Tina Fey Wants Us Stop Asking If It’s An ‘Exciting Time For Women In Comedy’ And I Couldn’t Agree More

In a recent interview with Town and Country, Tina Fey expressed the exhaustion echoed by basically anyone who’s routinely told, “Isn’t 2016 exciting? What a great time to be a woman/minority/any other marginalized group!” as if suddenly, being sometimes recognized as competent is worthy of celebration.

During the press tour for Sisters,  both Fey and Poehler found themselves facing the same well-meaning but ultimately sexist questions they always face.

Fey said:

“Every single interviewer asked, ‘Isn’t this an amazing time for women in comedy?’ People really wanted us to be openly grateful—’Thank you so much!’—and we were like, ‘No, it’s a terrible time. If you were to really look at it, the boys are still getting more money for a lot of garbage, while the ladies are hustling and doing amazing work for less.’”

There is a fixed pattern in interviews with female comedians where interviewers either explicitly, A) compare the comedian to other female comedians regardless of obvious style differences, B) make an exclamatory remark about what a great time it is for women in comedy as a bait for enthused agreement, or C) ask what it’s like to be a woman in comedy with the intention of making a splashy headline either lauding the comedian’s feminism or ability to transcend feminism, depending.

These gender-fueled baited interviews certainly aren’t unique to Tina Fey and Amy Poehler’s experience. Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson of Broad City have expressed frustration at their constant comparisons to Girls and condescending labeling of “sneak attack feminism,” as if feminism is something so niche and alienating it needs to be veiled as a “sneak attack,” and expressing frustration at the need constantly qualify comedy by women as female comedy, and not just comedy.

Ilana Glazer said:

“There’s this belief with no merit that media with women at the center applies only to women, but media with men at the center applies to everyone. Abbi and Ilana’s friendship represents that ride-or-die dynamic for anyone to whom it speaks, not just women.”

The effects of baited interviews are doubled for female comedians of color who have to navigate both the gendered and racially baited pigeonholing, as Issa Rae of Awkward Black Girl can attest to. Interviews quickly veer away from questions about her artistic and comedic choices instead entering the territory of, “Are you mad? But  — haven’t we made progress? Why aren’t you happy about that?!”

In an interview, Rae said:

“I do get tired of being asked to constantly speak about the black experience. If I’m writing an article, it’s like, ‘Hey, we love your writing, we just want you to talk about being black and why you’re mad about it.’ And that’s frustrating. I’m like, what if I’m not mad today?”

While most female comedians are constantly invited to qualify their gendered experiences in comedy, they are in turn punished for expressing opinions considered too political or harsh, causing a self-perpetuating double-bind. Janeane Garofalo can attest to this phenomenon, having faced massive backlash for her outspoken views on misogyny and the war in Iraq:

“Being female has a lot to do with it. Plenty of men have been targeted, but being female means you’re really gonna get it. It takes almost nothing as a female to incite vitriol. If you say you’re sorry, they’ll pile on more, which I didn’t understand at the beginning dealing with these people. Never say sorry if you’re not wrong… In today’s culture, with the culture of cruelty online, it takes nothing to get shat upon, which is why I try to stay out of it.”

The problem isn’t that asking questions about being a woman in comedy is a pigeonholing act in itself. In fact, looking at the ways that (mostly white) women have gained access to more comedic opportunities in recent years can lead to an exciting and nuanced conversation. The issue with these consistent exclamations about “how exciting it is to be a woman in comedy,” or comparisons of female comedians regardless of style differences, or pointed questions about sexism in the industry, is that they aren’t usually asked with the intention of truly being answered; they’re asked as a way of keeping female comedians in a neat box separate from male comedians.

These questions are posed with the subtext that if they answer too honestly about sexism, or another female comedian, or even whether they agree it’s a “great time for female comedians,” they will be burned at the stake for either for expressing concerns that are divisive for the PR of comedy as an art form, or lambasted for failing to correctly represent women as a demographic. While all of this is happening, we are quickly forgetting the jokes these women have dedicated hours to writing, the pilots they’ve sold, the political stances they’re been able to more clearly articulate through hours of work and not singular baited questions that are intended to incite reaction.

So, is it a good time for women in comedy? Sure, in ways. It’s also still an awful time for women in comedy (and if you want to escape the systemic critique and get into the nature of the beast, men too). But really — the point is, regardless of which answer you lean towards, let’s be mindful of not letting this idea keep us from continuing to listen to female comedians when they choose to speak out, without forcing them to.

Let us remember that if it is indeed a “good time for women in comedy,” it’s because they’ve worked tirelessly to achieve that good time while putting up with gendered obstacles, and there was no fairy that descended from the heavens to bestow this gift of opportunity on women, so when we use this idea of 2016’s Progressiveness as a reason to silence women from continuing to organize and break down barriers, we are slowly rolling back that Progress.

(Town and Country)