“I’m Trash Just Like Everyone Else”: A Conversation with Sophia Benoit

Sophia Benoit is a comedian living in Los Angeles. In her five years on Twitter she’s amassed nearly 40,000 subscribers. She’s 23 and has apparently been working on a book for two years now. She knows every line of dialogue in The Grinch.

You’re prolific on Twitter and attract lots of trolls, mostly men, who get in touch to either compliment or insult you or to send pictures of their dick. It seems like they’re trying to get in the way of your performance, or to wedge themselves into it. If you were doing standup, we’d call it heckling. Trolling seems more sinister, though. An aspiring comedian can read advice from generations of comics about how to deal with a heckler. With trolls, however, there’s no rule book. This is the first generation of comics (of artists in general) who have to deal with this phenomenon where, emboldened by anonymity and distance, people are so quick to throw out not just the most aggressive criticism they can write but also threats. Do you see a difference between hecklers and trolls? Do the comedians of our generation talk much about it?

People love to give advice on what to do with trolls; honestly I think it’s just that the people who do shout that unwanted advice don’t have their own trolls and wish that they did so that they could prove that they would know what to do. That they wouldn’t put up with that. Or they would ignore them better. Or they wouldn’t be phased. In fact, I used to ignore them. I used to block them immediately, feel incredibly shaken, and try to move on with my day. And it did nothing because it didn’t change the fact that I was a woman online. Do I want them to leave me alone? Sure. But more than that, I want them to leave everyone alone. For a long time I was afraid of encouraging trolls even more. Eventually, I realized that I was right. I was right to exist and not expect or accept harassment. Not that all my opinions are good or even correct. I have shitloads to learn. But I don’t harm people. And if I do, I own it and I fix it and I apologize even if it wasn’t my intent. Once I felt “right,” or as right as I could be at the time, I stopped being scared. Which isn’t to say that I’m not wrong all the time and that I don’t have miles more to go — I do. But I know I’m not harassing people and if you are doing that, I’m automatically in the right. I’m on my timeline sharing positive things and if you come to me and bother me (and yes I get to set the arbitrary boundary of what is bothersome) I get to respond however my little heart desires. I’ve never been heckled on stage despite doing comedy for years and I have no idea why that is. In person I rarely confront even people I know well. But if you come to me with blatantly stupid, harmful, or cruel stuff and drop it off on my timeline: I’ll go full mama bear on you. That is a woman’s timeline. It just so happens that woman is me. I hope somewhere along the way, people feel like they can speak up and call that out themselves, if they so wish. I also hope they feel like they aren’t alone in calling out male behavior– that there is a phalanx of women who have their back.  If that happened one fucking time it would be so worth all the people I piss off by tweeting too much and too loudly.  

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There was a New Yorker profile of Leslie Jones earlier this year in which she talks about taking ownership of her body, her height in particular, by making it the first thing she mentions on stage. It gives the audience less to attack her with. Then, toward the end of her set, she’ll go into the aisles and she’ll sit in an audience member’s lap, or hover over them, and start ridiculing them. Or she’ll get them to talk about something they find uncomfortable. Aziz Ansari had a routine for a while where he’d read people’s romantic text messages aloud to huge audiences. It always seemed humiliating — but people were volunteering for the opportunity. When fans of Jones or Ansari buy their tickets they probably know they’re at risk of being picked out, teased, mocked. It seems like the same thing when your followers (men in particular) try to respond to one of your tweets. You repost and make jokes about a lot of them. They must understand the likelihood of this. Do you think they kind of pine for the debasement? If so, why?

When I do standup I never never never go into the crowd at all; I never call out a weird laugh I hear. I never call any audience member out. It makes my skin crawl when people do that because the aim seems to be humiliation, not participation. But as I said above, the goal of someone who responds to my tweets is frequently to humiliate or take time from or disgust a woman. That’s sick. That desire, even if it is tied to the desire for attention (WHICH I GET! CRAVING ATTENTION IS NORMAL) is vile.

