Women in Improv

A friend of mine is doing a grad school assignment on women in improv, and she asked me to share my thoughts. I figured it might also be interesting to share with all of you and see what you think as well. Here they are:

Being a woman in improv has advantages and disadvantages. Commonly held perceptions of women and society’s gender norms influence how women play and how audiences react.

Girls are taught from a young age to be polite, not “bossy” or “controlling,” and to “behave like a lady.” I think this influences how women approach improv, in that we are often less quick to jump out and start a new scene strongly. We often tend to hesitate, to make safer choices and to let our partners drive the scenes.

When we are in scenes, we are often relegated to certain roles: mother, daughter, wife, girlfriend. Men often take on similar restrictions, but for women, it seems our roles are more likely to be identified based on who we are to the men in the scenes. We are defined by our relationships to others, as opposed to being “a businesswoman,” “a dancer,” a politician.”

Even though there are as many funny women as there are men, there is still a common unconscious idea that women aren’t funny, or especially that pretty women aren’t funny. I think this influences audience reactions to women in improv. When we are funny, brave and confident, it is given more merit than is proportional to our talent alone, meaning audience members often react with surprise that we are funny, as if we’ve overcome our gender or gone “above and beyond” our looks. Audience members often compare women players moreso than men, as well. I have seen many shows in which audience members say, “I liked that girl a lot more than the other girl.”

All of that said, I think many people (myself included, obviously) are guilty of attributing characteristics to our gender. “She did X because that’s what women do.”