The Reality of Being a Woman in Comedy

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The Reality of Being a Woman in Comedy

Recent comments by The Morning Show host Jeff McArthur have reopened an ongoing debate about industry sexism—one we need to talk about.

The doors to Yuk Yuk's  Photo by Jae Yang from the Torontoist Flick Pool

The doors to Yuk Yuk’s. Photo by Jae Yang from the Torontoist Flick Pool.

Three years ago there was a debate about whether or not sexism exists in comedy in a Facebook group, Toronto Stand-up Community. Some were on the side of “women have it way harder in every aspect” and others (mostly dudes) were of the mentality that “women are treated the same as men and have it easier, if anything.” It continued on and on for days, and although I am a passionate feminist and a lifelong advocate for women’s rights, I did not participate. I was new to stand-up at the time, and I felt that I did not yield enough influence to fight in this war. I was scared of upsetting the wrong “important” person, burning bridges, and being blacklisted by producers. I kept quiet and watched from the sidelines.

But I wanted to share the numerous stories I had of being sexually harassed onstage. I wanted to spout statistics and assert my opinion and explain to the men in the group that they couldn’t comment on what it was like to be a female comedian, because they weren’t one. I wanted to battle misogyny and defend my friends and stand my ground. But I didn’t, because I was frustrated, frightened, and flustered. I read comment after comment informing me that equality had been achieved and that I needed to shut up, stop complaining, and just be funny.

Women are silenced by men in every industry. We’re often told that we’re being “dramatic” or “sensitive” or “delusional” when we have a problem with how we’re being treated by the opposite gender. In comedy, we’re told that we need to “relax” and learn “how to take a joke” and understand that “there will always be assholes” and we must “be prepared” for sexual harassment. We’re told this by audience members, fellow comedians, producers, club owners, and even by a host of The Morning Show. Whenever you hear a woman say “gender inequality needs to end,” you can be guaranteed a response from a man seconds later along the lines of, “It’s hard for me too! You’re crazy! You’re irrational! You hate men!”

I used to wonder if I was being delusional, and if the harassment I experienced in comedy was all in my head. The two drunk audience members who demanded that I take off my clothes. The host who said I had a nice ass and inquired how much for the night. The random guy in a crowd who wanted to know if I had ever been molested. The men who came up to me after a show to say that they liked my “dirty little mouth” and hated my “feminist crap.” All of the times that I was introduced with the phrase, “Here’s a woman comic” and “This is a girl someone should bang” and “She’ll give us something nice to look at, guys.” I wondered if maybe it was just one big giant nightmare and at some point I would wake up screaming.

Then one day I thought, “Or maybe I’m not imagining anything. Maybe every female comedian has struggled with the same degrading, objectifying, misogynist bullshit. And maybe if we all spoke up about it and fought together as a unit, things could change.” I promised myself that day that I wouldn’t tolerate this treatment. That I would share my stories and spout statistics and assert my opinion without shame or fear or worry that I would be burning bridges belonging to misogynist fools.

I understand why I didn’t join the debate years ago, and I’m not mad at myself for it. I would never judge another woman for not engaging in these typically stressful, time-consuming, idiotic conversations. I always say that we must protect ourselves first and foremost, especially when it comes to fighting injustice.

I was at my breaking point recently. After I shared a story about being sexually harassed on stage in a segment for The Morning Show last week, Jeff McArthur, a co-host of the show working alongside the amazing Liza Fromer, said that female comedians should be “prepared” for behaviour like this. That it’s “a part of the job.” That we can’t “allow the audience to take control.” He made excuses for the men who sexually harass female comedians. He said that there is a double standard. He asked, “Aren’t these comedians guilty of that very thing?” and argued incessantly with Fromer, who was completely in the right. He victim-blamed and made excuses for the harassers and victim-blamed again. He tried to silence the voices of women, as many men have before him.

After the public took to social media and blasted him for his sexist comments, he issued a non-apology on Twitter saying that he didn’t intend to offend anyone and he does not support victim-blaming. The public responded by saying, “Nope! Not good enough,” and continued tweeting at him until he finally apologized on The Morning Show on Monday. The problem I have with the apology is not the apology itself but that I was invited, along with other comedians, to join him and Liza Fromer for a discussion about sexual harassment in the workplace and was then uninvited after they discovered that I wasn’t going to hold hands and skip off into the sunset.

After having a phone conversation with a producer of The Morning Show, I was informed that there was no guarantee of an apology. He told me he did not know what McArthur was going to say but he wanted to keep the segment “positive.” He wanted us to find “common ground,” and added that both men and women experience harassment and, as a television host, Jeff knows how I feel. He said that McArthur had been misunderstood and that some viewers even agreed with his comments.

I expressed to the producer that I was planning on demanding an apology from Jeff. That what he said was sexist and disgusting and that if he didn’t apologize by the end of the segment, there would be repercussions. I told him that he was mansplaining harassment to me and defending victim-blaming. The producer said that he didn’t want this to be an angry, “negative” segment. I said that calling out injustices is not negative; it’s activism. I told him I was allowed to be angry and what he said angered a lot of people.

After the conversation ended, I received an email saying the segment was not going forward. He wrote, “There are obviously passionate feelings at play from both sides and I want to make sure that if we air the interview that it is to the benefit of all involved,” which translates to “This will not benefit Jeff McArthur, so we’re going to pass.” This reminded of that debate on Facebook years ago and how I desperately wanted to speak my mind but felt that I couldn’t. I was being silenced once more.

As well as apologizing on The Morning Show, McArthur decided to talk about harassment on his radio show on AM640 the same day. I was not invited to join this discussion. Instead he welcomed Sandra Carusi, who hosts a comedy podcast and is Jeff McArthur’s colleague, and Jay Brown, a male comedian who has an industry reputation for allegedly sexually harassing women.

When I heard him introduce his guests, I got on the phone and called in to the show to demand answers. I was put in the queue, only to eventually be told that the segment was ending. The breaking point grew closer as my heart sank deeper, knowing I was being silenced yet again. I was being told that my opinion didn’t matter yet again. I was being informed that a male comedian had been chosen to talk about what it was like to be a female comedian yet again. When I was asked if I wanted to pass any messages on to Jeff, I ranted for five minutes straight and finished my spiel by saying, “When Jeff McArthur wants to have a direct conversation with me about this, I will be ready.”

That’s when the breaking point became a reminder of my turning point two years ago when I made that promise to myself. A promise that I plan to keep. I won’t be silenced. I won’t be intimidated. I won’t be victim-blamed. I will continue to share my stories and spout statistics and assert my opinion. I will not be told that I’m being “dramatic” or “sensitive” or “delusional.” I will not tolerate harassment because a man thinks it’s “a part of my job.” Sexism does exist in comedy, and it needs to be discussed. I now know that I have influence and that I always did and that I don’t need to keep quiet ever again.

Jess Beaulieu is a writer, comedian, and feminist. She also co-hosts the weekly podcast Crimson Wave.

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