In a world where only six countries have equal working rights for both men and women, the gender gap is still substantial in most career fields and vocations, even in the world of comedy.
The patriarchal bias of the entertainment industry is no secret, with economists determining that male Hollywood stars earn on average $1.1 million (£850,000) more than their female equivalents – a colossal 56% pay gap.
Forbes’ Highest Earning Stand Up Comedians of 2019 further hammers the nail into the coffin of inequality, as only one out of the ten comedians featured is female; she is American stand-up comedian and actor Amy Schumer, who despite earning $21 million (£16.3m) this year, is no stranger to online social media trolls.Whether you are a fan of Schumer or not, the social media comments she receives could be classed as a form of 21st century hate speech, with most being directed at her gender and appearance. An Instagram posted by Amy Schumer captioned “Feeling strong and beautiful today” depicting her in underwear with pregnancy bump, received comments such as “Ur even more foul in underwear” and “I’m vomiting”.
Hate comments geared toward female comedians are not exclusive to famous stars. A wide variety of these comments are directed at the general female population, with most claiming that female biology automatically corresponds with how humorous (or un-humorous) an individual is.
When searching “females in comedy” on YouTube, the first video generated is, perhaps unsurprisingly, a male opinion on female comedians entitled “Joe Rogan on Women in Comedy.”
Scrolling through the comment section on such videos epitomises the hostile environment women are faced with when choosing to pursue a career in comedy. One comment with 102 likes declares “Sexist or not, men are naturally funnier. It’s a big part of attracting woman. Men have it in their DNA from thousands of years of evolution” and another with 166 likes simply states: “Women aren’t as funny as men.”
Whilst most people do not take YouTube comment sections as scripture, you cannot help but feel comments such as these reflect the general consensus when it comes to addressing female comedians.
Thanks to the antagonistic nature of comment sections and social media trolling, many budding female comedians have created groups which act as ‘safe spaces’ for females and non-binary individuals.
Lasses in Comedy or LinC are one of Facebook’s many female-based comedy networking support groups, describing themselves as a place to “have a healthy whinge about being the only woman on the bill or being introduced by an MC as ‘a girl’, AGAIN?!”
“If you are a young, attractive woman, people don’t think you can be funny.”
The creator of LinC, 36-year-old UK-based comedian, known by her stage name Lucy Bee, “just wanted to create a safe, social media space for ‘all things comedy’ for women specifically. It’s good to have a space to vent if needed, as well as for people to advertise for female-only comedy events.”
Even in the non-professional world of comedy, the gender gap is still sadly prevalent: “There are still far too many incidents of both acts and audience members telling female acts, ‘I don’t usually find women funny, but you were actually alright,’ as though that’s something to be grateful for!”
She continues, “there’s definitely a pervasive sense that you have more to prove as a female act, and male acts and audience members will think nothing of telling you how to be ‘better’.”
Male acts and audience members ordaining the idea that they have authority to ‘better’ female acts is not only demoralising, as Lucy says, but can also be viewed as borderline threatening, creating an unsafe atmosphere throughout unisex comedy shows.
Whether it be physical or verbal acts of sexual assault, women are more likely to be sexualised on-stage, compared to their male counterparts. One member of LinC, 54-year-old Derya Yildirim agrees with Lucy, and feels the sexualisation of women on stage hinders their performance: “If you are a young, attractive woman, people don’t think you can be funny. I was at a King Gong show and someone from the audience called one female comedian ‘a bitch’.”
Many comedians claim that on-stage is where they feel most comfortable, however this can be a very different experience for women who have been heckled, particularly for their gender or appearance. Heckling often damages their self-confidence and shatters the so-called ‘safe space’ they have created on-stage.
Derya sums this up: “Abuse [on-stage] is the projection of the wider gender violence issue in society”. According to GOV.UK, it is estimated that 3.1% of women (510,000) aged 16-59 experienced some form of sexual assault in the last year; a dark statistic that can unfortunately be reflected in the world of comedy.
After performing a set at last summer’s comedy event of the year, the Edinburgh Fringe festival, Dutch comedian Micky Overman was informed that a male audience member had been masturbating through her set, an experience that she says left her feeling “violated” and “worried that he’d come back.”
