Experience, stand up comedy and gender

Note: this article is derived from a piece of research I did on women and stand up comedy, hence the style is somewhat more dryly academic than I would like…

Questions of ‘sex’, ‘gender’ and its relation to ‘nature’ and ‘culture’ underpin many major debates in gender studies. It is often framed as a debate between two opposing camps; one of which places an emphasis on biology as a determining factor of existence, and the other views the cultural expression of “gender” as more important. Grosz (1994) sees the sex/gender divide as an extension of the “common view of the human subject, as being made up of two dichotomously opposed characteristics: mind and body, thought and extension, reason and passion, psychology and biology,” (Grosz, 1994, p.3). Increasingly, gender theorists have begun to appreciate that four seemingly established categories (sex/gender, nature/culture) have a complex, interwoven relationship. Butler (1993) troubles the idea of sex as a biological, fixed category, as a opposed to the more fluid, socially constructed “gender” :

If Gender is the social construction of sex, and if there is no access to this ‘sex’ except by means of its construction, then…‘sex’ becomes something like a fiction…a prelinguistic site to which there is no direct access.

(Butler, 1993, p.5)

Sex, then, is prediscursive – it remains unanalysed and subject to problematic usage. Consider how often in mainstream discussions of these questions, sex is linked to a person’s biology, gender to their cultural expression, and the binary allows for discrimination to arise, and also marginalises those who fall through its cracks. While those in academia might look down on popular assumptions, such ideas are prevalent in everyday life and contribute to the perpetuation of stereotypes and discrimination. For Butler, feminist theory has not dismissed biological sex differences, but also not put too great an emphasis on it, less feminism slip into biological determinism. It is prudent not to rigidly separate concepts like sex and gender because they result in “proper objects’, fixed in specific academic discourse, and therefore immune from examination (Butler, 1997). Halberstam (1998) has argued that masculinity “must not and cannot and should not reduce down to the male body and its effects,” (Halberstam, p.1). There are masculine women, feminine men. Halberstam expresses similar concerns to Butler about fixed categories: “perhaps in our frenzy to de-essentialize gender and sexual identity, we have failed to de-essentialize sex,” (Ibid, p.114).

What I will argue in this essay is that discussions about the sex/gender, nature/culture division are missing something; the experience of the bodies. An individual’s experience of their own body is often tied down to prevailing attitudes about sex difference. Discriminatory attitudes around gender are grounded in a biologically reductionist idea of sex, and being a particular ‘sex’ allows for cultural limitations on agency, often forcing individuals to adapt to fit with sexual stereotypes. Their ‘natural’ being can limit their “cultural” expression of their gender. This also involves looking at how individuals are received by others. Butler is correct to suggest that the fixed sex/fluid gender divide can be troubled, but her argument remains tied to the binary. Within the axis of sex/gender, we need a third point: bodily experience, and how it ties to nature/culture. Within discriminatory attitudes, a person’s ‘sex’ is a sign, and how it is legitimised depends on how others judge, and respond to it. To borrow from Butler’s terminology – if gender is a performance, we have failed to think about the audience’s response.

As a lens through which to examine the complexities of sex/gender, nature culture is stand up comedy. Comedy is a subversive space and a powerful social medium. Mintz (1985) argues that stand up comedy is the “oldest, most universal, basic and deeply significant form of humorous expression,” (Mintz, p.71). It is linked to rituals and social rites. Douglas (1975) notes that “the joke form rarely lies in the utterance alone, but . . . can be identified in the total social situation.” (Douglas, p.93). Stand up comedy is a form of entertainment which provides “a public affirmation of shared beliefs,” but also the subversive re-examining of those beliefs; a comedian’s jokes can “tear down, distort, misrepresent and reorder usual patterns of expression and perception,” (Mintz, p.75). Comedy can trouble gender hierarchies, or, indeed, reinforce discriminatory attitudes and values. Given the universality of comedy, its undeniable link to social situations, attitudes and assumptions, it provides an excellent lens for examining some of the questions raised in this essay.

