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Sovern '14: Why there are so few women in Brown comedy

On Thursday, I attended the Ivy Film Festival's screening of "Miss Representation," a documentary that investigates depictions of women in American media. The documentary questions the way female politicians, journalists, actors and professionals are viewed by a society that prioritizes women's bodies over their minds. In an interview during the film, comedian Margaret Cho recounts how the network that aired one of her television shows criticized her body repeatedly before removing her show entirely. As a woman in comedy at Brown, I have never witnessed such explicit sexism. But I do believe that Margaret Cho's story points to deeper issues in the way the media socializes women, which may help explain why there are so few women in comedy at Brown.

Excluding the members of "The Rib," Brown University's female comedy blog, there are very few women involved in Brown's many performance and written comedy groups. I am one of two women in the Brown Stand Up Comics and one of about six female staff writers for the Brown Noser. Other comedy groups on campus do not have significantly different numbers of women. I do not believe that this is a result of sexism on the part of the comedy groups themselves, as I know that many comedy groups desperately seek out women in auditions. Rather, I believe the media's message to women that their bodies are more valuable than their minds has a discouraging effect on both girls' and women's confidence that they are funny and makes them less willing to prove their comedic abilities in a competitive audition.

Being funny is often considered a masculine trait. I believe that girls are socialized to be passive in relationships with boys — to be chased on the playground, to be asked to prom and to laugh at jokes, not make them. In these widely accepted and even romanticized narratives, the onus to make jokes falls on boys and men, while girls and women are expected to look pretty and reward boys and men with laughter. Auditioning for a comedy group requires women to believe they are funny — a belief the media sabotages by continually objectifying women and teaching that women are the audience for the comedy men create. Even women who recognize that they are funny in a social setting may not be confident enough to submit their humor for judgment by predominantly male comedy groups.

"Miss Representation" shows that the media judges female bodies more harshly than male bodies in many contexts. Women in politics and journalism are consistently judged not only for their abilities in those fields, but also for how they look while performing professional activities. Comedy is no exception. In a recent Fox News online article entitled "New Crop of Comediennes Combine Funny Bones with Banging Bodies," self-proclaimed "entertainment expert" Patrick Wanis reports, "For women, frump isn't funny any longer. The new female comedian has to be the sexual aggressor, sexually provocative, dominant and successful." Wanis contributes to the commoditization of women's bodies by reducing female comedy to sexy female bodies.

I believe participation in comedy can help women reclaim their bodies. The infamous Saturday Night Live Sarah Palin and Hillary Clinton 2008 presidential election sketches are a perfect example of how comedy can subvert sexist commentaries on women. In her role as Sarah Palin, Tina Fey pokes fun at the media's blatant sexualization of the former governor of Alaska. As Hillary Clinton, Amy Poehler mocks the media's harsh judgment of the Secretary of State's body, clothing and voice during her run for the presidency. Fey and Poehler show how valuable women are to comedy and how female comedic contributions are needed to expose and mock sexism.

I want to encourage Brown women to reject the notion that they are not funny and get involved in comedy. Brown comedy needs women's voices to effectively reflect the community it parodies. Comedy has the capacity to emphasize and play off assumptions people make based on commonly accepted ideas. For example, misdirection jokes use an audience's preexisting inclination to draw certain conclusions and then surprise them with an alternative view. Sarcastic jokes can often include observations that necessitate an audience's ability to understand that an understatement is ironic. Many jokes articulate already relatable feelings and experiences with an absurd twist. Comedy is uniquely situated to both demonstrate what widely accepted assumptions exist in society and to ridicule them. Women comprise more than half of Brown's community, but unfortunately, Brown comedy does not reflect this. This is a call to Brown's funny women to shake off the patriarchy and laugh at it instead.

Lindsay Sovern '14 is a gender and sexuality studies and Slavic studies

concentrator. She can be reached at lindsay_sovern@brown.edu.


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