Interview with Kathy Najimy
Excerpts of an interview conducted by Marianne Schnall
MS: HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE YOUR OWN POLITICAL BELIEFS?
KN:First and foremost, I'm a feminist. And basically that stems from a strong belief that all people and creatures deserve equal opportunity, rights and respect.
MS:THESE DAYS A LOT OF WOMEN ARE UNCOMFORTABLE WITH DEFINING THEMSELVES AS FEMINIST, YET YOU INSIST ON BEING IDENTIFIED THAT WAY AND MUCH OF YOUR WORK HAS BEEN CATEGORIZED AS FEMINIST COMEDY. WHAT DOES THAT TERM MEAN TO YOU?
KN:Well, it depends on the context in which I use it. But, even when we came to New York and were doing the first "Kathy and Mo", I'd say to our publicist, "Put feminist comedy on the poster." And they'd say, "No, why don't you do this. Don't put it. Have them come and then surprise them. Let them learn something without knowing." And I would say, "No. If people who are feminists and wholeheartedly believe in feminism don't take pride and joy and totally stick it in people's faces, then the stigma attached to feminism will never change." Then you'll never have to prove things like that because when people think of feminism they will think of being smart and funny and likable. People say "Don't put feminism" because they think oh, there's no sense of humor and it's cold and it's off-putting - well, how is that going to change if the real feminists who are nothing like that - most of them - don't start saying "I'm feminist". It will just continue and continue and continue. So, I said, "Put it on the poster and then when they come they'll be even more surprised." I don't know where that came from in the first place - that myth about no sense of humor and all that - most of the feminists I know are hilarious, very. So, I don't know where that came from in the first place but we need to blast that away so we don't have to go over that hump. So we don't even need to approach that problem - it's so old and tired. And it's certainly not true and that's how I started insisting on using the word feminist.
I use it now because, well, because I am, and it just comes out of my mouth, but second of all, like you say, there are a lot of people who know me in a different way - they know me as the cheerful nun from "Sister Act". So if the cheerful nun from "Sister Act" is everywhere you read saying she's feminist, how can they attach those stigmas of no sense of humor and not warm, if they already like you? Also, I think it's important for the next generation. And I do it as a pride thing - like I say I'm Lebanese the same way I say I'm feminist because I'm proud of being Lebanese - I think it's cool - and I think it's cool to be feminist. And what feminism means - I guess I could go into the definition, but I think of it as equality, choice, fairness. Respect for animals and children and men and women and equality. It's something that's based in a very loving theory for me. And the term post-feminist bugs the shit out of me. What's that about? It's like people who are unable to deal. So I'll keep saying it as many times as I can to make up for the people who are scared to or think it's bad vibe or whatever, because I think it's good vibe.
MS:YOU HAVE DEVELOPED A REPUTATION FOR BEING STRONG, SPEAKING YOUR MIND, IGNORING CONVENTION. IS THIS HOW YOU'D LIKE THE PUBLIC TO PERCEIVE YOU?
KN:You know one thing I've been getting afraid of reading some of the articles about me is that I'm not representing - along with the confidence -the insecure and fear-filled parts of me. So, I've been trying to talk about that a little bit too just so if people really want to get to know who I am they get a more balanced view. Because when you're asked a question, the sanest part of your mind sometimes answers. But I don't always operate on the sanest part of my mind. A lot of times I'm filled with fear, insecurity, vulnerability, misdirection, confusion and doubt. And I just want to make sure I include that in my answers because that certainly is a real part of me.
MS:YOU'VE BEEN VERY VOCAL ABOUT THE ISSUE OF CHOICE. FOR YOU, WHAT IS THE REAL ISSUE HERE? WHY SHOULD WOMEN HAVE THIS RIGHT?
