Women in Comedy

I both love and hate my old school (or alma mater, whatever). Vassar taught me a lot of important things and helped me to realize who I am. But then, at the same time, it presented some road blocks due to the overwhelming pretentiousness and self-righteousness of a lot of the student body.

I feel like this article about my close friend’s comedy group serves as a pretty specific example of that negative attitude I hated. And it also makes me feel like it’s important to bring up women’s rights in conversation, because it’s such an easy topic to ignore…

Basically, my friend is a member of an all-female comedy troupe, the only one on campus. They recently hung a poster for auditions and someone graffitied, “You enforce and legitimize gender binaries.”

Um… pretentious and self-righteous? Yeaahh… not to mention completely off-base and offensive.

The article goes on to say a lot of things that I completely agree with. I guess it would be silly to paraphrase it and then agree with that paraphrasing when you can just read it yourself.

And now… I go on to discuss my perspective on being a 21 year old girl in comedy. This might change, because I will inevitably get older and see things differently. This is how it is today though.

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“We found it interesting that this person immediately decided to make the purpose of our group about men, while our goal is always about women,” DeGraffenreidt said. “The only thing we are against is the notion that women don’t have a place in comedy.”

The first thing Lorraine (DeGraffenreidt) said is so important. It is so difficult to talk about woman things without having to defend your position as pro-women and not anti-men. It’s never anti-men. I’m into dudes. Most other women are too. It’s hard not to like them (even when you don’t want to).

The issue really is our cultural understanding of gender dynamics and gender roles. When feminists say that gender is a social construction, I think they mean to say that gender roles are a social construction. It is super difficult to deny the reality of hormonal differences. But, you know, those scientific facts aside, it’s not hard to idealize a world in which those different aspects were equally valued.

So, without getting too theoretical, this is about comedy.

It is a challenge to be a woman in comedy. I think part of the reason is that there really aren’t enough groups like Indecent Exposure (the all female group at Vass). The female perspective is undervalued in general. As a great improvist(a) astutely pointed out, “It’s so sad that movies like Spring Breakdown are limited to DVD release while movies like Pineapple Express come out every summer.” Without getting into a debate about the merits of either film, the point is simply that women-dominated films are not really considered marketable. The most “female targeted” films on the market are romantic comedies which of course play up the male/female dynamic. It’s so hard to find a movie about women being women and not being women with men.

So as a female comedian (or artist in general), things get tough right off the bat. Because it’s like, “Well, who’s going to care? Where is my demographic? Who am I appealing to?”

We are, apparently, appealing to the leftover buyers at Netflix.

“Clearly it’s not about your X or Y chromosomes for us,” Ferrer explained. “What we are seeking to voice is a certain gender identification, a certain social experience that is outside the scope of those who have lived consistently as men.”

I know a lot of girls involved with the pursuit of making people laugh, but I’ve also noticed that many of them identify as actresses first and comediennes second. This is fine, but it also sort of makes sense. Actresses are pretty and say things written by other people. Comediennes, in order to truly embrace comedy, sometimes have to be aggressive and direct — decidedly unfeminine qualities.

It’s not that women aren’t funny, or can’t be. But it’s just that comedy is not inherently a feminine activity. It’s sort of similar to sports. Dominated by the guys, but obviously girls participate and are good at it. But then, don’t a lot of those girls have something sort of… different about them anyway? So women in comedy… aren’t they fat or lesbians or something? Isn’t that kind of an ambiguous gender?

“Comedy is a form that can be aggressive, even if the type of comedy appears not so,” Donnelly continued. “In other words, performing in front of an audience requires a measure of control and dominance on the part of the comedian. The ability to make people laugh is very powerful—this is true even in general conversation.”

Sure, and maybe. It happens, definitely. But I’ve been around at least long enough to know that the stereotypes don’t do justice to the array of female comedy performers out there.

