Here is What's Scary About Being a Female Stand-Up Comic.

Barbara Holm onstage

Recently I told some jokes a stand-up show and as I was getting off stage, the host said, “Go give her a hug after the show!” I shuddered back into my seat and pulled my beer in front of my chest like a protective shield.

The disparity of women to men in comedy is pretty gross. It seems like the ratio is 1:4 in any group. The debate about how “hard” it is for women in comedy is a tired one and I don’t want to beat that dead pegasus. I want to share my perspective on why it’s hard for one woman—me—to be onstage. 

Yes, it is difficult to be a woman performer. But not because of a lack of talent. It’s tough to be a female performer because—as many hilarious women have said before me—the whole culture of comedy is a sausage fest. Even in Portland where it’s vegan sausage. 

The best part of comedy is talking about one’s feelings and being vulnerable and open. However, when a woman allows herself to be vulnerable, it can feel like her space is being invaded. That’s one reason I like to perform in a hoodie and baggy jeans. The less definable my shape, the more comfortable I feel on stage. Frankly, I’d dress in a yeti costume if I could, but that tends to weird out the bartenders. The vulnerability of being on a stage, commanding attention, and talking about intense personal feelings to strangers makes me uncomfortably apologetic not only for my body but my audacity to take up space.

It’s no secret that women in show business have body image issues. Personally, I have a collection of body image issues that rivals my collection of comic book issues. Usually people pin these issues on high beauty standards perpetrated seen in most media, but I think it’s something more than that. My uncomfortableness with my body onstage is not simply about aesthetics. As a woman performer, when I am scrutinized for my slightly bigger body, the scrutiny really feels like, “Why do you exist so much? Why are you allowed to be the center of attention, alone, and yelling your opinion to groups of strangers?”

Lena Dunham is an example of a comedy writer and actress who, regardless of your opinion of her show, has come under a lot of criticism for her body. As writer Michelle Konstantinovsky says on Hello Giggles, “Dunham’s not trying to be a rebel, and that’s what makes seeing her body somewhat shocking.”

Kontantinovsky asserts that the shocking part is not Dunham’s average body, but rather that she is not ashamed of it. I can only hope that one day I’ll be famous enough that journalists will think my body is “inspirationally brave.”

Being a performer puts women under so much inspection—literally under a spotlight, with the gaze of others laser-beamed at us. Everybody is stared at, obviously, when they’re on a stage. But if you’re a woman or transgender or a narwhal or really anything besides a straight man, that level of intense attention feels accusatory. And, even if no one in the entire crowd is subconsciously thinking that I don’t deserve to be there, I think that of myself.

The why-does-she-get-to-take-up-space mentality associated with the act of performing comedy, talking about my feelings, and displaying myself on stage, leaves me feeling vulnerable. A big part of art is being pushing the limits of that vulnerability—I’m open and honest with my feelings in the hope that someone out in the audience will identify with what I’m feeling. But often when I tell a personal story, I add the phrase, “Don’t come up to me after the show.”

But sometimes hosts will say something about my looks or my body after I get on or off stage, like comments about my how cute I am or even about what it would be like to have sex with me.  They mean it to be nice, but it often makes me nervous.

I don’t mean to complain about comedy. I think it can be a medium used to help people. I guess, if you’re a woman performer or a woman who has to be in the spotlight, who has to take up space visually and physically, use that platform to say important good things to help people.

When my friend encouraged people to hug me, he thought he was being sweet. To many men, a hug is a nice friendly thing. But to me, an unwanted hug can feel terrifying. A lot of people I’ve only met once think they can give me tight, long hugs on the second interaction. I think the thought process is, “I just saw you tell your life story; I know you well enough to hug you.” But just because I can talk about my roommate’s dog for a few minutes doesn’t mean I want to be caressed by strangers. Just dogs. Thank you.


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Photo of Barbara Holm by Pat Moran.

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16 Comments Have Been Posted


Barbara Holm, you are fucking hilarious. I STILL crack up when remembering the line "Because what about this DOESN'T say 'late bloomer'?"

