Neal Brennan; gender stereotypes in comedy
Neal Brennan. Photo courtesy of Matt Murphy and Cherry Lane Theatre.

Live theater is making a return but many of the same gender stereotypes exist even in more avant-garde shows.


Live theatre is back and I’ve been indulging in that special energy crackle that happens when a performance is happening live in a space shared with the audience. Two solo shows, which were part of my welcome back to theatre, are Colt Coeur’s “Polylogues” and Neal Brennan’s “Unacceptable.” 

Women Connect and Men Are Funny

I’ll start with the straight white cis male comedian. Neal Brennan is funny, in that awkward, angst-ridden style, clothed in the traditional self-mockery suit of armor to mostly ensure that no tender parts get accidentally exposed. I laughed often and loudly (even earning myself a shout-out from him when I was the only person to LOL—embarrassing spontaneity I’d forgotten about in my lockdown diet of movies and television). And, I had laughter remorse after the show around two themes. 

At this moment, when women comedians are fighting for airtime and recognition, while running the gauntlet of boorish reception and sometimes lewd propositions, is there a fresher perspective than a men-are-funny-and-women-connect, Mars and Venus joke?

First, tired gender stereotypes. Yes, I was amused by his cartoonishly broad generalizations about how women are relational and look people in the eye, whereas men’s gazes slide sideways to evade; then, less amused and more exhausted by the worn-out-ness of this cliché. He went on to stereotype men as funny. What? I don’t want to be the political correctness police, but seriously? At this moment, when women comedians are fighting for airtime and recognition while running the gauntlet of boorish reception and sometimes lewd propositions, is there a fresher perspective than a men-are-funny-and-women-connect, Mars and Venus joke? 

Greatness is Male and Dailiness is Female

The other myth Brennan’s comedy perpetuated is the one that says an artist has to be fucked up to be creative. Neal Brennan calls his show a “traumedy”—a trauma-informed comedy. The myth that only unhealed wounds breed art denies the potential of creative flourishing once the artist is healed; and denies the catalytic possibilities of awe and joy and all those other big, huge, spacious emotions. 

We are all wounded and scarred to varying degrees and we do not have to hang on to our woundedness to access our creativity. Our wounds are like sourdough starter, that pandemic headliner. Sourdough starter is great for sourdough bread (and actually a lot of other things, like pizza dough and even muffins, for example), but it is not essential. 

This myth feels like a sibling to the one that says men write great books about the pressing issues of the day and women write books about daily life. Wounds are great, hairy, monster presences, casting a shadow across the world. Healing is a quotidian activity, every day we make a choice to let in a scrap more light. 

Here at A Women’s Thing, we filter the world through a feminist lens, and from that perspective, I’d rate “Unacceptable” as unsatisfying.

Polylogues and gender stereotypes in comedy
Photo courtesy of Ashley Garrett.

Babies Are the Ultimate Source of Happiness

I had more hope for “Polylogues,” an interview-based play about non-monogamy, researched, written, and performed by Xandra Nur Clark (they/she), directed by Molly Clifford (she/her), and produced by Colt Coeur, a company founded by Adrienne Campbell-Holt. This show is deeply imprinted by women. 

In an intimate theatre space, we are granted a fascinating glimpse into a whole bunch of lives in which people have made different choices than I have. I am a cis female in a monogamous heterosexual relationship. And, I am also a woman who chose not to have children, a vanishingly insignificant subset of the small number of women who do not have children. So, I was struck that in a play that was ostensibly about the more-than-fifty shades of intimate partner relations, the only two times in which a character expressed untrammeled happiness were in relation to babies.

Nothing against babies, I like children (that’s a thing that all women without children have to say a lot), but I couldn’t help but be disappointed that in all the cornucopia of configurations we were introduced to, only the baby moments inspired high wattage human connection. While the play is feminist to the core of its DNA, I can’t help but feel a twinge of disappointment that, once again, with all the waves of feminism and however big the tent, we keep rolling back around again to motherhood and apple pie.        

From these two pieces of theatre, I’m left with the idea that women make humorless eye contact while connecting around babies. I want so much more for us, all of us, everyone, in all our oh-so-human efforts to find our place, be intimate and belong.