More aggressors among comedians?

More-aggressors among comedians?&nbsp ;

In 2017, when Hollywood was overwhelmed by an unprecedented wave of denunciations of sexual violence, here in Quebec, it was the comedy community that was first hit full force. But why? Are our comedians more inclined to turn into aggressors? Métro tried to see things more clearly.  

Gilbert Rozon, Julien Lacroix, Alexandre Douville, Gabriel D'Almeida Freitas, Philippe Bond… Without counting the 21 comedians who appeared on a list sent anonymously to the media in 2019, we can say that the world of humor was sadly well represented in relation to sexual assault allegations over the past five years.  

“If we have the feeling that the comedy community has been particularly affected in Quebec, it is in particular because the denunciations targeting Gilbert Rozon [then at the head of Just for Laughs] have highlighted the extent to which there is had tolerance for these behaviors,” recalls Francine Descarries, Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology and member of the Institute for Feminist Research and Studies at the University of Quebec in Montreal. 

In the United States as here, it is also according to her “the great positive effect that #MeToo has had, to bring to publicity behaviors that were hitherto tolerated and silenced by an entire community.”&nbsp ;

A “boys club” and jokes

Two years later, several women comedians are sorry that this awareness has not led to more concrete changes. They then created “For the next ones”, a collective which aims to fight the culture of rape in the boys club that is the world of humor. According to Francine Descarries, even if women have made their place in it in recent decades, humor is still the preserve of men.  

“As a spectator, what I see is that the humor awards are eminently male. For a long time, women were not welcome in this environment. And as in any environment occupied by men, that of humor could have been conducive to the development of an alpha culture and therefore of a certain permissiveness in the face of problematic behavior towards women, ”says the sociologist.  

It is men who have defined the codes of humor, she underlines. Sometimes even to the detriment of women, who have long been the subject of caricatures conveying stereotypes, as illustrated by the famous blonde jokes. “Under cover of humor, we have perpetuated sexist clichés and we must not think that the words are innocent. All of this contributes to creating a feeling of superiority and contempt which can make it possible to deride certain gestures,” she adds.  

Power and fame

Added to this is the fact that the comedy industry in Quebec is very lucrative, which places successful comedians, producers or other decision-makers in a particularly strong position of power.  

“In the artistic community in general, there is a lot of asymmetry in power relations,” notes Me Sophie Gagnon, general manager of Juripop. Right in the heart of the #MeToo, movementthe legal aid organization created Aparté to collect complaints and support victims in the world of culture. “It is a risk factor for sexual assault.”

In addition, the stage artists who are the comedians live from the gaze of others, underlines the psychologist Line Bernier, lecturer in psychocriminology at the School of Criminology of the University of Montreal. “It can lead to a distortion of the image we have of ourselves; in psychology, this is called the bursting of the ego. We feel superior and we begin to transgress, to act beyond the prohibitions,” she explains.  

As for the victims, notoriety can also attract. We fantasize and idealize the famous person we think we know. “So we have on the one hand celebrities who are more likely to act and, on the other, more potential victims available”, summarizes the psychologist. So, if in addition an entire milieu remains silent, a kind of implicit permission, which can have a ripple effect, is created.  

A fragmented milieu

It is also difficult to denounce an attack, to complain to an employer or to warn colleagues in an environment as unstructured as that of humor.  

“It is an ecosystem in which there are many small principalities. There is no professional order, no supreme authority, but multiple institutions, more or less large players and official and unofficial places”, describes Christelle Paré, independent researcher, educational director at the National School of Humor, and part-time professor at the University of Ottawa. 

A good part of the people who work there are freelancers or have multiple short contracts. They therefore have no human resources manager to turn to in the event of harassment or aggression.  

“In the artistic fields, working hours are atypical, we work evenings and weekends. We go on tour and we have to share a hotel room and in addition there is a culture of partying which means that we sometimes add alcohol and others to the equation, which increases the risk of slippage,” adds Me Sophie Gagnon.  

While the humor sector is the one most talked about in the media, it is not the most represented in terms of the number of complaints received by l’Aparté. “The circles that occupy us the most are television, cinema, music, visual arts, theater and the literary world,” emphasizes the lawyer.

Problem fixed?

Since the causes are identified, how come five years after #MeToo, the problem persists? Well, simply because deconstructing patterns of domination and creating a healthier environment for everyone takes time.  

In the world of humor, Christelle Paré points out, however, that many solutions have already been proposed, and that several of them have been put in place. At the National School of Humor, as in other higher education establishments, training to prevent and combat sexual violence is given to all students and a committee responsible for receiving disclosures has was created. In bars and festivals, people are sometimes present to ensure a safe space for everyone.  

“We feel that all the players in the industry want things to get better, it's a turning point that we all want to take together. And this notably involves better communication between us and the implementation of solutions to filter out problematic people. Today, there are blacklists circulating”, adds the researcher.  

If the number of complaints received by the Aparté has remained stable over years, Me Gagnon also believes that a cultural change is taking place in artistic circles. The reform of the status of artists adopted by the government last June, which allows victims in this field of employment to finally file a complaint with the CNESST, should also greatly improve things, according to her.    

“More and more women have made their place in the world of humor,” adds sociologist Francine Descarries. It is also thanks to this that the culture has changed, but it is a very long process which will take a long time. 

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