Sunday September 1st 2013

Misogyny at the Fringe – it’s just not funny


with Ida Persson and Jen Nicholson, first published here for Bea Magazine in August 2013.

I’m up at the Edinburgh Festival this month (as previously reported) because, in August that’s where I usually am, being the editor of ThreeWeeks, the biggest and best (so says I) of the specialist publications that cover the largest arts festival in the world.

The largest part of the Edinburgh Festival is called The Fringe (you may have heard of it) and the biggest section of said Fringe is the comedy section. It is absolutely massive, and the acts who perform here come from a huge variety of backgrounds and locations, have many different styles, and of course, extremely varied levels of skill. Many big name comedians make it up here for the Fringe, many complete unknowns take their first fragile steps, and many, many reasonably successful comedy acts use Edinburgh as a deadline for creating their latest touring show. I hear about all these acts, even if I don’t see them myself, and it’s easy for me to spot a recurring theme.

It seems to me, and to a number of other people that I’ve been in contact with in recent days, that there is a serious problem with misogyny and sexism in Fringe comedy. It wouldn’t be the first time that it’s been noted; last year Tanya Gold wrote for The Guardian a CIF article about the preponderance of rape and domestic violence jokes at the Fringe, and high profile veteran reviewer Lyn Gardner has also written about sexism at the Festival. But despite something of a backlash last year and this year (the number of actively feminist shows at the Fringe seems to have shot up in 2013), it would seem that the problem still very much exists.

And we’re not really talking about women in comedy here, though I will, for the moment; that old chestnut – the one where journalists ask female comedians what it’s like to be working in such a male dominated world – has been done to death. We know that traditionally, there have been fewer women comedians, but if we think about it logically we ought to know why that is; sociological reasons have prevented women from pursuing this kind of career, but other pressures and social mores have clearly had an effect too; men, historically, have lived in a society that encourages them to speak out, stand up, make jokes, make people listen to them, to believe that they have a right to be listened to. Women on the other hand, have been encouraged to keep quiet, and hang on man’s every word, not out-funny him. It’s taking quite a while to shake off those shackles, I think.

But women will. They are doing so. There are so many brilliant shows at this festival by women. Yet when nominations for this year’s high profile Edinburgh Comedy Awards were announced, only one woman, Bridget Christie, appeared alongside six men on the short-list for the main prize, and one woman, Aisling Bea, was the one woman of five candidates for the newcomer prize. If you speak out and say “there’s something wrong with that”, people will question it. Richard Herring expressed his surprise via Twitter that so few women were on the short list, despite the number of brilliant shows by women at the Fringe this year and provoked all the sorts of comments I’d expect; ones about how it should be done on merit, and if the women aren’t good enough, then they’re just not good enough. Well, sorry, but it’s not like that at all. There are plenty of very fricking funny women at this festival; what’s at play here is the widely pedalled and routinely accepted notion that “women just aren’t funny”. Ultimately, a woman has to work a lot harder at comedy than her male peers for the same amount of recognition.

In recent days I’ve been talking to Ida Persson and Jen Nicholson, who have experienced some of that sexism first hand at this festival. Jen explains: “When I was flyering I approached a woman who seemed a little interested, but when she discovered women were involved with the show, she explained that she didn’t like “female comedy”.” So it’s not just men who are writing women off as unfunny, it’s women too. Some might call that internalised misogyny, or, as I like to call it, being brainwashed by the patriarchy.

But here’s the crux: that wasn’t the worst of what they witnessed. “I sometimes feel like comedy has taken a step back towards the male working club attitudes to comedy material of the 1960’s and 70’s.” says Ida. “ Although I saw some good comedy that managed to step away from this, I saw some that seemed to go back to this. And what worries me is that sexist material is now labelled ‘daring’ or ‘edgy’, as opposed to what it is – demeaning, offensive, and belittling, and thus ultimately dangerous.”

While Ida was in Edinburgh, she came across exactly this kind of worrying material. “I saw one group, a group of fresh, talented performers, that included both men and women. Whatever I personally thought of their overall writing, there were some things that I found just borderline disturbing – partly because it was deemed by someone to be okay to present it as “funny”, and partly because there were women in the group buying into this “humour”

“Some of it was good, had potential, though some of it was just not to my taste. But they had a sketch about “inappropriate phone apps” – described by some reviewers, I believe, as edgy and daring and brave because it makes the audience uncomfortable. Maybe we were uncomfortable for a reason. One such app (others involved pregnancy, mother-in-law, and blow job gags) was the “girlfriend silencer app”. The punch line was that the girlfriend was hit across the head and knocked out by her boyfriend with his phone. I have no problem with things which are daring or edgy, but this goes beyond that. Making a joke of violence against women appals me. ”

Her colleague Jen adds: “I didn’t see the group Ida saw, but I did speak to several other people who had seen them (both men and women) who seemed disturbed by some of the material, in particular the girlfriend silencer app. I was surprised to learn that this is a group in which there are more female performers than men. I agree with Ida that calling this type of humour “edgy” and “daring” is dangerous.”

