In a post yesterday, I made brief mention of a Houston comedy festival that booked three (I had said two, but apparently it’s actually three) women in nearly 50 of their spots. If you know anything about the comedy world, or most branches of entertainment and arts, you know that this is nothing unusual. For women and comics of all minority groups, it’s hard to break into an industry that is so heavily dominated by white men. A major problem that erupts when this is mentioned, though, is that by simply bringing attention to this disparity is that “white men” is somehow assumed to be a pejorative. That women can’t call bullshit on being excluded without it feeling like an attack on those in charge. It so often ends up feeling like a double-edged Catch-22, that you can’t bring attention to the situation without being ostracized for feminaziism, but how will things ever change if you never point out to the white male festival bookers that they’re practices are really, really shitty?
In response to the Houston festival— though it could have been about any number of festivals or shows or podcasts or basic conversations in the comedy world— something interesting happened on Facebook this week. And by “interesting,” I of course mean “really super depressing but so unsurprising it should be acknowledged.” A conversation arose that is nothing new, nothing unusual, and should absolutely not be taken as such. Rather, it was a great and upsetting window into what women in comedy or any male-driven field deal with if not every day, at least time after time when trying to get a job.
In response to the flyers and other promotions going around, which showed only three women (one of whom’s name was misspelled on the materials), a comedian named Emma Arnold posted a Facebook status about her disappointment. From there, things… well, let’s say things did not go well. She was called names, both by randos as well as the booker of the festival. No one is trying to vilify anyone, but it would be REALLY F*CKING SWELL if people stopped trying to convince us they were ‘one of the good ones’ and DEFINITELY NOT SEXIST while simultaneously calling women who brought up systematic disparities in their practices words like “childish,” “manipulating,” and “exhausting.”
A big problem that the booker, in this thread, addressed, is that (according to him) he booked 50% of the women that submitted to the festival. That means six women submitted. And that is so often the argument that gets triumphed: women don’t headline comedy festivals because there just aren’t that many female comics; movies by women aren’t made because there aren’t that many female writers; there aren’t many women in STEM fields because women don’t like science. As if everything exists in a vacuum. As if female comics will look at this festival next year and think “Well, that place that accepted THREE women is a place I should definitely butt my way into, and would in no way be unwelcoming and potentially actually dangerous for me.” So next year, they’ll have 100 female submissions! Right? Because that’s how things work?
All of this is bordering on (and, sure, toppling over into) think piece territory, when really all we need here by way of explanation is the words of another female comic who braved the waters of this Facebook thread to spell out not just this situation, but the daily life of women in these fields. This thread, by the way, if you want to explore in depth, has been cleaned up. As Emma Arnold herself wrote, “A lot of the shittiest comments have been deleted from this—of course—so it looks like this was all fairly civil discourse. It wasn’t.” It’s worth noting that a male comic brought up the gender issue and was tolerated, if ignored. But for whatever reason (and however many reasons), when Arnold and fellow comedian Amy Miller brought up these same issues, they were verbally bashed, taunted, and once again face with that double-edged sword of having to risk future careers for the sake of drawing attention to the situations they face in the very basic levels of their daily work.
Here, reprinted in full with permission, is the best summary of what it is to be a woman in a male-dominated field. As a response to the festival booker who, despite clearly being petrified of being branded a “bad guy,” was at least ostensibly open to a conversation, comedian Amy Miller wrote this:
Im actually a pretty nice and kind and hardworking person just rapidly getting close to the end of her rope. I never called you a sexist or a racist. At all. I said there were not enough women on the fest and few Latinos. Im exhausted. I want to work. I love comedy more than anything. Its totally changed my life. And I work so hard at it. Yes, I can start my own festival and book it how I want. And maybe I will. But in the meantime I can’t not call out that you booked two entire festivals (one partially booked, sure. but announced, and on sale) with a 2% - 10% showing of women. There are hundreds of people watching this thread and quietly remaining on my side, whether they chime in or not. I use sarcasm, and jokes, because its a coping mechanism. And honestly, it IS something more accepted from dudes. Im sorry I offended you but you brought up your previous headliners so. many. times. It just sounds like the dude who says “I have a black friend!” in a conversation about race. It was funny. And I pointed it out. And if you really want to talk about Maria Bamford- THAT lineup was also almost all dudes! I looked at it. Having one headliner at the top who is female does not foster opportunities for other women, and it does not make the shows on the festival any more balanced. Comedy is very small, and this has been talked about all day in multiple groups…and it’s not just me and Emma sounding a horn…we KNOW that at least one of the dudes on the fest complained to you and so you added some ladies. I also know one of the headliners recommended some women in Texas who weren’t booked. I also know the an email went out to the comics in Houston comedy defending your choices rather than saying “we heard their concerns. we’ll fix it.” There are many more upset about it who aren’t saying anything because they need the money, which I 100% understand because I love money! And performing. And I wish I could do it as often as so many mediocre dudes who dont work as hard. These are the kinds of lineups that drive new female comics to quit. And then you can say “well there arent enough women!” Well, youre contributing to it. Whats even worse is that Emma Arnold and I have to lose sleep thinking “maybe we should have been sweeter. maybe we shouldnt have brought it up. what if we dont get to work there ever again…” and it’s fucked up. We risk our own work by standing up for ourselves. And I can’t deal with this “im a nice guy” thing when you are actively excluding women. Well, Im a nice lady. And Im speaking up. And yes Im sometimes sarcastic. Because if Im not, I will slowly die inside until I retire from comedy all together. And Im not the only one. If you want to plan festivals so you can book your buddies and your favorite comics, thats awesome! Do that. Its totally within your right. But then don’t say that you care about inclusion. Just have your comedy party and we wont bother you. Just know that every night I lose sleep worrying that I won’t ever get enough work to survive, no matter how hard I work or how funny I am. And then look back at all of the abusive comments left above for all of the ladies chiming in….and then filter through that that I made fun of you for dropping Iliza’s name too many times. Thats what I did. And Im awful. If all of that makes sense to you, then its a hopeless situation. Have your boys comedy party! And enjoy it.
(As a quick explanation, this festival last year had Maria Bamford as a headliner, which means they can’t possibly be sexist, right? Just like the Academy gave awards to 12 Years a Slave, so that entire institution def isn’t racist anymore, right?)
Miller followed up that depressingly accurate and far-reaching description of general womanhood with this capper:
It would be so great if women didn’t have to enter into every encounter (not SOME encouters, not appropriate encounters, but every encounter, workplace and otherwise) with the mantra “be chill.” But since the second we drift outside of that, there are 20 dudes ready to berate us for somehow attacking them, it’s necessary. So women, do you want to work? Do you want to be taken seriously? Do you want to not be permanently blacklisted as a man-hating feminazi? Well, it’s easy. Be chill.