“Open Mic? Gender, Authenticity and Gatekeeping in Stand-Up Comedy”
My dissertation project explores the ways in which the notion of “authenticity” sets discursive boundaries and works as an ideological gatekeeper in American stand-up comedy specifically with regards to gender. More broadly, I use Raymond Williams’ concept of “structure of feeling” to theorize the ways in which ideologies, norms, and beliefs function within stand-up comedy both as an industry and as a subculture. I locate my project at the intersection of comedy studies, feminist media studies, fan studies, and cultural studies and draw on a variety of qualitative methodologies including ethnographic interviews of comics in Illinois, autoethnography of my own experience performing stand-up, discourse analysis of social media conversation, and textual analysis of television reviews.
Given that research on comedy in both Media Studies and in Gender and Women’s Studies largely emphasizes comedic texts, jokes, and performances, my dissertation project seeks to center the culture and conditions under which comedy is created. Specifically, I analyze stand-up culture through the lens of gender and authenticity. Judith Yaross Lee (2012) notes that stand-up comedy announces itself as the authentic “performance of an exposed individual” (28). Indeed, her invocation of “authenticity” as a hallmark of the form is echoed by many comedy scholars. David Marc (1997), for instance, argues that stand-up comedians set themselves apart from other comedic performers through an “absolute directness” of communication between themselves and their audiences. This purity, directness, and authenticity is, of course, just another type of performance, one in which stand-ups brand themselves as a uniquely honest type of artist.
In my dissertation, I interrogate the ways in which such ideologies of authenticity are used to police the boundaries of stand-up comedy in ways that primarily reinforce white, straight men as the norm by which all others are judged. I draw on Raymond Williams’ (1961) concept of “structure of feeling” as a lens through which to explore connections and disruptions in how authenticity functions as an ideology, behavior and practice across different nodes of comedic discourse from local comedic subcultures to national social media conversations to professional critics’ reviews of comedic television. To this end, my dissertation focuses on three case studies: 1) Debates on Twitter among fans and comics that construct “feminism” and “authentic comedy” as mutually exclusive endeavors; 2) The ways in which reviews by television critics of female-led comedies reinforce masculine aesthetics by invoking authenticity as a marker of quality; and 3) The subculture of local stand-up open mics and the means through which women and femme-identifying comics adapt to fit into masculine standards of authenticity both on and offstage. Together these an analysis of these sites makes visible the ways in which raced and gendered definitions of “authenticity” work to function as ideological and material gatekeepers around stand-up comedy both as an aesthetic form and a subcultural space.
I locate my project at the intersection of comedy studies, feminist media studies, fan studies, and cultural studies and draw on a variety of qualitative methodologies including ethnographic interviews of comics in Illinois, autoethnography of my own experience performing stand-up, discourse analysis of social media conversation, and textual analysis of television reviews.
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