Jane Duffus: "We're brought up to see men being funny and women being homely"

The founder of the What the Frock! comedy night talks to Nicky Clark.

 

Being “funny for” or “unfunny as” a woman seems to be a mental rut some people can't escape. The debate about gender equality across television, but most particularly comedy, rages on. Yet the numbers of women in stand up comedy and comedy writing is growing and none of them appear in anyway hampered by their "comedy neutralising" gender.
 
Last year Jane Duffus decided that this gender imbalance was one she was no longer willing to tolerate.
 
After seeing Caitlin Moran and Grace Dent being very funny about women in media at the Cheltenham Literary Festival in 2011, Jane knew that she wanted to demonstrate that funny women are the norm, not the exception. She decided to stage an evening of comedy in her home city of Bristol by launching What The Frock women's comedy evening at the Festival of Ideas.
 
What began as one night quickly led to more, with coverage in local and national press with Woman’s Hour picking up on the event.
 
The "What The Frock" comedy event is now a popular fixture on the comedy calendar and a fixed monthly venue at the Clifton Club in Bristol. It also fundraises for organisations such as Confronting Women's Poverty
 

I caught up with Jane to ask her how this year has been. 
 
Jane, it's the first anniversary of the comedy night. I've watched with awe on Twitter as it’s grown from an idea to a popular comedy event. What was the genesis of What The Frock?
 
It all started in autumn 2011, after I saw Grace Dent and Caitlin Moran doing an event at the Cheltenham Literary Festival. It was such a simple concept - two very funny, very intelligent, very eloquent women, sitting having a chat for an hour about women in the media (or the lack of)... and being damn funny about it. I went away wondering why this was such a hard thing to see anywhere. It then dawned on me that there were so few women on TV or radio panel shows, and that most comedy clubs don't book women very often. It all spiraled from there, and What The Frock! was launched in early 2012 - with our first show being in Bristol on May 18, 2012. It sold out well in advance and was such a hit, that it all snowballed from there.
 
"Women not being funny" is a cliché which persists. Why do you feel this is?
 
It's so hard to say. There are plenty of women who aren't funny, but there are also plenty of men who aren't funny. It's nothing to do with genetic make-up or science, I think it's to do with social conditioning. Just as kids grow up being told by the TV and advertisers that pink is for girls and blue is for boys, we're brought up to see men being funny and women being homely. Subconsciously, these gender roles are driven home to us from day one, and if you want to subvert those roles then you have a big challenge on your hands. 
 
Entertainment isn't noted for its generosity towards the success of others, yet What The Frock seems to buck that trend in its supportive approach towards performers. How have you achieved this?
 
Ha ha, thanks! It's basic good manners, I think. It sounds naff, but I try to treat people as I'd want to be treated myself, whether via What The Frock! or anything else. Generally, I find that the women I work with are all really friendly and encouraging, and while I know that part of that is because it obviously makes sense for them to be nice to promoters, it also fosters lots of good will. There's a handful of acts I've had over the past year who haven't been particularly friendly, and they really stick out to me... and also aren't going to get booked again by me any time soon!

 

Feminist and unfunny seems to a label applied liberally by some. Which women do you feel have been instrumental in turning the tide on this?
 
Caitlin Moran and Grace Dent... Both are feminist, both are very funny, both are writers whose columns I actively look forward to reading. Comedians like Tiffany Stevenson, Viv Groksop, Bridget Christie, Sandi Toksvig and so many more, they're bringing feminism and feminist issues into their sets and it works so well. Bridget's recent Radio 4 series Mind The Gap was fantastic - strong, witty, intelligent, funny shows ridiculing and highlighting the need for feminism in our contemporary world. Even Ruby Wax's recent solo show, "Losing It", has a strong message within in about the inner strength that drives women during tough times, and she's hilarious while doing it. 
 
Misogyny and comedy appear to be inextricably linked for some. What fuels this and are events like What The Frock an antidote?
 
I suppose it's simply that as the bulk of comedians are male, then it stands to reason that some of them - and I stress "some", as there are plenty of male comedians who aren't misogynist - are going to perpetuate misogynistic comedy. Especially when you think that the bulk of their audience are also going to be men, and comedians are obviously going to tell the kind of jokes they think their audiences want to hear.
 
In a sense, maybe events like What The Frock! are an antidote. They're certainly providing the opposite kind of comedy night out - our acts are women, they don't tell anti-men jokes, or racist jokes etc. But they do deliver outstanding comedy in a friendly space, and I get feedback from my audiences saying they really welcome the fact What The Frock! exists, as otherwise they wouldn't go to comedy locally - because the existing comedy clubs don't provide the kind of night out they want. However, I'm aware that the bulk of my audience (and we get plenty of men in, as well as women) are the kind of people who don't go to many other comedy clubs because they find them so hostile and the jokes so tedious, so in a sense my events are 'preaching to the converted'. But after every single gig we do, I get inundated with really kind and positive messages and tweets from people in the audience saying how amazing the show was and thanking me for putting it on. That means so much to me.
 
Do you have plans to broaden the scope of What The Frock around the country?
 
It's tricky, as it's just me working behind the scenes at the moment - there's not a lot of money in comedy promotion at this level, so I can't afford to take anyone else on. You need to be putting on the big shows like Sarah Millican or Michael McIntyre in huge arenas to see a decent income from doing this. So there's only so much I can do myself. We're putting on our first show in Exeter on October 26, and if that goes well, I'm looking at making that a regular event from next year. And I'm looking at other cities around the south west and Wales to expand into for next year. But I'm very aware there are a few other businesses promoting women's comedy shows around London and in the north, and I've got no interest in treading on their toes. But I do have my eyes firmly on the south west!
 
