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Chicago comedy has a real gender problem

In an art form built on language, words perpetuate sexism and gender discrimination, fostering an environment that protects and harbors predators, abusers, and harassers.



So you know that children's cartoon Caillou? With the obnoxious little boy with the terrible voice and the stupid values? It's based on a series of books by Hélène Desputeaux. When I was a nanny, Caillou was an unfortunate part of my daily reality. I hated him with a passion most would reserve for actual humans who've hurt them or a loved one—real-life people with skin and lungs, not ones dreamed up by a French-Canadian woman. But despite being strokes of pen on paper, Caillou was my deepest abhorrence. Unable to contain my loathing, I did what any rational, American twentysomething would do and I took to Twitter. But then I stopped myself. What if this fictional little prick had a terminal illness? You see, Caillou has no hair and I didn't want to make fun of a kid with cancer—even a made-up kid. So I googled, "Does Caillou have cancer?"

Turns out this is a question a lot of people have asked.

The first question on Chouette Publishing's Caillou FAQ page was the very one I had. "Why is Caillou bald?" I thought I'd be relieved to learn that this fake kid wasn't suffering from a terrible disease. But I wasn't. Because what I found was a little piece of casual white male supremacy.

"Caillou stands for all children. He doesn't have curly blond hair, a carrot-top, brown hair, glasses, or ethnic features, because he represents all children. We wanted to make Caillou universal so every child could identify with him. And they do! Caillou's baldness may make him different, but we hope it's helping children understand that being different isn't just OK, it's normal."

Caillou represents all children, so they chose to make him a white boy. That is our everychild. A white male.

Chouette has since changed their answer—stating that the series started with Caillou as a baby and they didn't want to confuse kids by adding hair. (They kept the part about helping children understand that it's OK to be different, so like, good for them.)

Of course, Chouette didn't manifest this mentality. They didn't invent white male supremacy. They surely thought they were saying something really lovely by telling the world that a little able-bodied white boy is the blank human canvas, and anything else would be too "other" to be relatable. Chouette and Caillou merely express the values of the world in which they exist.

So why does this matter? I mean, we don't have to watch the show (and honestly you shouldn't—it's so, so bad). It matters because this stuff doesn't exist in a vacuum. Nothing does. The reason Hélène Desputeaux made Caillou male is the same reason we call women "female improvisers" instead of just "improvisers." We've got a real gender problem.

In January, iO's Charna Halpern posted on Facebook to defend herself from allegations about an alleged phone conversation with a victim of harassment. In addition to her defense, she made several tone-deaf and problematic statements about women, lying, and her community. Several fed up members of the scene, many of whom don't work directly for Charna anymore, took to her page to educate her. It was a tense conversation, Charna was defensive and caught off guard—she really hadn't realized that there was anything wrong with what she said or with her theater. That, of course, is the problem.

Foot firmly in mouth, Charna had inadvertently sparked much needed conversation and revelation within the comedy community. Harassment policies were created, revised, reposted by theaters across town. Many theater and training center owners reached out to their communities to express their commitment to fighting some really ugly, destructive problems. This is great. Harassment, abuse of power, underrepresentation, and intimidation are bad, and it's valuable that we're taking action against them. But they're ultimately not the problem.

Sexism is what lays the foundation for bigger issues like the ones we've been navigating in Chicago comedy this year. But Chicago comedy doesn't have a sexism problem, per se. Chicago comedy simply exists in a sexist world. And we can't just write up a policy to undo our programming.

When we shrug our shoulders and say, "It's a man's world," what we're really talking about is androcentrism. Peter Hegarty and Carmen Buechel, who studied androcentrism in 39 years of APA journals, define it as thinking which assumes "maleness to be normative and attributes gender differences to females" (hey, remember Caillou?).

Androcentrism manifests at the most basic and pernicious level in our language. We use words like "he," "him," "his," "man," and "men" to cover either males or the collective of all people. For example, take this passage from Truth in Comedy, coauthored by none other than Charna Halpern:

"After an improviser learns to trust and follow his own inner voice, he begins to do the same with his fellow players' inner voices. Once he puts his own ego out of the way, he stops judging the ideas of others—instead, he considers them brilliant, and eagerly follows them!"

Meanwhile we use "she," "her", "hers," "woman," and "women" to refer only to females. Limiting the use of female-gendered words while allowing male-gendered words broader use positions men above women.

Let's take another look at the passage above, but this time with female pronouns:

"After an improviser learns to trust and follow her own inner voice, she begins to do the same with her fellow players' inner voices. Once she puts her own ego out of the way, she stops judging the ideas of others—instead, she considers them brilliant, and eagerly follows them!"

Note how it is no longer generic advice for any improviser. The use of female-gendered pronouns has limited the audience. "He" has the power to define "she," but "she" can never define "him." "She" is other, different. "He" simply is.

Because the languages we speak have a strong impact on perception and cognition, it follows that androcentric languages imbed sexism into the speaker's worldview.

So what does that world look like?

The Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film found that in 2015, women made up only 22 percent of protagonists and 33 percent of speaking roles in the top 100 domestic films. Women make up only about a quarter of our elected officials at the state and federal levels. On a cultural level we tend to devalue women's sports, even when our national women's soccer team consistently outperforms our men's. We tend to define women through their relationships to men, while allowing men identities of their own. A man is a Mr. regardless of marital status, but a woman is Miss until she's a Mrs. Women are generally expected to take, and give their children, men's last names. Traits defined as feminine are valued below those defined as masculine. We tend to trust men and distrust women. From infancy, we're are bombarded with messages of binary gender performance, from clothing to toys to parenting styles. Girls are encouraged to be passive, to be pretty, to be experienced by others. Boys are encouraged to be active, to be strong, to do the experiencing.

So there's an angle. An idea of where we are and of how we've gotten there. So how has culturally ingrained sexism influenced our community and comedy at large?

Because humor is considered a masculine trait, we assume men's proficiency in comedy. We simultaneously assume women's deficiency. A mediocre man has an easier time making a team than a decent woman. Female dominated shows have to be significantly better than male dominated shows to be considered just as good. (The same is true for people of color, LGBTQ people, and anyone else who doesn't meet the Caillou standard of humanity.) Samantha Bee's new late-night show is incredibly smart and funny, Jessica Williams is consistently the best part of The Daily Show, SNL's women are outperforming the men weekly—and yet we're still inundated with articles, forums, and discussions about why women aren't as funny as men. We aren't even given the respect of "whether or not."

I was privy to a conversation among men from a prominent Harold team several years back. They were angrily discussing a woman on their team. "She pulls so much focus." "She plays for laughs too much." "She's a selfish player." These were dudes who cycled through sure-fire homoerotic gags every show knowing they'd hit. But this woman had the audacity to be FUNNY while they were being funny, and sometimes she was FUNNIER than they were. They compared her to another woman on the team, the one they liked to play with, the one who tended to be a more passive support player. Passive support players are valuable of course, but when we demand that women play that way and punish them for being active—that's our sexism showing.

This bias is often echoed in team selection and performer promotion. A man who is hilarious and goes for the joke may find himself on numerous teams within a theater; a woman who is the very same may not even make it onto one.

As a performer, I've had coaches and teachers fail to see and note instances of sexism in rehearsals, shows, and classes. Conversely, as a coach, I've had male performers talk and laugh through note sessions and actively refuse to participate in exercises I would bring into rehearsal.

We've all seen or experienced men shouting over women, negating women's choices, using derogatory language on stage. It's not surprising. People who don't want to have the more challenging conversation will dismiss that as "bad comedy" instead of unchecked sexism.

And that may seem small, but it's what makes us say, "He's bad to women, but he's a good friend. He's kinda douchey, but he's funny." Our androcentrism, having positioned men as inherently more valuable humans than women, has kept us from holding these guys accountable for their actions.

So let's go back to #Charnagate.

The stage has been set for something like this for a long time. We've been evolving beyond the limitations of language, and challenging the imbalances we've inherited from a forever of bullshit. This feminist fire has been burning in Chicago for a few years now. And now, thanks to a dumb comment by a powerful woman, the community has been engulfed.

Women suddenly felt empowered to open up about experiences they'd kept secret, frustrations they'd only spoken about amongst themselves. We saw conversations once reserved for kitchen corners at house parties leap into the spotlight. Men were shutting up and listening and evaluating their behavior. Of course there were perhaps too many men who feared a "witch hunt," who searched their histories for any misstep an angry woman might use against them. There were a lot of "See? Not me!" white-knight posts from well-intentioned men who perhaps wanted to distance themselves from the Bad Guys. And the Bad Guys, for the most part, were noticeably silent. But overwhelmingly, the reaction was productive and lead to long overdue action in the community.

We've seen men and women take responsibility for their own prejudices and problems and start to grow and change. Men have been examining their own behavior, women have been speaking up. What a great start.

When news broke about Trailer Park Boys actor Mike Smith's arrest after assaulting a woman, costar Lucy DeCoutere quit the show. She won't work with a bad dude. Right now, that's what we as a community need to do. We need to break off our personal and professional relationships with our community's known predators, regardless of their talent. We need to hold people accountable for their behavior and comments, on and off stage. That's the only way they'll grow and change. We need to stop compromising our values, our good hearts, and our commitment to equality. We need to hold ourselves responsible for what this community and ultimately what this industry can be, instead of playing into the same old bullshit.

We're told not to be too sensitive. Not to sweat the small stuff. To have a thicker skin. But it's saying "he" when you mean "they" that perpetuates male superiority. And it's demanding that women be passive and pretty to be attractive to men that quiets us up and makes us stop being goofy when we're kids. And it's casual sexism that fosters the environment that protects and harbors predators, abusers, and harassers. Anton Chekhov put some very valuable words into a woman's mouth in his play Uncle Vanya. "The world won't be destroyed by war or fire, but by the petty little violences we inflict upon each other every day." To paraphrase—Even I, a Russian man in 1896, can recognize that microaggressions are real. And they matter. And they'll be our undoing.

So let's stop. Let's change. It'll make for better comedy. And besides—this shit gave birth to Caillou. And isn't that reason enough to undo it? v

This essay is excerpted from the first issue of The Hambook, a Chicago-based quarterly magazine about improvisation, edited by Lee Benzaquin. To read the rest, go to

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