KN:Well, here's the issue. If you don't have your rights, I don't have my rights. It's a little bit selfish. People say, 'Well, why do you work for gay and lesbian rights? Why do you work for whatever?" If you don't have your rights, I don't have my rights. Especially as a woman, I don't have my rights. And the absolute right that we have is the right to our own body. You have the absolute right to your own body. If you don't wish to have an abortion, God bless you and I hope you have a long and happy life. And if I wish to, it is my business and not yours. . . I mean, how many homeless kids can there be, how many AIDS babies can there be? How many single, young mothers can there be? It's so glaringly obvious that their energy, if they really, truly care about life - if they call me up right now, I can give them fifty places where they could be effective with their caring, to save lives. They want to save babies? I can give them the number of a pediatric AIDS ward in Harlem where they can go and save as many babies as they want. I so encourage saving babies, I adore babies. They want to save young teenage girls' lives, I can give them fifty more numbers. So, it's so clearly not about saving young girls' lives, it's not about saving babies lives', it's not about wishing a full, productive, happy life on someone. It's not about that. It's about some weird powerful obsession to play God. To say, "Listen, I fucked my life up, or I neatly organized my life and it's resulted the way I want, I'm not going to need an abortion, so I'm going to stop you from having one." And especially men. I can't even talk about men being in the Choice issue - it's so none of their fucking business. That's so appalling to me. That's like us making the rules for people on another planet. It's none of their business.
MS:A LOT OF PEOPLE SAY IF MEN WERE THE ONES WHO GOT PREGNANT, ABORTION WOULD BE EXTREMELY ACCESSIBLE.
KN:Not only would abortion be legal, you would be able to go to 7-11 and get one, for like 75 cents. You know, that's ridiculous. And when I say it's none of men's business, of course I don't mean like the father of the children. I, of course, think men should be involved in all decisions having to do with their child, but as a political voice, please - bite me. And not only abortions, but birth control. Birth control would be safe, legal and effective. Cheap, healthful - there would be no question. Birth control would be like oat bran.
MS:THAT'S ANOTHER POINT - THAT THESE ANTI-CHOICE PEOPLE ARE ALSO ANTI-BIRTH CONTROL. IT'S A NO WIN SITUATION.
KN:And the capper is anti-Choice people are so against sex education. So, we won't tell you you can get pregnant. We won't give you any help in not getting pregnant. We won't talk to you about sex or abstinence. We won't tell you the truth about sex, and yet when you get pregnant, we're going to make you have the baby.
MS:NOW WITH THE REHAULING OF WELFARE SYSTEM, SINGLE TEENAGE MOTHERS MAY NOT ONLY LOSE WELFARE BUT THEIR CHILD TO AN ORPHANAGE.
KN:Welfare, AIDS, child abuse, teenage pregnancy, poverty, homelessness - we can go on and on and on and on. And if they wished to be involved with making lives full, or with helping babies - like I say, there are so many avenues that need help. We don't need help with decisions about what to do about our bodies. We need sex education, we need birth control, we need understanding and we need respect and we need for them to leave us alone.
MS:DO YOU THINK THAT THE GAINS OF THE WOMEN'S MOVEMENT HAVE DONE ANYTHING TO ERODE THE PATRIARCHY THAT EXISTS IN THIS COUNTRY?
KN:It's done something. I don't know that it's been enough. I still feel like we're still in that chasm of where people believe that there's a phrase called "post-feminism". I think Susan Faludi has her finger right on the answer when she talks about the backlash, and I think we're still right in the middle of it. It's like we were working really hard, and even though there was really strong opposition, you could actually feel when we progressed. You could feel the progression. Some fights would be so hard and so slow and so painful, but then you could see the results. And it seemed like we were slowly toiling forward. And then all of a sudden, this veil dropped down of, "Everything's OK, and it's not important to be political and, in fact, it's not even popular. And everything's done, enough is done and now we can talk about it like it was long ago." And I think there are certain little movements that are shooting out of that, like there's a group called "The Third Wave". It's started by Rebecca Walker, Alice Walker's daughter and Shannon Liss. And it's young women, and it's really organized, they're really cool and they're really angry - it's a bunch of young women saying, "OK, we got to a certain point and then the ball was dropped and now it feels like we're going backwards and that's not enough for us. We still have our lives to live."
