Pop Culture

It’s time to discuss the internalized sexism among female comedians

For you, Jo Brand, I had higher hopes.

A lot of what we find humorous is dictated by the patriarchy.

It’s difficult to make such a statement, but look me in the eyes and tell me that your friends haven’t told you they don’t like female comedians? Or that male comedians are just funnier?

If the answer is yes, then it’s incorrect. 

Laura Mickes, a professor at the University of San Diego, explored the topic after one of her students wrote “she’s not funny” on her teaching evaluation form. After noticing that none of her male colleagues received similar comments, she performed a study. She asked 16 men and 16 women to write captions for New Yorker style cartoons. 81 men and women rated the captions on which were funniest without knowing the sex of the author.

In that study, men’s captions were deemed “slightly funnier” by only .11 points. According to the study’s co-author Nicholas Christenfeld, that margin is “just at the edge of detectability”. That difference could be accounted for by men finding men funnier, as men raters considered the captions .16 points funnier, while women raters only considered them .06 points funnier.

So why are male comedians so much more successful? My theory is men’s issues are found more socially acceptable than women’s issues because our society is dominated by the male perspective.

Take Ali Wong, whose Netflix specials have been about motherhood, pregnancy, dating, going out, her search for a husband, and so much more. She is considered a comedian that is not relatable to men because she discusses “women’s issues” in spite of her material covering universal topics.

Instead, everyone watches Louis CK who is a racist, misogynistic sexual predator. The sexism is clear.

This is a battle to fight and women are definitely downhill as sexism in comedy runs even deeper due to the relentless internalized sexism within female comedians as well. For the same reasons that some people continue to outwardly hate on female comedians, female comedians are bound to hate on each other. 

And it’s hard as comedy is, by no means, concerned with political correctness. In fact, a lot of the most famous sketches ever were birthed out of political incorrectness. Ideally, we should all embrace the “female” in “female comedians” and stand together against rape jokes, sexual misconduct at shows, abortion jokes, racist jokes, and support the greater good.

But we don’t.

Take Jo Brand. She is a woman who I always looked up to as a funny, feminist woman. Early in her career, she made a move from psychiatric nursing to alternative comedy. Her style makes use of incredibly smart, self-deprecating humor. She also discusses experiences that affect women, makes rally calls to change things to what should be, and along the way, supports and uplifts her fellow comedians. So to me, she is a woman who could do no wrong.

Until I read this quote by her: “Pretty female comics fare better than normal-looking ones.” 

The quote was part of a keynote speech Brand delivered at The University of Kent about her personal experiences with sexism in the industry. I don’t think Brand meant to be sexist but this is an incorrect, blanket, and overall harmful statement.

“If you’re like me, overweight, or you’ve got some particularly noticeable aspect to your appearance in the tabloids you’ll be picked on endlessly for your looks. I’ve not really noticed that happening with male comics,” she was also quoted saying.

So what she might have meant is when you do not fall in lines with conventional beauty standards, you come up against more obstacles in your career. I believe that. I agree with that. And I support that.

But what she said is still harmful as it can be misconstrued.

It implies that women who conform with conventional beauty standards don’t have to fight the patriarchal system that she is also fighting. In a gendered world that is inherently divided into us vs them, she created yet another us and them among women. Those categories didn’t need to be created.

Additionally, it creates multiple hierarchies. In her mind, “normal-looking” women get deprecated below “pretty” ones, which simultaneously puts “normal-looking” women down, and invalidates the struggles of “pretty” women.

This is a time when anyone who is ever an “other” is fighting standards that do not benefit anyone other than cis white men. So saying that “pretty women fare better than normal looking ones” in comedy is regressive. It reinforces the societal standards for beauty and creates another “other” within an already “othered” category.

For you, Jo Brand, I had higher hopes.

Sexism is so laden in everything we do. Usually in more than one layer. In order for feminism to be successful, we have to remove all of those layers. But how do you separate the individual from their appearance or image? How do you support female comedians without othering them? These are huge questions, and I would never pretend to have an answer.

But I think when we do, women will all be so much better at lifting each other up.