Women often find that being on stage can be more daunting to them than it is to men, for the simple reason that the audience scrutinises them from top-to-bottom basis how they look, how they dress, how they are shaped. Basically everything else apart from what they’re actually on stage to do – to perform. And in a field as interactive as comedy, the audience finds it easier to nitpick on female comics, as opposed to the male ones, right then and there. Comedian Aishwarya Mohanraj, who rose to fame with Amazon Prime’s Comicstaan and is now a well-known comic in India’s comedy scene, spoke to SheThePeople about what her experience has been like on stage, the backlash Agrima Joshua faced recently, and finding equality in a male-dominated profession.
Women Talk About Such Issues Because This Is Our Personal Experience
Social media is often abuzz with feedback that comedians who are female should select topics that are “neutral,” and relatable to both men and women. Comics, who have chosen to be vocal about issues like menstruation or sexual harassment through their comedy sets, are often criticised by the audience. Aishwarya agrees, saying, “If a man started wearing a bra, probably he’ll also start talking about it! And if they have such a problem with it, then ek baar pehen ke dekh lo na bra. Tumko bhi content mil jayega usse.”
She believes that the reason women talk about such issues and men don’t is “because this is our personal experience.” She explains with another example, “Like menstruation – you don’t go through it, which is why you don’t have anything to say about it. It’s that basic. I think it comes from the place where ‘kabhi dekha hai ladko ko inn cheezo ke baare baat karte hue?’”
The Ingrained Bias Is That Women Are Not Funny – Aishwarya Mohanraj
While sections of the audience are yet to gauge the significance of this kind of social commentary comedians do, women on stage are bogged down by yet another pressure – that of being severely judged for the way they look, dress, and talk. Male comics often don’t have to face this kind of sexualisation while performing on stage. “Every time a woman does comedy, the first thing she needs to overcome is her gender,” Mohanraj says, “after which they will see if you’re funny or not. The ingrained bias is that women are not funny.”
In fact, she readily agrees when I point out that the term “female comic” itself creates a barrier at the outset, hinting at the fact that women in comedy are not, and may never be, mainstream. Distinguishing a “female comic” from her male counterparts by attaching her gender when referring to her makes her seem like an aberration in the field of comedy. So does this term “female comic” need to go? Mohanraj presents both sides of the argument, saying, “Honestly, I wouldn’t have been asked this question if I were a male comic. And that’s the difference. But such questions keep resonating with women in comedy – even friends ask, ‘Tu comedy kar rahi hai… Women ke liye theek hai kya ye field?’ So I’m kind of tired of the connotation of being a female comic.”
Heckling, Trolling, and Agrima Joshua
It’s common to hear comedians being heckled on stage mid-performance. Mohanraj recalls, “At corporate shows, when I open the act for a male comic, I am not given any attention. And I have been heckled a lot of times on stage. Once a woman heckled me during a show, and I felt so flustered, all I could say was, ‘Can you not do that please?’ Then after the show, I cried my heart out.”
Mohanraj says that within the comedy community, the playing field is largely level, and that “personally, she hasn’t faced any bias because of her gender.” Male and female comics are equally supportive of each other, something that was evident even recently when comedian Agrima Joshua received rape threats for allegedly “making fun” of Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj. The entire fraternity stood up to defend her.
She agrees, recalling the incident, and saying, “If you see her joke, there’s nothing. This whole thing was so pointless.” However, trolling is common, and “every time I go through social media trolling, there’s support from all the comics, regardless of gender,” Mohanraj says with assurance.
Is There Space For Free Speech In Comedy Anymore?
But is there enough space for free speech in comedy anymore? “You can do it, but then you have to face the consequences. But then you think, yaar kitna load lena hai? Is it worth it? If I put out something with so much effort and the consequence is going to be me bullied or abused, then I think it’s not worth it.”
Concluding with the golden topic of what feminism means to her, Aishwarya Mohanraj explains that to her, it’s more about the act than the theory of it. “I’ve never even had to say that I’m a feminist. It’s just via actions that people should know. In men, I expect that too… To someone who says ‘Hey I’m a feminist, I’m a feminist’ I just say, ‘Okay then show it, no need to scream it from the rooftop. Just be it.’ I’m always growing in terms of feminism because it definitely evolves as you meet more people and situations in life.”