Furthermore, those scholars who have studied comedy point to its importance to feminism. Fraiberg argues that feminist and female stand up comedians “…functions as a bridge of sorts between popular and academic women’s cultural criticism, deconstructing gendered positions theorised in feminist classrooms,” (Fraiberg, 1994, p.318). Humour’s subversiveness presents new strategies for the feminist movement, as it is “grounded…in the subversive effects produced…[by the ability to] get away with something,” (ibid). Female comedians are politically important for using comedy to trouble gender prejudices: “…[they] are rejecting the cultural forces that have created them,” (Walker, 1988, p.48, italics mine). This public rejection of the cultural forces of gender can affect ideas about ‘prediscursive’ sex; to forcibly, and humorously, deconstruct these supposedly fixed ideas about how we “do” gender on a public stage has considerable benefits for feminism. Humour is a situation which allows for a suspense of normal sensitivities. “An essential part of the joy…women experience both performing and watching stand up is grounded,” Freiberg writes “…in these subversive effects produced by humour that gets away with something.” (Freiberg, p.329). If the way to break down the “hetrosexual matrix” is to subvert normative gender roles, then how well does this play out in an environment where subversion is the norm?

The body of the comedian becomes a signifier of success as much as their material. The comedian is personally embodied agent “the only protagonist; there is no play, no set, no character. You do not have the shield of a theatrical character,” and a comedian in performance is “in theory, presenting yourself,” (Banks & Swift, p.1). For women to succeed on the stage at a comedy show, they must often conform to stereotypical conceptions of femininity; to do anything else would be risking “alienating rather than amusing her audience if she steps too far from conventionally conceived ‘female’ behaviour,” (Walker, p.79). In spite of this, female comedians have used stand-up comedy to undermine discriminatory assumptions based what it is to be a “woman.” Part of this is through the foregrounding of their experience as women in their performance, in a manner which rejects patriarchal cultural norms and expectations. Such a performance is not out of line with feminist theory. Woolf (1928) is famous for claiming that a “woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write,” (Woolf, 1928, p.4); much focus has been given to the economic element of this suggestion, but there is a further aspect to it – to have “a room of one’s own” is to have a space free from male intrusion, to be able to create freely, as a woman, without being accountable to standards set by men. Female creativity is difficult in a culture where women have been cast as a “looking-glasses possessing the magic and religious power of reflecting the figure of man at twice its natural size,” (ibid, p.41). Women’s experience is absent from art because it has conceived of women passively, as “practically…completely insignificant.” While Woolf advocates androgyny, she sees the need for finding a gendered language, codified to the needs of women; indeed, Goldman (2007) suggests that Woolf’s personae of Mary Breton is “suggesting that prose must explored and exploited in certain ways by women writers before they can be poets,” (Goldman, p.76).

In what follows, I shall argue that discrimination against a person’s gender is ultimately tied to a reductionist idea about their biology. Firstly, I shall explore de Beauvoir’s work on biology in gender assumptions, and link it to the work of Serano, who provides a rethinking of the sex/gender, nature/culture divide. Secondly, I will argue that discrimination is not simply externally imposed, but can be internalised by agents, using Fine’s work on knowledge and being, and Hines’ work on childhood development. Young’s work on the ‘lived body’ provides some ideas on how women comedians foreground their individual experience and identity over assumptions about their sex and gender. Finally, I shall return to the idea of audience response; how the audience responds to a woman on stage can reveal much about discriminatory attitudes.

De Beauvoir writes in the opening chapter of The Second Sex (1972 (1949)):

The term ‘female’ is derogatory not because it emphasises woman’s animality, but because it imprisons her in her sex; and if this sex seems to man to be contemptible… he wishes to find in biology a justification for this sentiment.

(De Beauvoir, p.35). 

