“It was hysterically funny!” Glowing praise for any comic. It might interest you to know that the word “hysterical” comes from the Greek “hysterikos,” meaning “of the womb” or suffering in the womb. In the 18th and 19th centuries, it was used to describe a patently false neurosis caused in women by a dysfunctional uterus. It wasn’t until the 20th century that the term came to refer to raucous fits of laughter. Ironic, given that even in the 21st century the uterus squad is facing sexism in the field of comedy.
Last spring, British comedian Jenny Collier made waves on Twitter when she relayed the story of a sexist cancellation. Despite having already been booked, Collier was informed by a comedy club via email that she was cancelled from the show because there were “too many women on the bill.” Collier, a recognized rising-star who exhibited her comedy chops on So You Think You’re Funny, Amused Moose Laugh Off, BBC Radio Wales, and the stand-up festival Edinburgh Fringe, was given no reason for this reneging other than her gender. The episode raises a few questions.
Firstly, why would a venue, TV studio, or other comedy provider be anxious about having too many women? I mean, being female isn’t contagious. What’s the big deal? Are comedy shows with women in the line-up less successful? It’s difficult to prove, given the myriad of factors that go into making a live performance. The underlying question is more troubling; does society perceive women as less funny? The answer seems to be a resounding yes.
Famous female comedians Amy Schumer and Kathy Griffin have both spoken out about the prevalent assumption that women and girls just aren’t funny. Allison Jones, the casting director behind Freaks and Geeks has complained about the prioritization of good looks over comedy talent in actresses. Which leads to our second question; why, in a time when Tina Fey’s Bossypants and Amy Poehler’s Yes Please are flying off the shelves, why are women still thought of as unfunny? The answer is not complicated. It’s good old-fashioned sexism.
Much of comedy in the United States revolves around bawdy subjects. Comedic gold, judging by box office standards, typically involves sexual escapades, accidental destruction, and a whole lot of booze. These are all things which women have traditionally been barred from. Men are applauded as successful studs for being sexually promiscuous from the time they start shaving to the time they go bald. A woman engaged in one fraction of that sexual freedom is labelled a slut, a whore, damaged goods, a failure. It is logical that a double standard so engrained in society should be reflected in society’s amusements. There are obvious outliers; Bridesmaids was incredibly commercially successful and depicted women doing everything from fighting to hooking up to grappling with food poisoning. Chelsea Handler and Sommore have made names for themselves with raunchy, no-holds-barred humor.
On the one hand, these exceptions demonstrate women taking charge of the dirtier, grittier subjects that men have monopolized in comedy. This equalization is heartening, even if that type of comedy doesn’t appeal to you. But it is only the first step. Comedy is just another area of society where we need to stop seeing successful women as playing the men’s game, or as one of the boys. Women have unique perspectives, just like men. That is part of what makes us equally valuable as humans. We don’t need more women to be one of the boys to make comedy more open to women, though if that’s what female comedians want to do they should go for it. Comedy will be more open to women when it acknowledges that female comics aren’t copycats, they’re just funny.