And so, you know, I think there is a small chipping away at patriarchy in different little projects and different instances, but as a whole movement - it doesn't feel like a movement anymore. A movement to me is something that's really big and united and really hard to stop. And there are still very concerned, very smart, very committed, very political groups and people, but it doesn't feel like a movement to me. So, I'm sure little battles are being won, but I'm really anxious to get back to the arm-in-arm thing. It's something that's very frustrating to me because what it does, for me at least, is encourages you to go back in your own little hole and your own little life and be only concerned with your own little personal things. And ultimately that's not very satisfying. So, I'm all for a real, sort of a 1979 kind of big Earth Day kind of movement, where we feel the movement going forward, because you know that nothing can really get done unless you have that passion, that urgency. Maybe it's going to take a bunch more Newt Gingriches.
MS:MY MOTHER, WHO'S PRESIDENT OF A COMPANY, ONCE LECTURED ME ABOUT HOW MY GENERATION TAKES IT FOR GRANTED HOW THEY HAD TO FIGHT TO GET WHERE THEY ARE TODAY AND THAT IT'S UP TO US TO KEEP UP THE MOMENTUM.
KN:Oh, yeah, absolutely. . . Every time I do an interview, I try to remember to say that I am so proud of where I got, but I know that I got here because of other people's work also. I always point out Lily Tomlin's one woman show, the work that the women's movement did, that allowed me - it's just not a fluke that I am a political person from San Diego that doesn't know anybody, that doesn't look like a movie star, that doesn't come from any connection, that doesn't have any money - and I am able to work in the business and be known. It's not just because I am so brilliantly magically talented and special, you know what I mean? It's because I was lucky enough to come behind some people and organizations that paved the way for me and that made my kind of politics popular and made society open for things like "Kathy and Mo" . . .It's great, but it's also because of Gloria Steinem and Whoopi Goldberg's one woman show and Lily Tomlin's one woman show - you know what I mean? Tons of people who came before us, that said, "You need to listen to us. And feminists are funny." And these women do have a point of view and took the chances and the challenges before me.
And I'm really proud of myself. And I know that I worked my ass off to get where I am. I worked really, really hard - but I also know that even with all the hard work - and with any talent that I have or whatever - I wouldn't have gotten jack shit if it wasn't for the women's movement and the performers before me and the people who take chances and the people who fought for their rights and fought to be heard and fought not to just be silly little women in the background. But now, it's like oy, God - it's like pulling teeth to get any successful women in Hollywood to acknowledge where they came from.
MS:I REMEMBER YOU TALKED ABOUT THAT IN ONE OF YOUR SPEECHES, ABOUT HOW FEMALE DIRECTORS IN HOLLYWOOD ARE HESITANT TO IDENTIFY THEMSELVES AS A "WOMEN DIRECTORS".
KN:Well, because it's a boy's club and they recognize it and they're smart and they want a career. But come on, we all know that just recently women are being acknowledged as directors, as far as like the last five years. It's so new. Is that because women are stupid or can't direct or are not talented? No. It's because we never acknowledged women, we never encouraged women, we never employed women, we never gave women opportunities to be directors. So, for the women who fought, for the first women who went to film school and fought and fought and fought - for the women's movement, for all the women who came before - now those women are able to be directors. But they cannot forget where they came from or how they got there. Otherwise, what's the use of fighting? So, yeah, it really, obviously makes me angry. I mean, I really believe in personal power, and I believe that you should take the credit for the hard work that you do, and I do, but there's a way that you can also just be smart and perpetuate the force forward, by saying, "And we still need these things to be done and thank goodness for these people who did this - men and women."
