Sharul Channa: "Asian Women Are Taught To Be Coy—And That's Not Funny"
Can women be funny? In 2007 author Christopher Hitchens wrote a now infamous article for Vanity Fair where he argued that the female really is deadlier than the male, at least when it comes to humour. His reason for this damning assessment? That men make jokes to get sex, but because women don’t need to, they’ve never really developed their funny bone. Oh, and they're too sweet.
The world has changed in the 12 years since that article was published, and what once caused a mild outcry, and more than a few nodding heads, now seems like a piece from another era. But even in the era of Fleabag, Broad City and Amy Schumer, certain people still believe that women’s jokes aren’t quite as good as men’s.
“People don’t expect women to be funny,” said the bestselling author Marian Keyes, in a speech earlier this year. “That’s the thing about internalised sexism—people don’t realise they are approaching things women create with an expectation that they’re going to be not as good or as important or as meaningful as things that are created by men.”
It is an attitude Sharul Channa has been battling for over eight years, since launching her now successful comedy career in her hometown of Singapore. Born in India and brought up in the city state, her work is powerful and very, very funny—covering everything from race and gender to the quirks of the society we live in.
“I loved being a comedian from the moment I first got up on the stage,” she says on the phone from Singapore, an hour before she heads out to play at a packed comedy club as the headliner for their Saturday night show. “But I knew right away that as a woman I had to be really good from day one and find my voice right away. Because what I say to all women in comedy is, ‘If you can stick it out for the first three years without getting the feeling that you’re not funny because you don’t have any dick jokes like the guys do, then you’re sorted’. Those three years toughen you up enough, so eventually you don’t care about the sexism.”
Channa’s career blossomed almost by chance. Eight years ago, she was a huge comedy fan, and was doing a variety of odd jobs herself, including working on film scripts. Her husband, Rishi Budhrani, was also a comedian and as she was going to sets regularly with him, she soon realised there were almost no women on stage—and those who were were all ex-pats. A club manager suggested she do a brief three-minute set, and the rest is history.
Asian women are taught to be coy and pretty and sweet and not to laugh with our mouths open or be too aggressive—and that’s not funny. With Asian culture, there are a lot of barriers to break culturally for female performers.
“In Singapore —and in Asia in general, I would say comedy is having a really boon time,” says Channa. “It reminds me of the US in the 1970s, and it means that if you’re on the scene, you’re probably riding the wave and doing well—and that’s as true for women as men. But the problem is that not nearly enough women are coming forward and trying comedy, even though the conditions are better for us than they have ever been before. I believe that’s because Asian women are taught to be coy and pretty and sweet and not to laugh with our mouths open or be too aggressive—and that’s not funny. I think this is true of every country in Asia: women are taught to be a certain way and they’re not encouraged to make jokes. With Asian culture, there are a lot of barriers to break culturally for female performers.”
But we live in rapidly changing times, and one of the reasons why that Hitchens article feels outdated is because #MeToo has shaped the way women are perceived around the globe. And Channa says she—and her fellow female comedians—are feeling the positive effects.
“A lot of places around Singapore now want to hire me to do corporate shows,” she says. “It’s a corporate system and feminism is on the rise, so they say, let’s get a female comedian. I don’t have a problem with it. Women have been subjected to a lot of discrimination over the years, this is a perk that comes with that. When people introduce me as a female comedian, it makes some people get angry but I’m okay with it. What I don’t like is putting an entire female line-up together and calling it a women’s comedy night—as if we’re an entirely difference species from the guys.”
Her set now includes a lot of brilliant riffs on everything from Singaporean life to the daily travails of marriage (go to YouTube for a good laugh) but she is determined to include elements in her set that speak to the reality of the conditions many women have to live with, as she believes that it is through comedy that we often get talking about the meatier subjects. These include shows that focus on the lives of women from low-income families who struggle to get government funding, and one-woman monologues about subjects including marriage and even sexual assault.
“I want to take my comedy into the female sphere,” says Channa. “As I have no interest in trying to recreate what men do. But I also want to do away with the stereotypes that exist around female comedians. There is a lot of expectation for women who are funny to be huge and clumsy, and to slightly hate themselves. It’s all about self-deprecation: female comedians are fat women making fun of themselves—that’s what the audience is used to. They aren’t used to the idea of a woman who doesn’t hate herself and is ok with her appearance can also tell jokes. It intimidates a lot of people, particularly men.”
“I dress up for my shows, not too much, but I definitely make an effort—it’s showbiz and I want to look good,” she continues. “In the end, I’m trying to do two things: create awareness of certain subjects, so people know it’s a show with a message that they can take home. But also bring home the fact that I’m a good writer and comedian like all the men are. What I want is for people to be able to watch a woman being funny and forget she is a woman because it’s all about her humour. They’re laughing and that’s all that matters.”
The theme of the Gen.T Asia Summit is Breaking Barriers. The mission of the event, which takes place 3-4 April 2020 in Hong Kong, is to help people break down the barriers that usually divide them—of generation, gender, culture and geography. In the run-up to the summit, we're exploring these barriers through our articles and Deep Dive newsletter.