Testosterone & Stand-Up Female Comedians


By Rosie Wilby

We often hear about the ‘testosterone-packed’ atmosphere of stand-up comedy being one reason less women are drawn to it as a profession? Yet, we forget that women have testosterone too, albeit at a lower level.

A recent article in Wired highlighted the research of neuroscientist and former Wall Street trader John Coates linking high levels of the hormone to risk taking behaviour, and ultimately financial market crashes. It started me wondering if biology might determine why some of us are more ‘turned on’ by the risky business of bearing all to an audience.

Although most comedians will tell you that dying onstage isn’t so bad in the grand scheme of things, most non-comedians I meet say ‘you must be so brave’ and can’t think of anything worse. So it must take something to have the ‘balls’ to get up there.

A high proportion of acts including Sarah Millican and John Bishop started stand-up just after a huge break up or life changing event when the body sends out huge amounts of adrenaline as a stress response. In an interview with The Telegraph, Millican describes her post-divorce state by saying: ‘There were days when I felt like I could do nothing, but there were also days when I felt like I could do anything and I’d never had those days before.’ 

I got on the comedy roller coaster when I was going through an unstable yet highly exciting period of serial flings. While my friend Jane Bostock, who eventually gave up after hundreds of gigs on finding a stable relationship and job, echoes this:

‘I started doing it at a time of extreme vulnerability, still getting used to living in London, making friends, working, disastrous dating. Stand up kind of saved me from that. Suddenly you had a social circle and a diary full of exciting things to do.’

Under certain conditions then, perhaps women find the buzz of making a roomful of strangers laugh as much of an addictive pull as men? My modest breakthrough of reaching several major competition finals coincided with the lusty first throes of a new relationship, when my testosterone levels would have been at a natural high. I recall this energy feeding into hitherto unknown peaks of creative inspiration. I once marched my lover backstage with the intention of having wild sex in my dressing room, couldn’t quite go through with it but wrote some great material that night instead.

According to John Coates, the trouble arises when a winning streak generates more and more testosterone allowing a positive feedback loop to occur and an optimal level to be surpassed leading to delusional over-confidence. I’ve occasionally seen bad male comics come offstage with a completely skewed sense of how amazingly well they’ve done, whereas women tend towards analysing the bits that didn’t quite work. Jane Bostock also describes isolating backstage camaraderie with male acts ‘telling each other very loudly with great bravado how they storm all of their gigs all of the time’.

The uncertain nature of comedy and wildly differing personalities of audiences and clubs means that 100% success is almost impossible for even the very top acts, so this type of bragging can’t be accurate. So rather than thinking that men have the advantage by possessing more testosterone shouldn’t we be investigating if this optimal point lies somewhere in between?

If female comics, or indeed women in business, could consciously boost their own natural highs before important meetings or gigs with exercise, sex and diet, could this be a secret weapon? As women's sexuality is so controlled by society, are our testosterone levels and our potential achievements being limited? Women would never get away with behaving like the ultimate sexual risk takers like Bill Clinton.

Intriguingly however, Director of Psychology Programmes at Queen Mary University of London, Dr. Qazi Rahman, says that testosterone’s effects on risk taking are counter intuitive. One study showed that in a bargaining game, women were more generous following a shot of testosterone compared to a control group receiving a placebo. Oddly, in a separate experiment, women who were led to believe they were given a shot (whether they had or not) were more selfish in the bargaining game.  So, perhaps the ‘angry hormone’ myth influenced these women's own behaviour. 

In studies which look at people's naturally occurring levels of testosterone, the relationships are weirder. One study showed that too little or too much led to risky economic choices. Another study also showed that high natural levels were associated with more risk-taking in women but not among men.  Some people now think that rather than being the risky hormone, testosterone might be more related to status-seeking.’

The brilliantly sharp feminist comedian Kate Smurthwaite also points to Cordelia Fine’s book Delusions of Gender in debunking the testosterone theory and suggesting that ‘we latch on to notions like that to justify the mess of a situation we're in without admitting that the real problem is sexism.’ Certainly the routes to being discovered in the industry tend towards a quick fire success pattern of performing short sets at clubs mostly run by men and winning several rounds of one of the new act competitions, often run and judged by men. So there could be some basic sexism at work. Yet also this type of tempo and competitive atmosphere would chime biologically with the male-biased ‘winner effect’ noted by John Coates.

Kate, who also teaches comedy, notes that at entry level there are at least 50% women and they on average outperform the men at the end-of-term showcase. Interestingly she notes that the women tend to work harder at writing their sets whereas male students are ‘more likely to chance it with stuff they haven't thought through’ – another example of risk-taking perhaps.

Whether for hormonal or social and cultural reasons, a huge proportion of those promising women give up - leading to the lingering inequality in the industry. The debate continues as to how we can improve things. 

Image via Tetradtx's Flickr

POSTED IN: LIFE
Fri, 18 Jan 2013 09:45 (GMT+00)
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