MS:YOU MENTIONED A COUPLE OF ORGANIZATIONS LIKE THE THIRD WAVE AND THE MS. FOUNDATION - ARE THERE OTHER ORGANIZATIONS THAT YOU THINK ARE DOING GREAT WORK IN THIS REGARD? IF PERSON WANTS TO GET INVOLVED IN WOMEN'S ISSUES - WHAT ORGANIZATIONS WOULD YOU SUGGEST HE OR SHE CONTACT?
KN:I guess the organizations that I've gotten the most gratification from were the little community grass roots organizations that I joined, so I guess it's just it's just a matter of calling and seeing if there's a women's center, a women's resource center or if you're passionate about some certain cause in the women's movement.. I mean, the women's movement is every single thing we do all day long. The women's movement to me, feminism to me, is animal rights. It's all based in that respect for life and equality and all that. So, I would just say try to pinpoint what you're most passionate about and just get involved in something in the community. I mean, of course, there are groups like the Ms. Foundation and NOW and - Oh, God, there are billions of great women's organizations. The Ms. Foundation is excellent and Voters for Choice is really excellent too. And then organizations like GLAAD and Human Rights Campaign Fund and Pediatric AIDS - that's amazing, what Elizabeth Glaser did by bringing that into the consciousness of the whole country. And you know, as unfair as it is, it's a lot easier for people to enter the world of caring about AIDS if they do it through something non-threatening as children .. .
When people ask me, "Well, why are you so into gay rights? If you don't think you're going to need to get an abortion - why do you care? Why do you care so much about AIDS organizations?" Well, it's me - you know what I mean? It's me. What's happening is me. And it may happen to me, which is selfish, and it does happen to my friends and family and it can't be other. Animals can't be other, people with AIDS can't be other, women who need a choice can't be other, gay people can't be other, because once you start limiting their rights, you limit mine. As a woman, I'm a minority. And once other people's rights start getting taken away, it's a step towards taking mine away. So, I have to, in my own self interest, I have to try to protect the rights of others, because as those rights get chipped away, it's six degrees of separation. You know? And so, it's impossible for me to think of injustice, oppression, discrimination and non-freedom as not having to do with me - it totally has to do with me. Maybe I'm not sleeping with a woman right now, but gay rights affects me. And maybe I'm not HIV positive, but AIDS completely affects me. So, it's like sort of organically happened that I've gotten involved with these groups - I mean, there are tons more issues that I care about, but because of the business that I'm in and because of the path that I've made and the connections that I've made in my world so far, this is where I've been led. And I hope it's where I'm most effective.
Things being right affects us all. Caring that we live in a right world, in a just world, no matter what. You know, you can't separate yourself - no matter how much money you have, no matter how famous you are, no matter how religious you say you are, no matter how many family members you have, no matter how great a job you have - you are affected by the injustices of the world. You are no matter what. You can't buy not having AIDS, you know? And so, it is a choice I make, but in the same breath it's not a choice that I make. It's that I live here.
MS:WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE TO THE PUBLIC ON BECOMING ACTIVE?
KN:I think that one of the reasons that people don't become politically active is because they think they won't be effective. They doubt the work that they would do, they doubt the knowledge that they have, they think they have to know more or put more time or money than they really need to. So, I think the first thing I would say is, explore what you're passionate about and then have faith that you can make a difference. I always say, a little bit helps. You don't have to become a full-time member of an organization to be effective. A letter helps. It's like, I know some people who still eat meat, they eat chicken or fish and so they feel like they can't be an animal rights activist - but everything helps. As much as you can do helps - you don't have to be perfect, you don't have to be an expert, you don't have to have hours and hours of free time or tons and tons of money. You don't have to go to workshops to know about it. All you have to do is have faith in your passion. And it really makes your life a lot better. You feel like you're making a difference.
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Marianne Schnall is a free-lance writer, founder of Feminist.com and a co-founder of the environmental site the EcoMall.
© Marianne Schnall. No portion of this interview may be reprinted without permission of Marianne Schnall .