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About the Author

Elise Valderrama

Me I am.

Is my slip showing? Gender and vulnerability in stand-up comedy

What does it mean to be vulnerable? This question comes up quite a bit in comedy. You might hear someone say, "oh, he's so raw, so vulnerable..." It's a common form of praise, usually for male comedians. Former Late Show booker, Eddie Brill, named vulnerability as his favorite quality in a comedian. He seldom, if ever, booked women. Eventually, he was fired for his statements in the now infamous New York Times article. However, the crux of his argument was that good comedians reveal their weaknesses and women just don't do that. For most men, being vulnerable is a choice. Women don't have that luxury, we don't have to reveal anything to be vulnerable-- we are vulnerable, simply by existing. From the moment we are born to the moment we die, we are taught to stay safe, don't go out alone, don't leave your drink out, don't drink too much, don't stay out late, don't wear provocative clothing, don't threaten men. And those are just first world problems. Women are more susceptible to violence, whether it's physical, sexual, or domestic. Almost 50% of women who are murdered are murdered by a partner or former partner (bruh, remember that next time you approach a woman). Women are more susceptible to human trafficking: 80% of human trafficking victims are women or girls. Worldwide, women are more susceptible to poverty. There's a fancy term for it: the feminization of poverty.  With inadequate access to autonomy, education, health care, child care, and resources, women easily slip into the cycle of poverty. The majority of people who live on less than $1 a day are women. I dare you to find a better expert on vulnerability than a woman. But it's almost expected of us. Women comedians talk about their weaknesses all the time, but we are expected to be weak-- it's much more surprising coming from a man. It's also really difficult to joke about the travesties women face, especially without sounding flippant. When a 20-something straight cis male jokes about rape, I'm not offended. I'm concerned he doesn't realize rape is a real thing. It's not a hypothetical particle like a graviton, it's as common as carbon. I remember reading an article where famous comedians were interviewed about rape jokes and I couldn't help but wonder why no one was asking rape victims what they thought about rape jokes. I concluded that statistically, of the 12 or so comedians interviewed, at least one was probably the victim of rape-- though whether or not to reveal that is a very personal decision.
(its a rape joke)
I wrote this joke in response to the Tosh debacle of 2012.
Great comedy comes from our experiences, the things we have personal authority over. Yet we have a long standing tradition of silencing victims. When our vulnerability reaches a point of discomfort, others just don't want to hear it. But to say vulnerability has its limits is censorship, it's no different than the argument against political correctness. They are two heads of the same beast. Occasionally on stage, I'll talk about my abusive relationship. Regardless of how it's received, it takes a heavy emotional toll on me, so, it's rare that I bring it up, but I will. I know what it's like to go to sleep every night terrified of the person sleeping next to me. I know what it's like to fantasize about packing up my things, getting in my car and just driving away to anywhere. I know what it's like to be so manipulated and coerced, eventually you forget that your life has any value, your body becomes their vacant vessel, and though you are not physically held down, the consequences of saying no are so real and severe, you just learn to always say yes. And even years after leaving, I know what it's like to avoid dating and situation that may become intimate because ultimately, you're not sure you have ownership over your own body. This kind of abuse leads to so much confusion and self-doubt, after all, to accuse someone of abusive is a serious thing-- am I sure it's not just me? I haven't been physically hurt. Is it possible I'm just overly sensitive? And then I have to remember being woken up in the middle of night by a glass thrown above my head, followed by the screaming words, "YOU DON'T GIVE A FUCK ABOUT ME." Sadly, my situation is not uncommon, it can happen to anyone, woman, man, young, old, college graduate, and Mensa members alike. But if I had never talked about it, I would have never known that. It's complicated and it's messy, it can't be summed up in a trope or by a setup/punchline. It won't be the subject of an after-school special: internal conflict caused by a gas-lighting narcissist makes for terrible television, it's much easier and more titillating to show a woman being forcibly raped (though I prefer the terms sadistic and exploitative)... Most of me doesn't want to talk about it. It's incredibly painful. But if not me, then who? When you speak with experience, you have the opportunity to make something funny without belittling its significance. You own it. Speak your mind so you can die in peace. These words constantly rattle through my head. At the risk of sounding bleak, I have no real expectations for the future, I just want to slip into the dark blanket of eternity knowing I said everything I needed to say. Because there is too much that goes unsaid, or worse, gets said by buffoons who know nothing about it. And I for one, have had enough of buffoons.
Behold, the lady-comic.
Behold, the lady-comic.
Our culture is so quick to label women as crazy, unstable, or damaged. I am none of those things. Though labels stem from a need to inform and process information as quickly as possible, they're also a form censorship (this is why the idea of branding horrifies me-- you're censoring yourself to comply with a marketing strategy, you're making yourself a bag of Cheetos, we are not born to be consumed like a bag of Cheetos, delicious Cheetos). However, as long as there are those who lack the cognitive ability to understand human complexity, there will be labels. Which is to say, forever. Don't let that silence you. Women are taught to avoid situations that make us vulnerable. I think, in part, this is why there are fewer women comedians. I would argue, standing on a stage, revealing your secrets to strangers isn't totally vulnerable. It actually gives you quite a bit of power (well, until the tomatoes start to fly). It gives you ownership, regardless of the outcome. I think we have a hard time recognizing true vulnerability. For example, when a homeless man asks you for money, in reality, he is the one that is vulnerable. He's sleeping on a sidewalk, you at least have your shitty room in Chinatown. Anyone can kick him or rob him, he could disappear and no one would notice. Yeah, he might bite you, but you could throw him over the Brooklyn Bridge with little to no consequence. It's not that women comedians aren't vulnerable, it's that they're the kind of vulnerable we're afraid of. I do believe things have improved since the Eddie Brill interview came out in 2012. Look at the recent success (yey!) of my hero (yey!), Maria Bamford (yey!), named "America's Most Vulnerable Comedian." And I know men don't want to be confined to the stoic fortress of masculinity. That sounds sweaty and gross. Whenever a comedian talks about a traumatizing experience, I applaud them. Even if you feel the room is hostile, even if you think no one wants to hear it. So many times, I see women comedians give-up preemptively because an open mic is overrun with what I call testosteronie-- it feels women-hostile. Remember, open mics are about you, not them. What do you need to accomplish? Treat it like a job. Don't be afraid to fail. Fail always, fail better (I oddly like bombing at mics-- I consider it my sacrifice to the great Pachamama of comedy, so that I may perform better at a future show). In short, don't be afraid to be vulnerable, in whatever way you define your vulnerability. Whether you just want to discuss your crippling fear of telephone calls or reveal deep-rooted childhood trauma, do you. Only you have the authority to define yourself and chances are you're not alone. And don't be surprised if soon enough, that vulnerability turns into power. (cause that's when we take down the patriarchy, raaaaAAAHHHH!!!)

