I'm sick of hearing female comics censoring themselves - jokes are weapons to be used in battle

On how I went to a all-female comedy night raising funds for women's charities - and it was awkward, but needn't have been.

Nothing kills an orgasm as effectively as the obligation to have one. It's the same with laughter. While this problem affects many women, it’s particularly an issue for female comics who perform at women’s-charity fundraisers. Speaking as an audience member, it’s a drag to experience flop sweat on somebody else’s behalf and have to fake the expected response in order to help the project along. The empathy neuroreceptors are too far from the mirth ones, perhaps, and too dependent on an algorithm of surprise and suffering: hence the many YouTube videos of cats falling off things and toddlers inadvertently whacking people in the balls. 

In the past couple of weeks I attended two standup nights benefitting women’s charities. I cringed as comics wandered uncertainly through their sets, combing their material for feminist-charity-appropriateness, unsure how to sell them except by consensus. Worse, to segue from “dating is hard” material into “seriously though, donate at the door because the number of women getting beaten up is terrible” puts the onus on the audience in too direct a way. It’s unfair. We've already spent 20 quid at the door for the cause. We’re here in the seats to laugh, not to watch comedians be virtuous and careful. Let’s start with the assumption that we’re in consensus about domestic violence and genital mutilation and go from there, not cap a bad set with a sobering reminder. Puts a new spin on the term “punchline,” I suppose.

But am I being mean? Why criticise? Why not celebrate all or any women saying anything? It's because comedy has corners, has criteria, is brutal. And because the stakes have escalated for feminist comics since the comedysphere took a turn towards the outright rapey, so we’ve got to be on our game. In the last year or so — let’s pretend for a second that Daniel Tosh’s nightclub gaffe marked the beginning of something — the lowest common denominator peanut gallery schtick sank from “are women funny?” all the way to: 

Knock knock.

Who’s there?

Rape joke!

Rape joke wh-

STOP TRYING TO CENSOR ME OR I’LL KILL YOU, YOU FAT BITCH!

I’m paraphrasing, of course.

We (we being feminist comics and writers across the gender spectrum - I'm a failed comic myself, having hacked away at it for eight years in New York) have to do more than disapprove of this state of affairs, and do better than merely to address the outrage. Journalists and thinkers like Lindy West and Anita Sarkeesian have put themselves in harm’s way, and are using the weapons at their disposal to do battle. This is crucial work.

The work of a comic performer, though, is both less constrained by conventions of discourse, and more constrained by desirable outcome. Though they’re both sharp and witty, Anita Sarkeesian and Lindy West don’t have to make people laugh. Abi Roberts, Sara Pascoe, and Mary Bourke do. Because it’s their job. It’s their job, though, because they have untoward and bizarre impulses they seem to barely constrain, which makes them dangerous and hilarious and the very opposite of consensus comedy. I don’t actually know whether any of the three “self-identify as feminist”, as the saying goes, but they’re getting the job done.

The most gripping and consequently funniest performers illustrate the disconnect between lame, “I’m ready for my sitcom, Mr Demiille” club comedy antics, and the raw but relatable originality that answers to your own experience. To refine this rawness just enough to let the audience know you can handle it, is the witchcraft. I’m not going to spoil a these comics’ material, which I saw them perform at the aforementioned comedy fundraisers. However:

Take Abi Roberts.

Abi Roberts: A Laugh (photo credit: Abiroberts.com)

Schtick arsenal: Employs classical training in music and theater, a sly and unapologetic knowledge of vaudevillean tricks, and a preternatural comfort with herself onstage.

Attack style: She feels unstoppable, triumphant. She bounds onstage, robust, already laughing, nimbus of blond hair aswirl, genuinely happy to be there – it’s the rest of life that’s almost unbearable - and takes down target after target, rapidfire, infectious. Expectations of the female body, the pornnlike fantasy of the cooking show, the depredations of shapewear. She’s a master of self-deprecation but doesn’t hinge on it; she doesn’t posit herself as an object of desire (which is cute at best, and usually a stupefying bore) but in having for-real, bodily sex. 

Deadly weapon: She has a very graphic bit about her iPod being on shuffle, and she kills with it.

Sara Pascoe.

Sara Pascoe: Fever to tell (image credit Edinburgh Fringe Festival Guide, 2012)

Schtick arsenal: The shocking art of seemingly boundless personal revelation.

Attack style: Where Roberts has unapologetic gusto, Pascoe has a mien of slight ambivalence to her obsessive personal confessions. She’s skinny, wide-eyed, and slightly hesitant. But her physical subtext, all semi-shrugs and minutia, her wide eyes widening, her girlish voice barely above a whisper, heightens our intimacy. Our guard down, she regales us with some of the weirdest preoccupations this side of Maria Bamford, an American comic who likewise flirts with discomfort, making you laugh not just in ticklish discomfort, but at the audacity it takes to make self-consciousness funny.

Deadly weapon: Her scorching rumination on the forbidden desires of the hair salon.

Mary Bourke.

Don't be fooled. (Photo vredit; Edinburgh Fringe Guide, 2012)

Schtick arsenal: Precision and lyricism, which sounds unlikely, but...

Attack style: She is nothing short of terrifying. A slender, smiling lady with eye-grazing blunt bangs, dressed in a floral-print dress and chic but sensible shoes, she looks for all the world like she might teach third grade or run an arts programme in a hospital for the aged. And her voice, a gentle, brogue-burnished alto, signals nothing untoward; she said onstage that her stage presence is “like being menaced by a fine mist.” Yet she slays you; she’s attuned not only to her own rage, but to consonant rhythm, image density and tonal escalation. She’s so absorbed in her own surefootedness that your laughter is both incidental, and effortless. She doesn’t ask you, she makes you.