De Beauvoir identifies use of biological sex differences as “justification” for the idea that women are lesser than men. She argues that the flaw in trying to understand the difference between the sexes “in physiology alone,” is that humans are not animals; “the human species is for ever in a state of change, for ever becoming,” (Ibid, p.65). De Beauvoir is seen as a the origin of the sex/gender divide in feminist thinking, but she suggests an awareness that what is at issue here is just sex differences that do exist between men and women, but their interpretation. “Certainly,” writes de Beauvoir, “these facts cannot be denied – but in themselves they have no significance. Once we adopt the human perspective, interpreting the body on a basis of existence, biology becomes an abstract science,” (Ibid, p.66-7). The “human perspective” would use only the criteria of the body’s existence to make judgement. Woolf suggests that a root of gender discrimination can be found in humanity’s attempts to come to terms with the hard, existential truths of life; “Life…is arduous…without self confidence we are babies in the cradle…how can we generate this…by thinking that other people are inferior to oneself,” (Woolf, p.40). Biological data, for de Beauvoir, is how this is done. Where de Beauvoir is overstating the case is her claims that biological sex differences “have no significance.” If we are to focus on bodies of individuals, we cannot simply pretend that their biology has no significance to them as agents, to their identity. Serano (2007) argues that gender theorist have focussed on “how femininity and masculinity are produced,” rather than the way “these gender traits are interpreted,” (Serano, p.75). Attempting to rethink the way the sex/gender divide, Serano suggests that socialisation does not construct difference as “exaggerate” it. The effect of socialization is to “distort biological gender differences,” which “create the impression that essential differences exist between women and men,” (ibid).

Serano goes on to say:

Once we start thinking about gender as being socially exaggerated (rather than socially constructed), we can finally tackle the issue of sexism in our society without having to dismiss or undermine biological sex in the process….biological gender differences are very real…the connotations, values and assumptions we associate with female and male biology are not.

(Serano, p.76, italics mine). 

In Serano’s analysis, culture provides a medium for interpretation of sexual difference, but a medium prone to exaggeration. The biological differences de Beauvoir dismissed as having no “significance” are significant because “they are very real.” What is valuable about Serano’s contribution to the debate is that she links sexism to the “connotations, values and assumptions” based on biology. Raising the question of interpretation, Serano reminds us that we cannot consider questions of sex and gender without asking how a person is interpreted. The role of culture in exaggerating biological difference often takes the form of gender stereotypes. Stereotypes are defined by Eagly & Mladinic (1989) as “attributes which an individual ascribes to a social group,” (p.543); it would be more accurate to say that stereotypes are attributes ascribed to a social group by culture. The problems of interpreting natural, biological differences in sex is not simply found in cultural arenas. Even if the field of academic science, problems of interpretation abound. For Fine (2010), much of the scholarship about gender differences and biological sex is based on insubstantial evidence. Individual’s understandings of gender difference tends to be based on “associative memory” which constitutes deep rooted knowledge. This kind of memory process “picks up and responds to cultural patterns in society, media and advertising,” (Fine, p.5). In society where gender stereotypes are pervasive, the associative memory of, say, an audience member at a comedy show, can be biased against any kind of gender performance which doesn’t fit to their preconceptions. Associative memory processes are often unconscious, and can be more reactionary than a person’s conscious thoughts (Marx & Stapel, 2006). Fine points out that gender is “primed” all around us; from the binary “male/female” options on a form, to the toys marketed to our children, to the kinds of bodies in advertising, we have an increased sensitivity to stimuli to gender stereotypes. Hines (2004) sees this process beginning in childhood; children develop a “cognitive awareness of identity” as a boy or girl, and thus value certain objects and activities which are classed as “male” or “female,” (Hine, p.112). Parents contribute to gender priming, by “reinforc[ing]” playing with differently gendered toys, and teachers also contribute to the enforcement of “sex-typed play” (Ibid, p.113). The fact that children often display gendered play behaviour earlier than they might be expected to have “a firm understanding of their own gender,” (p.114), does not prove an “essential” difference between sexes. Conversely, Hines concludes that “it is probable that hormonal, social and cultural factors all play a role in the development of sex-typed childhood play,” which carries on into adulthood (Ibid, p.129). The “natural”, then, is enforced in the “social” and the “cultural.” Thus, subjects can make the stereotypes around them self-relevant. Fine cites studies which suggest that “a deadly combination of ‘knowing and being’…can lower performance expectations, as well as trigger performance anxiety and other negative emotions,” (Fine, p.32). Knowledge of the stereotype (“women are not funny”) ties to the individuals being (“I am a woman,”) and leads to the formation of a barrier in the mind of the individual (“I am a woman, women are not funny, therefore I cannot be a comedian,”). The same process can occur in the minds of the audience – knowing (“Women are not funny,”) an awareness of the being of the Other (“The next act on stage is a woman,”) lead to a discriminating audience (“Women are not funny, the next act on is a woman, therefore I will heckle her,”). In this sense, “being” is exposed as a layer of interpretation on the natural; it becomes a cultural matter pretending to be natural. The being of a person becomes a sign which links together what they are, with what they perceive themselves to be. It is precisely this line of thinking which later feminists have critiqued.

