By Nikita Redkar
… was, as of this post’s writing, 13 hours and 48 minutes ago. I was taking hurried sips of beer in a frantic attempt to eradicate nervousness, and I only had 4 minutes to do so. I unlocked my phone and blankly stared at the bullets on my notes app, and began to memorize the punches associated with the points. Scattered laughter from across the room shattered my stream of consciousness as my attention jolted forward to the man holding the microphone. One punchline down, 3 minutes and 30 seconds to go. I began gulping down my drink like a famished desert camel, as the joke reel in my head played over and over again. I had spent all night writing and rehearsing and rewriting and rehearsing, followed by doubting and self-loathing, to once again continue writing and rehearsing. I had this, I just needed a burst of confidence to permeate the frenzied joke reel in my head. 45 seconds left. I exit out of my phone’s notes to prepare my voice recorder, and getting ready to record my set means I’m feeling pretty good. I started to inch out of my seat anxiously, when the man on stage turned his attention and began addressing me:
“I’m gonna be honest with you. When chicks like you get up on stage, no man is listening to your jokes. Men are purely physical beings, and you’re a very attractive woman.”
God fucking dammit. I stare at him in raging contempt, with the only words surfacing in my head birthed from irrational anger. The man says more but I keep my mouth firmly shut, determined to be the bigger person in this scenario. He ends his set, thanks the audience, and the host gets up to announce the next comic. 3 seconds left. What was I going to say again?
The last time I was called pretty by a man felt drastically contrary to what he – or many men – might expect my reaction to be. The time I spent mustering confidence to dedicate 4 minutes of my night in complete emotional nakedness felt laughably futile when I wondered if my audience would rather have actual nakedness. Did I deserve it? I had put myself in an industry – a self-proclaimed boys club – where its women have been subjected to unsolicited male opinions for eons. Male opinions are like cockroaches: if one reveals his thoughts, one starts to wonder just how many instances of this opinion are harbored in the crevices of male minds. How many more of my colleagues had thought the same thing? Worst of all, just how many people – comedians or otherwise – saw those man’s words as nothing more than a harmless compliment?
Words like pretty, hot, and their ilk are slightly antiquated terms in an age where women are fiercely independent and working tirelessly to live a life they’ve always wanted. Something as subjective and unearned as physical beauty is extremely off-putting. They’re also a bit selfish and reinforce the ideal that women are vying to please the male gaze at all times. Of course, there are instances when women would love to be called pretty, like if it was genuine and coming from a person she really loved. Unfortunately, pretty’s pervasiveness is desensitizing in its meaning, especially when people think acknowledging beauty is still the de facto compliment for women. Hearing a woman complain about how she hates having her appearance lauded isn’t pompous, boastful, or a “first world problem.” It’s that she would rather be recognized for her accomplishments, leadership, and character than have someone default to her looks in a setting where she wasn’t trying to seduce. A job well done acknowledges hard work and reinforces its pursuit. "Pretty" nods at your lucky gene pool and doesn’t do much to reinforce anything, unless a stellar Snapchat streak is what you’re after.
Women are taught from an early age that our worth lies in our looks, and men have done their part in perpetuating this mindset with the demand and approval of physical appearance. Well-meaning men have consoled me by telling me if my creative pursuits don’t work out, I can always fall back on modeling (the fatal flaw being that most creative pursuits take time, regardless if they flourish or wither, so what then is one supposed to do if a career still isn’t working out and physical beauty is beginning to fade?). Being called pretty is not a compliment – it’s an observation. A compliment is addressing someone’s hard work, dedication, resilience – a compliment addresses a person’s character, and it’s unisex. Before going up on stage, I felt like a compliment would be someone just listening to me.
There are many beautiful, funny women who are banking on their rambunctious talent as opposed to their looks – Sarah Silverman, Tina Fey, Nikki Glaser, Aisha Tyler, to name a few. But a woman has to work twice as hard to reach the point where she is known for her performance and not her looks, whereas a man is from the onset granted the fortune of only ever being judged for his performance. This is the truth in comedy, as well as most industries out there. The truth is, we live in a male-dominated world and are regularly subjected to unsolicited male standards.
Considering all this, I decided to benefit from the last time I was called pretty by a man. I decided I would live my life and pursue my dreams, not for the concern of someone else’s uninvited opinions, but for the reason that I loved to do what I do. I tried not to internalize that male comic’s remarks in a way that was detrimental, but in a way that I could turn around and throw a joke right back at him. Because comedy is, after all, about jokes as much as it is about mutual respect.
0 seconds left. I walked on stage, removed the microphone from its stand and began my set feeling light, yet armed. I turn to the man and retorted:
“I know you don’t listen to my jokes because you think I’m too pretty, but I only listen to your jokes because I think you’re too ugly.”
The crowd roared in laughter and so did the man. We later discussed that a joke catering to the female gaze is absurd in a way a joke catering to the male gaze wouldn’t be. But in that moment I was satisfied. Not because I felt I had got my revenge, but because I knew I was getting to do what made me happy and people acknowledged my effort.