Micky describes the distressing event with an air of wit that would only be expected from a comedian, however as she said in her article in The Guardian: “It really hasn’t helped me with my sense of self, and it certainly hasn’t helped me find my way back to thinking about comedy as a space where I can safely express myself.”
Fortunately, Micky has turned the ordeal on its head, reflecting it straight back at the patriarchal control the “literal wanker”, as she so subtly describes him, tried to take away from her. “As a way of putting it to bed this year, I’m bluntly addressing it in my show. That way, if Mr Wankypants does come back, he might feel as much shame as I did.”
However, Micky was and is not alone in this ordeal, as she explains she was made aware of two more performers who experienced the same thing at the Edinburgh Fringe that year, alongside reports that other female performers were also being sexually harassed and assaulted.
“There’s definitely a pervasive sense that you have more to prove as a female act”
A BBC article reported that many women performing at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe felt pressure to “laugh off harassment” due to wanting a successful set. This harassment went as far as physical assault, with one woman telling the BBC that a man “pretended to brush something off my thigh and then moved his hand, quite forcefully, up my skirt.”
The issue of a female comedian’s sense of security on-stage is often not only dismantled by male audience members, but male MCs have too been known to play a part in belittling female comedians. As Lucy Bee says, being introduced as ‘girl’ or anything other than the rightful title of comedian, can really throw off a set, but does it make a difference when the MC is a ‘girl’?
In a dimly lit corner of Camden Wetherspoons, the quietest place possible for an interview on a rainy Thursday afternoon, Steph Aritone, 27, sips a half pint of ale whilst opening up about her experiences with being a female MC.
Born in London but raised by her Polish mother and Italian father, Steph has an interesting insight on the world and, as she proves with her regular Monday night slot at The Cavendish Arms in Stockwell, this frequently aids her in her comedic choices.“The MC sets the tone of the night,” Steph says as she relaxes into the booth and sums up the atmosphere on-stage as a female MC. “The vibe is different when I’m MC-ing, it’s not flirting culture and it’s not ego culture, it’s just you do ‘you’, it’s your time on stage. I will always get a few women commenting on the fact that I’m a female MC, saying ‘Oh I love it when there’s a woman MC’.”
Although Steph is clearly confident and comfortable in her own skin, finding her voice after just two years of performing, she admits it hasn’t always been this way: “I always do get a sense when I go onstage the audience tends to tense up a little bit and I still feel that to some extent, they just put trust in what they know more and what they know is a man on stage, delivering lines in a very Americanised way.”
She continues with her hands up, a physical acknowledgement of her past faults: “I think I’ve even tried to emulate that very subconsciously, I don’t want to, I’m trying to get away from it but it was like ‘how do I get accepted? OK, try and be more like them’.”
“When you’re starting out as a ‘girl’ you feel like you have to be better, you feel like you have to prove it for your people and it means that you take less risks and [male comedians] are getting much better because they’re the taking risks.”Steph feels the contrast in male and female socialisation means it can be harder for women to come back from failure: “People judge women harsher if they fail, and I kind of did myself because I didn’t realise that when you fail, that’s when you learn.” However, she wants to encourage women to embrace this and gives her subtle advice to any new comics: “Fuck it, fail!”
Neglecting her drink due to her passion for the subject, Steph says that in order to break the stigma there needs to be more female MCs: “There’s a big drive to recruit and grow female MCs, realising that everyone has to start somewhere and not all MCs have MC experience.”
However, Steph understands that it’s difficult to gather this sense of confidence when there’s only one woman on the bill, “[Female comedians are] trying to be one thing for everyone, for example trying to be maternal, trying to be caring, trying to be good looking, just having to overthink everything.” Visibly bothered, she says male comedians have less pressure: “Men will just find their voice and won’t even think twice about it.”
As Steph concludes, with more female MC representation, slowly but surely the tough patriarchal exterior surrounding comedy will crack, and to helping to speed up this process are all-female comedy events.
The Big Mouth comedy event, a monthly evening allowing only female and non-binary performers, describe themselves as a way to “create an inviting, open and supportive space for comedians to test out new material, recycle the old or give stand-up a shot for the first time ever!”
