obviously still not. But you grow up and realize that the fight is real. Out of respect for all the people who fought for generations before you so that you’d have a voice to use, it’s undignified not to use it.
There are still a lot of women who act as enemies to other women, whether it’s journalists like Katie Roiphe, or NRA spokeswoman Dana Loesch. Do you think part of the focus should be on calling out toxic women and their false allyship?
I was reading a piece in the New York Times Sunday review recently about all the women who didn’t get credit for keeping segregation in the south after the Civil Rights Act passed. All these men get credit for keeping confederate states segregated and all these women were on the ground doing their dirty work. I saw all these names and I thought, good, yes, let’s give all credit where credit is due—good and bad.
Funnily enough, the only resistance I ever felt [in my career] was from other women in leadership positions. They were the ones who held me back. I think we’re sometimes our own worst critics and we keep each other down because of years and years of oppression from men. We’re taught to do that, which is part of the reason why [only] 54 percent of white women voted for Hillary Clinton. We don’t want to see each other succeed.
But I think that’s changing. Women are sick of not being on each other’s sides. Women want to stick together. And when we’re together, to quote our friend, we’re stronger. That is the beautiful rainbow that has come out of all of this. We’re not giving up. Women are befriending other women they normally wouldn’t have anything in common with because we now have a common ground. I think the opportunity here is to focus on the women who are embracing each other and are moving forward. All the women running for Congress this year in record numbers. This is something we’ve never seen before. The more women who are in power, the more women are treated equally, the more we’ll be able to trust each other and support each other. Any of us doing well is a significant gain for all of us.
You have to be hopeful otherwise it’s just a dark, morose time. You have to be hopeful and you have to be tireless. I do anyway.
What issue is closest to your heart besides getting Trump out of office?
I find tolerance is the biggest issue. Marginalization of minorities, which covers a huge group of people, the discrimination, the racism, the voter suppression—that’s just not acceptable in this day and age. Voter suppression is probably the most disgusting platform that the Republicans stand by. There is no excuse to oppress votes; no excuse for it. It’s so fucking stupid. No one is voting twice, we can barely get people to vote one fucking time.
What role do you think celebrities and influencers play in contributing to the dialogue around politics, and urging people to get involved? And do you pressure your famous friends to become more publicly engaged?
I’m experimenting with the gentler side of getting people involved. I don’t want to be that person who people are afraid of when I’m walking toward them; I’ve been that for long enough. There are so many [famous] people who are sharing this responsibility, and that is comforting. We’re all in this together. The key for anyone is to engage with people and try to get on their level, and explain why it’s so important. I really don’t want to shame anyone for not voting; I just want to help them make a decision.
Do you think you would have been as politically mobilized if not for this disastrous administration?
Yes, I have been my whole life. Now more than ever. I think this is an emergency. For me, it’s like, there is no other option.
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