But I think for a long time it has been really difficult to be a woman in comedy and not fall into certain traps. Here are ones I have found myself in:

1. Things to Talk About

A joke I decided to write for an open mic night, if I ever went to one, was, “I really wish you were all women and gay men.” It’s presumably funny because it’s true (and things are often funny because they are true).

Being a woman in a room full of dudes is super difficult. Guys, on the whole, interact with each other differently than woman do. Guys are competitive and abrasive; they usually don’t spend too much time worrying about each other’s feelings. They can be brutally honest with each other, but then do not seem too affected.

Personally, it’s difficult for me to do well in this kind of environment. Personally, I am sensitive and overly thoughtful — I care a lot about how I treat other people and how other people think about me. I compete, but quietly, I just want to do my job and do it better than everyone else without all the taunts and comments. I can imagine that a lot of other women feel similarly. Granted, maybe some men share my perspective, and some women don’t. But speaking for myself (and presumably other women) I can say that even if I can stand up to this kind of environment; I certainly don’t feel like myself.

It’s difficult to operate in a setting where you are out of place, or where you are challenged just to feel at ease being you. I assume this gets easier and less noticeable over time. Or you find your niche. Or whatever. I guess I am just saying that there is a culture surrounding comedy and quite often that culture is reminiscent of a frat house (with nerdy dudes who want to be bros).

Women comedians are often criticized for talking about how awful men are and their periods. Maybe not so much today as they were in the 80s. But nonetheless, my experiences are generally rooted in my femaleness, even if I can be sort of androgynous sometimes. I could keep it neutral, but I find the lack of emotional honesty boring and probably cliched. I mean… why do you think things are funny? Usually you connect in someway. Maybe not emotionally, but you “get it.” You’ve been there too, or thought that, even if just subconsciously.

So I’m a woman. And I’m 21. And I’m a fourth Mexican (white). And I was educated at a liberal arts college on the east coast. And I work in entertainment…. so yeah. My perspective is affected by who I am. So is everyone’s. But what if your perspective is not Pineapple Express material? Can you compete? Yes, but it’s sort of like if you sprained your ankle right before the big race.

It’s difficult to not fall into the trap of talking about things “like a man” to avoid the aforementioned disadvantages. Or it’s difficult to not apologize for your womanness in order to gain acceptance. Sort of like pulling the rug out from under the audience’s expectations.

For example, I have heard women say, “Don’t worry, I don’t think women are funny either” before starting a bit. So maybe this strategy works. But it also doesn’t seem empowering. Or, especially, it seems unfortunate that women can’t be women (in comedy) without it having to mean something.

I myself have written bits about… “these are the things women talk about… so I didn’t want to talk about those things… but then I thought… well…. what the fuck do I talk about now?”

And maybe the things I wrote are funny or maybe they suck, I don’t know. That’s not the point. It’s just that I think the impulse for women is to become defensive about their gender or to deny it. It’s difficult to speak openly without some explanation. Possible, sure, but definitely tricky.

2. Being a prostitute/whore/stripper/slut/nervous basket case

I feel like I am all of these things all the time in improv scenes. I hate that I make those choices sometimes.

Once, in a room of guys, I immediately decided to label myself as a prostitute in almost all the scenes. I feel like this was in part due to the nature of the humor in the room. Sort of overly sexual and low-brow. Like there was a recurring joke about a guy named “Puss-puss” for example. So again, it’s like, how do I fit in here? I guess I’ll be an Armenian whore, why not!

As a Vassar professor I once had put it, “In any mixed comedy troupe, there is a danger of stereotyping those members who are ‘other.’”

It just happens. For some reason there is something about being a woman and trying to be funny that makes these choices seem good even though they are generally not great.

The nervous basket case is an example that especially makes sense to me.

I am a nervous basket case a lot because that is an easy energy to play. I am often sort of nervous performing, and so it’s easy to accentuate that present emotion. Plus, there is something about women being neurotic that is also another easy-comedy-go-to. I worry that the reason for this is that women are, overall, thought of as such. Truth in comedy?