Questions about sex and gender are useful for trying to understand the layers of meaning placed upon a body, but not what it is like to live in that body, respond to stereotypes and form an identity. “The subject who constitutes a world is always an embodied subject,” writes Young (2005) “Conversely, the body as lived is always layered with social and historical meaning,” (Young, p.7). This links back to Butler; if a body is “always layered with social and historical meaning,” its biology is lost, becomes subject to interpretations imposed from without. Young sees division between “gender, as referring to self-conception and behaviour, and sex, as referring to anatomy and physiology,” as politically productive (Ibid, p.13) for the feminist movement, but the discussion had stagnated. Drawing on Moi (2001), Young suggests a new site for analysis, the ‘lived body’:

The lived body is a unified idea of a physical body acting and experiencing a specific sociocultural context; it is body-in-situation…the person always faces the material facts of her body and its relation to a given environment. Her bodily organs have certain feeling capacities and function in determinate ways; her size, age, health and training make her capable of strength and movement in relation to her environment in specific ways

(Ibid, p.16)

The lived body expands the sex/gender divide as it brings the notion of experience to the debate, a socially and biologically situated experience of an individual. It is both the “physical body acting,” and that same body “experiencing a specific sociocultural context,” and that experience is grounded in “the material facts of the body and its relation to a given environment.” Feminist phenomenology’s aim was to make visible the experiences of different lived bodies, bodies with different ages, classes, races, genders, and how these experiences were mediated by social position, and relate to our construction of our own identity. This appreciated that it was difficult to draw a boundary between what was “natural” and what was “cultural” when looking at a person’s experience or behaviour. Feminists like Young realised that the best way to approach the issue of experience was to appreciate that “everything is both manufactured and natural in man,” (Merleau-Ponty, 1962, p.189).

Moi argued that the lived body is a way to avoid reductionism about biological embodiment, and still capture the material features of the body, and how those play a role in the construction of experience. For Young, this is as much about recognising the role of desires and feelings “which don’t neatly correlate with sexual dimorphism or hetrosexual norms, (Young, p.17) as it is about avoiding biological reductionism. The lived body does the work of ‘gender’ but “better and more.” It allows for an exploration of “the habits and interactions of men with women, women with women, men with men…without the necessary reduction to the normative hetrosexual binary of ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’,” (Ibid, p.18). Similarities can be found in Butler. For Butler, within established roles there is a priority to maintain an ideology of “hegemonic hetrosexuality” but that the troubling of gender roles reveals that this is unstable, it is “beset by an anxiety that it can never fully overcome…that its efforts to become its own idealizations can never be finally or fully achieved.” (Butler, 1993, p.125). For Butler, subversive gender performance is the way to undermine the hetrosexual matrix; for Young, the category of gender, because it is an external performance, does not provide the tools to break free of normative hetrosexuality. Young advocates awareness that “the way a person is positioned in structures is as much a function of how people treat him or her within various institutional settings as an attitude a person takes to himself or herself,” (Young, p.21); how people experience gender hierarchies is as much about how they treat themselves as they are treated – we recall Fine’s idea of the knowledge/being divide – an individual “knows” that certain bodies can only behave in certain ways (as a result of the social exaggeration of difference) and thus feels unable to “be” anything other than that in order to avoid stigmatisation or exclusion from the gender order. Young does not claim the category of ‘gender’ should be abolished entirely, but tries to reframe its meaning in relation to the lived body. Gender is “a form of social positioning of lived bodies in relation to one another,” within “historically and socially specific institutions and processes that have material effects on the environment in which people act and reproduce power and privilege among them.” By this definition of gender, to gendered is to “find ourselves passively grouped according to these structural relations, in ways too impersonal to ground identity,” (Young, p.22). In other words, when people are gendered, they are taken as passive objects, onto which a gender identity (based on social exaggeration of their biological characteristics) is imposed.