One of the defining characteristics of your Twitter persona seems to be shamelessness, and yet you’ve got hordes of trolls who are constantly trying to shame you. Do you consider it just a gender thing or do you see shame, and the confrontation of shameful things, as playing a larger general role in comedy?

Of course I’m shameless! I’m trash just like everyone else: I’m just willing to embrace it! Comedy is a great tool of reclaiming things. You can’t shame me for being loud: I’ll just love that part of myself. You can’t shame me for being a feminist: I love that part of myself. Recently, I even started tweeting about how much I love my stretch marks.. Not because I do,  but by god I’m going to protect my flaws from shame. It’s a little easier when you absolutely don’t care about Online Strange Men’s good opinion of you. Is it always men…well, usually yes. Society doesn’t shame white men too much.benoit tweet A

So, do women get more shamed than men? Of course. But shame, like most societal constructs, is very intersectional. Shame is also worse for people of color, for foreign citizens, for LGBTQ people, for disabled people. I’m fine if white dudes get a little shame for a bit. I’m fine if it helps them recognize their actions and their complicancy.

Is there ever a desire to show something like affection to your audience? If so, how might that manifest? Because based on some interviews you’ve done, Twitter persona aside, you do seem like the kind of person who, in your daily life, would send somebody a random affectionate text or maybe broadcast your gratitude to a roomful of people.

Hahaha I am the cheesiest person you know. I paid for hundreds and hundreds of 30 racks of beer in college because I had a job and my friends didn’t. I don’t drink beer. I’m anxious all the time and grateful for every moment someone spends on me and in my life. That’s another reason why I’m so militant online, I think, is because I believe so deeply and have invested so deeply in a familial love for other people. The kind where if a friend called me in the middle of the night and said cut off your arm, you can’t ask any questions, I would find a chainsaw at 3:48 am and get to work. That’s probably the Italian in me, but that’s the level of connection I want to have with people, otherwise what the hell are we doing? We don’t have long on this planet–none of us– and I don’t have room for the bad. I answer every single non-dick pic DM I get. People keep telling me to turn my notifications to Only People You Follow, but I can’t do that! I love people. I love twitter. I’m terrible at both, but by god I love them.

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A highlight in Benoit’s experience on Twitter: being denounced by Earth.

The Twitter persona seems at this point to be nearly autonomous. Like the voice just exists in your head and steps up to the plate whenever you want it to. How was it in the beginning? Were you modeling it after any particular source?

I did a comedy set one time and my ultra-conservative grandmother found out about it, and found out that I had been “saying bad words.” Which in and of itself is kind of precious, since she didn’t even watch the video. Well she was “disappointed” in me. I told my dad about how she was upset and he said, “well perfect. That’s exactly the kind of person you want to piss off isn’t it?” And he’s right. She’s bigoted in so many ways, and frankly if I lose the good opinion of a bigot, that sounds perfect to me. After that, it was a slow process of moving the needle further and further over to stand my ground and not give a damn about losing the good opinion of ignorant or cruel people.

I started on twitter much in the same way: very afraid of pisssing people off, of saying the wrong thing. It was really a process of listening more than anything. I watched the women of twitter say things that I thought were so daring: things that would lose them jobs or friends or followers (as dumb as that sounds). These women were magnificent to me, but at the time I really just wanted to tell jokes and be left alone. If you listen long enough, you’ll hear the truth behind why these people are standing up and saying this: there’s concrete suffering for women and people of color and people with disabilities and LGBTQ people and those in a lower financial stratum and on and on. If you listen to other people and care about other people’s experience at all, if you don’t bubble wrap yourself in a space of middle-class white comfort, you get that this stuff is real and it matters. I mean, it matters if you have a heart at all for people outside of yourself. I’m certainly not a feminist for myself. I’m doing pretty damn fine. Are there small gaps between my experience and that of a white middle class man? Sure. But the real disparities are so much larger and more life-threatening than being called names online. I hope I don’t sound like I’m minimizing that. What I’m saying is if I can help to amplify the voices of people who do have it a lot harder, well that’s what I’m a feminist for. If you see any of this as sticking up for people or caring for people, it becomes pretty easy to be audacious. What do you have to lose? Just the tacit approval of shitty people.

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