Please never stop being awesome.

So since you've opened up in

So since you've opened up in this article I feel like I know you now and I'm gonna commence to give you psychological advice! Yay! (I absolutely won't hug you) I'd like to prescribe that you go to one o' them martial art gyms. With the punching bags and the small Boxing rings where people spar, MMA style. Because why not? Don't worry I am gonna really sell you on this! Ready? Exercise relieves stress, you'll feel more balanced as you get good at something physical, you can meet people which is good for comedy (am I connecting the proper dots?), lets see . . .you'll gain confidence of course, and the hidden reason I am not suppose to tell you about, you won't feel weird about people contact. (Insert sentence here about how I grew up as a guy where even your friends punch you, and so you should just relax about it and be like me, because yaknow? ) No, I understand being weird-ed out by contact with too many random people. Just offer them something like a handshake "How about we just shake hands?" With a little added confidence from being a MMA phenomenon you'll have No problem maintaining eye contact, putting a strong tone of confidence in your voice, and giving a smile, so they believe you are projecting your real wishes as a person and that that should be respected, blah blah, confidence.

I'm a bit sorry I posted this anonymously, I kinda wanted to give you quasi-funny-advice without repercussions, I hope you do realize though that this is in no way meant to be hurtful, even though I am doing what you accused others of doing, pretending to know you, that part is meant to be part of a joke? You could do youtube vids of your progress as a hand-to-hand human weapon. Most of the training is just exercise, but edit that part down to only your laughable bloopers, and then show mostly ineffectual bag-work and sparring. Which gets better week-to-week. Potentially funny depending on how you handle it and the personalities of those training you and the back and forth dialogue you can get going. I might watch that if you are as awkward as you seem to believe. The End?

Shorter Anonymous Mansplainer...

Brilliant. "Hey funny lady,. you should just become, like, a badass fuckin NINJA!!!1" Totally, bro. I bet if she had superpowers and went on stage dressed like Trinity she'd be totally fearless (if also nonexistent).

And while I am genuinely sorry for bringing this next thing up if you (viz. anon dude) grew up in a childhood environment under the constant lurking threat of violent sexual assault, from both people you knew and people who were simply near you; otherwise, please consider having an open-minded talk with literally any adult female in your life about male privilege and specifically why the "roughhousing brothers" analogy should probably be kept on the bench indefinitely. Or until some science-fictional circumstances arise wherein you can only disarm the nuke with psychological projection-boners and an alarming lack of empathy. (But since our gender is born with 9th-dan black belts in both those things, that would be a very, very stupid weapon... I guess <em>my</em> analogy sucks, too. Lesson: self-righteousness is a sweet but fickle bitch.)

(PS - You can alternately escape the nuke by ducking into a fridge. Truth.)

I was trying for Harmless

I was trying for Harmless Idiot. Maybe reading it was meant to be a little bit of torture as you aren't suppose to know where its going or how sincere this random person(<--Me) is, but other then that I was not trying to be any kind of jerk. In the spirit of humor I was being obtuse, I dropped hints that I wasn't serious, but re-reading it, it wasn't really as funny as I thought it was gonna be. I threw it together and it all seemed like a good idea at the time. If you really didn't like it you can send your complaints to Michael Gary Scott in Scranton Pennsylvania. Because that is who I am.


We just saw Sandra Bernhard perform in Pittsburgh. I noticed that she repeatedly joked (?) about boundaries - after referencing her neighborhood as part of a story "Don't try to find me honey, please." Or a description of her tour of a local museum "Take a picture and touch that, not my hair." and her appearance to sign autographs contained a very detailed set of instructions. It was funny in how she delivered it, but I suspected that it wasn't a joke at all.

I stopped to observe her autograph session as we left and she really looked tired (of course) but within hours I saw a dozen Instagram photos from my friends who hugged her and touched her and leaned into her for the photo. She smiled and didn't seem unhappy in the photo, but it really gave me pause about the concept of how available she is obligated to make herself for her art.

