5-to-2. This is not a baseball score, but the ratio of men to women in the comedy writing class I attended last year at the Hugo House in Seattle.
The teacher, a successful stand-up comedian and writer of essays made it clear up front that most people could be funny at times—in a meeting at work, at the gym, at party, or at the doctor’s office, but to BE funny, to develop a quip into a paragraph, a page, then sustain it through a thousand-word essay, is different. Humor starts with one funny idea, the premise—then the beats of humor to support that funny idea are developed; structure and genre must be decided on.
He told us to observe our lives and the world around us through a comedy lens. We came to class with notes to share about what we saw and heard through this lens. And each week, there was a 300-word assignment—some of our format choices: listicle, narrative, personal ad, email stream, interview, infographic.
After two classes, the other woman stopped showing up. Ratio turned into 5-to-1, and her crime? She left me alone, in a small room, chock-full of testosterone.
In one class, a guy made a derogatory comment about Elizabeth Warren’s sex appeal. He said, who’d want to sleep with her. I said, “Watch yourself.” Elizabeth Warren’s sex appeal had nothing to do with the discussion. It seemed so easy for this man to dismiss a woman’s sexuality when he couldn’t dismiss her intelligence and power.
I don’t think the men noticed or cared that I was the only woman in class. But they did the last class because I had something to say about it. This is what I said: “Coming to class on Thursday nights has felt like landing on Planet Man. I hadn’t signed up for testosterone overload, but that’s what I got. I emailed Jacquelyn asking her to please return to class as I needed her extra female energy. She said she’d return, but as you know, she did not.” All ten male eyeballs were on me. They noticed ME, possibly for the first time, as the only female in the class.
I went on to say, “During this class, I’ve heard the words, penis and balls, more times than I’ve heard them in the last five years. I wondered how different the conversations and writings would have been if the teacher had been female, or if there was only one male student in a group of females.”
The instructor hadn’t wondered about that at all. Instead he made a joke about how in an all-male group they probably would have acted like apes scratching their underarms and private parts.
He asked me how the humor was different?
“There’s more bathroom humor, profanity, sex coming from the guys,” I said. At that point, I knew they all thought back to the first assignment: write a 300-word piece about yourself from the point of view of someone or something else. One guy said, “I’m going to write from the POV of my toilet seat.” “Ew,” I said, horrified.
They got a little defensive in that last class. One guy said, “But I thought I was in touch with my feminine side.” Another guy said, “Well, that’s Planet Man talking.” For the rest of the class, the men called each other on comments “coming from Planet Man.” They seemed more timid, less raucous than usual. They looked to me for comments and reactions more, snuck more looks at me.
In retrospect, I wish I had added this perspective to my comments in that last class: “How many times have I said the word, vagina? Zero times. I don’t feel the need to shout it exists. When I come to class, I bring my vagina. In class, I don’t think about it. I have never spoken the word, vagina, in any class I’ve ever taken. When the class is over, and I’m driving home, I deal with a million replays of the class. I think about what I learned. I brainstorm ideas for the next homework assignment. Words and feelings bounce around in my brain and body. Still not thinking about my vagina.”
Even though the gender imbalance had been palpable to me. It meant nothing to the guys. Until I told them about it. Best outcome: in future classes or meetings these males may notice the lone female and behave in a more, dare I say, feminist way. Probably not though, right? Unless the current pro-women movements truly generate a power for change. I’m hopeful.