Chelsea Handler: Modeling Activism in Comedy

Collage by Judy Goldstein.

At this moment, I grieve for the 1200 Israelis killed by Hamas on October 7 and pray for the 236 who were or are kidnapped. But I have learned that it is unhealthy for me and everyone else around me to be in a constant state of sorrow. Of course, mourning and sadness is to be expected as we begin to heal. These emotions are there to propel us to move forward and make a change through our acts of kindness and tzedakah towards Israel. For me, I have been able to gain my power by taking breaks from the world around me and by hanging around my friends and doing what I do best—making people laugh.

Obviously, as a self-proclaimed comedian, my goal is to do what so many other comedians do, which is to speak out respectfully about the injustices in the world around me. This is where I look to Chelsea Handler as a model for speaking out on social issues, even if she gets backlash from it.

Chelsea Handler is a Jewish-American comedian, television host, and author. She grew up as a Reform Jew in New Jersey and wandered out west to LA to pursue her dreams as an actress. In recent years, Handler has used her platform as a celebrity to educate her viewers on a variety of social issues, especially white privilege.

In her 2019 documentary Hello, Privilege. It's Me, Chelsea, she takes an hour to unpack her own and the American relationship to white privilege. Looking introspectively, Chelsea learns that she was propelled to fame because of two privileges she possessed: white privilege and pretty privilege. This kind of transparency is rare in Hollywood. I admire Handler’s ability to talk about aspects of her identity that many shy away from. As a Jewish comedian that is a critical part of the rule book: lean into discomfort, whether it’s discussing privilege, or discussing trauma.

The Jewish people have suffered generations of trauma, and discussing trauma is a pillar of Jewish humor. Recently, I came across the idea that more taboo topics need a longer build up, some extra cushioning to make sure that they are presented appropriately. The more tension that the comedian builds up around their joke, the more laughter they can get when they deliver the punchline. In other words, the greater the buildup, the greater the release. In Chelsea’s Netflix special, Revolution, she spends a minute building up a joke about yeast infections, and the medicine that treats them. She ends her lead-up, though, with a zinger, saying that only men would come up with such a medication for women, and you can hear the audience erupt into a roaring laughter. This joke pokes fun at the idea that many corporations who are designed to serve women have men in positions of power who know nothing about their female customers' lived experiences.

Chelsea Handler is unabashedly in support of women’s rights over their bodies and is not afraid to voice her opinion, even if some consider the topic to be too taboo or too political to be discussed in Hollywood. In 2017, Chelsea partnered with EMILYs List. Created in 1985, EMILYs List is a political action committee that works to elect Democratic pro-choice women to office. Handler was very specific in choosing to partner with EMILYs List. Unlike many influencers and celebrities nowadays who will do social justice work just to post it on their Instagram, Handler has a more personal connection to advocating for abortion rights. In a 2011 interview with The New York Times, Handler revealed that she had an abortion at age sixteen. This shocked me. I am seventeen years old, so to think that Handler was even younger than I am now when she had to make such a life-altering decision is unimaginable to me. Handler’s background empowers her to use her platform that much more to educate others on the importance and necessity of abortion rights. As expected, some pro-life viewers have come after Handler for her remarks. Obviously, this is a very small fraction of the people who view Handler’s work. But Handler took a calculated risk in speaking out about abortion rights knowing that not everyone would agree with her on it–and she still has a career. 

Chelsea’s speaking out on issues that matter motivates me to speak out on social media about the war in Israel right now. I know that not everyone who views my post will agree with me, but I do it because, like Chelsea, I think it is more important to be loud and be heard and receive backlash than to be quiet and silenced. I do not let the fear of negative comments stop me from speaking my truth, and I continue to educate my peers on social media on the ever-evolving war in Israel. As I continue to shed my light in the world, whether by spreading positive messages on social media or bringing laughter to others, I credit Chelsea and other comedic legends who inspired me to become the comedian and activist I am today.

This piece was written as part of JWA’s Rising Voices Fellowship.

Topics: Comedy
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How to cite this page

Rothschild, Shiraz. "Chelsea Handler: Modeling Activism in Comedy." 12 January 2024. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on February 26, 2024) <http://jwa.org/blog/risingvoices/chelsea-handler-modeling-activism-comedy>.