When does heckling a comedian become sexual harassment?

By | September 7, 2011 at 11:14 am | 3 comments | feature slider, Opinion | Tags: , , , ,

I’m not trying to brag, but I get heckled a lot. Usually it’s something questioning my mental stability, like, “You’re weird,” or, “That’s too fucked up.” To which I can usually laugh and say, “You’re welcome.” After so many nights of drunken self esteem deflation, I rarely get angry at the audience for talking or heckling.

Heckling is an unfortunate obstacle that most of us will have to surmount. It’s important to respect the audience, because they paid to support art, and without them we wouldn’t be able to perform. However, recently for the first time, I felt sexualized by a heckler. He yelled out, “She looks like she knows how to give a good blowjob.”

It’s hard to describe exactly how completely disgusting and disempowering it feels to be sexually objectified when you’re trying to do something artistic. Violated, red faced, and shaking with rage, I attempted to process my emotions. I was confused because I had done a relatively clean set. What specifically about my robot and ghost one-liners had elicited that impression? Why had my creative and intellectual integrity been disregarded and my personality been diminished and reduced to that of its sexual worth? And what exactly does a girl who looks like she knows how to give a good blowjob look like, anyway? Printout from Wikipedia in hand, highlighted and noted with frowny faces over the “I”s?

Abandoning my joke halfway through, I froze and glared offstage into the lights. I did not laugh and roll off it. I wanted the audience and the other comics to know sexual objectification was intolerable to me. I muttered a few comebacks and closed with, “I hope you feel really bad about yourself.” This got more applause than it deserved, probably because it was a very poignant, honest statement. Although fuming and desecrated, I knew it was probably bad form that I displayed irritation towards an audience member. When I apologized to the club manager, who is the kindest man in the world, Carl Warmenhoven, he waved away my apology with, “Gracefulness is not always required.”

A few days later the heckler showed up at the club again, as a prospective open mic comic. He approached me, put his arm around my shoulders, and said, “I’m sorry for that last show, you’re just actually beautiful.” First of all, “actually”? Like there’s something surprising about my attractiveness? Second of all, who the hell apologizes to someone for sexualizing them while putting their arm around them? That is unacceptable. In that instance I wished I was Rogue from the X-Men, as to make the embrace more comfortable for me. I said, “Not to be rude but I respect my own intimacy and sexual boundaries and so you’re not allowed to touch me.” I’ve gone to way too much therapy and I am much too assertive to know how to make friends anymore.

I’m not writing about this to be like, “Oh man, I’m such a victim, feel sorry for me.” Unless you want to, then go right ahead. The situation greatly affected me and I am sure that it is a common experience for many women. One of my friends had someone yell, “Take your top off,” when she was onstage. She retorted, “But I’m trying to make everyone laugh, so why don’t you take your pants off instead.” Comedians should be prepared to be heckled.

There’s not a lot you can do to prevent sexual objectification from happening in the first place, or if there is, I’m still figuring it out. I try to remember that even if someone judges me based on my worth as a sexual object, I can never judge myself on that rubric. If anyone sexually objectifies me in comedy, I try not to internalize that revolting, draining feeling of submission. That concession is the first step towards sexually objectifying oneself onstage.

No matter what your act is, you are a more important element of the show than just a pair of tits enveloping a microphone. A few women in the audience told me they were glad I showed genuine frustration as opposed to twirling my hair and giggling. If we respect ourselves and the stage and our material, it takes power away from those who disrespect us. Hecklers might try to sexualize me, but I will never sexualize myself because I respect my act and the art. Stand up comedy is one of the highest most pure and beautiful art forms and I am very proud to perform it.

Originally published on the Women In Comedy Festival official site. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author

Barbara Holm

Barbara Holm is a stand-up comedian from Seattle. She has performed at the Bridgetown Comedy Festival, the Women in Comedy Festival, and Bumbershoot Festival. She has been described as clever, creative and unique.

  • Sean Craven

    A thought from someone who’s trying to figure out how society works — it sounds to me very much as if hierarchy was involved as much as cluelessness. To have someone who performs treat you that way is studied insolence. He knew what he was doing. I’m not supposed to say, ‘exterminate the swine,’ in case he shows up in Mason jars at some point. But you get me.

  • Simplylisatarot

    Very brave piece of writing. Ty for sharing this. 

  • Jen Lavery

    I wrote an article on something similar a few months back, please feel free to take a look http://www.chortle.co.uk/features/2011/05/11/13268/in_any_other_job_youd_call_the_police