Why the female comic anxiety is a thing.

Despite a slow and steady change being underway, stand-up mixed bills are still, for the most part, male dominated. Certainly at most mixed bill gigs I have ever done, I have been the only female act, or one of two. This meant that starting out, I was conscious of being the female comedian. This is a title that for most comedians who are women, is about as welcome as tropical house music at a funeral. This isn’t because we’re too busy trying to open jars all by ourselves to notice that we are in fact females; it’s because it is rarely simply an innocently descriptive term. Rather, it’s used as a modifying prefix that carries an expanse of connotations, ranging from ‘token’ to ‘a-female-version-of-something-a-man-does’.  

I’m not going to be arguing that no comedian who is a woman should ever be referred to as ‘a female comedian’, but I will be arguing that this is context dependent, and what it means to refer to someone as a female comedian needs to change a little bit. 

After finding out I was a stand-up, a man once asked me, perhaps quite innocently, what the name for a female comedian was.I’m pretty sure the word he was searching for was ‘comedienne’. This word, if you haven’t heard of it, is one kept in the lady section of the dictionary – the vagionary, if you will – with other professional titles like gardeneress, photograpHER, she-lectrician and scientista. I disappointed him, and replied ‘still a comedian.’ ‘Oh,’ he said, probably thinking I had misunderstood him. It reminded me that so many people still think women in comedy are doing a female version of something that is ordinarily done by a man – and why wouldn’t they really? Historically the representation has been so poor, that for so long, a female on a panel show looked to the public like a woman being allowed to join in with all the guys whilst they did their thing. Even where there is more than one woman on a mixed bill, women persistently make up the minority, meaning that before the female comedian can be observed purely by the merit of her material, she must first be representative of all women everywhere. 

This is of course, bollocks. Whilst this tokenism persists, the woman on the bill is the audience’s ventriloquist puppet for womanhood. This way, if that particular comic doesn’t entertain one particular member of the audience, that member of the audience concludes that women doing comedy is not for them. Nobody is taking a dislike to a male comedian and concluding that the source of their jokes falling flat on one’s ears, is their gender. They’re judged by the merits of their material, not by whether they use the toilet with the Dorito dress on it. 

From the perspective of the female comics themselves, the tokenism is problematic. Whilst feminism increasingly speaks to a pop-cultural domain, and a general shift of women empowering women has penetrated the general social consciousness, if female comics feel like they are vying for one spot on the bill, how does that promote comradery amongst women? It perpetuates the age old nonsense that women have been fed from day one, that tries to convince us that we are each other’s competition rather than each other’s support network. There is a proverb (which sounds all mystical, like I need to be wearing a mirror-embellished kaftan to announce it on a hillside), that states, other people’s success does not hinder your own. (In reality, I think I saw that on Tumblr).  It’s a great foundation for cheering on your friends without feeling like you’re competing, however if every bill has one or two women, female comics are going to feel like they are competing for the same spot. It’s madness.

I was nervous about doing ‘female material’ when I started doing stand-up. I realised that that was because I felt like I was occupying the ‘female role’ on the comedy bill, and doing stand-up about female experience would make me a caricature. Once again, I realised this is bollocks. We have listened to male experience for so long that it has become the normative – i.e. ungendered – narrative. Anything that is not male therefore, appears inherently and garishly female. Dick jokes and interrogations of masculinity in comedy have been so well versed that we don’t notice the genderedness of it. Women talking about periods or general female experience, appears to slap you round the face with its genderedness because it hasn’t been voiced enough for it to be the luxury of white noise. Instead we register the femaleness of it before we hear the humour in it. These qualities can coexist of course, and do, with alchemical craft from so many female comics. My point though, is that I stopped being worried about being a female writing jokes about being female, because I realised that’s what men had been doing for decades – we just stopped noticing. 

Take something as genderless as wanking. Women being shamed for their sexuality for centuries means that you’d be forgiven for thinking just men did it. I’ve heard more than one ‘wanking and crying myself to sleep’ joke from male comics. I’ve also been at gigs where women have talked about wanking on stage, and it is met with one of two responses. Either audible gasps, where it is taken as a political statement or shock-tactic rather than a joke, because that narrative is so marginalised. Or, tutting. Yes tutting. Like the comic had ventured into a domain off limits to a ‘female comedian’.

The best example I can give of this is from a wonderful show I saw at the Edinburgh Fringe 2017. Naomi Sheldon’s one-woman show, Good Girl, was a bittersweet and incredibly funny tour-de-force about female sexual awakening (among other things – I’m hugely oversimplifying Sheldon’s incredible, multifaceted writing). She received an audience review on the Fringe website from a man called Pedro. I would have kept him anonymous, but you will see why that is impossible. (Ordinarily there is a degree of anonymity to an isolated first name, but in true Alan-Partridge-Domingo-from-Little-Oakley fashion, of course he’s called Pedro).  An abridged version of his review was ‘Posh English woman in her 30s discusses feelings and her vagina. Stereotypical comedy of the demographic but the audience (largely comprised of liberated womyn and single, socially awkward men) seemed to enjoy it.’ Pedro’s reaction is a perfect example of how, to an ear so un-attuned to female experiences being vocalised, he only heard a generic narrative of women’s sexuality, assuming all women’s sexual stories are homogenous. He refused to listen to the nuance in Sheldon’s show. To analogise, he heard the melody but didn’t listen to the lyrics, having already decided he wasn’t going to like the tune. I’d just drunk a lot of beer at Pleasance, so I replied, ‘as a ‘liberated womyn’ myself, I’d like to add that when I’m not talking about my vagina, I like to talk about my penis, which I have recently named Pedro.’ Pedro, I apologise for being a keyboard warrior. I hope you are well and that your Piers Morgan shrine is coming along nicely.     

I now take pride in voicing female experience to audiences. Not only do I feel like it exposes people to something they haven’t heard enough about – whether they like it or not – but it speaks to women who haven’t heard their version of events on a platform like that before. One of my favourite moments so far in comedy, was a young woman coming up to me after a gig. There was a part of my set that asserted that women are bred in a culture of competition that makes it easier to be jealous of one another than it does to be proud of each other. The woman in the audience explained to me afterwards that she had acknowledged that even where she had found some of my jokes funny, she felt reticent about actually laughing because she found a woman on stage intimidating. She went on to say ‘after you said that thing about being conditioned to be jealous instead of proud, it changed how I thought about the situation. So I just wanted to say, you’re funny, and I’m proud of you.’ It was so incredibly kind, and uncomplicatedly lovely. If I needed it, that was when all anxiety about doing ‘female material’ dissolved.

I am a female comedian, because I am a comedian who happens to be female. Wanting to be considered outside of my gender does not ban me from using femininity in my sets – it just asks people to acknowledge the difference. I’ll end optimistically, hoping that when women have equal representation in comedy as men do, acknowledging femaleness as the default other to male comedy will stop. I mean, if we’re being pedantic about representation, the world is made up of 51% women. We should really have occupancy of just over half of the panel/ mixed bill. And post-Brexit Britain knows that when just a smidge over 50% are represented, it can cause cataclysmic change. Don’t worry though, Farage won’t be invited to the Apollo. (Disclaimer: I just compared women to Brexit. In reality we’re much less threatening. We’re certainly less fussy about the shape of bananas).

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Written by Amy Matthews. Illustrated by Lise Richardson. Article originally published in issue one of The Independent Comedy Appreciation Magazine, May 2018.