asking questions

Daily Show co-creator Lizz Winstead takes a stand for Planned Parenthood in Austin

Daily Show co-creator Lizz Winstead takes a stand for Planned Parenthood in Austin

Austin Photo Set: News_Sam_Lizz Winstead_june 2012_pr photo
Lizz Winstead Photo by Mindy Tucker
Austin Photo Set: News_Sam_Lizz Winstead_june 2012_lizz free
Austin Photo Set: News_Sam_Lizz Winstead_june 2012_pr photo
Austin Photo Set: News_Sam_Lizz Winstead_june 2012_lizz free

Without Planned Parenthood, my life would be drastically, unimaginably different. And whether you've directly benefited from the non-profit's health services or not, your life would be different, too — because statistically speaking, a large number of the women you know depend on their preventative care and family planning assistance.

One of these women is Lizz Winstead. Regardless of your political stance, Winstead's progressive ideas have helped shape your perception of the world around you. As co-creator of The Daily Show, and co-founder of Air America Radio, her humorous, analytical slant on the news cycle — one based on questioning authority and identifying the real drive behind the issues — has influenced a growing generation of writers, reporters and broadcasters. 

And her commitment to creating a loud, public conversation about women's health is inspiring thousands to start speaking up about their own experiences. Angry at those who attempt to shame women into silence, and confident that storytelling is a strong weapon against increasingly archaic legislation, in 2011 Winstead launched a tour to get the word out; this week, she's here to tell Austin her story.

On Wednesday, she’ll be at Book People, reading from her recently released book of essays, Lizz Free or Die. And on Thursday, she’s bringing her acclaimed show, “Planned Parenthood: I Am Here For You,” to the Palm Door, where she'll be joined by musician Kathy Valentine (formerly of The Go-Gos, currently of The Bluebonnets). The event is a benefit for the under-fire organization, which makes inexpensive reproductive healthcare affordable and accessible to women and men across the country.

We talked to Winstead about her show, and the stories that inspire her.


You’ve been traveling with your “Planned Parenthood: I Am Here For You” tour for awhile now; were you approached by local groups to book this recent stretch of shows?

What started out as a cross-country, six show Planned Parenthood fundraising tour turned out to be 22 dates in 2011, and then I decided it’s no longer a tour — now, it’s a way of life. Whoever needs me to come to their state, we’ll figure out a way to make it happen.

"I think it’s important that I start with my own story, and hopefully that inspires people to rethink the fact that, if they live in silence, then they are accepting shame. And if you live in silence, someone else will tell your story for you — that’s not acceptable to me."

We’re glad you’re finally making it to Texas.

I’ve been trying to come — you guys were like at the beginning of my list of places that needed help desperately. I’m also going to Houston in August or September; I’m definitely doing Houston too.

What’s the ultimate goal of the tour?

Primarily, obviously, we need to raise money so that women can still get really good healthcare. But secondly, it’s important that we gather women and we start telling our stories, and we start putting our voices and our faces on reproductive health. 90% of women have used birth control in their lifetime, and one in three women will have an abortion in their lifetime, and we need to start saying those numbers and we need to start having that conversations out loud. I think it’s important that I start with my own story, and hopefully that inspires people to rethink the fact that, if they live in silence, then they are accepting shame. And if you live in silence, someone else will tell your story for you — that’s not acceptable to me.

Why do you think so many women are afraid to talk openly about reproductive rights?

I think because it’s been demonized so profoundly, and that the right has proven themselves to be scary, to use terrorist tactics that make people afraid they’re going to be demonized. When you demonize people, they tend to be quiet — and when they tend to be quiet, they tend to opt out of being part of the conversation that makes change. And I think the powerful know that. That’s where we have to start reclaiming things — we can’t be shamed so much that we’re not the people at the table making decisions. We have to get back there.

Refusing to engage in conversation because it’s such a personal matter seems like a very archaic mindset.

