I guess this is a thing that has to be said: saying that sexism or gender discrimination exists in a particular area is not the same as saying that the people who operate in that area are sexists. At least not necessarily. I saw this happen when Jezebel called out the Daily Show on its lack of on-air female talent. Suddenly everyone had to jump to the defense of Jon Stewart who could no! way! no! how! be! sexist! not! even! a! little! bit!
You don’t have to be a sexist to participate in and perpetuate a system that encourages gender discrimination. In comedy, sexism isn’t just saying things like “women aren’t funny” and telling get-back-in-the-kitchen jokes. In fact, you can actively be against sexism, as I’m sure Jon Stewart is, and be blind to the ways in which gender issues manifest themselves in your business or industry. That is why sexism is so fucking stupid and horrible–it’s effective because it can stay under the radar and become naturalized and accepted by people who really, truly, don’t believe in it and don’t realize that, for example, publicizing a one-woman-thirty-dude comic bill is going to generate backlash.
After my recent post about SXSW was reposted on Jezebel, I’ve heard from a number of Austin female comics who know and like Charlie Sotelo, the SXSW comedy booking agent, and I absolutely believe them when they say Charlie is not sexist, Charlie is great, Charlie helped me out. They know him better than I do, and their experiences with the guy are different than mine. But friends, what I’ve been writing about is not about Charlie Sotelo. People seem to want a scapegoat when anyone cries any kind of ‘ism’, and because it’s easier to blame an individual than get your head around systemic discrimination, that is what happens. But if anyone thinks I am saying Sotelo individually or even SXSW as an entity is sexist, they are wrong. I am saying that this is a great example of how people who probably otherwise do great things reinforce a system of discrimination without much critical thought.
And critical thought is the point. Taking action is also the point. There should have been all kinds of red flags going off when only three women participated in an open audition and even a preliminary bill got announced with a 30-to-1 guy to girl ratio. But there weren’t red flags, because that is just the way shit works in comedy. Women are the vast minority. People generally don’t work to get more of them on bills, unless it’s a show that is explicitly marketed as female. (Which I will write about sometime–I believe “chick shows” marginalize women even further. I can’t stand them.) And so while in my dream world, they came up with a 30-to-1 bill and said WTF this is ridiculous, we cannot be sending this out with one woman on this bill are we crazy? We can do better than that because we recognize that it will be better for women comics and for us because encouraging more women to do comedy means more comics for us to book! Everybody wins! But that is not what happened. They came up with a 30-to-1 bill, released it, and were surprised and disappointed when people took issue with it.
It demonstrates a surprising lack of critical thinking.
Certainly there is an issue here where we don’t want women getting booked just because they’re women. Certainly there is that. But there is also the fact that people are going to have to make an effort to increase the numbers of genuinely talented women–which would be so easy to do, because there are so many of them!–to begin to counter the problem. That absolutely has to be a starting place. I hear people tell me that’s tokenism. But I say what is happening now is tokenism. Actively working toward booking more women on bills is a start toward normalizing the female comic body so that we don’t even have to write or say female comic any more.
So, people can get mad and get their drawers in a bunch because they think I called some dude sexist, or they can take a critical look at the system I am describing and hold good, powerful people responsible for changing it. Because we can talk about Charlie Sotelo all day long and what a great dude he is, or talk about how SXSW is such a cool, indie, cutting edge showcase and how could they possibly do crappy things to women? And while we do that, elsewhere in America, another weekend of shows is booked featuring one woman.