Here's How Your Toughest, Funniest Friend Might Find Herself in an Abusive Relationship

Illustration for article titled Heres How Your Toughest, Funniest Friend Might Find Herself in an Abusive Relationship

After comedian Beth Stelling came forward on her Instagram in late December with photos of bruises and stories of alleged rape and abuse by another comedian, a man named Cale Hartmann, the response from the comedy community has been solid: women especially have made statements of unequivocal support for Stelling, and quite a few have told similar stories of their own.

At the Cut, the terrific Julieanne Smolinski (formerly of xoJane, currently of Grace & Frankie on Netflix) has written a deft and notably honest essay about why it’s not a pure coincidence that so many women in comedy—a field that requires female comedians to navigate their looks and “sexual worth” in an unusually punishing and gender-disproportionate way—have stories like Stelling’s.

Smolinski writes about a time “when my friends tried to keep me from going home from a party because they thought my boyfriend might kill me,” and how disorienting it was to see the extent of her own coping mechanisms—to see that her brain was instinctively able to make even this situation feel like a joke. “I don’t think I ended up in that relationship because humor was part of my job, but I certainly think that’s a part of what kept me from telling anybody about it,” she writes.

The experience is certainly not monolithic, but for many women who write and perform comedy, choosing this career path involves the cultivation of a chitinous exoskeleton, involuntary or not. It’s hard not to let it extend to your personal life. At work or onstage, you respond to trauma with a stupid joke. When my boyfriend texted that he was going to set my apartment on fire, I turned and asked my friend at the party, “What am I going to do? I’ll never find another place that close to the park.” And yes, I realize now in retrospect that, in addition to being wildly unhealthy, this wasn’t my best material.

When you’re in this kind of relationship, you’re as surprised as your best friend would be. You try to make something that doesn’t make sense for your personality make sense with your personality. I tried to spin it into another hilarious caper in the saga of My Terrible Taste in Men. I didn’t really let my friends have a chance to worry because I would just kind of do this show as a distraction: Hey, it’s another unhinged guy I’m trading mutual pity-oral with. Hand me my handbag, I’m going to walk down the street, swinging it to plucky music.’

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The foundation of Smolinski’s essay is subtly laid but clear: humor can be a way of manifesting toughness against requirements that were awful in the first place, specifically the false equation between conventional looks and sexual attractiveness and actual human worth. It’s particularly public and nasty for female comedians, but this is an equation that all women are saddled with in public, and which many of us, like Smolinski, can remember anticipating even as kids.

Like many an unsexy child, I discovered that I could make people laugh by making fun of myself first, a shocking and revolutionary tactic that I invented. When a male buddy of mine referred to a female classmate as a “paper-bagger” (good body, bad face), I responded that by that rubric, I was a “body-bagger,” noting, “I’ll probably lose my virginity through a hole in a sleeping bag.” He laughed, and it was like the sun coming out on a planet where it has rained for decades.

The whole essay is tremendous; read it here.


Contact the author at jia@jezebel.com.

Image via Twentieth Century Fox

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DISCUSSION

I’m not a comic, but I’m what most people would refer to as an assertive, strong woman with a fierce sense of humor. Part of the reason I stayed with my abuser for so long was that I bought into my own mythos as a “strong woman”, and believed that anything he did that was hurtful wasn’t abuse because I wasn’t capable of being abused. I thought that anything he did wrong was my fault because I knew that I was a stronger person than he was and if I could just control myself and my reactions to his bullshit better, he wouldn’t be such a dick all the time. No one asked me if I was being abused, either, because they all assumed that a person with my personality wouldn’t “put up with” abuse. And I since I thought it was on me to control his outbursts, I didn’t ask for help because I didn’t want to worry anyone “unnecessarily.”

It wasn’t until we separated and I started being honest with my friends about the kinds of badness in our marriage that I started to realize what had been happening to me. I would hear the things I’d say about him, (like that I thought anything he did wrong was my fault) and I’d think “Jesus, Mo, you sound like you’ve been abused…” It took me months to tell my very best friend about what he’d done because I didn’t want her to worry. I still struggle with horrible feelings of shame for not recognizing it sooner and getting out before things became so bad that finding out about them made my BFF cry. I’m still trying to figure out a way to not blame myself for what happened.

Abuse takes many forms, and can literally happen to any person, “tough and funny” or not. The more that women like Julieanne speak up about the form their abuse took, the more that our eyes will be opened and the more people can possibly be saved from a life of hell.