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.
Photo of Barbara Holm by Pat Moran.