The neon lit room hollers with laughter as the comedian on stage calls me a “dumb blonde b*tch trying to be cool”. My hand trembles as I bring the straw to my mouth to wash down the last of my drink. I tilt my chin to keep the tears in my eyes and scour my mind for a comeback to the comedian’s accusation that I lied about having an estranged father. I come up empty. This was the moment that I decided to quit standup comedy.
When I moved to New York City to further my comedy writing career, I decided to conduct a little experiment. I spent hundreds of dollars of my savings to bleach my dyed red hair blonde, and replaced my black wardrobe with pink shirts, frilly dresses, and cheetah print. Though always a fan of the colour pink, I was afraid to wear it – especially when one year into standup comedy, I was known by my local comedy scene outside of New York City as a deadpan, “doomer” comic and an “anti-manic pixie dream girl”. My “doomer girl” jokes that never felt true to myself seemed to intrigue cisgender men, and, at the time, I craved such validation. Because of this, I continued to tell jokes in this style despite the depression it fed. Now, post-lockdown and with newfound self-worth, the idea of being fetishised as an anti-manic pixie dream girl causes a wave of nausea to overcome me.
I was in part inspired to undertake this experiment by Karen McCullah Lutz and Kirsten Smith’s comedic film, Legally Blonde, directed by Robert Luketic. In the film, blonde, sorority President Elle Woods (Reese Witherspoon) decides to attend Harvard after her boyfriend, Warner Huntington III (Matthew Davis) dumps her for not being “serious” enough for him, stating that he needs to “[m]arry a Jackie, not a Marilyn.” Though at first driven by wanting to win back Warner, Elle still proves her academic intelligence when she scores a 179 on her LSATs, graduates with a 4.0, and is subsequently accepted to Harvard Law.
Throughout the film, Elle is met with criticism for her blondeness and pink wardrobe by those who assume she is unintelligent based on her appearance. Ironically, even a fellow law student and supposed feminist mocks Elle for her femininity, notably in stating that “maybe there’s like a sorority you could like join like”. At first, Elle’s goal is to steal Warner back from his cold fiancée, but when he suggests that she drop out and “do something more valuable with [her] time,” Elle further proves her academic value. She applies herself to the law, helps her friend Paulette (Jennifer Coolidge) retrieve her dog from her ex-husband, and eventually solves a murder case through applying her knowledge of hair care. Even before my blonde transformation, I could relate to being underestimated by those around you, for I grew up with a learning disability and was frequently called stupid by both peers and even some teachers.
I was also inspired to partake in this experiment when I noticed how my first friend in comedy, Sammy*, was treated by male comedians. Sammy is a blonde fitness guru who dresses in stereotypically “feminine” attire, such as denim cut offs, strappy heels, and Vera Wang purses. Sammy is one of the kindest, smartest people whom I have met in my life, and wrote intelligent, well-crafted jokes to boot. When I first met her, she revealed to me that the reason that she wore baggy jackets on stage instead of her usual attire was because men didn’t listen to her when she wore pink, sparkles, dresses, or all of the above. I encouraged Sammy to dress how she wanted to dress, but the unfortunate, Elle Woods-proven reality is that women are underestimated and dismissed when they express their femininity, especially in a male dominated field such as stand-up comedy.
Soon after the second round of highlights that finalised my blonde transformation, I noticed that the cisgender men around me treated me differently at open mics. Before I begin, I want to emphasise that I am thankful for the NYC comedy scene, which consists largely of amazing, kind, and inclusive people, including cisgender men. To that end, I have many NYC comedian friends who I appreciate dearly. However, as with anywhere, there are some bad apples in the scene. Unfortunately, I’ve encountered many bad apples during my experiment thus far.
At some open mics that I have partaken in since my appearance transformation, I have been called out by cisgender male comedians (more so than usual). When I attend mics, I always sit in the front row and put my phone away in an attempt to be supportive and attentive to the other comics. I understand that incorporating audience members as the butt of the joke is part of the art form of stand-up comedy, however, my consideration since changing my appearance is frequently met with call-out jokes that imply or outwardly state that I’m basic, a sorority girl, or unintelligent, because of my newly expressed femininity. With each increasing shade of blonde and pink, the insults became more frequent.
When I perform at shows, I relish the surprised looks on male audience members’ faces that I don’t speak like a stereotypical valley girl (not to imply that anything is wrong with that). As a deadpan, “mousy” comedian with a dark sense of humour, I make it a habit to wear pink, doll myself up with makeup, and curl my blonde locks. I dress hyper-feminine as a means to empower myself and as a female in a male-dominated field. My appearance makes myself discussing my personal hardships much more shocking, for I am not, as quoted by a boutique salesperson in Legally Blonde, “a dumb blonde with daddy’s plastic”. The shocked expressions bring me much entertainment, because although not malicious, they serve to prove my theory.
Women who express their femininity through their appearance have historically been judged and maltreated. It isn’t necessarily a surprise that this has been the outcome of my “Elle Woods Complex” experiment. The field of standup comedy must recognise that looks don’t determine character and apply it to their perception.
My previous decision to quit stand-up came at a perfect time, right before I traveled to Colorado and New Mexico to visit friends and perform at shows that I had previously committed to. To my surprise, my experience of performing at these shows reminded me of the reasons why I love stand-up and being blonde. I love to command the attention of a room under a spotlight. I love to battle my life-long stage fright. I love to share the jokes that I crafted. I love to feel empowered. And most importantly, I love to make people laugh. After these two weeks of much needed self-reflection, I remembered this quote from the end of Legally Blonde, spoken by the notoriously strict Professor Stromwell (Holland Taylor): “If you’re going to let one stupid prick ruin your life, you’re not the girl I thought you were.”
So, I’m not going to let the male comic who called me a “dumb blonde bitch trying to be cool” ruin my life – or my career. As Elle Woods’ surprise love interest Emmett Richmond (Luke Wilson) in the film says: “You know, being a blonde is actually a pretty powerful thing. You hold more cards than you think you do. And I, for one, would like to see you take that power and channel it toward the greater good.” And I, for one, stan Emmett Richmond!
Thus, I am going to persevere in humour writing, stand-up comedy, and all other facets of my life, despite anyone’s perception of me. I will own who I am. I am a blonde who wears pink.
by Erin McLaughlin
Erin McLaughlin is a New York City based stand-up comedian and humor writer. She is the Co-Founder and Head Editor of the satirical crowdfunding website, JumpKick. She writes for The Hard Times. She is currently an editor, writer, and a graduate student at Baruch College in Manhattan. Find her on her website, Instagram, and Twitter.