I think that disengagement is a giant thing. I think most people don’t understand what’s embedded in these laws; I think that it’s easy to confuse people so they think that [a reproductive health bill] is an abortion bill, so they have some moral feeling about it, so I don’t think they understand the attack on access to birth control — that your boss can morally decide whether to put birth control on your health plan. I think the right didn’t understand that a lot of people thought their privacy was their privacy, and I think that, more and more, as women are finding out their privacy is being legislated, they are starting to step up. 

But it’s ridiculous thinking that we live in some kind of world where there’s abstinence and unicorns — we never lived in a world there was abstinence! We need to shut the fuck up about that. I like being a sexual being, and I think most women do, and we need to start fighting on that front, saying “Do you like sex? Yes, you do? Every time you have it, are you willing to have kids? No, I dont think you are.” 

Now, the ridiculous notion of trying to separate birth control and reproductive health from economic issues is absurd; that’s when women are like, wait a minute, the reason I use birth control is because raising a child would affect my economic situation greatly. It’s just amazing that they think they can have conversations where they separate the two out. If you want to keep doing that, great — your political party will literally end up on the clearance table at Spencer’s Gifts, because that’s how ludicrous it’s become.

You use questions and humor instead of lecturing or commanding your audiences; do you find that gets a strong response?

The response has been really great, because it’s a gathering of people who all keep asking questions — like, how is it possible that we are living in a world where somebody thinks it’s ok to take a vaginal probe that’s a camera and put it inside of a woman against her will, and she pays for it? I ‘m actually shocked that when I look at my audiences I don’t just see a sea of giant, angry purple foreheads. It’s been working really well.

And then combine that with me telling the story of how i got pregnant the first time i ever had sex — I write about it in my book, and it’s an essay I read — we talk a lot about young women, but oftentimes we don’t hear their stories. Women use birth control for various reasons. But it’s mostly for birth control, and I think that’s another thing that needs to be emphasized; if we try to skirt around the issue and say, “Well, birth control can also be used to treat endometriosis,” I’m like, I know that’s important, but it’s really not the priority of why people use birth control. We use it because it’s legal to have sex in this country, and many of us choose to do that without having children. 

"Making it can come in various forms. To me, making it means just being able to stay in the game." 

And what happens is, you gather all these people together, and people are laughing, and they look around and go, “Oh wow, that woman lives across the street from me, I had no idea she was pro-choice,” or, “That woman works in my office,” and all of a sudden communities are born and coalitions are built, and it’s long after I’ve left, and I love that

Do you get a lot of backlash for being so open?

The right usually doesn’t pay the money to come and see the show, but they’ll write about it afterwards, or they’ll cobble together something in the press. I talk a lot about the fact that I was never someone who wanted kids — I’m one of those people that does think motherhood is one of the hardest jobs in the world, and that not everyone is qualified to do that job. And when I say things like that, I’m branded as hating mothers, as demonizing motherhood, just crazy crap. Is that what i’m doing? Really? Ok, why don’t you go ahead and tell my story for me, again. This is why I tell my story every night, and I choose to do that.

The argument that all women inherently have a desire to reproduce is maddening to try and counter.

It’s so funny, because the uterus is the only non-vital organ that society has come up with this sort of conventional wisdom about, that if you have one you are genetically predisposed to want to use it. No one says that about the penis; like, that every time men get an erection, they want to have kids. Yeah, that’s definitely correct... every guy walking around with an erection is thinking, finally, I can father something! I think it’s sexist and weird, and instead of someone saying, “Wow, it’s so interesting that you know that about yourself, and instead of having kids you probably will be a healthier person and won’t raise crappy kids.” They demonize you for it. I’m like, instead of calling me selfish, why don’t you say fucking thank you, that I’m not polluting the earth with ill-gotten children [laughs].

