The Mary Sue is serializing a project by Emily Schorr Lesnick on the experiences women face as improvisational performers, and this anecdote stood out to me:
Two improvisers happened to (independently) share the same story to illustrate the ways that women are placed into stereotypical roles and not given the agency or space to get out of them. A friend of my two interviewees, the only woman in a ten-person improv team that touted their cutting-edge style, entered an ongoing scene between two men. Her “walk-on” initiation was a clear assistant dropping off important papers to a supervisor, entering to say “here are your papers, boss,” and then leave. However, when she entered the scene, her male scene partner labeled her a prostitute, exclaiming “You must leave, sir, my prostitute is here!”
Bad improv, yes. But let’s dissect further:
This line of dialogue made this improviser into the object of laughter (and, as a prostitute, an object of sexual desire) and destroyed her initiation into the scene as another character from the business setting. This improviser’s adherence to rules of agreement in improv scenes effectively silenced her, as she negotiated her visible hurt and frustration with her desire to
support her teammates.
I think it was striking in part because I can’t think of a way that a man could be put into a similar situation, something that’s simultaneously reductive and ridiculous, but that people won’t immediately dismiss as implausible to the point of unfunniness (for the same reason 30 Rock can make lots of nasty jokes about dead hookers and still be considered feminist). We’re better at finding ways to make women seem ridiculous and accepting it because we have more practice. I don’t think that means we’re always required to treat female characters with extreme and stiff dignity because that would be excessively boring, but we need some equal opportunity here.