Reflecting on the first year, what do you feel most proud of?
 
Being invited to put on a show at the Royal Festival Hall in March, to an audience of about 700 people, was amazing. It was part of the Women of the World Festival at the Southbank Centre, and it was such an honour to be invited to do this. We had Rosie Wilby, Shazia Mirza and Danielle Ward on the bill, and it was a phenomenal event - I enjoyed every second of it. And where else am I going to be sandwiched on a schedule between Sandi Toksvig and Woman's Hour?! It was only our sixth ever show, so it was an enormous privilege to be involved with such a huge and exciting event.
 
This post originally appeared on Nicky Clark's blog, and is crossposted with her permission

 

Sandi Toksvig, one of the women Jane considers to have helped make feminism funny.
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The Macron Con #2: Emmanuel's “feminism”

Call him Manu, the “college bro” feminist.

This is the second in a series: “The Macron Con”, also called “Why Emmanuel Macron isn't a liberal hero”. Each week, I'll examine an area of the new French president's politics that doesn't quite live up to the hype. Read episode 1: Macron's unhealthy obsession with symbolism.

President Macron is a feminist. That's, at least, according to him. “I am a feminist,” he claimed on 2 December last year, then a presidential candidate, at the Women’s Forum for Economy and Society. He then added that to him, the “most important” thing was to be “a feminist recognised by women as such”. And women? Well, not all of them do – because while Macron’s vocal support of feminism as a cause is obviously important, his actions paint a more complex reality.

Days after his election, Macron declared he really wished his prime minister would be “a woman”. This was his choice entirely – the newly-elected President names the prime minister, who names their cabinet – and yet he picked a man, Edouard Philippe. “I never actually expected him to pick a woman,” says Fatima El Ouasdi, director of Politiqu’elles, a French non-profit fighting against sexism in politics. She says she never did because, when Macron discussed the PM’s nomination without mentioning names, “he said ‘he’ everytime”.

Feminists were similarly frustrated a month later, when several MPs from his party declared their support for a female Speaker. The party, En Marche!, having just won a parliamentary majority, the possibility of parliament electing France’s first female Speaker was entertained. Two women and a man from En Marche! ran. The man, François de Rugy, won. To El Ouasdi, it demonstrates a “lack of political will”. As she puts it: “It wasn’t a priority for the party, otherwise it would have been done.”

In theory, equality is Macron’s favourite hobbyhorse; but in practice, “we’re not there yet at all,” says El Ouasdi. His cabinet has been praised for its equality – it is composed of men and women in equal measure – but out of four of the most important ministries, only one, Defence, was given to a woman, Sylvie Goulard. When she left the cabinet in a reshuffle following trouble in her party MoDem, half the most important ministries (Justice and Defence) rightfully went to women. But to El Ouasdi, in the French government as well as in general politics, “quantitative equality isn’t the same as qualitative”.

That’s especially true in parliament, where 224 women were elected as MPs in May – the highest score ever, but still lower than their 353 male counterparts. Macron’s party proudly announced it was running with as many female candidates as male; but this has actually been the law since 1999.

The PR picture was perfect, though. During the campaign, when En Marche! called for candidate applications and received more from men than women, Macron took to social media to call for women to step up. The French feminist group Osez le Féminisme called it a “PR coup”: “He was essentially calling for women to apply the law,” said spokeswoman Claire Serre-Combe. “It’s nothing new.” Political parties in the past have often sent more female candidates to constituencies they expect to lose, so Macron’s only innovation was to send female candidates for winnable seats, which looks less like proactive feminism and more like not discriminating on the basis of gender.

Read more: The Macron Con #1: The French President's unhealthy obsession with symbolism

Macron has made many pledges for equality and has called women’s rights “an absolutely fundamental subject of our society’s vitality, economy, and of our democracy”. His vocal support shows a will to make feminism “a great national cause”, El Ouasdi says, but pledges have not all been kept. “He promised a ministry for women’s rights,” she says, “And in the end we got a state secretary for equality between men and women, which isn’t the same.”

These deceptive pledges may lie in Macron’s own vision of feminism. He has declared: “I believe in alterity [a philosophical concept of otherness], and true alterity for a man, is the woman. I am profoundly feminist because I love what is irreducible in the other that is woman.” Such a comment is “reductive” in its definition of women and “problematic” in its exclusion of LGBT+ people, El Ouasdi says.

Osez Le Féminisme has said in a press release that the group remains “vigilant and mobilised” against “liberal policies that aggravate casualisation of women’s lives.” Like most of Macron’s critics, French feminists worry that the president’s project will not help the working class. “It would be good if he were more concerned about poor female workers and housewives,” says El Ouasdi. She hopes the law will recognise women’s own difficult working conditions, for instance by adapting cleaners’ schedules to working hours.

Whether Macron will act on his pledges, including making “a great national cause” to fight violence against women, remains “to be seen”, El Ouasdi says. But it may be difficult, as the upcoming budget will see cuts in all ministries – with women’s refuges feared to be deprived of 25 per cent of their current subventions. State secretary for Equality Marlène Schiappa has called “fake news” on the numbers, but confirmed cuts will happen. “Where’s the great national cause, @EmmanuelMacron?” tweeted French feminist Caroline De Haas.

Macron can keep claiming he is a feminist. But as long as his unkept promises pile up, his feminism will resemble your college boyfriend’s – signs up for gender studies class, quite likes the concept, still ends up moaning about women’s rights activists being “too feminist”. Not cool, bro.

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