When I first stepped onto a stage here in St Andrews to perform stand-up comedy, I expected to be scared. However, the anxiety, the sweaty palms, the forgotten lines were not what surprised me. What shocked me was the heady feeling of power I experienced. The power of being on a stage, in front of an audience ready to listen to me, and the opportunity to transform my personal experiences into something worthy of applause. This sensation made me wonder about the role of female comedians in the industry and how it reflects on our society.
For a long time, stand-up comedy has been an exclusively male art and even now, looking at the statistics, just around 26% of professional stand up comedians are female. Moreover, a quick glance at Netflix's and other major streaming platforms’ catalogues reveals an imbalance in the number of comedy specials starring men compared to women. But what is the cause of this disparity and lack of female representation in the industry?
The first point to take into account is that our society considers women to be less funny than men. There is even a university study — Sex differences in humour production ability: A meta-analysis — conducted by Aberystwyth University and North Carolina University, that seems to prove it, affirming that 63% of men are funnier than an average woman. But even without going too far into the academic territory, it is easy to understand how a prejudice that at first glance may seem harmless, is actually such a widespread and internalised opinion that discourages, even unconsciously, women from pursuing this type of career.
At the same time, the qualities associated with stand-up comedians are the opposite of those associated with a female ideal that, although obsolete, still survives in many minds. The traditional woman should be meek and quiet, in clear contrast with the bold and unhinged disposition shown during a comedy routine. In the article Who's Laughing Now: The Gender Gap in Stand-Up Comedy, Mikayla Stuart explains how this type of entertainment has always been linked to masculinity because it has authority at its base. In fact, not only humour is seen as a product of intelligence, considered a typical masculine quality, but the performer’s physical position itself, being on an elevated stage, creates a momentary feeling of superior status and catalyses the audience’s attention.
It is precisely placing a woman in this role of authority that makes female stand-up comedy so subversive, since it frames women as the active subjects of their own experiences. In the last twenty years, we have become accustomed to chick-lit films which present women at the mercy of the events, especially, romantic misadventures, like in Bridget Jones's Diary (2001). Although these films are often good fun and true 'comfort movies', it is still important to find an alternative to this stereotype. In stand-up comedy shows women still make fun of their dating problems or their misunderstandings with family and partners, but this time they are the ones who actively present these stories to the audience, elaborating them with humour and taking control of the narrative. Simply put, we are faced with the difference between 'laugh at' and 'laugh with'.
At the same time, the topics brought to the audience during these shows have become in the last years more and more complex, drawing attention to modern-day problems. A good example can be found in the American comedian Taylor Tomlinson, who in her shows, deals with topics such as female mental health and generational trauma. Another couple of interesting performers are Sindhu Vee, who talks about marriage and family in Indian culture, and the Italian Sofia Gottardi, who ironically reflects with the audience about the realities she has to face every day as a woman, such as catcalling or verbal violence. Joking about these topics not only leads to exorcising and re-elaborating trauma but also to clear the shame and reticence that often surround them, making them part of the public debate.
In conclusion, I have no illusions that female stand-up comedy is the instrument with which the patriarchy will be demolished. However, it is certainly a step in the right direction.
Illustration by Rachel Cripps