Monday, August 15, 2011

When Comedy Goes Wrong

By Carrie McFadden, NWPC Board Member

Last month, a friend of my boyfriend's came to visit us from Canada. One of the things we decided to do, in order to share a true taste of LA, was to take him to one of the many comedy clubs on the Sunset Strip. By the time we arrived the only seats left were those in the front row, often a questionable place in such a venue. The lineup that night featured about a dozen various comics, the first two thirds of which were sufficiently amusing and started the night off well.

A few hours into the show, the tone of the room and the evening changed considerably. The comic that took the mic next immediately turned his attention to me, and the fact that I was wearing a low-cut top, as the majority of the women in the audience were for such a night out in West Hollywood. He began badgering me about the way I was dressed and the way I looked, strongly implying that I was an individual of below average intelligence. When I mentioned I had a degree from UCLA and had a job right after college working for a high-level politician (not naming names, of course), he turned his ire to someone else in the audience, who also just so happened to be female. She had the apparent misfortune of being alone at that particular moment of time, and this is where things turned even more sour. He began making "jokes" about how she'd need a man that night, whether she gave her consent or not, and encouraged the members of the audience to approach her and even follow her after the show, to give her the attention she obviously needed. He pointed to me, to the other woman, and the others in the audience, and said something along the lines of, "If these girls tell you no, and especially if you can make them cry, you know that means they really want it, right?"

Although the mood in the room was tense, one of the integral parts of this comedian’s (and I use that word loosely) act was giving his number out at the beginning and reading text messages from the audience. There was very little laughter during his set, but he read several texts from men in the audience echoing his sentiments -- “Oh, you just made that one cry, that means she’s enjoying it.”  The remainder of the sets and comedians after this one finally exited the stage were much less offensive, and the mood in the room became much more positive. However, the comments of the initial comedian and some of the men in the audience hung over me for the rest of the night.

Possibly worse than the offensive statements posing as comedy that came out of his mouth was the fact that it made me temporarily doubt and even blame myself. Should I have worn something more conservative? Should I have opted not to sit in the front row? Should I have excused myself as soon as he started in on me and left before making something of a scene?

I have found situations like this to be a tragic common thread weaving their way through many of my day to day interactions, and the interactions of female friends and colleagues of mine. There are bigger, larger-picture issues facing women all over the country -- the constant war on women’s reproductive rights; workplace sexual harassment cases in courts every day; and of course the under representation of women in elective office everywhere. Taking all of this into account, it doesn’t make media representation and daily interactions any less important. I understand that a big part of making it as a comic is being offensive and pushing the envelope, but there’s a difference between saying something shocking and actually encouraging members of the audience to rape / sexually assault and harass female peers, especially while pointing out potential “targets” sitting five feet in front of them. The fact that something which is a reality for women everywhere, something which has been inflicted upon members of the audience or women they know, can be made light of in such a way is unacceptable. The other dozen or so men who performed that night proved that it is indeed possible to be funny without encouraging violence and misogynistic behavior. Of course, anyone who has been to a comedy show can expect offensive things to be said and I’m not making light of those comments, nor am I condoning them.

I should not have had to deal with being harassed publicly for showing up in public in anything less than a turtleneck. The woman behind me should not have been targeted for being at a comedy club alone. Women and (perhaps even more importantly) girls everywhere should not be given the message that sexual violence is something to be laughed at, and men and boys should not be encouraged to commit such acts. Rape is not a punchline, and the struggle of the millions of women who have had to deal with it should not be used in order to garner cheap laughs for an entertainer.

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