Please Don't Tell Me I Have To Dress A Certain Way To Be Funny, Thanks
Recently, I took an improv class, which was SO much fun. It was basically like adult summer camp. On the morning of our class graduation show, one of my few fellow female classmates mentioned having trouble choosing her outfit that morning. She settled on jeans and a slouchy graphic tee — a look in line with the tomboy style that she had sported for the entirety of the class. “Yeah, ya know. You don’t want to look too hot when you’re doing improv. You wanna be funny.” I wish this was a joke, but it wasn't. I know, because I've heard it before. I've internalized it to a certain extent. But there are SERIOUS problems with this way of thinking.
True, improv does require a uniform that allows for you to move around a lot, be silly and maybe even do a few somersaults, so stretch jeans are great for that! But hold up — none of the dudes in my class expressed the same concern that “looking hot” would fight the funny. Plus, who signed the court order that women in comedy have to dress a certain way for their talent to take center stage? That ideology basically sets up a dynamic where people place comedy at odds with femininity. Just as bad, it places women's bodies within a power structure that’s still dominated by dudes. And honestly, it's time to throw up the deuces to this outmoded idea.
It’s fantastic that we live in an age where a strictly male-dominated comedy scene is eroding. Women are KILLING the TV game at this moment. There are many critically lauded, intelligent, powerhouse female show runners, writers, sitcom protagonists, and stand-ups in the industry right now than there have ever been. Still, the boy's club is still alive and well. And beyond the visibility of the badass comedians who have risen to the top, there is a governing ethic of style for women working to make it in comedy. The notion is that if you look a bit too glam, cute, or sexy your comedy won’t be taken seriously.
For the past three years, I’ve been an avid student of comedy. I’ve taken sketch classes, I've done stand-up, and my most recent venture was improv. And when I’m performing, I dress first and foremost for myself. Sometimes that “me” wants to throw on jeans and can't be bothered with eyeshadow. Sometimes that “me” is a girl who loves cat eye liner, finger waves, and vintage dresses. As a lady with all the applicable lumps, my figure just naturally works best in ‘60s silhouettes, and I like to wear clothes that suit my undulations. Not to mention, I’ve found that when I'm doing my thing, I’m more confident, well-spoken, and funny (in my mind) when I dress up. Fashion is one of the ways that I express my creativity. I shouldn't have to compromise that. Everyone can just deal.
In a perfect world, we'd be able to swirl the flavors of fashion and comedy together into one delectable self-expression soft-serve. But often, it’s not that simple. Although I feel more confident dressing up, my ideas were not as well-received when I decided to put on lipstick. It's just something I've felt. The prevailing idea behind this discomfort boils down to the following idea: If you wanna be admitted into the comedy boy's club, you've gotta adopt their dress code.
Julie Klausner, comedy writer, host of your very favorite podcast “How Was Your Week”, and star/co-creator of Difficult People, deftly tackles this issue in her memoir of twenty-something dating misadventures, I Don’t Care About Your Band. Klausner has a run-in with an ex boyfriend while at a job interview for a TV writing position, and he gives her some advice to “turn down the glamour” despite the fact that she’s just wearing a standard nice suit and some makeup. She expounds on this event, what is says about the comedy nerd boy's club, and the kinds of girls that are granted admission:
"What I have since learned is that the girls who thrive in Boytown, professionally and personally … They wear their “nice” New Balance sneakers when they go out at night, and a clean t-shirt when they go to world. They blend in with the guys they scare."
It’s one thing if you feel like your best self in that uniform. Jeans and t-shirts are comfortable, and if that’s your style then you do you! But I don’t want to feel uncomfortable for “doing me” if i choose not to look like one of he guys. Especially if the assumption is that I'm obliged to do so, for the sake of being less threatening to people who don't view their positions in comedy as affirmative action.
Beyond blending, the other side of the comedy uniform coin is that you could give people the wrong idea if you look too feminine. In an article in Esquire, former Chelsea Lately writer and stand up comedian Annie Ledermann accounts her on-stage wardrobe, which is self-described as tomboyish. She admits to taking off her padded bra when she goes on stage, so she can “gripe about her small tits.” When talking about her on-stage wardrobe, she says:
"I want to look good, but I don't want women to think I want to fuck their husbands," she said. "You don't want to look like a predator."
So basically, a bit of cleavage means that I’m a praying mantis? Anyone who is that alienated by a woman’s body needs to check themselves.
Being a courageous enough human being to pursue a career in professional hilarity —which, male or female, takes exceptional guts — you should by virtue be brave enough to say: “I’m wearing a dress and pumps because I want to. Just like you’re wearing a Star Wars shirt and Dickies because you want to. That's fine. Let's judge each other by our ideas instead.”
Because times are changing, however, there are plenty of female comedian style icons who prove these damaging ideologies wrong. Amy Schumer’s vampy style marries perfectly with her sketch and stand up that critiques gender politics with a scrappy flair. Lena Dunham’s vibrant style is just as brash and graphic as her show, which I love.
Mindy Kaling is a whimsical soufflé of fierce. I adore The Daily Show's Kristen Schaal and her Gibson Girl look. And don’t forget the virtue of working your outfits into your act! Women in comedy have been doing that back since the days of Lucille Ball.
That farce of a debate about women being funny has been safely put to bed by pretty much everyone. Of COURSE women are funny. Women are beasting comedy all day everyday in the 21st century. But things aren’t entirely on an even keel yet. We're getting there, but can’t write off fashion. It’s political in the professional laugh-maker world. It represents the other weight at the end of the image double-standard barbell.
The problem on one side is that, as a woman, you’re obliged to care about your appearance. If you're not considered conventionally attractive, you’re not a person. Care about your appearance too much, you run the risk of scaring the boys on the playground. Let's just call this what it is. A comedian’s worry of being “too pretty” just provides another form of appearance anxiety that divides our mental energy. It keeps women shackled in a headspace that prevents us from doing our very best work. It’s time to call shenanigans on this, already. Women aren't comedy props. Women aren't objects. We're just as funny as men. As Amy Poehler and Tina Fey told us so many eons ago...bitches get shit DONE! We're ruling things now, and we have the right to dress like it.