Rebuffing the ongoing crusade against women's health and women's rights requires a range of tactics. There need to be protests, such as members of Congress walking out on an all-male panel on contraception. There need to be petitions, as exemplified by the work of the new netroots organization Ultra Violet, which has gathered a hundred thousand supporters calling on companies to suspend advertising on Rush Limbaugh's show.
And there needs to be...comedy?
Laughter might not be the obvious reaction in response to a range of rabid right-wing assaults, but legislators—often female—are using it with increasing effectiveness as they push back with a mixture of humor and humiliation.
In Virginia, a State Senator countered the state's proposal to require transvaginal ultrasounds for women seeking to end a pregnancy by suggesting rectal exams for men who want Viagara.
In Oklahoma, a State Senator responded to the state's "personhood bill," by proposing than men be required to only ejaculate into vaginas lest they harm the children that could have resulted from their wasted sperm.
In Georgia, a State Legislator offered an amendment to an anti-choice legislation that would deny vasectomies to men.
And in Ohio, a State Senator crafted the beautifully framed "Legislation to Protect Men's Health" that would impede their ability to receive erectile dysfunction treatment.
Now, Rick Santorum—and many of the male legislators behind the anti-health proposals—might blush at hearing words like "vagina" said so unambiguously. And it would probably be fun watching them stumble over such language in debate. But other than the amusement factor, does this approach serve a purpose? Or does it take too lightly an issue that is no laughing matter?
The fact is that this approach is brilliant, not as the only line of defense, but as part of a multi-faceted campaign to push the importance of rights, equality, and access to healthcare.
For one, these bills do an excellent job of reductio ad absurdum, the process of disproving a point by following its argument to a ridiculous extreme. In these cases, the extreme lengths of the conservative contentions are not only untenable, but patently hypocritical and gender-biased. The laughing legislation actually makes for good arguments.
Secondly, they play an important role in the larger awareness campaign by getting the public to focus on these issues. These counter-measures are cutting through the cluttered landscape of news and politics and capturing the attention of an often-distracted public. Finding an effective vehicle for your message is as important as the message itself.
Thirdly, these steps do cross from mimicry into mockery in an important and effective way. They aren't just light laughs that make you chuckle before you move on. They are targeted attacks at the sponsors of the original bills—men who now are forced to answer uncomfortable questions about their stances on rectal exams and erection counseling. Just as an advertiser dumps a show to avoid potential embarrassment or a candidate distances themselves from a surrogate out of shame, mockery can force a legislator to back down.
This was something, incidentally, that the recently-deceased right-wing blogger Andrew Breitbart understood intimately and used effectively against liberal institutions and politicians.
This is also a model Stephen Colbert employs with humor and impact. After Arizona Senator Jon Kyl back-pedaled from his claim that 90 percent of Planned Parenthood funding supported abortions by claiming his statement "was not intended to be a factual statement," Colbert launched a series of escalating and absurd slanders against the Senator on his show and over twitter, hedging them with the hashtag #NotIntendedToBeAFactualStatement. The meme caught fire online, entertaining Colbert's community, but also driving home a critique that Kyl may otherwise have avoided.
More recently, after Rush Limbaugh's back-handed non-apology, Twitterers appended #NotAPersonalAttack to a serious of scathing critiques of the conservative talk show host.
So should this series of mock bills be tagged #NotIntendedToBeActualLaw?
Colbert, and the Democratic leadership that hosted him, came under some criticism when he testified before Congress, in character, about the plight of migrant workers. Some detractors said it took away from the seriousness of the institution; and no doubt some will say that about these state legislators now.
But far from mocking the overall purpose of governing, they are trying to put focus back on the real work before us—and they are using humor to win our attention back from the right-wing's divisive and sensational distractions.
And maybe the legislators are onto something more valuable than they know. After all, humor can reach audiences that may not have been paying attention. A recent survey showed that young men value humor as an essential trait in others and as a feature of themselves they are most invested in. If progressive law-makers can keep laughing at, around, and past their opposition, they might find whole new constituencies laughing with them.