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June 16, 2017

The Female Gaze: “Do Yourself A Favour, Don’t Dumb Yourself Down”

Text by Vasu Primlani. Edited by Tina Dastur

Comedian Vasu Primlani tells us what it is like for a woman to find her footing in the big bad world of Indian comedy…

In a society dominated by men, what does it mean to be a female stand-up comic? Well, it usually involves tiptoeing around sensitive issues and trying to be as respectful and diplomatic as possible (despite being in a profession where ludicrous and unhinged remarks are welcomed with open arms). But Vasu Primlani does not subscribe to any of the above. The female comic shoots straight from the hip without being unnecessarily crass or lewd. She’s frank, opinionated and humorous. In this open letter written specially for Verve’s Feminism Week, Primlani shares her own experiences and encourages aspiring female comedians to be bold and say it like it is.

“If I was to be seen and not heard, it would be a different kind of show”

Do yourself a favour, don’t dumb yourself down. On stage, we get by with our wits, not our boobs. By the time we are done with the show, people forget that they were being entertained by a woman.

I wonder if one of the reasons men don’t think women are brilliant is because we listen to our parents and don’t express our thoughts. How many times have we been told, ‘Please keep your opinions to yourself’. But most of all, I want to hear what you think.

And then, there are the things men can talk about but women can’t. An alarming amount of men talk about their dicks. When was the last time you heard a woman refer to her clitoris? Any reference to the female sexual organ among men and women is not to it, but to the vagina, which is a reproductive organ. One of the reasons ‘professional’ comedians don’t speak of it is because they ‘shouldn’t’.  We don’t refer to female sexual parts. ‘Classy comedy’ speaks of non-sexual topics (think Seinfeld).

As female comics, we get a lot of flak. From assumptions like ‘women aren’t funny’ to ‘women have to be really brazen to be able to speak in public’. There will always be that misguided male who will try and mouth off at you.

At one of my shows, I said: “I had a pet growing up, anyone want to take a guess as to what kind of pet I had?” So, of course, there is this smartass in the crowd. “Cactus!” he says, getting a laugh from the audience. Don’t piss off a comedian, man.

Thing is, in comedy, gender doesn’t matter. What matters is how good a comedian you are. Except the audience brings its assumptions and prejudices to your show.

Once at a show in Mumbai, I asked the men what they look for in a woman. There was this guy in the audience who smirked and said that it depended on whether she was coming or going. I asked the audience if they’d heard what he’d said. “No,” they said. I repeated what he said. They got his joke (tits or ass). “With that kind of attitude, sir,” I said, with him still smirking, “I doubt you’ll ever see a woman coming”.

When is a man ever interested in what women have to say? Well, this is that profession. You can change the world, hearts and minds with comedy. Someone in the audience may have been fired or had a breakup that day. But I’ll give them something to laugh about. A woman once came up to me and said, ‘Every time my husband and I have an argument, he uses one of your lines, we both laugh, and our fight gets diffused’.

The more they hear us women comedians speak, the better it will be for the men, for us, for the world. So, listen, speak your mind. And don’t take any lip. Learn the craft. And speak with, well, verve.

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