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Female comedians are no longer a rarity. Their next challenge? Joking about their messy, physical lives – and being funny

Comedian Dawn Whitwell performs on stage while hosting her comedy show at the Comedy Bar in Toronto, Tuesday March 24, 2015.

Mark Blinch/The Globe and Mail

In a basement on Toronto's Bloor Street – at a comedy bar called, well, Comedy Bar – 12 women are telling each other jokes. Deadpanning Brit Theresa Ramirez heads up to the mike. "I think proposals are the last bastion of white misogyny," she says. The other women laugh. "Because …" Here she pauses, looking a bit lost. "Actually, I don't know how that one ends."

The group spans a range of ages, professions and backgrounds; everyone is here to learn stand-up comedy from accomplished local comic Dawn Whitwell. "What do you think is misogynist about it?" asks Whitwell, who has been running her Comedy Girl women-only stand-up classes here since 2008. "I think I need to hear the personal example … tell us that."

Ramirez expands, talking about how her boyfriend wouldn't believe she meant it even if she got down on one knee and suggested they wed. The other women in the class laugh and offer their own stories of botched proposals. It ends up being a pretty funny bit. One by one they take the stage to present their material, Whitwell coaching from the side. When a diminutive PhD candidate starts a joke with, "As a short person …," Whitwell butts in: "Just get into it! You don't need to tell them you're short – no offence."

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The group of students are level-twos. Having gone through Whitwell's eight-week program before, they're used to telling their personal stories – it was the first assignment. "I tell them it doesn't have to be funny," Whitwell says of these early exercises in sharing. "It just has to be true."

Female honesty is having something of a moment in comedy, particularly when it comes to taboo topics such as eating disorders, mental illness, abortion and boundary-pushing sex. Recent examples include Broad City, which has referenced Ilana Glazer's character's anti-depressants and had Abbi Jacobson strap on a dildo to peg a new love interest. There's also Amy Schumer's first hour-long stand-up special, Mostly Sex Stuff, from 2012, and last year's acclaimed Obvious Child, starring Jenny Slate as a young comedian who has an abortion and makes jokes about it.

This is an exciting development after the exceptionalism trope that plagued coverage of Sarah Silverman's and Joan Rivers's early careers: Both comics tended to be billed as shocking and scandalous, rare women who could speak as brashly as men. Thanks to everything from The Mindy Project to Bridesmaids, plus Girls and the Tina Fey-produced Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, there's now an expanded realm of female-fronted comedy.

Silverman and Rivers are no longer anomalies, and female comics are now concerned with more than being taken seriously enough to make dirty jokes. Today's female-fronted comedy is about broadening cultural expectations of what women joke about, and having every facet of their lives become legitimate fodder for their routines.

Coverage of these women's work still tends to focus on its brazenness – it's often called "oversharing" – or presents it as shocking because the bawdy jokes are coming from female mouths. While Louis C.K. collects accolades for his half-fictionalized portrayal of an aging pervert and father, Lena Dunham has been criticized for being too vulgar and solipsistic.

I, for one, welcome our hilarious feminist overlords. Watching Mindy Kaling talk openly about farting, or blond-haired and blue-eyed Amy Schumer joke about low self-esteem is not just funny because it's relatable – these are comedians at the height of their craft. If someone isn't a fan of Girls, that doesn't mean that female comedy is an experiment that failed. Would anyone write off male comedians as a group after watching a few episodes of the much-hyped yet quite bad John Mulaney sitcom? The increased visibility of women across all roles in the production of comedy means they're free to be evaluated as individuals, not tokens.

Since February, 2014, stand-up comedians Jess Beaulieu and Natalie Norman have been hosting The Crimson Wave, a weekly podcast that invites comedians of all genders to talk periods. It gets thousands of downloads each week."The most rewarding part is when we receive messages from listeners saying how the podcast has truly made a difference in their lives, that they feel more comfortable in their skin," Beaulieu says. "When we get those e-mails we weep tears of joy into extra-absorbent pads."

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The podcast is so popular that Beaulieu and Norman spun it off into a weekly female-positive stand-up night at Comedy Bar. The Sunday night show has been sold out all month.

Aurora Stewart de Pena is a 35-year-old playwright and advertising strategist, another of Whitwell's level-two students, who decided to try Comedy Girl to cure her fear of public speaking.

Each class culminates in a family and friends showcase, and de Pena says her first real show was "completely terrifying." "My heart wouldn't stop pounding. But people laughed!" In her set for the class showcase last week, de Pena cracked wise about beauty standards ("I have a real problem on my hands … my nails") and her personality quirks ("the issue is that I'm terrified of public speaking but love attention").

The most personal material, though, was about her lengthy struggle with anorexia. "One of the best ways to take power away from something is to laugh at it," she says of her set. "Eating disorders are very, very powerful. They happen in secret, and a lot of us have that secret. I wanted to air it out, to open the windows, to talk about my experience."

Even though her set totally crushed, de Pena says she found it hard to feel like her story was worth telling. "I fight the feeling of self-indulgence when I'm talking about my personal experiences," she says.

Whitwell says this is common among her female students. "They tend to start with this idea that there are certain things women should or shouldn't talk about, that will or won't be funny," she says. That's why she started Comedy Girl to draw more women into the field. "Presenting more varied perspectives is important," she says. "Boosting voices that haven't historically been heard as loudly is important to me."

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It has always been the job of comedians to discuss things society at large considers inappropriate or taboo, to point out discrepancies between the social script and lived experience. Abortion, street harassment and eating disorders aren't topics that scream "funny," but they're also things we're discouraged from discussing in general.

Not giving these topics room to be humorous is just another way of keeping them – and the women to whom they are relevant – out of the public consciousness, where they fester in stigma and shame. Comedy Girl invites women to look these stigmas in the face and laugh.

Dirty humour

Broad City: Abbi's date

The more conservative of the two Broad City characters, Abbi finally gets asked out by her cute neighbour, only to discover he wants her to penetrate him with a bespoke green dildo. She's not sure she can do it, so she heads to the bathroom and calls Ilana, who is very excited. "This is a dream come true! All throughout college, I slept with a strap on, just in case the opportunity came along that is being handed to you on a silver freaking platter!" she shrieks.

Abbi later reports to Ilana's grandmother's shiva, leading Ilana to interrupt the sombre proceedings with, "This is the greatest day of my life!" Her enthusiasm attracts the rest of her family, who end up getting a mid-mourning lesson in prostate simulation.

Obvious Child: Donna gets knocked up

When Donna meets strait-laced Max, the two get drunk and have a one-night stand without using protection. The audience knows they're "forgot-about-the-condom"-level intoxicated because earlier in the night we saw them peeing side-by-side in an alley. While Donna squats beside a standing Max, she starts to laugh: "Dude … did you just fart?" He did.

Weeks later, as Donna tries on clothes with her friend Nellie, she realizes that she's pregnant. While Donna panics, Nellie calculates who the father is, asking incredulously, "You let pee-farter get you pregnant?"

Inside Amy Schumer: Amy's herpes scare

Amy finds out one of her former sexual partners has herpes. She reaches out to God – played by a turtleneck-wearing Paul Giamatti. "You know, 70 per cent of the people who reach out to me are having a herpes scare," the beleaguered-but-benevolent Giamatti-God explains.

When He asks Amy to do something in return for a clean bill of health (like give up drinking, stop using aerosol, or call her mother), she decides she'd rather take herpes. When she's too busy making jeans into jean shorts to do her own dirty work, God calls her ex-partners to tell them to get tested.

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