Sometime back in 1997, I did a bit at the Comedy Underground in Seattle that involved me ending up lying on the floor with both of my legs thrust up to the ceiling. There I am, talking to the audience in that undignified position, and there was silence. Everyone just stared at me.
I did a lot of things on that stage. I pretended to fuck a chair, you know, like a lot of male comics do. I turned a chair upside down and made a joke about sitting on one of its legs (A bicycle built for four). I’ve done things I won’t describe to the mic stand.
Silence, every time.
It took me a long time to figure it out. Here I was doing things that should have had the audience howling, yet they didn’t laugh. WTF!?!
They didn’t laugh because I’m a woman.
There is a rule that most of us abide by in our lives. It’s an obvious rule and only a slimeball would break it:
It’s not right to laugh at, or make fun of, a disadvantaged person.
Seems pretty reasonable. Disadvantaged people might not be able to help themselves when it comes to their thoughts and actions. Disadvantaged people are sometimes victimized by advantaged people. Disadvantaged people should be helped to succeed.
Women are considered disadvantaged. All women.
Comedy is one of the places where you can see it in action. But first…
Let’s unpack this.
How do we decide who is disadvantaged?
Some of it is history
Women and minorities in this culture have had a hard time of it historically. They have had to fight a lot of bias and stereotypes to come even close to be considered as equals. Even when they do succeed, the credit tends to include that annoying modifier.
“You are a great manager! Especially for a woman!”
“You catch on quickly! I’m impressed, especially where you come from.” (the Hood)
“You look wonderful for your age!”
No matter how well you do, you are still considered “disadvantaged.” It’s a label that follows you. You are judged according to that label, whether it’s true or not. You’re not expected to succeed. Everything you do “exceeds expectations.”
My own father told me “I never thought you’d amount to anything.” And people I’ve know my whole life have told me “I never expected you to live past 30. I’m so proud of you!” Really?
It goes the other way as well. People are labeled “advantaged” as well, whether it’s true or not. I know a lot of white people who couldn’t ever conceive of going to college, or owning a home, or even getting married. I was one of them. Labeling all white people as “advantaged” and then shaming them for “white privilege” is just as harmful.
The fact is that society as a whole has judged whole groups of people as disadvantaged (or advantaged). It is a societal truism. People accept it as THE TRUTH. Even if they are members of that group.
The “Me Too” movement encouraged woman to bond over being victims. In Seattle, with “the Seattle Freeze”, a lot of people find it hard to make friends. “Me Too” provided way to bond, and bond they did. If they didn’t have any attacks or kidnappings to talk about, it was “the male gaze”. A lot of it was probably made up, just to be able to bond.
Side Note: “The male gaze” was interesting because the backlash from it made a lot of men refuse to even look at women anymore. And then I heard women complain that they felt “invisible.” I just had to shake my head. Really?
People take on these labels as though they are true, and act accordingly.
Society and Duty
Flip the coin and you can some really interesting behavior…
Once we sort ourselves into “advantaged” and “disadvantaged”, we sort ourselves into a sort of hierarchy, and then, we try to grasp power.
It goes something like this:
You are more disadvantaged than me, therefore it’s my duty, as a superior being, to do what I can to help you.
And they do this whether the person wants them to or not. Why? Because there is another assumption going on:
If you disagree with my actions on your behalf, it’s because you are inferior and don’t understand your own situation. I need to help you because you are not capable of helping yourself. You are less than I.
(Now, this superiority business is quite subconscious, even though I’ve heard people say things that imply it. If you put it to them this directly, they would object.)
You see it in Seattle and Portland with the “Black Lives Matter” movement. Even though Black Leaders in our community have asked them to STOP. They are disregarded. If you haven’t been following the news, the “superior” white folks have co-opted the “Black Lives Matter” movement and have been destroying property, threatening families, assaulting people, trying to burn people alive, and threatening the future of our cities. They are so mired in their superiority and certainty that they can’t see that they are the bad guys.
Heck, they’ll even assault our Black neighbors who try to get them to stop.
Society and Assumptions
As long as we believe in this hierarchy of advantagement and disadvantagement, everything we do will be judged within its framework.
The “advantaged” will feel it’s their right to defend, or take advantage, of the “disadvantaged.”
The “disadvantaged” will feel disadvantaged even if they are succeeding.
The label is more important than the truth of the person.
I’m a white woman who came from a disadvantaged background. My mother was an alcoholic and a prescription drug abuser. My father, well who knows what he actually is. Even though my dad had no use for females, even though I often had to steal food and toilet paper, even though I got into a lot of trouble myself with drugs, alcohol, and men…
I never really considered myself disadvantaged because I was a woman.
It just didn’t occur to me, especially back then. I know now that I’m more of a hybrid. I got a lot of male in me, and a lot of female. I suspect that I chowed down on my twin brother in utero.