A cosy vegan café in Bethnal Green with fairy lights dusting every inch of the stage provides the backdrop for Big Mouth’s October monthly event. MC for the evening, Chloe Green, opens the show with delight, realising that it is, in fact, an all-female audience to accompany the all-female line-up.Post show, after lots of laughter and amusement, the penultimate act, Ellen Lilley, 25, discusses feeling unsafe whilst performing at a unisex event, greatly contrasting the atmosphere of this evening: “I do feel with male audiences they’re so much more stony, even if you’re giving it so much energy you can physically see them going ‘come on then, what you got?’”
Reflecting on an experience where a male audience member caused her discomfort, Ellen tells us: “I had a man come up to me at the end of one of my shows and he pointed in my face and said ‘you are not funny’. Everyone was kind of dispersing from the gig and he really came right up into my face whilst I was packing my bag and it just felt really personal and I had to explain that it was a joke.”
Unfortunately, this sense of having to explain yourself as a female comedian is not uncommon, especially when feeling threatened by a male-dominated audience.
The opening act, Alex Bertulis-Fernandes, 25, has the added perspective of being a female of colour in comedy; her opening line addresses just that: “I’m half-Indian, quarter-English, quarter-German and 100% fetishised.” Her sarcastic tone creating roars of laughter filling the space, as she continues “brown enough to meet your diversity quota – but white enough to never call you out on it.”
Tokenisation of minorities to fit the bill is a common theme throughout the entertainment industry: “Sometimes I feel like I hit two diversity boxes and its difficult when I’m left wondering is it because they just need to look more diverse? I’ve been on some line-ups where it’s been all white males and me as a brown woman.”
“Often times, male promoters tend to pay us less, cancel last minute to accommodate a man or promote that you are at a show that you haven’t agreed to.”
Despite some comedy nights feeling this way, Alex explains why she prefers all-female line-ups and audiences: “I feel like I’m at a disadvantage even before I’ve opened my mouth, I’m working harder get to that level, whilst at a night like this I don’t feel that”.
Alex also mentions the females of colour comedy night, FOC It Up. Started in 2018 by comedian Kemah Bob, the night is used as a space to “celebrate and centre the perspectives of comedians of colour that identify as women, trans or non-binary. Check your privilege at the door!” Alex explains why she feels more comfortable in spaces such as these: “A lot of my jokes are to do with race and do a lot better with people of colour.”
Another comedian who has also performed at FOC It Up is Thanyia Moore, who has been performing comedy since 2012 and was crowned ‘Funny Woman Champion’ in 2017, as well as hosting her own night, Moore Laughter. Like Alex, Thanyia represents both females and females of colour within the comedy circuit.
Even though now an experienced comic, with her hour-long performance of Bully booked for Edinburgh Fringe 2020, Thanyia still experiences the hardships of being a female comedian: “Often times, male promoters tend to pay us less, cancel last minute to accommodate a man or promote that you are at a show that you haven’t agreed to.”
Although, she agrees that with experience you are able to build up a strength that perhaps women who are first starting out will not have achieved yet: “Most females are scared of standing up to people like that. If a man mistreats me, I’ll highlight it to other females and never work with him again. Others don’t do that.”
She continues: “They take bookings from these people and just deal with the bad behaviour. Which to me, is very, very sad. It’s a testament to women not knowing their worth and feeling powerless to do anything.”
Comedy is a complicated place for women attempting to break through. It seems as though they have to wave their hands a little higher and shout a little louder to be able to prove their worth in this male-monopolised climate.
The world of comedy could be described microcosm of society reflecting the larger injustices women face within the entertainment industry and everyday life.
According to Women and Hollywood, only 31.1% of speaking or named characters in 2017-18’s top-grossing films were female and only eleven films featured a girl/woman of colour in the leading or co-star role.
These figures emphasise why all-female comedy nights, female MCs and female audience members are vital for changing the face of the entertainment industry.
Featured image by Cree Brown
Edited by Laura Scheepers, Franziska Eberlein, Kesia Evans and Mischa Manser.