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Chicago Group Combats Sexual Harassment, Assault In Comedy Scene

By Mae Rice in News on Jan 26, 2016 8:14PM

via Shutterstock

It doesn’t feel out of place that the latest update from Women in Comedy—a Chicago non-profit run by musical comedian Victoria Elena Nones—includes the sentence “We’re forming a national army.”

It’s a rhetorical flourish in an overall peppy press release about "A Love Letter To Myslef," a February comedy showcase at the Laugh Factory. Still, it’s hard to ignore evidence that the comedy scene in Chicago is at war, in certain ways, with women. It ranges from the swirling rumors of women being roofied at Chicago open mics to the anonymous stories of sexual violence and harassment Nones has been collecting via a Google form and posting online.

Many are here; Nones also told Chicagoist she has a backlog of 200 stories. The one’s she published so far recount assault, sexual harassment, stalking, and immature male improvisers making every scene into a sex scene. Here's one:

(Image courtesy of Victoria Elena Nones)

Through her fledgling nonprofit, founded last month, Nones is striving to shift the culture that allows situations like that by empowering, connecting and advocating for women in comedy. That can take a celebratory note, as it will at the Laugh Factory on Tuesday, Feb. 9.

The show, which Nones hopes will become the organization’s annual fundraiser, will feature performers like burlesque performers Vaudezilla, Kelsey Huff, and Angie McMahon of Under the Gun theater. The show will feature every kind of comedy imaginable, as well as—per its name—performers reading love letters to themselves, followed by improv sets inspired by the letters.

Victoria Elena Nones' headshot (photo courtesy of Victoria Elena Nones)

Representatives from the YWCA will be on the scene to help women trying to report bad behavior, and some stories from the blog will be posted on the walls, but harassment and violence won’t be a focus at the event.

”We kind of feel like we’ve had enough of it,” Nones said. Instead, the emphasis is on showing off female performers’ talent, and helping them connect with each other through a speed-networking event, free to anyone interested.

By sharing anonymous harassment stories online, Nones and her organization are also tackling the issues female comedians face head-on.

Though Nones’ form has drawn stories from people in New York, LA, Shanghai, and Australia, most stories are, like here, from Chicago, she said. She says that here, she’s noticed a trend of stories about teachers at comedy institutions helping a sexist culture flourish.

Sometimes, it’s by abdicating responsibility in cases where, say, a male improviser grabs a female improviser’s boobs during a scene; other times, it’s by actively harassing students.

“I think what happens is, a lot of times these teachers get in a position of power, and oftentimes in their own personal lives previous to this position, they may or may not have had as much romantic interest,” Nones said.

“Well, now that they’re in a position of authority, especially in the eyes of some young women who are new to the community… These men sort of abuse their power, by making the female think, ‘Well, if you spend time with me, I can help your career. If you spend time with me, or if you go out with me, or if you let me touch you under this table… people are going to like you more. Or, conversely, if you don’t accept my advances, it will be a problem.”

(Nones notes that female teachers could do this too, but so far she’s only heard of men doing it.)

By spotlighting this cultural issue, Nones' project has drawn some criticism from leaders of the comedy scene, expressing concern about "mob justice" and unfairness to men.

However, it's hard to see how this latter critique applies to Nones' project, in which she redacts the name of anyone accused of bad behavior.

"I’m not releasing any of that information, just because… there’s no way to prove the legitimacy of each story," Nones said. Instead, at the top of her anonymous submission form, she offers to connect anyone who needs help with issues of assault or harassment with appropriate resources.

In a perfect world, or even a fully modernized one, she doesn't think she would have to do this.

“It’s 2016, and these were issues that were happening in workplaces and in schools like decades ago… Why is this still happening?” Getting into comedy, Nones noted, can be like time-traveling back to an era before sexual harassment laws. “It’s almost like you’re walking into 1962.”

The “old boy’s club mentality” in comedy, as Nones called it, is often framed as a women’s issue—and it certainly hurts women most disproportionately and directly. However, “I think it’s also a men’s issue,” Nones said, “because a lot of the men are the perpetrators, and the unfortunate thing is sometimes the men are perpetrating and they don’t even realize it."

She hopes by raising awareness among men, Women in Comedy can alleviate the problem and recruit male allies.

Though the question of “what it’s like to be a woman in comedy” is so boring that it once prompted Tina Fey to die of boredom (see #2 on this Buzzfeed list), the question of how to make life easier and safer for female comedians is asked less often. Nones’ work feels like at least a piece of the answer.