Girl Comic Interrupted

Tess pigtails standup
Photo by Andrew Solmssen

Somewhere in Boston there exists footage of me being interviewed about what it’s like to be a female comic. I was brand new and sharing the spotlight with two veteran female comics. Inevitably the question came up about how we were being treated by male comics. Me and my ponytail and signature plaid skirt sunnily said, “Some of my biggest support has come from male comics. They’ve been really helpful.”

I’d like to thank those other two women for not strangling me with my ponytail.

It’s not that male comics weren’t helpful to me; some did help me get gigs including the man I would later marry. And I never felt like sex was their motivation, even, sadly, with the man I would later marry. But thinking back on it I want to strangle myself with my own ponytail because I just didn’t get it. I didn’t know.

Of course male comics were very helpful to me. I was young, I was cute and most importantly, I wasn’t threatening.

Unlike the veteran women I was sharing the camera with, I wasn’t going to steal their weekend headlining spots, or their week night hosting gig. I was happy to do five minutes and I was sweating it if I had to stretch to ten. I wasn’t considered a pain in the ass yet, asking uncomfortable questions like why I wasn’t getting ahead as fast as my male peers or being paid as much or why there was always only one woman on the show, if we were lucky. All experiences these other women, who politely sat there and smiled at me, I’m sure shared; experiences that I would have my own versions of in the years to come.

What remained unspoken in my answer, the counterpoint to my “male comics have been really helpful” was of course, “female comics have not.” Again, I didn’t get it. And PS, I considered myself a HUGE feminist.

The truth is it is easier for a man to help a woman, than it is for a woman to help another. Again, I am not threatening to a man. I am not in competition with him. The spot I was going to be taking wasn’t his; it was the one allotted female spot. You know who that is threatening to? Every other female who was trying to get it.

Those women didn’t help me before and they didn’t help me after. Few women did. But I don’t begrudge any of them that. I am not bitter towards them. They worked too hard for that spot to risk losing it. I’m bitter towards the system that made it one spot.

If a man recommends a woman and someone doesn’t find her funny, it won’t be seen as a referendum on his entire career. However, if a woman recommends another woman who doesn’t do as well, it will be seen as a reflection of what she finds funny. Women are on thin ice in the funny department anyway. They don’t need another reason for someone to call her work, “Just all right” or “Cute;” for someone to question her judgment.  Often a women’s recommendation doesn’t carry as much weight as a man’s to begin with. Men know what’s funny. But women can’t always back another woman who’s just as funny as the guys. You have to back a woman who’s funnier than the guys. Because just as funny as the guys isn’t good enough. She has to be undeniable. Otherwise you are wasting your cred. You might be looked at as unfunny. And women in general might be looked at as not funny. When a white man isn’t good enough, he’s not representing his entire sex or race. It’s just one guy who’s not funny. When a woman isn’t funny, it only adds fuel to the “women aren’t funny fire.”


I love having male allies and I have had some great ones. I just wish a male ally wasn’t more valid than having a woman saying the exact same thing. Especially when it comes to things that we have first hand experience of.  I wish it didn’t take Hannibal Burress for people to start talking about the allegations about Cosby just as much as I’m glad that he did it. I wish people could have believed the women who came forward about him originally. And I wish more men could understand this conundrum. Because sometimes what the good guys who are helping women don’t see is all the ones who don’t. They think because they don’t see sex that their peers – guys they like and are friends with – don’t either.

It’s the same way I don’t always understand how insidious racism and homophobia can be because it’s not part of my worldview. During the 2004 election, I was so tired of hearing, “You just like Hillary Clinton just because she’s a woman.” My mantra became, “You would never say to a person of color, ‘You just like Obama because he’s black.’” What I meant was, “I would never say.” The truth is, what the fuck do I know about what people of color are being accused of when it comes to supporting Obama? Had I ever asked? Nope. I just assumed because I wouldn’t say it, that these people wouldn’t either. The truth is that if they were comfortable accusing me of being some idiot who didn’t vote on issues but on gender, then they were probably very comfortable accusing others of something similar.

My heart was in the right place. Just like the hearts of many men I know are in the right place. Just like my heart was in the right place all those years ago in Boston. Our hearts are open; it’s our heads that need expanding. If the men had treated me badly I would have said something when I was asked. But I naively assumed my experience was somehow universal; that sexism was over or maybe even worse, that I was somehow special. I didn’t think there was a problem. I hadn’t had their struggles. (And by the way, I would see the ugly side soon enough. Date one male comic and you get to see all sorts of biases and double standards.)

Is it any better today? No. Like everything else it’s not linear. There are always good experiences and bad. Some of the worst sexism I’ve experienced has been in the last few years. I’ve met some women far more willing to put themselves out there for each other and I’ve also met some women who are very publicly “up with women” who, unprovoked, have behaved like total twats to me. If you believe social media there seems to be a rift – in my opinion manufactured largely by men and the media – between older and younger women and feminism is the battleground. While I prefer to not put myself in either category, I do know what I wish I could say to my younger self. “You don’t know what’s come before you. And you don’t know what’s going to come in your future either.”














Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

One thought on “Girl Comic Interrupted”