Thanks for this post.

Barbara is a very sweet,

Barbara is a very sweet, kind, hard working, and funny person. You're a hateful anonymous coward.

Also there's really no one person you can fuck to make a comedy career. Making your money telling jokes is so difficult that you would be absolutely exhausted fucking people every day.


god damnit, people always want to say some dumb shit. Let's keep all the negative comments to yourself please. And on that note I think Barbara is a very legit comic with some great material.

Can we get a mod?

Um, mods? This space is getting super unwelcoming for the folks that want to comment on the topic at hand...

Thanks for the heads up.

I didn't notice these comments until the morning, but they've been deleted.


Are these comments being left up on purpose? Not really what I expect to see when I come here.

I greatly appreciate this

I greatly appreciate this article; it's good that we're slicing through the treacle of the "are women funny?" debate and looking at what even having to engage in such a debate means. As a male comic, I'm way lucky to not have to handle such scrutiny; I can't say I've faced a job, hobby, or artistic pursuit where it's been so okay to signify a member of the community by their gender. More often than not, the perpetrator means well, but we all know what they say about good intentions. It's not like we're supposed to hang our heads in shame or self-flaggellate, but we really should take a look at our actions and what it means when we happen to introduce male comics with "your next comic is very funny" and female comics with "your next comic is a very funny lady."

It's a bummer that someone's using this comments section to go after Barbara, one of the rare folks I know who takes joy in the actual <i>doing<i> of comedy more so than the <i>talking about<i> of comedy. I think that says everything you need to know about this anonymous individual that they aren't engaging the actual content of this column, but instead further grinding an axe they clearly picked up a long long time ago.

It only galvanizes Barbara's thesis that someone would attack a female comic with accusations of being too emotional, or sleeping their way to the top (seriously, if this is what you perceive as the top, please realign your priorities); even though I personally have been gobbling up high-profile dicks left and right for years and have yet to show anything for it.

I should hope that whoever sees these comments doesn't take them as a signifier of what Seattle or Portland comedians are like. For the most part, we're a rather friendly, harmless bunch. But every now and then, these internet hatefests crop up. Think of it like "The Lottery," where we have to engage in some true, animalistic brutality in order to maintain our otherwise Stepfordian day-to-day.

Being a woman

I don't know what it's like to be a woman on stage, but boy am I getting some insight into what it's like to be a woman on the Internet. Holy shit, you guys.

The miles between your comments and Barbara's essay clearly show where she is in her writing compared to you and why she deserves the success she's having.

Your Nasty Comments Will Be Deleted

Hi folks,
This is Sarah Mirk, the online editor for Bitch, just stepping in to let you know that all disrespectful comments on this thread will be deleted. As per our <a href="">comments policy</a>, feel free to disagree respectfully and articulately with any of our posts but aggressive, slanderous, and threatening comments are not tolerated here. I just deleted about a dozen comments that violate our policy.

Sadly, the nasty comments here prove Holm's point about the ways women are specifically judged, criticized, and attacked as performers. The fact that the reaction to an honest article about feeling vulnerable onstage is a string of demeaning comments referencing Holm's sex life is an illustration of exactly the problems she calls out.

I really appreciate this

I really appreciate this article. I started comedy, as a non-youngster woman, not long before Barb came to Portland. I had my first experience being treated as less important due to my gender and age. It was relief to read this and know there is support among female comics. Barb is one of the hardest working, funny, intelligent, determined, ambitious and talented performers in Portland right now. She is a great example those of us learning the ropes. Keep writing Barb!

gender categories

Hey, just a reminder that it's not cool to say "But if you’re a woman or transgender or a narwhal or really anything besides a straight man" because some transgender people are women, some are straight men, some are not. Maybe you meant if you're a cis woman, transgender person... anything besides a cis man.

Well said, Babs. You are good

Well said, Babs. You are good person & I consider you a friend. You will always have mine & others' support.

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