On women in comedy

Isobel Moulder is a stand-up comedian and actor based in Edinburgh who has performed in Edinburgh, London, Sydney, Paris and Shanghai. She is currently in her fourth year of a Chinese and French MA at the University of Edinburgh. She performs as part of The Improverts at Bedlam Theatre and is the new host of Grassroots Comedy. She aims to pursue stand-up comedy as a full-time profession after university.

As a teenager, I was never exactly a hit with boys. I was gangly and awkward, with frizzy blonde-ish hair which I cut off almost completely when I was 16, and, most notably, I was funny. When I say I was funny, what I really mean is that I had a sense of humour. I would pull grotesque faces and adopt caricatured accents to cheer up a friend having a bad day, or dance around the living room in some sort of mangled tribute to Charlie Chaplin to make my mother laugh. When, at 14 or so, I finally achieved the golden Nirvana of “knowing boys” (I went to an all-girls school so contact with the opposite sex was limited), I was perplexed as to why they seemed to have absolutely no time for me. Not only did they have no time for me, but they were actively mean. I used to get prank calls from a boy begging me to be his girlfriend, while his friends sniggered audibly in the background. There were a plethora of boys who simply ignored my presence completely, or perhaps talked to me once, to ask if they could have a sip of whatever dire alcohol I’d managed to smuggle to a party.

My mother consoled me by telling me they were “intimidated” by me which, as any woman that has ever been a teenager desperate to get along with the opposite gender will know, was not a satisfactory excuse. However, I can now see that her words ring true, for that time in my life and indeed for many others. Men, whether unconsciously or not, prefer women who make them feel funny, rather than a funny woman. Ask any woman if she has ever laughed at a man’s joke even though it wasn’t funny and I guarantee you every single one will say that she has. Ask a man the same question with the genders reversed, and the results will be vastly different. This is because a woman who is funny is a woman who is dangerous.

I have been performing as a stand-up comedian for about two and a half years now, and in that time my understanding of humour and the way it is used in our society has developed exponentially. It appears that in this day and age, being funny is just about the most potent social currency of which one can be in possession. A funny person, regardless of gender, will attract friends. The difference is when the funny person in question is being viewed by the opposite gender in a romantic or sexual light. A sense of humour is widely regarded as an attractive quality in a man. In a woman? Not so much.

To be clear: when I talk about a sense of humour, I am not talking about simply nodding and laughing at jokes. As previously mentioned, women who do this are attractive to men. The sense of humour to which I refer is more active; witty remarks, a smart quip to combat any insult, silly accents or even a grasp of physical comedy. This sense of humour requires a higher level of mental competency, a cognitive functioning that is able to craft comedy from a mundane situation and a self confidence that permits the woman to make the joke in the first place. These are qualities that our society often treats as ‘intimidating’ in women, and thus a funny woman is dangerous. She is dangerous because she challenges the archaic preconception, which unfortunately still seethes beneath the surface today, that a woman should be seen and not heard. She is dangerous because she is in possession of a valuable social currency. She is dangerous because she will not always laugh at a joke she does not find funny.

The fact that a funny woman is viewed as dangerous stems from many issues, one of which is the problematic image of masculinity which dictates that a man must be dominant in any given social situation. A woman making a joke is viewed as making a play for dominance and thus, unless she is in a group made up solely of women, she is challenging societal norms. The number of times I have been told “I don’t usually like female comedians but I thought you were funny” after a show is not worth counting. This line, although meant as a compliment, perfectly distills the harmful idea that a funny woman is an exception to the rule.

If perhaps this argument seems unfounded, the proof is in the pudding. The quantity and severity of abuse received by female comedians, mostly online, is appalling. In a time where many insist we have achieved gender equality, funny women are still a prominent target of death threats, threats of sexual violence, and vile insults. In late 2015, comedian Sara Schaefer posted a picture parodying a female comic’s to-do list next to a male comic’s to-do list, the latter simply reading “Be funny”. The picture went viral online and Schaefer was sent a barrage of abuse, ranging from remarks about how she was “complaining too much” to sexual threats. Her story is one of thousands, and the abuse is not limited to the online realm. January of this year saw controversy over a number of female comedians speaking out about their experiences of sexual harassment sexual assault in the world of improvisational comedy. Many of the victims spoke of numerous incidences where their male colleagues reduced them to sexual objects, both onstage and off. This reflects a troubling attitude to women in comedy.

I am proud to be a funny woman and, though it stems from a problematic place, I wear the badge of a dangerous woman with pride. Comedy can be a powerful tool of social change and as a woman in this field, I recognise that I have the potential to instigate that social change. It is a potential that does not come without its risks, such as the abuse faced by far too many female comedians, but it is one that I believe to be invaluable. We dangerous women of comedy must continue to push boundaries and question societal norms until we are no longer considered dangerous, but rather represent a new societal norm. However until that day comes, we must continue to work hard at our craft and show the world that women are funny, and anyone who cannot understand that is simply intimidated.