I wonder how many people have asked themselves that question. I have. I know many of my male friends have. Have I ever made someone feel undervalued, disrespected, uncomfortable or unsafe by my words or actions? Given that I’ve been doing stand up for twenty years, I’m six foot tall, I was often pretty forward with my intentions when I was single, and I’m well known for having a very sharp tongue – it seems unlikely I haven’t overstepped at some point. But I am a woman. I’m not saying for a moment that men can’t be victims of sexual assault or harassment, or women perpetrators. But assault/ harassment is rarely about sex. It’s about power. I can’t physically overpower you. Your virtue is safe in my feminine hands. But my recommendation or condemnation does carry some weight in some circles, and I teach young students to whom I owe a duty of care. So the power dynamic is still a consideration, and my behaviour still up for scrutiny.
I was introducing a male headliner recently and referred to his good looks and sexy accent before he took the stage. It fed into some old material I have about his country, was material I know works and is the right length to settle the crowd after a break without taking focus or time from the headliner. So it was the obvious choice. He took the flirtatious nature of the piece with good humour, acknowledged it for comic effect and got on with his job of being hilarious (which he was). I can’t imagine he thought any more about it. But, if our genders were reversed, it would have been a much riskier proposition. If a male MC commented on how sexually attractive the lady headliner was, and chose her beauty as her leading characteristic before bringing her on stage, it’s much more risky in many ways. The risks include offending her, losing the crowd, looking like a misogynist, actually being a misogynist and absolutely not being a misogynist while looking like one.
As an MC, I try to give the audience a heads up as to who they’ll be meeting next. It’s like being guided up to someone at a party “ok, you’re about to meet Marcy – she’s the blonde over by the dips. She’s brilliant, married to Bob over there and thinks she’s the Samantha of the group..”. On stage, it’s usually something to give you an idea of what might resonate with the punters “next up is Marcy. She’s a local girl / all the way from.., she’s whip smart so you’ll struggle on table 12, she’s fresh back from entertaining the troops, she’s quirky, she’s a ranga..”. Now that I think about it, I will much more often mention physical appearance if the comic is male. It’s an easy shorthand. It’s a compliment. It’s one of the only things I know about them if I’ve just met them. And it doesn’t undercut them in the way it does when it’s said about a woman. “You may have seen this handsome guy on The Project, he’s a Melbourne boy...” is much less likely to hit the wrong note than “this lady is gorgeous, she’s fiesty, she’s from the breaky team, please welcome..“. Most of the women I work with on stage are beautiful. Some of them disarmingly so. But I wouldn’t open with that because it isn’t the most important thing about them. It may make them uncomfortable for that reason, or they don’t think they are beautiful, or they have had to work hard to prove they are more than just their looks. Comedically, its also dangerous because I find women are more insecure than men. Men don’t mind their partner watching a handsome, funny man on stage. But women are more likely to feel threatened by their man watching an articulate beauty do comedy. And you don’t want to risk half the crowd eyeing you suspiciously when you need them to warm to you.
These are all generalisations, of course. There are exceptions to every statement I’ve made above. #metoo is not a simple movement. It’s not just about calling out people who misuse their power or harm others. It’s about allowing the voices of those disempowered to be heard. It’s about changing the landscape so that we behave better toward each other and understand the impact of our actions. Most of the people in my life who have power over me are men. A man books me for most of my work. A man controls the entertainment on board the ships. I have never for a single moment felt unsafe in their company. I have been respected, supported, complimented, teased and treated as an equal. We work in entertainment – there is alcohol, and late nights and dirty jokes and deep conversations and good natured ribbing and hugs and the trust has to go both ways for all of that to be safe – I have to trust them, and they trust that I would be speak if I didn’t like something.
Comedy is a more visible example than many other industries in terms of displaying gender inequality because our careers are conducted in public, but I think the same behaviours are mirrored in offices, kitchens and environments around the world. I’ve heard people complain that #metoo is the thought police – “I can’t even give a woman a compliment anymore….How can I flirt without being arrested...”. I can’t tell you the thoughts I’ve had about people I’ve worked with. I may want to fuck you. Or fucking kill you. I can think whatever the hell I like. I just can’t act on it. And, for the record, I like being complimented on my looks. I don’t think much of them most of the time, so the thought of someone assuming I don’t have to be talented because I’m beautiful tickles me. And I don’t like the thought that we can’t flirt with each other any more. But we don’t have to be assholes about it. We can find the level we’re comfortable at and that will take time each and every time. Every communication is a risk. Calculate it.