Jen had her own bad experiences, however, and not just of sexist material, but of homophobic jokes too. Speaking about another sketch troupe, one whose publicity material boasted multi-starred reviews, she explained: “there was no denying that these boys were incredibly talented performers, very gifted. I’m sure they are also lovely people. However, I was left upset at the end of their show because of the lazy stereotypes they employed for cheap laughs. This involved the wife who nags and complains, and it was frustrating to see in an opening sketch a group relying on this for laughs (though the sketch got much worse when a “gaybot” was introduced, which I felt was incredibly offensive and lazy).”

“The show also included a sequence in which a woman, portrayed by a man, simulated having sex (reluctantly, but in a jokey way) to ‘Blurred Lines’, a controversial song about anal rape (the lines “I know you want it” were repeatedly played – lyrics which I find not only disturbing but incredibly dangerous and not something that should be made light of).

And of course, it feels even more upsetting to think that so many women are able to accept this as normal. “What I found most distressing about the whole thing was that the whole room was howling with laughter, and many of them were women”, adds Jen. “Which I simply didn’t understand. It saddened me. It also saddened me because this group is obviously talented, and didn’t need these things in their show.”

It’s disturbing to think that any comedy troupe – even if they are not the most successful ones – are relying on such violent and sexist humour. Yet, as Ida points out, it’s not even just the outright violence that’s a problem; even more benevolent comedy acts incorporate sexism in ways which are perhaps less obvious, but just as damaging. “We all know there are some great comedians (male and female) who do not rely on the same tired gender stereotypes. But rather than increasing in number, they seem to be decreasing; rape jokes and violence against women jokes are on the rise (see the recent example of the comedian booked for American forces gig), all in the name of comedy and free speech. Why, when everyone understands, rightly, that racist jokes and jokes about minorities are unacceptable, is it still okay to place women on the receiving end of of jokes that demean and belittle them and seek to remind them of their ‘place’?”

She adds: “I do appreciate measures like “Funny Women” and others who seek to give female comedians opportunities but I wish that we could be at a stage where this was not necessary. I also think many women feel that to succeed, they have to conform, and produce exactly the type of humour that we find difficult when men do it. Men making jokes about women with regard to sex, breasts, periods, children. Yet many women I have seen do exactly that. Surely we shouldn’t just be doing exactly the same comedy that is demeaning when it comes from men?”

Jen, meanwhile, is keen to clarify that she has no problem with comedy being shocking; but some shocking things are more acceptable than others. “I don’t have a problem with shocking comedy, or even elements of violence in comedy, but I think there is a huge difference between, for example, Vic and Bob hitting each other with saucepans (obviously this is not something that would normally happen, as it is so ludicrous, silly and slapstick), and a situation in which a) the violent act itself is meant to be the main source of humour and b) the type of violence which is portrayed (i.e., domestic violence) is something which does frequently happen in real life and is something which people should be speaking out against: many boyfriends and husbands do abuse their partners when they have annoyed them. And let’s not forget men also suffer domestic violence at the hands of women. Perhaps it is the generality of the situation which is the issue here. Perhaps as writers we need to ask ourselves a bit more carefully (and I include myself in this) what it is we are asking people to laugh at.”

One take on this is that these groups are looking for ever more shocking ways to make a name for themselves, and while, as Ida says, they can’t possibly be be openly racist, or ablist any more, they can still be sexist. Another is that they are following the example of other, more high profile shock comedians like Jimmy Carr. Another is that these groups have come together in a time when misogynistic attitudes have actually increased, at a time when it is increasingly socially acceptable to hate women, and that these comedians are either reflecting social mores or are brainwashed by them.

People – by which I mean active feminists – are talking a lot, these days, about rape culture, about the tolerance of violence towards women and the forgiveness of male violence. Lad culture produces attitudes espoused by the likes of the publication Unilad, who not that long ago were happy to publish an article which ‘jokingly’ listed rape as an almost risk-free way to get laid. There are Facebook groups devoted to slut-shaming women. When a woman speaks out about practically anything, she may end up subject to rape or death threats. Mainstream pornography is uniformly violent and degrading towards women. Adverts are degrading and often imply sexual violence towards women. When I look around, what I see is a society that broadly thinks it’s okay to hate women, because it’s being taught that it’s okay, by all the many different kind of media it consumes.

Perhaps the presence of sexism and violence in comedy just reflects this. But one way or another, for the sake of future generations, we really have to make this stop.

Image courtesy of Apple’s Eyes Studio /