How good are you at explaining racism?

A few weeks ago, my aunt asked me to do a Skype Q&A with her high school students in Peru. She teaches a course on race and racial profiling and she thought it would be interesting to show her class my stand-up comedy dealing with racism then discuss the differences between American and South American racism.

However, the timing could not have been more biting. Just prior to my Skype call, news of yet another black man, Alton Sterling, slaughtered by police officers, began to circulate. My aunt said to me, "the kids have a hard time understanding American racial profiling, for instance, why do cops target black people?"

Anyone from a Latin country is accustomed to a very different sort of police brutality. Common wisdom says cops only stop you when they want a bribe. So, why would cops target black people, let alone kill them? What is the point of that?

I started off saying, "Well... after the abolishment of slavery, black bodies were no longer governed by capitalism and lost their monetary value..." Their little faces squished and looked so confounded, I had to simplify. "Being black in America, people assume you're a criminal. That is the stereotype." "Oh." They ask me what other forms of racism black Americans face. Though I in no way felt qualified to answer that question, I listed some of the most prevalent examples: white people crossing the street when they see you approaching, not getting called in to job interviews, being declined for loans or credit, being accused of stealing, being targeted and murdered by the police, being worth less than everyone else. I felt I could do this question no justice. I had not lived these things. I didn’t even begin to explain the treatment of black women, once a financially viable vehicle for the creation of slaves, degraded and cast as the sex potent welfare queen.

However, still flustered by yet another black death, I said very calmly, “Because black lives are worth less than white lives, cops can just kill black people and historically nothing happens to them.” The words felt just as horrifying coming out of my mouth as the look on their young faces. However, this is the message America sends every time a black life is shot down by police with no conviction or retribution.

“Is that the main difference between Peruvian racism and American racism?” they asked.

"Well,” I responded, “American racism is very violent. It has always been very violent. Where in other countries, violence is often politically charged, in America, we target violence towards each other."

The words flowed from my mouth before I had much time to even process them but it's a pretty ancient concept: divide and conquer.  It is a benefit to government to keep us separate, keep us fighting amongst ourselves, distract us with hatred. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. addressed this issue many times. In modern day politics, "us vs. them" has become the norm. But we don't have to subscribe to that.

However, in America, we feel a strange helplessness. Despite being "free" we also feel beneath the system-- a system that seems untouchable, unchangeable. So, violence gets redirected towards a more vulnerable target, whether it be black Americans, immigrants, the LGBT community, etc.

The kids asked me (as so many people have) if I identify as white or Latina. I identify as Latina but I am white-- I realize to the world I am white and that comes with an abundance of privileges. However, at times I face the pressure (usually from the white camp) to “pick a side.” Exactly what am I picking a side for? An imaginary conflict created by a corrupt system to detract attention from those in power? I would rather step-down from the racial hierarchy. I would rather obliterate the racial hierarchy.

