I've had a dream gig lately: directing a troupe of womxn clowns in Vancouver. We've been developing turns based on masculine impersonation, and it's fabulous to watch each of these clowns birth the strange, unique man inside of them. All of their inner-men are broken, tender, hopeful, ridiculous... and damn amusing.
I was working with one clown the other day on her solo turn. She is super funny and talented, but she told me she'd been in her head about the upcoming show.
I've just been like, what am I doing, what are we doing, as feminists... Then she quickly looked at me. She felt bad, because she knows that masculine impersonation is my big thing. She added, It's not like I don't think you're a feminist...
Naw, I get it, clown. It's complicated. I've built a tiny career on being the worst masculine impersonator out there. But what am I doing, as a feminist? And now I'm encouraging other women to do it too?
Why are we playing men?
What are we saying, by playing men?
Are we saying men are funnier?
Are we reinforcing the gender binary?
Are we saying we're not funny as womxn?
Do we suck? Should we shut up right now?
Is something burning on the stove that needs our attention?
Is there a scarf we ought to be knitting instead?
I don't personally know how to answer anyone else's questions. I can only speak to my own experience.
I've had gender trouble my whole life. When I was very young, people asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, and I told them "Boy Dog Fisherman." Why was that what I wanted to be? Was that the beginning of everything? Apparently I didn't just have gender trouble back then, I had species trouble too. But that's a whole other blog post.
The point is, some part of me has always wanted to be a man. I think a lot of non-men have felt that way at some point in their lives. And when I leaned into that—when I started living my fantasy trying to be a man in my comedy—I got a lot of laughs and I got paid. Playing a man gave me permission to be fierce and take up space. Playing a man gave me the privilege to risk. It taught me how to take that sense of permission and privilege, and apply it to all of my future characters regardless of their gender. It made me a better overall performer.
And I believe that my particular brand of masculine impersonation says something to womxn; I want it to say something to them. I'm not trying to be a convincing man, I am parodying the patriarchy. And as a non-man, I'm in a great position to do that. I've had my nose pressed up against the patriarchy's window for a long time now.
So is playing a man feminist? I believe it's deeply feminist. Because it's a feminism that I don't have to construct in my mind. My body understands the patriarchy and how I'm not it, and it knows what to do to send it up. Take up space, be entitled, get your cookies. Bam.
And if it isn't feminist, or if it isn't someone else's definition of feminist, that's fine too. I don't personally believe that comedy and social justice are the same thing. I'm not saying they're not related— I'm not going to go all Jerry "It used to be easy to get laughs back when I could date teenagers and still be cool" Seinfeld on you. As comedy makers, it's important to be keeping track of what's funny, and what's funny changes. Thank Satan.
For example, Punching Down used to be funny. Punching Down is not so funny anymore. There might be some comedy rooms somewhere in which Punching Down is still funny, but I haven't been in those rooms. Unless we count Adelaide, South Australia on the day of the Clipsal 500 big car race.
Otherwise, it's pretty much no longer funny to punch down.
Beyond that, I don't much judge what is and isn't funny, and why. What we laugh at, and why we laugh, are not always easily explainable. We laugh because we need relief from some sort of tension that builds up in our souls, just from existing. A lot of things make us laugh that we don't "approve of" as any kind of prescription for how we should think or act. The relief of laughter is an exhale of car exhaust, stomach-lining and subconscious dust. It is at least part-catharsis—part-flushing-out-what's-inside. We laugh at the inappropriate, the taboo, the utter-garbage that clutters and infects our minds because... Society. And we have to.
So I am not here to judge why some things are funny.
But I will say, with some certainty, based on my experience alone, that—in times like these—it is funny to watch people who are not men attempt to portray men for comedic purposes.
It's funny because it's Punching Up. It's funny because, as womxn, we're uniquely situated to parody the patriarchy because there's no way we'll ever be the patriarchy. We have received the same lessons about manhood that the men have. We've watched as that letterman sweater got tailored to everyone but us. So when we steal that letterman sweater and wear it, that's whatcha call subversive. We will never fit into the Patriarchy Sweater, and so, we flop around in its sleeves, and we revel in the space between us and it, between our clownish ambition and our reality. And people laugh.
I could spend years in therapy (actually I have) trying to figure out why playing men is so satisfying for me and for audiences.
I could beat myself up about this thing I like to do, and see it as one more big excuse why I, as a woman, don't deserve to take stage time and don't deserve to encourage others to take it.
Or I could say fuck it.
This works for me, and I observe that it works for a lot of people.
It is one way to be funny. There are thousands.
But it is one.
And I, for one, recommend it.