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Gender troubles in campus comedy

Christina White spoke to lots of funny ladies.

In 2010 a group of Paul’s boys had planned a musical revue number called ‘Always look on the bright side of rape’. Last year Medicine Revue ‘entertained’ its audience with jokes about the hilarious topic of domestic violence. Year after year, skits are done in gratuitous drag because it’s easier to get a laugh with a boy squealing shrilly in a dress than actually let a female actress find the humour in her role.

These are just some of the most overt examples of sexism in the campus comedy scene. Gendered bias and prejudice goes deep within the revue and theatresports communities. More men do comedy. As a headcount, that’s true. But as a normative statement, it’s a sexist idiot talking. The problem with comedy on campus is how dynamics in writing and casting still perpetuate the status quo at best, and appeal to the lowest common denominator of sexist humour at worst.

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“The first time I did stand up I had to sit in a green room with eight other dudes telling dick jokes for half an hour before the show,” recalled Sophia Roberts, who has pushed past the phallic banter to direct Arts Revue this year. “Surprisingly, they didn’t want to hear any jokes about periods. Their loss.” She is not the only woman who spoke of a “boys’ club” in the campus comedy scene. Clemmie Williams told similar stories of Project 52. In a cast of twelve, she was one of only two women and labelled “the token vagina”. After one rehearsal they went to the pub where “the joke was made that I couldn’t stay on at the pub drinking because I was a woman.”

Fortunately, it seems that many of the revues are going to great efforts to change these old boys club cultures. Many cast members praised the social dynamics as highly inclusive. While boys’ club vibes might not be apparent socially, they are definitely present, if not magnified, in the way comedic content in written for many of the revues. “Most of the show’s content comes from men,” said Gabi Kelland, a previous director of Science Revue. This gender disparity was also noticed by one of this year’s Law Revue directors Nicola Borton: “It did definitely feel like male cast members wrote more than females.”

“When I first started rehearsals for one particular revue, there seemed to be a sense of ‘brotherhood’ amongst the male cast members, where they would frequently make personal jokes throughout rehearsals, excluding the female members of cast,” said a member of Education & Social Work Revue.

 “I don’t know whether I can say this is sexist but it definitely was a form of exclusion.”

That dynamic, when coupled with moments of men dismissing women’s contributions becomes sexist in effect. It results in women feeling less valued in revues. “In one instance, I was asked to help edit a script with a male member of cast who dismissed and ignored all of my input,” the same cast member told me. “I felt that my attempts to script write were often ignored as the male members of cast were extremely dominant.” When most of the comedy is written by males, it can feel like they are in control of the writing process.

This dynamic seems to be the norm that revues fall back on when there aren’t concerted efforts by the executive to encourage all cast members, and specifically women, to write for the show.

Proactive measures have been taken by Queer Revue to promote diversity before auditions. Director Mikaela Bartels said they “advertised our auditions to non-cis-male pages and actively encouraged people of colour, women and non-cis male identifying individuals to audition in order to combat this trend of white gay cis-male domination.”

Most of the revues this year have a cast balance close to half-half and awareness in casting goes a long way. Every executive member I spoke to told me about efforts to achieve gender equity in the cast and comedic roles. Mere presence however, is not enough to guarantee comedic equality on stage. Women from almost every revue told me they resented being overwhelmingly cast in the ‘straight’ role. Clemmie Williams described this phenomenon: “Directors, and I have been guilty of this myself, have a tendency to relax into the old habit of giving the punch lines and funny characters to males, while leaving the rational straight characters to females.” This leads to sketches where the male actor is loud, boisterous, and funny, whilst the female actress is comparatively dull and boring – despite what her acting talent actually is.

Erin Cunio, director of this year’s Jew Revue, suggested this feminisation of the dull character actually comes from a fear of being offensive. “It is safer to mock absurdity in the socially dominant groups,” she said. Concern over the presentation of women in revues indicates society isn’t used to absurd women on stage. The problem isn’t just that women aren’t given stage time, it’s based on the fact that production teams either don’t know how to give them funny lines or trust them to deliver the humour.

The idea of absurd women is made all the more difficult by the fact that “women carry a certain cultural baggage when they perform in comedy… Boys are fine to be the class clowns, but girls should sit still and look pretty,” said Sophia Roberts. People in revues do everything but sit still and look pretty. The minute women do this, they get persecuted through heckles in ways men don’t. “Take it off” is shouted at women the minute a shoulder gets exposed, and nude skits encourage degrading comments on women’s bodies. Callie Henderson said that the heckling of the 2010 Women’s Revue (the last one to get produced) was “very gendered”. She remembered “20 guys yelling obscenities” one night, including “a few catcalls” at first, but the full onslaught of “the usual ‘sluts’, ‘idiots’, and ‘women aren’t funny’ bullshit” continued throughout the show.

Physical appearance is always going to be a core part of comedy. The way actors stand, walk, and hold themselves on stage is key to how the audience perceives them. Drama kids talk about ‘high status’ and ‘low status’ characters, which often correlate to physical presence on stage. When doing theatresports at USyd, Alice Fraser was told to “go on stage and see if you can out status the guys on stage, don’t accept being lower status, just keep one upping them, and see how long it takes until they shoot you.”

Fraser – now a stand up comedian – has adopted this advice. “I do very alpha male body language. I stand with my feet apart, my shoulders back, power poses before the shows. If I’m going out to country gigs I tend to wear boots, not because of the way they look but because of the way they make me walk. I dropped my voice.” Fraser commented that these changes “are about power” but they’re also fundamentally gendered. They achieve power by adopting male body language. Female comedians with shrill voices don’t get taken seriously.