Guys often make these choices for girls too. I sometimes wonder if subconsciously I do it to beat them to the punch. But I really think I do it because for some reason it seems overtly edgy and cool. I mean, not consciously. But it seems like the sort of choice you’d make to be “one of the guys.” Like, “Hey, I’m not a prude and I’m easy-going — look! I’ll be a prostitute!”(I mean, I never think that. But it just seems like an explanation for something I otherwise can’t explain.)

I guess I would say that the reason for these choices is to find a way to appeal and belong to the mass demographic. Possibly.

3. Women aren’t funny!

The last thing is, really, the hardest part about being a woman in comedy. Women aren’t funny. And if they are then a lot of people, consciously or subconsciously, do not want to accept it.

Here are quotes from the aforementioned article, which support this notion:

“Until recently, humor and comedy have been viewed in this country as a form of expression wherein men are ‘better’ practitioners. Women were considered not funny, and not able to take a joke. Of course we know now that this is not the case, but stereotypes can die hard.” – Vass Prof. Liza Donnelly.

“Nothing that we presented in the show had female-specific humor and nothing we did antagonized any gender,” Indecent Exposure treasurer Lorraine DeGraffenreidt ’10 explained. “Each character we portrayed was gender-neutral. Other groups had very gender-specific content, but nothing was said about them. We concluded that this note was an act of hate against us as women,” she continued. “The only thing that he or she could have been upset about is the fact that we were females performing comedy.”

I don’t know. How can you explain it, really? I think legitimately, a guy and girl could say the exact same phrase, and the guy would have a 75% better chance of making people laugh than the girl. (This statistic is based on nothing).

But it isn’t hard to fathom. Something about dudes is just funnier. Just like something about fat is funnier than six packs. It’s easier to laugh at guys, for whatever reason. We want to laugh at guys, maybe. Right off the bat though, the guy seems to come from a funnier place than the girl. I think it might have something to do with the voice, personally. Somehow deeper voices seem more appropriate for great deliveries.

However, whatever the reason, the fact remains that guys have something about them that makes them better suited for comedy (just as they are better suited for heavy lifting). So it’s not that the women can’t lift heavy things, but she’s going to have to work a lot harder at it probably and it’s difficult to say if she’ll be able to match the level of men.

And then, even once women get there… I think there can be a denial of her “victory.” And this isn’t saying, “Men refuse to find women funny.” I have heard girls say, “women just aren’t as funny.” Are they threatened by the other women? Are they trying to reinforce their own femininity? Are they trying to agree with guys and gain “one of the guys” status? Whatever reason, I think that even legitimately hilarious women have the added work of winning over the skeptics. Which just makes it that much harder…

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I don’t write all this to say, “Boo hoo women have it so rough” or “Wow, people who hate women suck!” Because, whatever. Everyone has it rough and everyone hates everyone else. These problems are not exclusive to women.

I just mention it because I do think that it’s still relevant. But I also think that maybe our culture has become somewhat complacent about it all. I think we assume things are about as equal as they’ll ever be. I wrote about comedy because this article sort of made me think about it enough to want to write something, and because I am involved too so it’s easier to gain examples and thoughts.

However, we are not even equal in other departments, like race. I just don’t have the background or personal knowledge to write anything informed about it. So instead I guess I’ll stick to what I know.

[Food for thought]: The only long form improv group on the Vassar Campus, boringly named Improv, consisted exclusively of men last year. The reason for this? The guys running the group just felt that none of the girls who tried out fit with the “vibe” of their group. For a school with 60% females, it seems difficult to imagine that not one of them was really “improv” material.

However, how much criticism does this group receive for its exclusion of female performers? None. There are no articles on the topic. No one accused them of reinforcing gender binaries, even though their actions essentially say, “women aren’t funny.” THINK ABOUT IT.

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About jessicacabot

I'm a person and sometimes other things.

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