Nineties Woman is more interactive, multimedia theatrical experience than stand-up comedy. The chance discovery – in her parents’ attic – of copies of the York University student feminist magazine Matrix, with which she was involved in the early 1990s, inspired comedian Rosie Wilby to revisit her feminist roots and track down the women she once knew and find out what had become of them.
Over the course of an hour, Rosie presents an interesting and thought-provoking mix of commentary on her quest, personal reminiscences and no small dose of wry, self-deprecating humour. Aided throughout by an intriguing array of props (including some of the original, tea-stained copies of Matrix), as well as archive video footage, interviews with the women she managed to find, photographs and music, Rosie charts her involvement with feminism. We follow her from shy, geeky engineering student – complete with dodgy perm as shown on Yorkshire Student Television – who signed-up to collaborate on Matrix because she really quite fancied a girl called Kate who drew flowers on her Dr Martens with Tipp-Ex, to a young woman discovering her inner radical feminist.
Rosie’s recollections of the ‘layout weekends’ during which she and her contemporaries would laboriously compile the new edition of the magazine to a soundtrack devoted to Everything but the Girl and with liberal use of Prit-Stick (remember, these were the days before the Internet and before the widespread availability of computers) – too complicated to try and make all the articles line up, they would just position everything at an angle – remind us how much easier we have it today. We have access not only to computers and the Internet, but also to multiple social media channels, making it easier to connect, reach out, start something. Yet the tales of what Rosie and her friends were involved in – travelling up to London to participate in the Poll Tax riots, walking in Reclaim the Night marches, painting walls with the words ‘Sisterhood is Powerful’ and staging a mock same-sex marriage in the centre of York on Valentine’s Day 1991 – lead us to question how far we have really come in the fight for equality, and to ask what feminism looks like today.
Has equality for women stalled? When Rosie travelled back to York, she discovered that a group of students had relaunched Matrix in 2006, but they were still talking about the same subjects, such as violence against women and negative female body image. Yes, progress has been made, but, given the greater tools at our disposal today, have some of us become complacent? We’re still discussing matters like equal pay, the difficulty of combining motherhood with a career, the stigma attached to women who choose not to have children, and it’s depressing that we also have to contend with sexist songs like Blurred Lines. As women, we’re often still prisoners of our gender – in many countries still affected by draconian laws against, for example, abortion – and the divide between men and women in the UK shows no sign of shrinking (e.g. the pay gap has stalled at 15.7%, women are disproportionately represented in the low-paid professions and less than a quarter of MPs are female).
Although Nineties Woman might encourage some of us to ask serious questions about feminism, activism and progress, the structure of the show and the fact that Rosie always maintains a light touch ensures that it is the humour that remains at the forefront of the evening; it neither becomes overly serious nor weighed down by nostalgia. The stories about Rosie and her friends’ universal crush on Kate, about lesbians dancing nervously to Nirvana so as to not upset the record player, and of Rosie’s own attempt to gatecrash an exclusive party in protest are very funny and delivered with an endearing sense of bemusement at what she and her friends got up to. There’s a real warmth to the show, and it’s easy to relate to Rosie’s story – whether you’re male or female, feminist or not – particularly as she manages to evoke that sense of university life being a period when you finally have the freedom to find yourself, to experiment and push boundaries. The picture of naive, idealistic students with little to lose – except perhaps having to re-sit their exams – figuring out what they believe in and forming intense connections with each other that only really exist in the bubble of a particular time comes across brilliantly.
It would have been interesting to have heard from Rosie what she herself would include in a 2014 edition of Matrix, and how much her own feminist politics might have changed in the intervening years, but this is an intelligent, honest and entertaining show that poses important questions, not just about feminism but also about growing up and finding oneself.