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.
ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP/Getty Images
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Unlikely sisters in the Gaza Strip

A former Jewish settler in Gaza recalls her childhood friendship with a young Palestinian.

It was well after midnight, one summer night in 1995, when Inbar Rozy, a 13-year-old living in the former Israeli settlement of Alei Sinai in the northern Gaza Strip, heard her parents answer the phone. Sitting up in bed, surrounded by potted plants, candles and fairy dolls lit by shafts of light from a nearby security outpost, Inbar listened closely.

“I could hear everyone talking around me, making calls,” Inbar said when we met recently in Nitzan, southern Israel. When she got up to find out what was happening, her parents told her to make up a second mattress. As dawn broke, they led into the room a young woman carrying a small bag and wearing a black shirt and jeans. “She had shoulder-length dark hair dyed with red henna and beautiful eyes – big, black with thick eyelashes,” Inbar told me, smiling. “[She was] quiet. She looked scared.”

The woman was Rina (her surname cannot be given for security reasons), a talented artist in her early twenties studying at a local art college, where she had fallen in love with a Christian boy. For Rina, coming from a traditional family, marrying a non-Muslim would be strictly forbidden.

When her parents found out, they were furious and forbade her from seeing her boyfriend. But her male cousins felt this wasn’t enough. Earlier on the day the girls first met, Rina’s cousins had attempted to kill her in retribution for her perceived “honour crime”. Seeing that another attempt on her life was likely, Rina’s father called a relative, who in turn called Inbar’s father, Yossef, a friend of many years. There was no doubt she had to leave. Ironically, a Jewish settlement protected by the Israel Defence Forces was the safest place in Gaza for her to be.

In 1967, Israel seized the Gaza Strip from Egypt during the Six Day War. In time, it settled 21 communities on a third of the land, with a population of 8,000 by 2005. Soldiers guarded the settlements from 1.5 million displaced Palestinians, tens of thousands of whom were displaced in 1967 and moved to live in nearby refugee camps. In Gaza, before Israel’s ultimate withdrawal from the Strip in 2005, relationships between Israeli settlers and Palestinians were fraught. True, many Palestinians worked in Israeli settlements, earning wages higher than elsewhere in the Strip, but the two communities lived largely separate lives.

In the mid-1990s, even after the Oslo Accords, violence was simmering. Israeli military incursions increased with the outbreak of the Second Intifada in 2000. Thousands of home-made Qassam rockets were launched by Palestinian militants at settlers and those living in southern Israel. Security measures hardened. The veteran Israeli journalist Amira Hass, who spent several years living in Gaza, describes neighbourhoods that were “turned into jails behind barbed-wire fences, closed gates, IDF surveillance, tanks and entry-permit red tape”.

And yet, in spite of the forced segregation, Inbar’s family enjoyed close links with their Palestinian neighbours. Inbar’s father worked as an ambulance driver, and on several occasions he helped transport those who lived nearby for emergency medical treatment in Israel. “Every Tuesday, my father’s Jewish and Arab friends would come to our house and we’d eat lunch together,” Inbar remembered.

Given the gravity of Rina’s situation, she couldn’t leave the house. Secrecy was paramount. The girls spent weeks together indoors, Inbar said, chatting, watching TV and drawing. “I’m not sure that as a child I actually understood it for real,” she said. “She taught me how to paint and sketch a face from sight.”

Almost as soon as Rina arrived, Inbar’s family began receiving anonymous phone calls asking about her. “My dad told me, ‘Don’t mention anything about Rina. Say you don’t know what they’re talking about – because otherwise they’ll come and kill us,’” Inbar said.

While the girls got to know each other, Inbar’s mother, Brigitte, found a women’s shelter in East Jerusalem for Rina. Whereas today Gaza is closed off by a military border under heavy surveillance, at that time it was porous. Brigitte drove Rina in to the capital, where she was given a new name and identity that would enable her to begin a new life, on condition that she contact no one in Gaza.

Today Inbar, who is 33, works at the Gush Katif centre in Nitzan – a museum dedicated to the memory of the Israeli settlements in Gaza. Despite her parents’ objections, the family was evacuated in 2005. Unlike most settlers in Gaza, some residents of Alei Sinai were determined to stay on, even if that meant forfeiting their Israeli citizenship. “I have no problem with living as a minority in a Palestinian state,” one of Alei Sinai’s inhabitants, Avi Farhan, told the Israeli daily Haaretz at the time.

Inbar now lives in Ashkelon, a city of 140,000 in southern Israel, and finds the big city alienating, especially when she recalls the warm relationships that once existed in Gaza. “I’ve never felt less secure,” she told me.

Years later, she learned that Rina had developed cancer and died. “The day before Rina left . . . she drew a portrait of me,” she said, describing how her friend had outlined, in charcoal strokes, the features of the teenager. Her parents packed the portrait with all their belongings in a shipping container the day they left Gaza. Soon after, the container was destroyed in a fire.

“I think if people had given it a chance . . . they would have had these kinds of friendships,” Inbar said, looking back. “We’d get along fairly well if we didn’t look at others as the monsters over the wall.” 

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism