“He may not have apologised to you but he has to live with something awful he did every day.”
You may have heard about Matt Okine and his excellent speech at the ARIA Awards last week. While accepting his trophy for Best Comedy Release, he pointed out that there were no women nominated in his category. Not one. Uncomfortable truths apparently don’t make for good TV because the speech was cut from the broadcast.
Shortly after the show, another male comedian tweeted that he didn’t think the point was particularly worth making, as the problem wasn’t that women aren’t on equal footing in comedy- the problem is just that we’re not putting ourselves out there enough. He said that comedy is a democracy and if there are fewer women involved, that’s on us (because as we all know, democracies favour everyone equally). Women smarter than me took him to task for this and his tweets have since been deleted.
But it was another example of the blame shifting that goes on in almost every conversation about women in comedy and, really, women in the world. I’ve been involved in comedy in varying capacities for almost 10 years. 2 of those 10 years were spent in a relationship with an abusive man, who was also a comedian. As a result, here are a couple of questions I’ve been asked a lot:
- Why aren’t there more women in comedy?
- Why didn’t you leave?
The answers to these questions are almost identical.
“I’m not saying he’s the victim, I’m just saying...he’s still my friend. And I am trying to help him. Don’t make me choose between you.”
Sometimes I think I’d prefer to be in an industry where the sexism is right out there. A modern Mad Men scenario, where the boss smokes cigars and tells me to get my sweet behind into his office. I could fight that. I could explain, in direct language, why that boss could go to hell for his regressive, parody-worthy attitude.
It’s more insidious in comedy. Because everyone knows that it’s not OK, exactly, to discriminate against women. Men in the industry will nod thoughtfully and pay lipservice to the idea of increased representation, while continuing to contribute to a culture in which women are unwelcome and under-valued. They’re so right on that they could never be sexist, right? They voted Green in both houses last election!
And yet the fact remains that, when I started out in the Sydney comedy scene, men were dominant. Of the few women who entered the scene at the same time as me, only two of us are now professionally involved in comedy. She still lives in Sydney and works mostly autonomously. I live in London, where I’ve found the community to be, by and large, more progressive. She and I remain close.
In contrast, the vast majority of the men who started out with me still work and perform together. My exclusion from this group was gradual but unmistakable. When we were still at university and I suggested that women were being underrepresented in shows that we worked on, I was (mostly) dismissed. This lead to me performing almost exclusively with other women, which to be fair worked out pretty well for me because those women were excellent.
But the final break came as a result of that relationship with the violent man. Comedy, particularly in Australia, is a small community. And as a comedian, you rely on that community for professional and personal support.
When I left my boyfriend, few in the community knew the precise details of his abuse. They knew he sometimes drank too much and had anger issues- some of them had witnessed his outbursts towards me- but when he told them that I’d left because I wanted to sleep around while traveling? They accepted that as truth immediately. When aggressive, sexist bullshit appeared about me on social media? Not a single one of them called him out.
When I finally started telling people the details (an activity encouraged by the shrink I’d started seeing to deal with the PTSD that was one of my legacies from the relationship), I was met with occasional support. More often I was met with awkwardness and a gradual disconnection from that friendship. On several occasions, I was told to stop talking because they knew what I was going to say and they didn’t want to hear it about their friend. They didn’t even want to hear it.
“When you say things about how hard it was to get over, the PTSD, the therapy, you sound vengeful”.
One of those friends, the ones who didn’t want to know, got in touch with me recently. It was 2011 when I tried to talk to him about my experiences and he told me to stop. It’s now 2015. In the intervening 4 years, this friend and I have spent a lot of time together and I have pushed away the betrayal that I felt when he wouldn’t hear me.
But then, in the middle of my working day last week, when I had two columns and a script draft due and was sitting at my desk eating toast and staring aimlessly at my laptop, that friend messaged me. The quotes in this article are all taken from his messages. He messaged me to tell me that I needed to stop telling people about my abuser because it was making life difficult for him.
To be clear, though my former partner was taken in by the police when we were together (they drove by in plain clothes when he was beating me in the street, which seems, looking back, almost too lucky to be true), I refused to press charges. Because despite my masses of privilege- I’m white, cisgender, university educated and from a loving family- I was terrified of being abandoned by my support network.
So this is not a situation where I’m picking on someone who has been punished or rehabilitated. It’s not even that I’m refusing to forgive someone who has apologised to me. This is a man protecting the feelings of another man over the feelings of a woman who has been abused. Because boys will be boys, I guess, and women will shut the hell up.
This has been my ongoing experience with the Australian comedy community and was a major feature in my decision to leave the country. I was verbally and physically abused and rebuilding my mental health and my life took more strength and effort than I knew I possessed. And when I visit home now, I consistently turn down invitations to be in the same social and performance spaces with the man who did that to me. Last time I was in town, I responded to every request to attend an event he’d be at by saying some variation of “I would rather not be in the same room as the man who choked me until I couldn’t breathe”. My invitations stopped coming. Mine did.
“You’re saying me being friends with him is tacit approval of DV.”
To my mind, I don’t just have a right to talk about my experiences- I have a responsibility. Because I’m OK now. I’m safe and I’m healthy and I make my living writing and performing and if I can’t draw attention to it, then who can?
So this is a story about how the Australian comedy community treats women in my situation because that’s what I know about. I don’t know how it’d be if we’d both been lawyers or zookeepers or astronauts. But when I am asked the question, about why more women don’t go into comedy? Well, it’s for the same reason we don’t leave our abusive partners. Because men look after men and in the end, no one wants to hear your grievances.
Sexual Assault Helpline – 1800 010 120
Sexual Assault & Family Violence Hotline – 1800 RESPECT
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