One of Butler’s contributions to gender theory is the idea of gender being a performance, that gender is a repetitive, citational action of acts which are: “…internally discontinuous…a constructed identity, a performative accomplishment, which the mundane social audience…come to believe and to perform in the mode of belief,” (Butler, 1999, p.175). Butler gives the example of drag as an example of subversive gender performance. Drag is subversive “to the extent that it reflects on the imitative structures by which hegemonic gender is itself produced and disputes hetrosexuality’s claim on naturalness and originality,” (Butler, 1993, p.135). Subversive gender performance is self aware, and exposes the contingencies in seemly fixed objects. Certainly, for a number of female comedians, a strategy for success in the ‘male’ culture of the comedy club was adopt stage personae which turned social exaggeration of fixed ideas of ‘being a woman’ on their head. Lavin (2004) describes how early pioneers of female comedy in the United States such as Phyllis Diller and Lily Tomlin challenged “the idealisation of women as objects of beauty, happy homemakers and unquestioning supporters of their husbands,” (Lavin, p.20). Diller, for example, adopted the stage persona of a failed housewife, which allowed Diller to “confront audience resistance to a woman assuming the aggressive position of solo comedic performer,” (ibid). Diller’s act was subversive in Butler’s sense as it sought to exploit “the tension between overt social pressure on women to conform to these standards of behaviour, and the equally strong counter pressure to break free from those unrealistic expectations,” (ibid), citing an expected role but deconstructing it as expected ideal and showing it to be constructed. Female comedians who attempted this subversion of gender roles, drew on the ritualistic comic role of the clown, or fool, a “powerful figure whose role is to act out the idea of violating taboos,” (Seymour & Fisher, p.49). The exaggeration draws attention away from the comedian herself and towards an idea of how women should live, how they should relate to their bodies. The subversive comedian takes an idealised body and show how it is not ideal. It is not a “lived” body, it is a passive archetype, divorced from how women actually live.

This method of performance certainly worked for Diller, but the notable absence in Butler’s theories of gender subversion relates to audience response. If gender is a performance, what if the audience reject the performance? Case (1988) sees women subverting gender roles on stage is that the performance is taking place in a gendered context. The stage is an environment where certain social exaggerations of sex are acceptable (those which reinforce the status quo) but others are on rocky ground. “In the realm of audience response,” Case writes, “the gaze is encoded with culturally determined components of male desire, perceiving ‘women’ as a sexual object,” (Case, p.91). Case draws on feminists semiotics in her analysis of sex and gender in the theatre. On the stage, in a cultural forum, ‘women’ are “signs”, “From this perspective,” Case writes, “a live woman standing on stage is not a biological or natural reality, but ‘a fictional construct, a distillate from diverse but congruent discourses dominant in Western cultures.’” (Ibid, p.118). In this sense, what is judged in a woman on the stage is the social exaggeration of her, not the “her” herself. Her lived body is sidelined, replaced by a “fictional construct,” in an environment which is gendered in Young’s sense – the woman on stage is placed within a position of subordination in a specific context, which places limitations on her agency and privilege. The audience, as interpreters of the act, are in Case’s view, part of the “male gaze” by and for which the signifier “woman” is constructed (ibid) and consequently, the male audience will always perceive a woman as an “object of sexual desire.” The woman is “other” to the male gaze, to the extent that within the context of performance, she undergoes a knowledge/being dichotomy, she “also becomes an ‘Other’ to herself. Within the patriarchal system of signs, women do not have the cultural mechanisms of meaning to construct themselves as the subject rather than the object of performance,” (Ibid, p.120). The solution proposed is to shift the audience make up of any given performance to break the male gaze; since, “the gender, class, and color of the audience replace the aesthetic traditions of form or the isolated conditions of the author’s intent,” (Ibid, p.118), then the solution is segregated theatre space. A female only audience would allow for a revolutionary shift in “the interpretative strategies of dramatic theory, firmly allying poetics with feminist politics,” (Ibid). We would do well to be critical of her solution to the problem of interpretation. It denies the agency of those in any given audience (beyond the realm of the theatre or comedy club, as well as inside it) by suggesting that their ability to interpret the gender performance of another is tied down to their own gender. In this sense, the lived body of the audience is lost, and they are homogenised into an abstract, oppressive gaze.