Failing to take women seriously on stage is only perpetuated by presenting women in stereotypical roles. Some of the women I spoke to expressed frustration as constantly being the love interest or another powerless character. Many directors are making concerted efforts to move away from such characters, but we’re still not at a point where demeaning stereotypes are universally admonished. Jacinta Gregory, director of Commerce Revue, said she is “tired of seeing misogynistic tropes and generalisations” in revues, but said she felt “in the minority”. Unfortunately, clichés are still often used to deliver a joke because it jumps to recognisable presentations that the audience will immediately understand. Sexist tropes are no different; the dumb blonde and the sexy nurse require zero character development.

There are concerted efforts being made to fight these habits. Most of the women I spoke to have directed revues, and women feature constantly in senior executive positions. Bridie Connell, who hosts theatre sports at Manning, feels that more women are coming to jams these days. Law Revue was lead by four women for the first time this year. Emma Balfour from Science Revue told me she felt cast members were valued “as performers, rather than males or females”. Balfour said she uses gender-neutral names whenever she writes skits and speaks up if something doesn’t sit right with her.

Not all the women I spoke to had Balfour’s confidence. The presentation of female characters seems particularly problematic in hierarchical revues where cast members feel they cannot question executive decisions. “It is a very awkward thing to bring up with the directors,” said a woman who had been a cast member in three different revues on campus. A cast member of last year’s Law Revue noted a similar problem: “There is a lack of conversation about gender inequity. Like many people at university, those in the show, believe they are in a little bubble devoid of sexism and racism, and other social problems. Just because there are female directors and assistant directors doesn’t mean that the dynamics behind the creation of the show are perfectly fine.”

If there is no discussion about gender issues, and broader issues of diversity, in revues then the burden falls on individual cast members to start that discussion. The previously mentioned ex-member of Law Revue said people couldn’t criticise skits without “feeling like uncomfortable losers that are supposedly pulling issues from nowhere.”

Another problematic use of stereotype is gratuitous drag. This year’s Sydney University Revue adapted a skit to include drag. Balfour played the other character in the skit, and justified the casting choice: “He was in drag not as a gendered performance, but because the skit was so outrageously theatrical. Anything short of that overegged performativity and the sketch would have fallen flat.” The male performer had a high voice, an overdone accent, and tottered around in heels. Such use of drag is not uncommon. Last year’s Law Revue saw two men playing Julia Gillard, which some commented felt like a mockery of the feminine. “It frustrates me because I see it all the time. A female will be overlooked because the joke is stronger if it’s a guy in a dress,” said Bridie Connell. When gender is not an integral part of the script or cleverly subverted, it only reinforces gender stereotypes. The problem with drag, when used lazily, is thus the opportunity cost. Many of the women I spoke to expressed their frustration at this casting practice. After watching the skit described above, Maddie Parker said “it was disappointing to see a funny role a woman could have played given to a man,” given “roles for men vastly outnumbered those for women” in the revue.

Like all prejudices, gender can be subverted for comedic effect. Alice Fraser once dealt with a male heckler by saying, “you be careful, I take eye contact as consent”. She explained, “They laugh because it’s not a threat, it’s not part of my persona.” Exactly the same cultural prejudices behind the fact that she is often not taken seriously on stage give her a bizarre form of leeway. “I can stand on stage and, in response to hecklers, threaten physical violence of the most extreme kind and it’s funny. It’s funny because I’m a woman.” The meaning of women’s words is always contingent on what they look like.

Everyone I spoke to saw the executive team as those who set the tone of how gender issues would be dealt with. Women in leadership roles is crucial, and in this respect there has been huge progress. However without affirmative action in their societies’ constitutions it is not guaranteed. Given they have likely experienced marginalisation, women are often more likely to advance women’s involvement. Bridie Connell said “it was certainly at the top of my agenda” when directing Arts Revue. Their own gender aside, the leaders’ motivations and attention to gender will always be key. According to Sophia Roberts, “I don’t think having a female director makes a difference. I think having directors who are aware of what they’re doing, who appreciate the difficulty for women approaching comedy for the first time makes the difference.”

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The inaugural Women’s Revue ‘Objectify This!’ sold out the Seymour in 2007, went to the Melbourne International Comedy Festival in 2008 and then the Edinburgh Fringe in 2009. This shows the success that come from promoting and fostering female comedic talent.

A performer is only as funny as the audience allows them to be. Ali Vandeness said Engineering Revue had no gender disparity, last year and the only sexism arose due to heckles. ‘Women aren’t funny’ is sadly still a common refrain. Some of the women I spoke to said they were confronted with Hitchens’ ugly head in the form of patronising compliments, such as “I didn’t think women were funny, but you were great.” Women need to be given more funny roles and given the freedom to play and experiment with different types of comedy. The more that society sees women on stage, the more used they will get to seeing and respecting female comedians. “If Gen Fricker is good last week, then when I come on stage and that same audience looks at me, they’re more likely to be relaxed about the fact that there’s a woman on stage and I’ll have less work to do to bring them on board,” said Alice Fraser.

Revues are also largely heteronormative and white. These problems are just as alienating, deeply entrenched, and at times offensive. That should be the next investigation.

Due to a tight word limit in the print edition, the author was unable to include all the stories told. Please see the full Q&As with some of the women interviewed here.