Opinion: Should comediennes be OK with being called 'female comedians' or is it sexist?

Opinion: Should comediennes be OK with being called 'female comedians' or is it sexist?
2016-07-07 02:04:31 UTC

"Do you like being called a "woman comedian"?

This was the question posed in the July 2016 issue of Elle magazine, and I was initially confused by my all-time favorite female comedian's (and second favorite comic) response.

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                                                          Photo credit: @iamwandasykes/Twitter

Wanda Sykes said, "Just a comedian. It's demeaning when someone comes up to you and goes, 'Oh my God, you're my favorite female comic.'"

Comedians Margaret Cho, Abbi Jacobson, Ilana Glazer and Rachel Bloom also weighed in on the discussion.

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                                       Margaret Cho (Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

"It's interesting, gender versus race," said Glazer to Elle. "I think people say that to women more: 'Oh, you're my favorite female.' They wouldn't say 'favorite black comic.'"

"Also, who came up with the comedienne thing?" asked Bloom. "The female comedian."

Sykes was accurate in her guess when she said, "I thought it was a French thing." According to Merriam Webster, it is.

But the bigger question here is whether it's really degrading to refer to a woman's profession by race or gender. I am always counting off my top five female comedians and top five male comedians. I've had debates with co-workers about who is the funniest. I even made a Pinterest board about all the African-American female comedians that "Saturday Night Live" needed to hire after Kenan Thompson refused to be the black woman on anymore "SNL" skits. It was right next to my top five female and male comedians.

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These two, Wanda Sykes and Deon Cole, are in my top five favorite comedians (Photo credit: @iamwandasykes/Instagram)

But as a full-time copy editor and freelance reporter over a 10-year timespan, I'd feel some kind of way about someone referring to me as a "female copy editor" or a "female reporter," unless it fit the context of the discussion. For example, as a former freelancer for CBS Chicago, I completed a series of interviews about Chicago professionals. One of the industries I focused on was nurses. But after interviewing several female nurses, I wanted to highlight that there are male nurses, too. From my research came discussions with John Barfield on being a nurse during Jim Crow and Fred Brown Jr., who discussed being a veteran nurse.

Recommended Reading: "Male Nurse In Chicago Fights For Health Profession During Jim Crow Obstacles"

"After 22 Years In Military, Chicago Nurse Now Directs His Own Unit"

While the topic of them being male in a female-dominated industry was an interesting tidbit, had they not been qualified and registered to be nurses, this interview would've never happened with either of them. The qualifications mattered more to me than gender, but the gender storyline added some extra spunk to the story in the same way that Elle's July issue is filled with female comedians (ex. Mindy Kaling's discussion on Donald Trump and diversity, 100-comedian survey, etc.).

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                                           Mindy Kaling (Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

It's nice to see women professionals doing their thing in an industry that is drowning in men in the same way as female professionals in the tech industry or the hip-hop performing industry or the financial industry. But I still go back to the question of whether I would want to be referred to that way day in and day out.

On one hand, I understand why it's so important to bring up accomplishments in race and gender beating the odds of succeeding in an industry. Calling a comedienne my "favorite female comedian" is no different to me than saying "my favorite rom-com" or "my favorite nonfiction book." It doesn't mean that thrillers or dramas, or fiction and how-to guides, are inferior. I box them into groups solely because I just can't compare how much I love Karen Siplin's "Whiskey Road" to Hill Harper's "The Conversation." I can't explain why I watch "Brotherly Love" and "Sleepers" so much I know the words, or why I can never turn away from a marathon of Jason Bourne movies or "House" TV marathons. They're all equally cool, but I love them for different reasons.

On the other hand, shouldn't a professional's work ethic and longevity in the industry matter more than having lady parts? If the standards are the same for both, should my top five comedians just be straight-up funny, even if some female comedians rely on talking about womanhood for the dominant part of their acts? (Note: This is not Wanda Sykes. She'll go on and on about Bush with the same clever demeanor as she would talking about looking sexy for her wife.)

There's no right or wrong answer here. The only thing that is clear is the next time someone walks up to a female comedian and says "You're my favorite female comedian," know that it's meant with the utmost respect. And when it's not? Tear that person apart the next time you get onstage.

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