Deadly weapon: Her attack on mummy blog culture, the refrain of which is “Am I Being Unreasonable?” This, obviously, is no consensus-building gambit; there’s little sisterly comradeship in skewering motherhood. Bourke sets up as backdrop a message board populated at midnight by complaining, privileged mummies. She pushes this caricature to its Swiftian logical conclusion, then soars into a bizarre St. Crispin’s Day battlefield oath of startling hyperviolence, leaving me and the rest of the audience gasping for breath.  

The female comics who most interest me are indecorous, and have a touch of the monstrous about them. And the ones I find hard to maintain attention to are the ones who seem in subliminal, unexamined crisis about whether or not they're good enough, pretty enough, or have the right to be there. If you have that anxiety — we all do — bring it out, mess with it, tread on it. Rape jokes arise and flourish from a desperate, anguished, castration fantasy/terror. They attempt to shift that terror onto women, which is not only loathsome, but boring. 

It’s in going deeper and darker, taking fierce joy in the uncouth, not capitulating to the terror nor to the bona fides of virtuous doctrine, that we have the last laugh.

Sarah Silverman on stage at a fundraised for AmeriCares after Hurricane Katrina - but do comedy and charity mix? Photograph: Getty Images.
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No More Girls and Boys shows the small things that shape children

The BBC2 TV series is validating and dispiriting at the same time. 

Here’s a story we like to tell ourselves. Once upon a time, we were sexist, but then feminism happened and now we’re not sexist anymore. But boys and girls carry on being different because they are different. Male brains are systematising and female brains are empathising, says Simon Baron-Cohen. Boys like blue and girls like pink, say the toy aisles. Men have a “drive for status”, and women have “openness directed towards feelings and aesthetics rather than ideas,” says that bloody Google engineer in his ten-page evo-psych anti-diversity manifesto. And if we are going to live happily ever after, we just have to learn to accept it.

Here are some other stories. “I think boys are cleverer than girls… because they get into president easily don’t they?” “I would describe a girl as being pretty, lipstick, dresses, lovehearts. If a woman has a child, the men have to go to work and earn some money.” “Men are better at being in charge.” “Men are better because they’re stronger and they’ve got more jobs.” All these are things said by year three pupils at Lanesend primary school in the Isle of Wight, both girls and boys, who by the age of seven have thoroughly imbibed the idea that their sex is their fate. All of them are about to take part in an experiment designed to unpick that belief.

That experiment is actually a BBC 2 documentary called No More Boys and Girls: Can Our Kids Go Gender Free? Presenter Dr Javid Abdelmoneim finds that the boys are more likely to overestimate their abilities; the girls, to underestimate theirs. Girls are underscoring on confidence; boys, on empathy. Abdelmoneim isn’t buying that this is all down to hormones or different physiques. At seven, boys and girls are evenly matched for strength, and will be until the testosterone surge of puberty has boys building muscle mass. There are no fixed differences in their developing brains. Genitals aside, they’re simply kids. He wants to see whether teaching the kids differently will lead to them thinking differently.

First, the classroom environment has to change so sex is no longer the first division. Signs are put up affirming that boys and girls are sensitive, girls and boys are strong. The “girls’ cupboard” and “boys’ cupboard” where the children put their coats are repainted as one big gender-neutral wardrobe. Stereotyped books are swapped out for ones about adventurous girls and kind boys. The children have their career expectations shaken up by meeting a male ballet dancer, a female mechanic. And their likeable teacher, Mr Andre, has to change too: he’s trained out of his habitual reference to the girls as “love” and the boys as “mate”, and introduced to a lottery system to break his habit of picking boys first.

It’s the smallness of these things that’s really telling of the hugeness of the problem. Individually, they seem so trivial as to barely seem worth fixing, and so ingrained that trying to fix them takes constant vigilance (Mr Andre’s slips into “love” and “mate” are recorded on a wall chart). No wonder sexism seems to be one of those things that everyone’s against but no one sees as their problem to fix. The head, for example, speaks regretfully of “quite biased views about what boys are expected to do and what girls are expected to do.” But somehow this has never translated into the kind of interventions Abdelmoneim is trying.

Does it work? That’s the cliffhanger for episode two, but the first part suggests some pretty dramatic results. When the children take part in a test-your-strength contest, the difference between expectation and performance lead to tears: a girl who happily cries “I didn’t think I could do it!” about her maximum score, and a boy who predicted himself a 10 but throws himself down on the ground in an angry tantrum when he fails to get a single point. How much stronger might girls be if they didn’t absorb the myth of their own weakness and opt out of physical activity early? How much more resilient would boys be if they weren’t holding themselves up to an unrealistic standard?

We won’t know the answer to that unless adults are able to stop telling the same dull old gender stories to children. In one scene, the documentary reenacts the famous Baby X experiments, showing how adults direct infant play down strictly sex-stereotyped lines, pressing dolls on the baby in pink, and robots and shape sorters on the one in blue. But given the opportunity to be themselves first rather than their sex, the children of Laneseed seem to thrive. In fact, the only reform they chafe at are gender neutral toilets. (“The girls were like, ‘Oh they [the boys] come out with their bits dangling out and they don’t wash their hands,’” Abdelmoneim told the Mail.)

Watching No More Boys and Girls is a strange experience, validating and dispiriting at the same time. Yes, you see the evidence of sexism in action that’s usually hidden in plain sight. You also see that there’s so much of it, it’s hard to know where to begin in countering it. Maybe we should start like this: stop insulting children by pretending their understanding of gender is hardwired at birth, and take some adult responsibility for the world we’ve put them in. 

No More Boys And Girls: Can Our Kids Go Gender Free? starts on BBC2 at 9pm on Wednesday.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.