The Female Comic: Fact or Fiction?
Have you ever noticed that a lot of female comedian’s material follows a very similar trend? “I took my cat to see a cat behaviourist” or “Actually, I’m a bit of a chocolate tart and will eat everything”.
This is not to dismiss the talent of female comics, but their propensity to play on gender stereotypes and binary aspects of femininity does make you wonder: are women limited by the “type” of comedic material they’re permitted to use?
The sovereignty awarded to men in the comedy scene creates the tendency for female comedians to play on gender norms and “relatable” aspects of womanhood such as relationships, appearance, weight gain, or childcare. What we perceive as “funny” from female comedians tends to exist within a much narrower paradigm than for male comedians. This fact is compounded by the lack of diversity among female comedians, with straight white woman’s voices still being in the majority.
Are women limited in comedy by the type of comedy they are “allowed” to do? Put it this way, if Sarah Millican stopped focusing on her weight gain, boobs, cat, or divorce, and talked about the gender pay gap or sexual harassment, would she still be upheld as an emblem of female comedy? Similarly, American comedian Rebel Wilson’s whole character of “Fat Amy” is based on a “fat identity” and the way the world responds to a woman who doesn’t fit the standard patriarchal ideals of beauty. Clearly, the female comic’s stage persona is concentrated on a distorted image of femininity that is at odds with the conventional ideals of womanhood.
However, for male comedians, the world is their comedic oyster; from Ricky Gervais’s transphobic slurs against Caitlyn Jenner, to Louis C.K.’s jokes on rape whistles, nothing is too taboo for the male comic. Yet, it is deemed necessary for women’s comedy to be sanitized and accessible, while men seemingly have free reign to make sexist, racist, and homophobic jokes with minimal backlash. The male dominated structure of mainstream comedy has allowed male comedians to push the boundaries of comedy to the very edge of tolerability, but this is still not conceivable for women.
Undoubtedly, the most successful stand-up routines are based on material that people can relate to, but does this mean that women are limited only to topics that the majority want to hear? No one is denying that making a living out of being a comedian is tough. Comedy is focused on lambasting yourself and being vulnerable to criticism. So, is it better for women to confine themselves to joking about gender norms and expectations to ensure their comedy is still reachable for a male audience? Or have women themselves created these confines within comedy as a way to subvert gender expectations and satirise notions of femininity?
In contrast, female comics who don’t fit a certain stereotype of femininity are deemed as radical, while jokes about female experiences become too visceral for an average audience to handle. A woman speaking about periods, masturbation, or lesbian sex is regarded as too risqué and often limited to post-watershed slots and smaller venues. Women can joke about these experiences between themselves, so why does this not translate to the wider stand-up circuit? Women appear to be made to censor themselves on stage to ensure acceptability within mainstream comedy.
If comedy is truly about shared lived experiences, then female experiences should not be edited or erased for a female comedian to be successful, or more importantly, to be considered funny.