Feminine and Funny – can we be both?

There is frequently a debate about whether or not women are as funny as men? This usually always relates to stand-up. No one doubts (I’d hope) that actresses are as funny as actors. Women have been performing everything from comic theatre (Coward, Wilde, Shakespeare, Ayckbourn) to televised sitcoms (Fawlty Towers, Gavin and Stacey, Friends, Modern Family, Peep Show, Absolutely Fabulous) for years.

As comedy writers women are becoming more and more successful. Ruth Jones, a personal heroine of mine, co-wrote the brilliant Gavin and Stacey. Ab Fab was written by Dawn French and Jessica Saunders and Fawlty Towers was co-written by Connie Booth as well as by John Cleese. Stateside we have Len Dunham writing, producing and starring in Girls, not to mention the success of Tina Fey and that’s just off the top of my head.

So, we are considered funny as writers, funny as actors, it is only stand-up where we are not yet seen as comic equals either in fees or visibility on television.
 This initially makes no sense. If you can write comedy – as it’s proven women can, and you can perform comedy as many actresses have done, why should women not be able to do stand up which involves both these talents; writing and delivering? The simple answer is, that women can do stand up. The complex one is that is it less accepted by our society and more threatening to the status-quo. When women do stand-up, they speak up. They take the stage and take the risk that stand-up involves; the risk of failure, the risk of judgment and additionally of being seen as as unfeminine.

So, in my view, the first obstacle is that stand-up is seen as macho and therefore unfeminine. It takes confidence to take the risk, almost an arrogance to say “I am funny” and the majority of stand-up still has its roots in macho topics (women, sex, body functions) and tone (vulgar, mocking). Not surprising when you understand that it originated in working men’s clubs.

It has taking a cultural shift for people to accept women doing it at all. I say people because, from talking to audiences, both men and women still find comediennes an unwelcome novelty and suspect they might not like them. Liking is important because we only usually laugh at people we like. Your female friend will have you in stitches but when a woman steps up to a mic to make us laugh we are uncomfortable. We still see them as having stepped into male territory. Perhaps we fear for them.

If culture still asks women to be lady-like then we might feel concerned seeing them in the stand-up arena with its history of macho humour. So maybe we also judge as well as fear. Maybe we’d like women to be nicer than that. In terms of this type of humour, I personally would like men to be nicer than that and prefer the surreal imaginative comedy of Eddie Izzard or the obscure non-observational comedy of Stewart Lee, but that is just my taste. If we as a society think vulgar comedy has a place, then men and women should both be accepted doing it.

A photo of Charlotte Thornton doing stand-upSecondly, we live in a society where women are valued on looks; beauty, sexiness, elegance. None of these is compatible with stand-up. Comedy, usually asks that you pull faces, do silly walks, trip over and generally look idiotic. You are the clown. We accept this of women in sitcoms but less so in a stand-up comedienne, especially, if they are good looking. We understand why an unattractive woman might pull faces for a living, but why would an attractive one? I was once midway through a joke that involved pulling a silly face when my boyfriend stopped me to tell me, well – more like warn me, that it was making me look unattractive. He seemed genuinely uncomfortable, embarrassed even. It was not the first time this had happened to me. This is not only absurd, it’s revealing of our culture, of the pressure on women to look nice, always.

Not only do we grow up thinking our role is to be pretty, first and foremost, but we are also told to be more sensible, grown up even. So whilst the boys are allowed to be boys and lark about, which teaches them some of the comedy basics we lose the opportunity to learn and our comic muscles go unflexed. So that even if we do decide to be a stand-up we are behind.

Also I think men are brought up to feel more comfortable with taking the space. As a stand-up there is no sharing, you take all the glory (and all the risk too) and men seem more comfortable with this. As young girls, whilst the boys are being boys we are asked to not dominate, be quieter, share, give. Consequently women have leaned toward and been more accepted in ensemble groups doing sketch comedy or improvisation. But alone, intending to do stand up comedy, we (the audience) are confused, maybe even annoyed that they don’t know their place. It seems as if we have been conditioned to find a man’s confidence attractive and women’s as a sign of arrogance. Stand-up takes balls. So society might argue it prefers only the men to have balls.

I know that even I have found myself making the judgment “who does she think she is?” If we are all taught to be quiet, humble, to look nice, to share and then some other woman dares to take the stage solo, to speak up, to presume they are funny, to defy the need to being attractive, maybe the women who have done as they were told feel angry instead of inspired. There is the annoyance of a driver stuck in traffic watching some cheeky rule breaker speed through the bus lane, or in this case the man lane.

But who are we not to? It’s time women became rule breakers. They weren’t even our rules in the first place. We have a right to be heard, to tell our stories? Whilst we are still shy about taking our space, still so judged on how we look (and judging others), and still asked to be the gentler sex at all costs, then there will be prejudice against female stand-up comediennes.

So, let’s give some of these brave female comediennes a chance and let’s show respect to those who have made it. Jo Brand who smashed the stand-up glass ceiling and taking some unbelievable nasty media stick for it and Victoria Wood who shows stand-up can be gentle, intelligent and compassionate whilst still being hilariously accurate.

3 thoughts on “Feminine and Funny – can we be both?

  1. Great post and interesting historical angle on society’s expectation – I didn’t realise stand-up started in working mens clubs. Makes sense that it’s quite a macho thing to do traditionally – to stand up and give your views and open yourself up for criticism (I don’t know if I could hack it!!) Blokes on the whole tend to be less self-critical and analytical than women.

    Comedy clubs are missing a trick by not including more of a balance – if I saw a line-up was all or mostly male I wouldn’t go! More female comics please – last show I saw the one woman was the funniest by far! :)

    • Well, I think way back there were music halls too, but in the twentieth century is was working mens clubs. Glad you enjoyed it. I like all kinds of comedians/iennes. I think its odd to see bad comedians and then decide its because of their gender. Its too simplistic, surely? All comedians die on stage at one time, get no laughs and are assumed ‘unfunny’ they go somewhere else with the same routine and make it work. So its a complex beast, regardless of gender.

  2. Absolutely, some of my favourite comedians are male, and some are female. But I recon there’s no excuse to have an all-male line up, or just one token woman. Comediennes can’t be that rare! It’s totally down to the individual how funny they are, but it doesn’t stop people making generalisations. I just think there should be more balance!

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