The morning following my Skype talk, I was still sifting through my emotional catalogue, trying to figure out how I felt, when I heard about Philando Castille’s murder.

Maybe it was the summer heat, maybe it’s because I haven't had a real job in over a year and I've been living in a roach infested apartment with no A/C and I’m constantly in a bad mood, but the minute I heard about Philando Castille I wanted blood. Kill him. Kill the cop that executed an innocent man in front of his family. Make an example of him, basta, enough. I have been an outspoken opponent against capital punishment since I was 14 years old. However, at that moment I was consumed by anger-- racist men only speak the language of violence. Speak to them in their language, let them know the fear of having your life on the line, the fear every black person feels on a regular basis. As the day progressed, my heart softened to reason. Statistically, capital punishment has never deterred violence. States with capital punishment still have the highest rate of murder and violent crime-- not to mention the ripple effect violence creates. It would be like trying to kill a jellyfish by slicing it in half, you just end up with two jellyfish. The only way to really stop jellyfish from overpopulating is to stop the conditions that allows them to breed in the first place. Same with violence. Soon after came the shooting in Dallas: five officers dead at a protest, nine wounded. Ultimately, I do not wish death upon anyone. Not innocent black men, not cops doing their job, not even alleged snipers or racist murderers.

I want a system that is not a broken, a system that is not designed to target and incarcerate black men (and women), a system that does not drive people to desperation. I want a conviction, expulsion, jail sentence. An eye for an eye leaves the world blind but an eye for nothing leaves half the world blind, stunned, and demoralized.

A few years back, I had a run in with the law myself. I was on the border of Little Haiti in Miami, a neighborhood undergoing gentrification (a whole other big subject, yes). I was visiting a friend in her brand new luxury condo and being the New Yorker that I am, decided to walk over to a nearby pub. As I was crossing the street, a cop stopped me. He started asking me questions-- where I was going, where I was coming from. Here I was, a white girl walking around a black neighborhood at 11 o’clock at night. It struck me almost immediately: he thinks I’m a prostitute. Just then, I turned my head to find I was completely surrounded by police officers.

I kept my cool but I was terrified. I knew that if they decided I was a prostitute, my life essentially had no value. The most vile human beings take out their anger and frustration on the most vulnerable among us. They could beat me, rape me, murder me-- if they decided my life was worthless, in there minds there would be no consequence. I imagine this is as close to feeling black as I will ever get.

Sometimes, I tell white people this story and they think I’m being crazy. “He was probably just worried about you and wanted to make sure you’re okay.” If he was worried about me, why did he start off with an interrogation? Why didn’t he just say something like, “Hey, are you lost? Are you okay?” not “Hey, where are you coming from? Oh yeah, who lives there? Who were you visiting in that building?”

This is my biggest frustration with some white people (ahem, all lives matter people). They’re tone deaf. For the life of me, I can’t tell if they’re simply incapable of seeing the obvious or if they just chose not to.

Most recently, Miami police shot unarmed therapist, Charles Kinsey, who was trying to help his autistic patient. Kinsey was laying on the ground with hands up when he was shot. If you thought I was crazy before, I am certainly feeling crazy now-- WE SHOULD ALL BE FEELING CRAZY.

A gun-carrying police officer should not feel entitled to assign value to another human. And the fact that they do should scare the crap out of everyone. But statistically and historically, black bodies bear the burden of this, black bodies have been assigned the lowest value so it’s easy for the rest of us to ignore. However, as the late Elie Wiesel said, “Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”

Back to the corner of Biscayne and 54th. I calmly explained to the officers that I was staying with a friend on the waterfront and rather than drive four blocks and re-park my car, I decided to walk to Churchill’s. The argument was sound, his face softened. He made eye contact with the other officers and waved his hand in an “it’s okay” gesture. The fortress of cops enveloping me broke apart and everyone went about their business. “Just be safe, ok?”

“Ok, thanks.” Though, safe from who, I wondered.

Before signing off with Peru, the kids asked me one last question, “What can our generation do to end racism and racial profiling?” The answer felt so deceptively simple: “Make friends with everyone, get to know everyone, respect everyone.” But at the same time we have to question ourselves, question our actions and what we've learned.  It's not as easy as it sounds.

I feel incredibly blessed to have grown-up in a diverse community, a community of people who called me out when I was being ignorant or racist, people that helped me grow and evolve. Not everyone is given that opportunity. Not everyone wants that opportunity. However, remember always your life is not worth less. Your life is precious and valuable and deeply important. Though sometimes it feels like you’re drowning, keep defining yourself. One day, the rest of us will have to catch-up.