The New Wave of Female Stand-ups
Despite the sexist attitudes faced by women who take up comedy, a growing number are fighting back.
"Women aren’t funny, don’t push it … Auntie, you really should quit this job … You’re repulsive … I didn’t laugh once" – welcome to the world of female stand-up. Despite the sexist attitudes faced by women who take up comedy, a growing number of performers are fighting back.
Whether it’s in the mainstream or on Turkey’s alternative comedy scene, the leading names are all men. Stars like Cem Yılmaz, Ata Demirel and Yılmaz Erdoğan have been around since the 90s, while the younger generation is represented by Doğu Demirkol, Mesut Süre and Hasan Can Kaya.
"It’s just you, your jokes and a mic up on that dark stage.”
Yet while female comedians don’t yet generate the box-office numbers of some of their male counterparts, they are now roughly equally represented on the bills of grassroots venues in nightlife hotspots like Istanbul’s Kadıköy neighbourhood.
Çok da Fifi, a five-woman Istanbul collective, embodies the defiant attitude of many female stand-ups – their name translates as “that’s so ‘fifi’”, a phrase used to dismiss criticism. Turkey’s most popular stand-up collective, TuzBiber (salt and pepper), now features several female performers who attract their own individual followings. However, the fact that TuzBiber only announced one woman headliner in their August programme, compared with ten men, shows there’s still some way to go.
Some audience members are delighted with the progress so far.
“I’m thirsty for female comedians,” said Tuğçe Akyüz, a freelance project director who lives in Istanbul and Melbourne, Australia. The first female comedian she saw did a routine that included material on premenstrual syndrome and antidepressants.
“I almost cried tears of joy when I heard, for the first time, someone speaking publicly about the things I was also struggling with,” she said.
Akın Çetin, a lab technician and avid comedy fan, said he had had the opportunity to watch almost all Turkey’s stand-ups live.
“I personally really enjoy seeing women performing,” he says. “Besides, comedy and jokes don’t have a gender. I don’t know if it would be fair to call it ‘women’s comedy’, but it can be very enjoyable to hear women’s first-hand accounts of events and their daily troubles. It’s like picking a product up fresh off the assembly line.”
Leyla Ezgi Dinç, a sociologist, writer and podcaster, is working on a show called Girl Mic – her alternative to the concept of open mic nights, a format that Dinç sees as male-dominated.
“I’m thirsty for female comedians.”
“Girl Mic is a format where women, women+, queers – in short anyone who is not a heterosexual male – can participate,” she said. “If you’ve ever been to an open mic night, which is often a comedian’s first time on stage, you’ve surely noticed that a majority of the performers are men.”
According to Dinç, any moderately politically aware woman at an open mic night will find her mind fills up with “heavy questions and problems” due to “jokes that are sexist, outdated, uninteresting hate rhetoric disguised as humour”.
“Being the killjoy in any room is a heavy burden to shoulder but there must be another way,” Dinç said. “The status quo includes a scale of values between the audience, the comedian and their colleagues in the industry.
“Well, I wanted to kick the scale around a bit. I wanted to be empowered by communities that are often not visible in society. I wanted to be able to hear my own voice again – and that’s what happened. We’ve held three events so far, and I hope to continue the gatherings in coming months.”
Melisa Besnili, an art history student, has been doing stand-up for a year, often appearing on stage in Kadıköy’s comedy bars. She agreed that stand-up was a male-dominated industry, but argued that inequality is slowly disappearing.
“A majority of both performers and organisers are male, but I think that that’s starting to change,” Besnili told Inside Turkey. “Even though it hasn’t fully seeped into the rhetoric yet, performance venues’ awareness has increased towards hosting more women performers and we even see them employing positive discrimination.”
Besnili’s account of a recent incident she experienced shows the challenges.
“A comedy club, which I think has since shut down, told me they couldn’t have me perform on my suggested date because they had another woman on the line-up that night,” she recalled. “There could be six comedians performing on one night and everyone would be totally fine with five male stand-up artists in the line-up – but two women were too many.”
Meltem Parlak, a founding member of Çok da Fifi and an experienced name in the industry, tells Inside Turkey that she did not view stand-up through the lens of male or female dominated.
“I always hear in interviews, ‘Oh It’s male-dominated, it’s female-dominated…’ and to be honest all this talk puts me in a bad mood,” said Parlak, an actor and author who began doing stand-up in 2015. “I wish these were no longer issues where we have to explain ourselves. This is a difficult and risky job regardless of whether you’re a man or a woman. It’s just you, your jokes and a mic up on that dark stage.”
Parlak and her friends in the industry overcame the obstacle of not getting enough stage time by banding together, she explained.
“It was difficult for us to reach our audience under the circumstances at the time. So we came together with a group of friends who wanted to move forward together, formed a group and found ways to reach viewers. Our group went on tour multiple times. We still put on shows at different venues,” Parlak said.
Besnili, who’s also working on a documentary about female comedians, said that did not write her jokes from a gendered perspective, adding that she received the occasional audience backlash.
“Someone who comes to my show might say to me ‘I don’t usually laugh at women stand-up artists, but…’ What that really means is ‘I laughed at your jokes because you didn’t tell me anything about being a woman.’ That’s quite disturbing.
“If you’re a woman who chose the career path of comedy, there are a lot of parameters that you have to battle psychologically, because it’s almost like you’re asked to deny the essence of your existence,” she continued. “Don’t talk about taboos on stage, give the audience clean content… I think this is one of the reasons why there are so few female comedians.
“A woman simply getting up on a stage is in itself a political act these days.”
Self-censorship is a problem among all stand-up artists who are constantly worried about being cancelled or even physically attacked during a performance. Nilüfer Yüce, a comedian who has lived and performed in both the US and Turkey, told Inside Turkey that she tried very hard “not to look ‘feminine’” in her early performance days. These days, she deliberately aimed part of her routine at women in the audience. She tells women to watch their hormonal balances, reminds them to gain awareness on the possible health threats of contraceptive pills and even recommends a book she’s reading called In The Flo.
Dinç was more wary of coming across as finger-wagging on stage, of getting labelled an “annoying woman”, she said.
“We can get subtly mocked for mentioning sexuality, it’s seen as ‘taking the easy way to laughs’. I speak about my period and why on earth wouldn’t I? Why would it be abnormal for me to speak about something I’ve experienced for a week, each month, for the past 31 years, when it’s okay to talk about elections that only come around every five or ten years? Do I need to wrap my period jokes in an old newspaper?” she continued.
“I think people’s real issue … is the fact that a woman can speak her opinions into a microphone,” added Besnili. “There’s even less tolerance for her to talk about being a woman, or to say anything ‘feminine.’ I’ve never seen a female viewer or female internet user cancel or berate a male comedian for speaking about soccer.”
Dinç put this down to patriarchal attitudes in society at large. “I think it’s possible that people aren’t friends with women in their daily lives, so they’re not familiar with women’s language. They definitely don’t get it when I’m being sarcastic,” she said.
“Secondly, I do think there’s a bit of jealousy behind all this prejudice. Being on stage requires uninterrupted self-confidence. That mic is a phallic object, especially if you have a stage presence, a spark. You become a giant. Especially in this country, people foster a dislike towards women who can make up their mind and tell it like it is.”
This article was first published on 8 September 2023 by Inside Turkey.
Building the Capacity and Resilience of Women Journalists in Turkey project was supported by the Dutch government’s Matra Programme and ran for a year from October 2022.