Case’s solution might be flawed, but her argument does bring us back to the proposal I made at the beginning of this essay: where one sees the clearest relation between sex, gender, nature and culture is in discriminatory attitudes. Such attitudes judge a person’s gender (how they are culturally) by a misconceived idea of their sex (how they are naturally). The former is socially exaggerated based on a fallacious opinion of the latter. What Case’s proposed solution shows is that such attitudes, which remove the agency from an individual and reduce them down to characteristics, rather than character, affects both the performer and the audience. How then, can these ideas be subverted?

Increasingly, female comedians have realised the importance of utilising the lived body as tool, and the foregrounding of experience to combat fixed discriminatory attitudes. Comedians increasingly use the comedy forum to espouse feminist ideas. For Lavin, this is key to a fundamental shift in the performance of comedy; “A defining character of feminist solo comedy is its positing of women’s truth and experience to replace the myths of the patriarchy” (Lavin, p.90). Feminist comedians subvert patriarchal norms not simply by how they perform their gender on stage (be it a social exaggeration or otherwise) but with what they say. The feminist comedian Robin Taylor suggests that there is considerable social power in a female comedian challenging normative gender ideas with her material, rather than her body: “all of a sudden there’s a woman there with a microphone saying ‘hey, excuse me, this is what happened to me. This is what I feel, this is how I’m telling it,” (cited in Lavin, p.93). The comedian Lily Tomlin echoes these sentiments – to undermine and redefine a fixed, discriminatory notion of sex and gender, nature and culture, comedians need to to break down a “culture built as a support system for men and men’s values…”and “develop a system that values men and women equally,” (cited in Lavin, p.89). Such a subversion, based on more than just the female comedians gendered persona, is not out of line with what Butler’s thinking. In a 1992 interview, Butler clarifies her ideas about subversive activity: “Subversiveness is not something that can be gauged or calculated . . . I do think that for a copy to be subversive of heterosexual hegemony it has to both mime and displace its conventions,” (Kotz, p.85). What is noteworthy in this clarification is that the subversion does not necessarily need to be exaggerated to be subverted, as it might well be in the form of drag. If we accept Case’s argument that the spaces and culture of performance are gendered, then woman speaking about women’s experience is a decisive act of subversion. Indeed, the medium of comic performance gives perhaps wider parameters for subversion than other cultural activities – writing about the feminist comedian, Margaret Cho, Freiberg notes that “a comedic forum makes it easier to deal with these issues, she emphasizes how humour grants a certain sense of permission. Cho argues that ‘when you use humour people are less apt to be guarded,” (Freiberg, p.324).

To combat gender discrimination, we need to break down a specific linking of sex, gender, nature and culture. Sex is the natural, fixed category of exist, which has an undeniable power to dictate what individuals can or cannot do; their cultural expression (their gender) is subject to social exaggeration. If gender is a social exaggeration, then it then becomes an unreliable site for analysis when trying to determine identity. The analysis of gender tells us more about the context of a person than the person themself. The lived body provides gender theorists with tools for analysis to break the binary and examine people for who they are and how they identify. As I have argued, within the context of stand up comedy, female comedians have begun to use strategies of the lived body to combat discrimination. The comedian is a unique social entity; her performance is irrevocably tied to her gender, her body, but also her experience of living. “When a stand-up comedian is at work, we become aware of her preoccupations, her imagination, her sense of self-worth, her relationships, her sexuality. If we respond we are responding to a personality,” (Banks & Swift, p.2). The parameters for judgement are shifted, and within the subversity of comedy, we see the authentic human existence, and are remind that “in a field of force of destructive torrents and explosions, was the tiny, fragile human body,” (Benjamin, p.84).


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