I was in the Navy and I had a blast. I never felt like I was the victim of sexism. Yeah, who I was sleeping with was a subject of great interest to my shipmates, but hey, when there’s 25 guys to one gal, you have to expect it. I didn’t give a crap. They always had my back and they knew I had theirs. I loved being in the Navy.
I don’t understand today’s women.
I don’t understand the “Me Too” movement.
I don’t understand the need to force men to change. I like men the way they are. I prefer them to many women I know.
And I definitely don’t understand why no one laughed when I was on the floor with my legs in the air at the Comedy Underground in 1997.
Equality and Comedy
Comedy is the stage where you can see all of this played out. It’s right there in your face.
The rules are very complicated:
- If you are “advantaged” anyone can make fun of you
- If you are “advantaged” you can make fun of yourself
- If you are “advantaged” you are not allowed to
make fun of the “disadvantaged”
- Unless it’s your wife, girlfriend, daughter, or women you’ve dated (For some reason that’s okay, probably due to some sort of possessive attitude.)
- If you are “disadvantaged” you can make fun of anyone who is less disadvantaged as you are
- If you are “disadvantaged” you can make fun of
yourself, as long as you are not TOO disadvantaged
- Black men can make fun of themselves, but I, as a woman, can’t do things that make fun of myself!
Side note: There was a woman who came down to the Comedy Underground and did a bit about sex phone operators. First, she’s a woman. Second, she came dressed like she might actually BE a sex phone operator. The audience was filled with pity and didn’t laugh, and Bradley Lewis got up there and reamed her. (He shouldn’t have done that since it was her first time. BAD FORM Bradley!) She went racing out of the club. I followed her. We walked a long time (her trying to get away from me) when she finally turned and looked at me. I said, “Bradley’s an asshole. He does it to all of us but you’re new. He shouldn’t have done it to you.” We talked, she calmed down and finally went home. A couple of weeks later she was back. She looked like a normal person, did a decent set, flipped us off, and walked out. GOOD FORM darlin’!
Break the rules and people can get really uncomfortable. Yet, the rules do get broken, and it’s funny as hell, but it’s only the “advantaged” that can do it and get away with it.
Note: In the context of Comedy, “advantaged” is very complex since it can expand to include your rank in group of comics.
I remember one time I was at The Parlor in Seattle, before they closed. I can’t remember the guy’s name. (some comic I am) but this guy went after every special interest group there was. He went after women, minorities, LGBTQ, old people, young people, ugly people, he went after everyone.
It was a very, very diverse group of people and we were all squished in there together. Every joke we all laughed and then looked around at each other, especially the ones he was joking about. It was both a sense of disbelief and a bonding experience. In that club, we were all equal, and clearly, we all sucked. It was one of the funniest shows I’ve ever been too. Damn me for not remembering his name.
We suddenly all became “advantaged” and were allowed to laugh at ourselves.
But of course, we had a couple of people in the audience who were highly offended on everyone’s behalf. Even though they were surrounded by those people, who were all laughing, they kept yelling at the stage: “That’s not funny!” Finally, they got up and just left. Really?
This threw the audience and the comic a bit. I wanted to go up to him and say: “It’s not you. They are just people with superiority complexes who think they know better than anyone in the room. Of everyone in this room, including you, they are the most offensive.”
And they were the most offensive.
A Short Story
I heard this story many years ago. A comic was doing a show and like the comic in my Parlor story, he got after everyone in the room.
Except for the guy in the wheelchair.
The guy in the wheelchair was highly offended that the comic didn’t pick on him (ableist) and make a point of saying so during the show.
The comic reamed him a new asshole.
Everything I talked about earlier, in terms of how society views us, can be seen on the stage.
It’s not that women aren’t funny. It’s that, in many ways, we’re not allowed to be funny. Being funny is for the “advantaged.” I had to learn that there were some things that were just not acceptable to do as a woman.
I was restricted in what I wanted to do, but sometimes it’s the comic who restricts themselves.
I was in a Clowning class doing an exercise with another student. Clowns are either White Clowns or Red Clowns. White Clowns are the high-status clowns and the Red Clowns are the low-status clown. I’m a Red Clown. (Which is a bit odd for a woman, I chalk it up to me not feeling disadvantaged.) My partner was both a woman and Black and she just couldn’t find it in herself to be a Red Clown. It was an example, to me anyway, of someone who has bought into the societal norm of advantage and disadvantage. There I am, stupidly playing with a motion detector light and grinning at her while she just looked like “what the hell am I doing here?”
The day that the rules of comedy are thrown out is the day that I’ll know we’ve achieved equality.
My vision is for everyone to be able to be a Red Clown, if they desire, with no humiliation. We should all be able to laugh at ourselves and this world. We should all be able to make fun of all the silly crap we all do. We should all be taken for who we are as a person, not the label put on us.
I should be able to pretend to fuck a chair, or lay on my back with my legs up, and get the laughs I deserve.
What is being able to, or being allowed to, laugh at ourselves? It’s the measure of equality.