The Freedom to Be Uncomfortable

by Shaun Hunter


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The other night at a downtown pub, I found a seat near the front and waited for the show to begin. I thought I spotted the featured speaker at this Freedom to Read Week event: a slim, thirty-something woman with long hair, tall leather boots and an air of relaxed confidence. But Cory Mack was in her early 50s, short, glasses, a little lumpy. Just like me.

Mack’s material is personal. She tells stories about her kids, her husband, her parents. Her landscape is a prairie childhood, the Calgary suburbs. Not so different than what I write about. Her sketches were frank, racy, rude, but often the laughs petered out too quickly. Mack segued to her next bit like the seasoned professional she is; from my bar stool, I squirmed in the silences. Be careful, Cory, I said under my breath. Don’t make yourself so vulnerable. I smiled harder, wider, offering myself up as a safe, welcoming harbour in the front row.

On the way home, I thought about why Mack’s routine bothered me so much. It was a tough room. A table of university students my kids’ ages sat at the back hunched over their smart phones. A group of arts administrators hosting the event camped in one corner. The rest of us, mostly middle aged women – who knew what we were expecting.

A male comic, I thought, could get away with the coarse humour, the f-bombs, the jabs at domestic life. But something different happens when a woman – especially a middle-aged mom – peels back the layers of her private life and serves it up in public. 

If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.

Mother’s milk. The caution we ingest from the time we’re babes-in-arms.

The television critic Emily Nussbaum wrote recently in The New Yorker that shows like the HBO hit “Girls” upset people “because they violate the dictate that women, both fictional and real, not make anyone uncomfortable.”

The other night, Cory Mack made me uncomfortable. She rarely looked my way: she didn’t need the shallow harbour of reassurance I was offering. She had her own deep reservoir of courage, and craft, to agitate the silence.

I’m glad I saw her in action. I have work to do.