Some people say the only way to stop online harassment is to stop going online. Well, we aren't going anywhere. Reclaim Your Domain is Refinery29's campaign to make the internet (and the world outside of it) a safer space for everyone — especially women.
In the original Pitch Perfect, there's an exchange between Elizabeth Banks' character, Gail, and her a cappella co-host, John Michael Higgins' John, that's delivered in such chirpy tones it takes a second for the sarcastic wit of the lines to sink in.
In the scene, the Barden Bellas perform and Banks comments that a cappella history has just been made. When Higgins adds that he never could have seen it coming from an all-female group, Banks responds, "Well, you are a misogynist at heart, so there's no way you would have bet on these girls to win." Without skipping a beat, Higgins enthusiastically replies, "Absolutely."
The exchange elicits uncomfortable laughter, a kind of comedy that Banks excels at, because it's familiar: The sharp quip about sexism in that scene doesn't just apply to a cappella, it's applicable to women in just about every industry.
That's one of the reasons that, a little over a year ago, Banks co-founded Whohaha, a company that describes itself as "a digital platform whose goal is to shine a spotlight on funny women." For Banks, it's an opportunity to bring more women into comedy and help elevate their voices, shifting the power dynamic of this male-dominated space. Recently, YouTube and Whohaha announced that they were joining forces to offer over 100 female creators around the world the chance to hone their comedic chops through mentorship and creative consultation.
In recent weeks, Banks has started meeting with the women who were accepted to the "Women In Comedy" program (applications are reviewed on a rolling basis). She's offering her input and guidance on their work from her 15-plus years in the field. Refinery29 spoke with Banks to find out how she's preparing the program's participants for navigating the road ahead, and her thoughts on empowering women online.
How did you pick the women who are participating?
"We worked with current YouTube content creators who already had sites and great ideas and we sort of sourced them, and said, 'Who’s already on the runway and just needs help taking off?' We looked for women who were already putting themselves out there who we felt like we could help support and amplify and who just needed more resources to get their characters or their ideas out into the world."
Do the comedians you're working with fall into one category of comedy? Or are they spread out among various disciplines?
"Honestly, it really crosses all aspects of comedy. There are some really amazing women who have created very specific characters. There are also women who, through our workshop, have joined forces and are working as a comedy duo.
"A lot of YouTube creators are creating content in their bedrooms. This [program] gives them not just support but also a community in which to feel supported and to try ideas. Comedy has to be shared. You need to understand if the comedic idea is landing. You do that when you sit around a table and talk about it with people and present it to people. It makes you a lot more brave and comedy requires bravery."
How are you mentoring the women in the program?
"When I was coming up I had some great mentors, but, more importantly, I was always looking for signposts that what I was doing was valuable, that I was on the right path. I got that and it's really meaningful for me to tell [these] women, 'You’re fine, you’re doing it, you’re on the right path. We got a lot of submissions and not everyone got to come and sit with Elizabeth Banks and talk to her about being a woman in comedy, but you did. You’re okay. Today is your sign post. This is the moment for you to expect that it’s working.'
"There’s so much negativity and there’s so much 'no' that to be able to provide a modicum of yes to somebody encourages them in a way that we all need in life."
"What’s interesting about this moment in time is that there have always been private conversations about all of these issues. And what’s happening right now is it’s a public conversation all of a sudden. We’re in a really interesting time of learning and understanding and of women’s truths being more than just girlfriend conversation. I think that we’re in a really powerful time for women’s voices to be heard and I feel women’s need to tell their truths and I’m trying to honor that in any of the conversations that I’m having."
What's the hardest thing about being a woman trying to make her career online today?
"One of the reasons that we started Whohaha was to provide a safer space for women creators, because I think it can feel really dangerous online for women. I've spoken to women over the last few years, women who I’ve asked, 'Hey, do you want to support this organization?' or 'Hey, do you want to talk about this online?' and they just go, 'Mmm I don’t even want to use the word feminist because I don’t want the trolls.'
"I really feel that the troll community is just another way to oppress women. The battlefield moved online when women were like, 'I’m going to speak out.' Everywhere that we go, they try to shut us up. I just try to tell women you’ve got to cut through that noise and not listen to it and be true to yourself. I don’t engage with any of that negativity. I don’t feel the need to – I don’t invite it into my life. And I don’t feel like putting my message out there means that I’m inviting it into my life. I don’t take that on. That’s not me, that’s them. I can only worry about what I’m doing. I’m trying to be positive, respectful, and myself — authentic.”
What advice do you have for women who are trying to kick off their comedy careers online but don't have access to expensive filming equipment?
"I tell all these creators, it’s about the ideas. You don’t have to have an amazingly shot, beautifully lit, high production value video if the idea is fun and interesting. Creative content is led first and foremost by the idea."
What are you hoping women participating in the program will take away from it?
"I just hope we’re providing women encouragement. There is a place for you, there's space for you, and honestly I just want to combat the idea that women aren’t funny or that our voices don’t matter. We are just as ambitious and just as necessary to the conversations happening in this world as any man is."
This interview has been edited for length and style.