As the Melbourne International Comedy Festival comes to an end for another year, I’ve discovered that laughter isn’t necessarily the best medicine, especially if that laughter is at the expense of a woman on stage.
Aspiring comedian Emily Weir has been forced to reflect on the “boys club” that is comedy since she began participating in male dominated stand-up competitions at 19.
“I entered a competition a few years ago where I was the only woman on the bill. My competitors were older men who would chastise me by making comments like ‘Get your tits out!’ It really shocked me that as a woman I could threaten them,” she says.
Weir explains that women in comedy reflect pre-conceived feminine characteristics of modesty, passivity and fragility in the public space. This notion is challenged by contemporary female comedians. Some of the most successful women in comedy are able to defy the traditional typecast and speak openly about their sexuality and independence.
American comedian Amy Schumer regularly explores sex, masturbation, marriage and body image during her stand-up routines. When accepting the Trailblazer of the Year award at the 2015 Glamour Awards, Schumer famously and unapologetically declared, “I’m 160 pounds right now and can catch a dick whenever I want.” These themes, which are also featured in her sketches and film cameos, have resulted in her being labelled as a ‘sex comic’ by the media and her wider audience. It’s a term she has openly criticised, suggesting that if a male told the same jokes, they wouldn’t require the same label.
According to Weir, comedy can be used as a vehicle for women to identify double standards and redefine gender norms.
“I’ve always noticed that male comedians, at some point, would always talk about their willies. But if I got up and spoke about my vagina, it would be inappropriate,” she says.
“During gigs, I noticed that men would often make crude comments relating to sex and women being sluts. A comedian can change what we think is funny. I think women in comedy can allow us to move on from sexual stereotypes, because they’re just not funny anymore.”
The importance of providing opportunities for women in comedy presents further questions surrounding intersectional differences for women in comedy. Women of colour, age, ableism and sexual fluidity are further disadvantaged when it comes to opportunities in comedy.
“I was isolated as a white woman in comedy. But it is much harder for women of diversity to get up on stage when they are already devalued in our society,” says Weir.
During the 2015 ARIA Awards, comedian and Triple J presenter Matt Okine pointed out during his acceptance speech that there were no women nominated in his category for ‘Best Comedy Release’. Okine’s recognition of the underrepresentation of women in comedy was not broadcast that night. This assumption that entertainment and comedy constitute sexist behaviour cushions concerns surrounding the lack of diversity and gender representation in our society.
A recent article in The Age revealed that of the 559 shows in this year’s Melbourne International Comedy Festival, only 19 per cent, or 107, are solo shows presented by women. According to comedian Patrick Hargreaves, there is no excuse for one of the world’s most popular comedy events to avoid responsibility for closing this gap.
“I don’t think the Melbourne Comedy Festival really tried to bridge the gender gap. 20 per cent is ridiculous and clearly shows?that comedy is failing to provide adequate opportunities for women.”
Hargreaves is the founder of Smiling Politely, a stand up room based in Northcote that has been running for just over a year. Their organisation actively encourages female comedians to participate in stand up via their Facebook page.
“We need female voices in a show. One of our headliners, Danielle Walker, just won the RAW Comedy competition supported by Triple J. When we work with women, we try to provide them with more than just a five minute gig but put them first as the headliner. This will encourage the norm for women to share the stage with men in comedy equally.”
Hargreaves acknowledges that comedy is a male dominated industry but rejects the idea that there are not enough female comedians to support line-ups. He says the only things lacking are opportunities for women to perform on stage.
“There are plenty of female comedians out there. I’ve noticed that men are far more confident in their place in comedy and women are pushed aside. Unfortunately, to get noticed in comedy, you have to be a bit of a prick, which comes more naturally to men.”
As suggested through the experiences of Weir and Hargreaves, women are not only socialised to reject the privilege of being on stage but also to accept that their appeal is reduced purely to a female audience.
“When a female comedian is performing, people assume it’s only for a female audience. Women provide different perspectives and experiences in comedy that are valuable but unfortunately are usually rejected in comedy. Male comics never face that barrier.”
Opinions, worldviews and experiences are humanised and understood through humour. It is a talent to coordinate a crowd in comedy and a right for those oppressed in society to have the opportunity to share their voice.
The issue lies not in the lack of female comedians but the necessity to recognise intersectional disadvantages in comedy and the need to absolve double standards in stand up. Weir believes that the sooner these disadvantages are addressed in the industry, the more creative, diverse and inspirational comedy will become.
“I love comedy that makes you think. There needs to be more opportunities for women of diversity to participate in comedy. It will allow you to watch comedy and leave thinking you’ve learnt something new. I wish to see those women on stage next to me.”