When Will Comedy Be Fair to Women?

Funny women are smart women. Comedy takes confidence, calculated wit, and above all balls (it’s different from confidence, it really is). Those are often qualities that scare the hell out of the kind of red blooded, American men that head the conservative households that networks are always trying to tap for ratings. The ongoing resistance to women in comedy was underlined yet again recently when a woman wasn’t even considered to take the Tonight Show seat given to Jimmy Fallon, because if a woman had been given a seat among the kings of late night, it would have been the gasp heard round the corn fields.  In a time when it seems that women are making giant progressive leaps, and in an increasingly public way, it’s still shocking that so many men persist that women aren’t funny, and women work alongside them against the cause.

As a female comedy writer, I’ve been hit with that look of male doubt many times that says, “Oh you think you can hang with the big boys?” It wasn’t until it came from a woman though that I realized we are in really big trouble. The woman in question, a struggling actress in a group setting, met a joke of mine with an incredulous, “You’re funny?” merely because I’d taken attention away from her. Christopher Hitchen’s 2007 article “Why Women Aren’t Funny” was scrolling across the back of my eyelids in red as she manically laughed and I considered putting my cigarette out on her face.

It reminded me of the way Taylor Swift handled Amy Poehler making a joke at her expense at the Golden Globes, responding with a PR-crazed-Google-researched-statement of Madeleine Albright’s quote about a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women. And then all of the hillbilly fathers of Swift’s impressionable fans got to sit their daughters down and say, “See what happens when you try and be funny. You end up looking like that Yankee whore.”

But despite the efforts of women who pander to middle America, the women who pander to the full use of their brains are really changing the way people see us all as a whole. Obviously people like Kristen Wiig, Isla Fisher, Mindy Kaling, Amy Sedaris, Aubrey Plaza, Amy and Tina have all transcended from funny girl to Hollywood heavy hitters, but behind the scenes women like Megan Ganz, Hilary Winston, Issa Rae, Carrie Brownstein, Karey Dornetto, Liz Meriwether, and Emily Spivey are becoming head writers, creators, and producers, and simultaneously changing the face of comedy. It’s work like that, along with writers like Lindy West at Jezebel, who boldly write about female purity being “bullshit,” breaking up with your vagina-hating boyfriend, and putting pretty much all of the right wing woman haters on blast (also, I typically don’t agree with Megyn Kelly, but props to her for doing this), who are making the entertainment industry more friendly to funny women.

What’s still sad, though, is that it takes these women far more years of determination, hard work, and thick skin than not just men, but also women who are selling sex appeal above all else. The women who make it in comedy are typically older than the men, and certainly older than blockbuster starlets, because it takes longer for people to give them their due credit. It’s even in the subtleties. For example, this Refinery29 article about women in comedy lists a “Hollywood Fairy Godmother” for each featured woman. In no article ever would that be done for men, because no one would ever assume that if it wasn’t for a someone reaching down and pulling them up, that men wouldn’t have gotten where they were going. Men are also not expected to continuously thank and be reminded of the people who got them where they are at every given media moment in their career. 

I’ve recently felt that sting in my own career. I in no way have paid my dues or been around long enough to consider myself remotely near the aforementioned women that I look up to, but recently I got my biggest break yet. For said break all of the work is done online, and I’ve never met my editors. It is hard to creatively collaborate over email, so that process is frustrating for everyone. Also I’m not so green as to think that anyone in the entertainment industry is going to be, or should be, exceedingly nice to me. Nonetheless, time and time again I’ve been met with one-word responses, indifference, and my favorite, asking me to resend something to “drive the point home” concerning not content formatting, but the order in which emails are sent, a specification that was never told to me to begin with.

Now I know that it sounds like I’m whining, but the point is that I don’t believe that anyone there would ever speak to me that way if I were a man. In turn I am a young woman, and it is the natural response of men who are only slightly older, and my superior, to talk down to me. A friend of mine worked with the same company in a different capacity and agreed that through the whole project there was an underlying energy that women weren’t funny, and should let the boys handle it. Ultimately that comes out in the wash, too. Their work is often very boys-club-y, and could be funnier if it were tighter and more careful, and not resting on ego and status.

If I’ve learned anything so far, it’s that the wiliness, crassness, and deftness required to be successfully funny are qualities that make people squeamish. When women possess them, it makes the devil woman comparison all too easy, with our curvy bodies, lady caves, and now a sharp tongue. Just applause is finally being given to the pioneer women of comedy, but that work won’t be finished until whispers and giggles don’t abound when all women write a movie like Bridesmaids. But that wall is being chipped away, snarky email after snarky email, and someday no one will bat an eyelash when a woman dares to make people laugh.

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Chloe Stillwell

Chloe currently resides in Nashville, her hometown, after long stints in New York and Los Angeles. She is a New School alum and UCB-trained sketch writer. Her alternative comedy is featured at Mad Atoms, an off-shoot of 20th Century Fox. Her work on pop culture, entertainment, feminism and social justice has appeared in The Frisky, Death & Taxes, Nerve, Guerrilla Feminism, and Amy Poheler's Smart Girls, among others. She has a penchant for dive bars and diners.

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