The other day, my Twitter feed went abuzz after a comedy website published a Tweet that missed the satire mark, and landed on the sexism in poor taste mark. I’m not surprised. Some of the most sexist drivel I’ve ever heard has come from the mouths of so-called comics. And yet, it was comedy that helped me to find my feminist voice.
Before starting college, I was just a shy student who didn’t know a womanist from an organist. That began to change when I joined an improv comedy group my first semester. During one of our early rehearsals, we did an exercise called status, the goal of which is to understand how a character’s status affects the way he or she engages in the world. We talked about what status feels like, when you have it, and when you don’t. We shared our experiences and observations, and after that, I started to see status everywhere.
I noticed the boy on the quad playing his guitar for a group of girls competing for his attention, or the unwashed fraternity pledges running errands for their “big brothers.” I started to notice the ways boys took status and the ways I often felt like I had none.
Still, I was more attuned to social status than gender status – until a visit to a large college comedy festival on the East coast. At the time of the festival, I was a sophomore enrolled in a sociology class on masculinity. The course gave me a new awareness of the ways women are marginalized and devalued in our culture. I was obsessed with every book on the syllabus. When I visited the festival, the sexism I was reading about lept off the page and smacked me in the face.
I was struck first by how many of the groups were majority male, maybe two girls in a group of ten. For the most part, these girls only got to play ditzy girlfriends and overbearing mothers. They were either inconsequential to the scenes or the butt of the jokes, all while the boys got to be funny and interesting and smart. In one scene, a group of women was gathered for a bachelorette party when a stripper dressed as a firefighter arrived. The joke was that the party guests were so stupid they thought there was an actual fire.
One of the boys in my group and I exchanged exasperated eyerolls over the blatant sexism we witnessed, but even as we made a joke of the stale misogyny, I was fuming inside. I had arrived at the festival excited to show my talent, only to find that I was already dismissed because of my gender. The message I took from group after group was that they didn’t care if I was smart, or clever, or funny; I was woman, so I was probably just the cutest girl to have showed up at auditions. Before I even stepped on stage I sensed that I was already pigeon-holed and discounted.
As much as I was angry with the performers for relying on tired and damaging gender stereotypes for laughs, I was furious with the audience for laughing at them. The audience, probably half of whom were college women, was reinforcing every sexist instinct these bro-groups displayed. They can get on stage and make fun of women and they will be greeted with uproarious laughter. Thanks audience for reifying the patriarchy.
The next evening, I was determined that my group of four ladies and one gentleman would show the audience that young women could be funny and interesting and powerful on stage. We killed it. Our performance was energetic, clever, and awesome. But did the audience really notice?
I felt vindicated and discouraged as I left the festival. I was proud of my group for showing that women could be funny, but I had little faith that our one performance did much to change the opinions of the “women aren’t funny” contingent. I was reminded of that again and again on my own campus, when I heard comedians in other groups deride all things female.
My peers’ misogyny was deeply hurtful, and yet I’m grateful for the moments I saw my world with eyes wide open. Seeing my sexist world mirrored on a college stage made me angry and sad. But it also made me a feminist.