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.’
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.
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Image via Twentieth Century Fox