Breaking into any male-dominated profession comes with its own unique set of struggles. Sometimes it feels like no matter how hard women try to find equality or move up in our fields, we're often considered token hires, not taken seriously enough, or on a treadmill that goes nowhere. The entertainment industry can be particularly tough for women, and only in recent years have women in stand-up comedy, in particular, been allowed to shine. The new film All About Nina, opening Sept. 28, tackles the stand-up scene in an honest, revealing way that showcases the painful struggles of being a woman in such a man-heavy field.
All About Nina stars Mary Elizabeth Winstead as the titular character, an abrasive and grim New York City stand-up comedian whose edgy persona is almost a bit of a crutch. Her affair with an abusive, married man and her stagnated career inspire a move out to Los Angeles, where her leather jacket and all-black attire clash with the hippie vibe of her new home. When she meets Rafe (Common), her relationship expectations and intimacy hesitations are put through a meat grinder, and her own personal demons make their way into her routine. As shown in the exclusive clip below, the film is predominantly a character exploration, but it also has a lot to say about the world at large, and how women often face an extra layer of roadblocks — particularly in comedy circles.
The world of stand-up comedy is fraught with misogyny, and female comedians run the risk of being too edgy or not edgy enough to play on the big boy stages. Nina's brassy comedy and her ease with topics of a sexual nature put her in the "just edgy enough" category, but has its drawbacks: she's hit on by a new guy after nearly every set. As she heads to the bar for her usual post-performance drink, she mentally dons armor to prepare herself for the inevitable. That she can always see the dudes coming provides the movie with a few humorous moments, but the sad nature of the repetition of these come-ons is tiringly familiar for many women who just want to do their jobs without being subjected to male sexual ego.
Early on in the film, Nina homes in on how the experience of dealing with men after her shows can be so exhausting. "It's incredible the things women could be getting done if we weren't always defending ourselves from men trying to f*ck us all the time," she says in her routine. "Think of the things men could accomplish if you weren't trying to f*ck us!" Indeed half of Nina's jaded outlook seems to be the result of years of dealing with drunken come ons and listening to comedy bros try and "compliment" her by saying that she's funny... for a woman.
This toxic environment is all the more clear during a scene in which five female comedians, Nina included, audition for a spot on Comedy Prime, the movie's version of Saturday Night Live. Caught between a rock and a hard place, they all really want the job, but can't sit there without remarking about how they're all a token hire, that Comedy Prime is in desperate need of a woman on its cast and seemingly any one of them will do. "Isn't it great how all of a sudden we're funny?" one of them says, pointing out the hypocrisy of women in comedy finally being "taken seriously," yet not taken seriously enough that they don't have to put themselves through the humiliating audition.
Mild spoilers ahead. Though if there's one pit of cliché that All About Nina falls into its the tendency for films about abrasive women to give them some sort of traumatic past. Nina's acerbic attitude doesn't have to be the result of years of damage and childhood anguish, but too often stories about dark, raw, bitter women resort to sexual assault as an explanation for their personality. It seems unfair for the movie to say that, were it not for a particularly dark, agonizing past, Nina would be a perfectly happy person without any of the intimacy or trust issues. A woman's suffering doesn't have to be a major element of a her story in order for her to be dark and damaged.
Instead, Nina's caustic sharpness would be believable just for her experiences as a female comic alone. That she faces sexism on a nightly basis and that the women vying for parts have to work twice as hard truly echoes any industry. But with the growing success of beloved female comics like Ali Wong, Samantha Bee, Michelle Wolf, Hannah Gadsby it's hard not to consider that, like Nina, these exceedingly funny women may have had to go through some really awful crap to get there.