At the most recent meeting of the patriarchy–they’re held once a month at the Checkers in Tenafly, New Jersey, with bottomless sodas from noon ’til two–a hushed whisper could be heard coming from somewhere in the back: Had anybody read that hilarious Reductress story that morning?
It’s hard to remember which of the site’s stories was making the rounds that day: It could have been “How To Friendzone Ethan While He’s Still Inside You,” or perhaps “Vague Advice to Give Your Friend While Tuning Out Her Emotional Breakdown,” or maybe even “Sure, I’m a Feminist, But If I Support Other Women, How Will I Become the Highlander?” (How does a woman reconcile her quest for gender equality,” the writer asks, “with her quest for glory?”) Those are just a few of the hundreds of satirical pieces to appear on Reductress since its launch in 2013, after which it quickly became one of the funniest and most focused humor outlets on the web.
Created by Beth Newell and Sarah Pappalardo, Reductress was originally intended as a send-up of women’s magazines, what with their ostensibly empowering–yet often subtly undermining–confessionals, listicles, and advice columns. Early Reductress stories like “The Best Halloween Costumes to Hide Your Pregnancy so You Can Drink” mimicked the forced-fun idiom and exhausting expectations of aspirational journalism with a mix of affection and frustration; they took their targets to task, and rightfully so, yet still kept them in the friendzone. And while dry, sly, Onion-style news pieces and how-tos were a big part of the site’s initial output, there were also absurdist profiles and Pinterest parodies or the occasional fake-slang guide. By 2014, Reductress was often the funniest thing in my feed, especially on Twitter, where its send-ups would occasionally appear right near the very kinds of stories being mocked.
But even in its first year, it was clear that Reductress was interested in critiquing more than just women’s magazines; it wanted to tackle the many ways in which women are viewed by the media–and by men. In April 2013, shortly after launching, it ran a fake Q&A under the headline “Creator of ‘Rape in America’ Documentary Talks About Hair Care,” a sucker-punch summation of the kinds of low-calorie questions that women tend to get asked all the time, no matter their accomplishments:
A: [We] spent a couple of months on the San Carlos Apache Indian Reservation, where a repeat-offender rapist was never prosecuted because of a dispute over the jurisdiction of off-reservation law enforcement.
Q: That must’ve been so hard.
A: Yes. The victims have spent years trying to get this to trial.
Q: I mean on your hair–all that dust and dryness. Did the reservation have anything in terms of hair-care facilities?
For this kind of sad-reality humor to work, it needs to achieve two very difficult things at once: It has to snap the reader awake by reminding them of an in-plain-sight injustice, and it also has to assuage them by letting them know that they’re not alone in their outrage. It’s a mix of “we’re fucked” with “we’re all in this fucking thing together,” and it’s very tough to pull off. Yet Reductress has repeatedly handled these unpleasant (and sometimes unspoken) problems with blunt-force wit, which you can find in stories like “The Gender Gap Would be an Issue for Me, If I Had a Job” or “Actually, I’m an Intersectional Men’s Rights Activist” (the latter taken from the site’s “Dude Corner” column).
All of these stories served as a lead-up to an audacious, grimly hilarious series of rape-related stories Reductress posted earlier this week–a raging response to the ways in which sexual assault victims are vilified, patronized, or downright discarded (among the more damning entries: “‘Most Women Lie About Rape,’ Says Man Lying About Rape” and “Man Who Sexually Assaulted You Likes Your Facebook Post About Assault”). Each story was full of brutal truths and uneasy punchlines, and they were born out of clear frustration: According to an interview with Jezebel, the site’s creators were motivated by a recent controversy within the comedy community, in which a New York City improv performer was accused of rape and sexual assault by several women, prompting the popular Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre to ban him (which in turn spawned a secondary controversy, with comic/Inside Amy Schumer writer Kurt Metzger wading into the fray).
But in a year of Brock Turner rebuttals and Nate Parker revelations–and at a time when sexual assault claims are frequently mishandled or altogether ignored–these Reductress stories could have run pretty much any week and been just as timely. Like The Onion‘s infamous single-topic dispatches about 9/11 and the gun epidemic, Reductress’ rape package isn’t just a riff on current events; it’s a reaction to a national crisis, and one that speaks truth to the powerless. And it’s proof of how comedy can articulate and confront even the most seemingly unseemly topics, so long as it’s done with honesty, empathy, and a shit-ton of sagacious fury. Three years ago, Reductress was a likeably scrappy time-filler; now, it’s essential reading–even if you’re sneaking a few peeks while pretending to prop up the patriarchy.