In my book, I write about getting pregnant, and I don’t write about having an abortion, because the having an abortion part wasn’t the part that was the assault on who I was — the mistakenly going to a right-to-life clinic and being marginalized was the story that affected me the most. Leaving that place and going to Planned Parenthood and having people ask me about myself — was I ready to be a mom and have a child and accept that responsibility, to ask me questiona in a way that made me rethink everything I knew about myself, so I could make the decision — they weren’t making the decision for me, but they gave me the release and the reiteration of who i was. And that’s the part that’s really interesting. People have criticized me, like, why didn’t you talk about the abortion? And it’s because the abortion wasn’t the problem. The problem was, a 17-year-old girl walked into a clinic looking for guidance and was shamed and, quite frankly, devastated by other people. They tried to put me into a box and make me something that I wasn’t. 

You’ve just released you collection of essays, Lizz Free or Die; how has that been going?

I’m in the middle of my book tour, I’m on this crazy 41-day tour — it’s going well, I feel really excited about it, I feel like it’s been great to talk to people and have them read my story and connect with the fact that if you choose an unconventional life, you run into hurdles — but there are also many rewards. Hopefully, it’ll keep people who are creative but frustrated with the process on the right path. I think too many people I know who are creative and interesting get burned out by the process, and they drop out, and it just bums me out because I’ve seen too much brilliance fall by the wayside because they think that they can’t jump over the hurdles. Sometimes they don’t realize they can walk around the hurdles; the goal is to stay in it, and if that means you have to have a day job to keep creating, then do that, but just don’t drop out completely. 

Do you think the creative landscape has really gotten more competitive, or that it’s our line of thinking that makes discouragement so easy?

"More people need to come out and say, I go to Planned Parenthood, I had an abortion, I use birth control, I am a sexual being, and you know me and you like me and I’ve been there for you — why are you shitting on me?"

I feel like there’s always an outlet for your ideas, and if you stay on the path you will see some level of people seeing your ideas; if you have some giant, high-minded “It’s gotta be this or it’s not worth it” attitude, then that’s a huge bummer, because making it can come in various forms. To me, making it means just being able to stay in the game. 

There’s a whole Internet of blogs, and I’ve met a whole bunch of people on Twitter who I’d otherwise have never met, and maybe they’re not famous, but they introduce me to their work; I try to bring their work to other people through their videos, their writing, whatever. I look at everything — if someone puts an @me on something, I’ll look at it. That’s not a guarantee that I’m going to like it or I’m going to re-Tweet it, but if I do like it, I’ll let other people know about it in my circle, if i think it’s great. But if you never do that, or you decide it’s too hard or you can’t carve out some time in your week to post something you believe in or something you want to say, then maybe you just don’t have the drive to do that. But that’s a shame that it’s not part of your DNA; I think it has to be part of your DNA, otherwise the struggles are just too hard.

That same connectivity also helps people feel more comfortable expressing their views on issues like reproductive health...

Exactly, and that’s the whole thing — we have to get some of those [online] people to come out more. If you put a face to it, that means that somebody will think of that face every time they try to demonize what it means to go to Planned Parenthood, or what it means to have an abortion. And if they know someone and they have to think about that person, the rhetoric will tamp down. It’s the Harvey Milk school, and it’s one that works. 

More people need to come out and say, I go to Planned Parenthood, I had an abortion, I use birth control, I am a sexual being, and you know me and you like me and I’ve been there for you — why are you shitting on me? Because I think the problem that people have, A., We are a very narcissistic society, and we think that people think about us way more than we do; and B. We think that if we say we’ve used Planned Parenthood or that we’ve had an abortion, that somehow that one thing is going to define us. And if somebody tries to define you as that one thing, then it’s up to you to keep being an interesting, multi-faceted person. If you allow them to define you as that, then what does that say about you? Just don’t let them.


Lizz Winstead will be reading at Book People on Wednesday, June 20 at 7 p.m.; on Thursday, June 21, she brings her "Planned Parenthood: I Am Here For You" tour to Palm Door. Tickets for the fundraising event are available online