Shattering barriers with stand-up comedyIn a society that still expects its women to be obedient, not opinionated, pretty, not funny, it’s easier said than done for female stand-up comics to do what they do.
One well-worn topic of Rajina Shrestha’s stand-up comedy is feminism. Her typical old grandmother, says Shrestha, starts her day at 6 in the morning and spends the whole day cleaning, cooking, and feeding everybody in the family. But her mother, who she says is a feminist, has decided that she wants more out of life, and aspires for a degree and a job, both of which she got, and then she got married. And now, Shrestha says, her mother wakes up at 5 in the morning, cleans the house, cooks, and feeds the whole family and goes to work, comes back home, cooks, and feeds the whole family. Shrestha calls this stupidity and self abuse.
Shrestha’s stand-up set is one of the many such videos available on YouTube, but she is one of the few female stand-up comics active in Kathmandu’s fledgling stand-up comedy scene. And for comics like 25-year-old Shrestha, stand-up has become a platform to debunk the general belief that only men can be funny. These female comics are using the platform to present their perspective and their reality—with humour—and by doing so, are steering and contributing to discourses and narratives that are largely dominated by men.
“Comedy is a great medium for us to tell our realities, our observations and our perspectives,” says Shrestha, who’s been doing stand-up comedy since September 2017. “When we present women-related issues with humour, sarcasm and irony, even people who would otherwise shrug off such topics become receptive and open to listening to us. The beauty of comedy is that it is disarming. ”
But in a society that still expects its women to be obedient, not opinionated, pretty, not funny, it’s easier said than done for female stand-up comics to do what they do. When you go up on a stage to talk about topics that the majority in society are still not very comfortable hearing from a woman you are going to be unfairly judged, severely criticised and ridiculed, says 23-year-old Shraddha Verma. “There are a lot of set social notions surrounding women, many of which go against what we as female stand-up comics do,” she says. “But by going up on that stage, you are telling them that you are not going to be shackled by what they say or think, which is freeing.”
In one of Verma’s stand-up comedy videos on YouTube, she talks about how once a Tootle rider, upon seeing her not only thoroughly inspected her from top to bottom, but also moved the bag he was carrying on his back to his front before Verma sat on his motorcycle. On seeing the rider move his bag, Verma says that she did the same, moved the bag she was carrying on her back to the front. The audience erupts in laughter. In the comments section of Verma’s video, there are several comments (from both women and men) commending her performance and her content, but there are also several derogatory comments (only from men) on her dress and her attitude.
Such denigrating criticisms are not just limited to YouTube. When Shrestha performed a comic set about feminism and prostitution at a corporate event in the city, a member of the audience came up to her after her performance and told that she should be careful of what she says in public. “The encounter did rattle me a bit,” says Shrestha.
In a society where discourse and narratives have been dominated by men for so long, female stand-up comics present a fresh perspective on a lot of topics. “That’s why it’s so important for more women to get into stand-up comedy. Because comedy, when done well, gives you this power to steer narratives, present perspective on a lot of things, and change many set social notions. Female comics can play an important role in doing this through the local stand-up comedy scene,” says 21-year-old Yozana Thapa Magar, whose stand-up comedy set ‘If I were a cow’ on YouTube has almost a quarter million views. “The goal is to make people laugh with what I do, but I also want people to start thinking about what I say once they are done laughing.”
But quantifying the changes female stand-up comics are making or have managed to make is difficult. Within the stand-up comic circle, Shrestha says, changes have happened. “At open mic events [which is where comics come and test their new jokes in front of other comics and provide each other with feedback], I’ve come across male comics who make misogynist, sexist and homophobic jokes,” says Shrestha. “Whenever that happens, I tell them how jokes of such nature are actually distasteful and insensitive. And I have seen many comics not only steer away from making such jokes again but also advise other comics from doing so.”
But comedy, says Verma, when it comes to female comics shouldn’t be limited to female narratives. “I might be bringing out the female narrative, but I also talk about a lot of other things, too,” she says. “At the end of the day, I don’t want to be known as a female comedian, I want to be known as a good comic.”
Even though stand-up comedy has become hugely popular and the number of comics have increased significantly, most comics are male. “The ratio of male to female stand-up comics is 6:1. Even though we try to encourage many to come up with content and try out stand-up comedy, most of them shy away from it,” says Shrestha. “And the few of us female stand-up comics come from similar backgrounds. The scene not only needs more women but also women from different backgrounds talking about different realities. We need to show the general public that women can be funny, too.”