Feminism and the Fringe

Bridget Christie

This feature first appeared in Exeunt magazine here

One of the best – or at least the most unusual – show titles in this year’s Edinburgh Fringe programme belongs to comedian Kate Smurthwaite’s Leftie Cock Womble, the latest version of her award-winning stand-up show, The News At Kate. An activist as well as a comedian, Smurthwaite has been touring shows with a strong feminist outlook for many years, despite persistent criticism from male comics on the circuit, and yet it was Bridget Christie’s Edinburgh Comedy Award triumph at last year’s Fringe that really made the headlines.

Christie won the prestigious prize for her solo show A Bic for Her, and many heralded it as a turning point for women in the profession. True, Christie did win for an unashamedly feminist show, or a ‘rant’, as she described it, which she was sure would end her ten-year career due to her coverage of lads mags, honour killings, domestic violence, female genital mutilation and sex trafficking. Yet it’s worth pointing out that Christie was the only woman nominated for the 2013 prize and that only two other women have walked away with it since its launch in 1981.

Sexual equality is currently headline-worthy. Think of #everydaysexism on Twitter, the accompanying book by Laura Bates, as well as The Vagenda and Caitlin Moran’s How To Be A Woman). Denigration of women and so-called ‘high-street misogyny’ is rightly coming under attack. Despite Christie’s victory last August, women on the stand-up circuit are still regularly subject to sexism and abuse: earlier this year Jenny Collier wrote about her experience of being cancelled from a bill because the organiser was concerned that the line-up featured too many women; and mere weeks ago, Carly Smallman blogged about the vilification she endured on Twitter as a result of her looks.

Many people still think it’s appropriate to ask if women can really be funny (have they not heard of Victoria Wood, French and Saunders or Rhona Cameron, not to mention many of the women regularly gigging on the circuit today?); their appearance is frequently thought worthy of comment (the same doesn’t apply to men); their jokes are often judged on whether or not they’re ‘appropriate’ to their sex. Indeed, women are usually referred to by the media as ‘female comedian’, whereas men are simply ‘comics’ or ‘comedians’ who don’t require a qualifying adjective.

The myth that being funny is a male preserve has been perpetuated on the television and radio – the methods by which most people come into contact with comedians – by shows such as Mock the Week which, since its inception in 2005, has been heavily dominated by men. In February, however, in the face of insistent and overwhelming criticism, the BBC finally agreed that, in future, none of its shows would ever have a panel devoid of women.

And yet . . . The number of women taking comedy shows to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival continues to grow; this year sees an increase of over sixty per cent on 2013, heartening when the sexism in the industry has frequently made the headlines. Furthermore, many of these women are dealing with the themes of feminism, sexism and gender. I asked comedian Rosie Wilby for her thoughts on this trend. At the Fringe this year she’s performing her show Nineties Woman in which she investigates the changes in the feminist movement over the last twenty years by looking back her own activist past and tracing the lives of her former colleagues from a student feminist newspaper. Rosie told me, ‘I’m trying to make subtle points about feminism through the lens of a personal story of growing up and finding my identity. Also, looking back twenty years means that we can see how little we’ve moved forward on some issues. It’s great to see the new energy behind feminism now though. It really is the first time I’ve heard people embracing the word since the early 90s.’

As Rosie points out, there is a sense of new vitality in the feminist movement today. It’s much easier now than it was a few years ago to call oneself a feminist, still be thought of as ‘cool’, and not suffer a backlash. This energy has clearly translated into the comedy scene, as many of the shows in Edinburgh demonstrate. Kate Smurthwaite has not one but three shows at the Fringe this year, and Bridget Christie is returning to Edinburgh with An Ungrateful Woman, a follow-up to A Bic for Her. Adrienne Truscott, who is reviving her award-winning Asking for it: A One-lady Rape about Comedy Starring her Pussy and Little Else!, a subversive, satirical show against rape culture, which she performs naked from the waist down, is also one to look out for. Carly Smallman tackles her abusers head-on in her new show, Made In Penge, and is determined to draw people’s attention to the gender inequality rife in the profession, while Sara Pascoe (who is hotly tipped to follow in Christie’s shoes this year) looks at female sexuality and behaviour in Sara Pascoe vs History and Canadian Katherine Ryan’s Glam Role Model satirises the beauty industry and glamour modelling.

Interestingly, it’s not just comedy where artists are proving that feminism can be entertaining. I asked spoken word poet Sophia Blackwell about her new show, Becoming Wonder Woman, which is also very much about feminism. She told me, ‘Poets can often be accused of being even less funny than feminists, but I’ve seen some very funny, sexy and anarchic women on the spoken word scene. It’s a slightly safer space than comedy in some ways, but that just means women can be even more offensive without having to worry too much. If you haven’t seen a woman rolling on her back with her legs in the air reciting a poem about a smear test, you haven’t really lived.’

Will we see women walk away from the Fringe with the top comedy awards again this year? Prizes are, of course, subjective. While the field might be moving in the right direction, what’s more important is knowing that women have reached an equal footing with men: when these sorts of issues aren’t up for discussion anymore and when their talent – not their gender – gains them a space on panels on the prime time television shows. Women can do topical and political comedy too; feminism isn’t the only sphere women can legitimately occupy, though they’ve certainly got that covered this year.

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