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.
Jaroslaw Kaczynski. Photo: Getty
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The Polish government is seeking $1trn in war reparations from Germany

“Germany for many years refused to take responsibility for the Second World War.”

The “Warsaw Uprising Run”, held each summer to remember the 1944 insurrection against Nazi occupation that left as many as 200,000 civilians dead, is no ordinary fun run. Besides negotiating a five- or ten-kilometre course, the thousands of participants must contend with Nazi checkpoints, clouds of smoke and a soundtrack of bombs and machine-gun fire.

“People can’t seem to see that this is not a normal way of commemorating a tragedy,” says Beata Tomczyk, 25, who had signed up for this year’s race but withdrew after learning that she would have to run to the sound of shooting and experience “the feeling of being an insurgent”. “We need to commemorate war without making it banal, without making it fun,” she tells me.

The race’s organisers are not the only ones causing offence by focusing on Poland’s difficult past. The ruling Law and Justice party (PiS) has revived the issue of German reparations for crimes committed in Poland during the Second World War.

The move followed large street protests against the government’s divisive proposals for legal reform. The plans also added to the country’s diplomatic isolation in Europe. The EU warned that Poland’s funding could be cut in response to the government’s attempts to erode the rule of law and its refusal to honour commitments to take in refugees under an EU quota system. In response, the PiS leader, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, argued that Poland’s funding from the EU is not linked to respect for common European standards. Instead, he claimed in July, it was tied to Poland’s wartime suffering.

PiS lawmakers then asked parliament to analyse the feasibility of a claim for reparations from Germany. “We are talking here about huge sums,” said Kaczynski, who co-founded the right-wing party in 2001, “and also about the fact that Germany for many years refused to take responsibility for the Second World War.”

Soon after the government announced that it was considering reopening the reparations issue, posters appeared in Warsaw in support of the initiative. “GERMANS murdered millions of Poles and destroyed Poland! GERMANS, you have to pay for that!” read one.

Reparationen machen frei” read another poster promoted by the right-wing television station Telewizja Republika, in a grotesque parody of the “Work sets you free” sign above the gates of Nazi concentration camps. Poland’s interior minister said in early September that the reparations claim could total $1trn.

The legal dispute over reparations goes back to a decision by the postwar Polish People’s Republic, a Soviet satellite, to follow the USSR in waiving its rights to German reparations in 1953. Reparations agreed at the 1945 Potsdam Conference were paid directly to the Soviet Union.

Advocates of the cause argue that the 1953 decision was illegitimate and that Poland has never given up its claim. Germany strongly disputes this, saying that Polish governments have repeatedly confirmed the 1953 deal.

Since the reparations announcement, Angela Merkel has signalled that she won’t be cowed by the claim and has continued to criticise the Polish government for its policies. “However much I want to have very good relations with Poland… we cannot simply hold our tongues and not say anything for the sake of peace and quiet,” she told a press conference in August.

The PiS’s willingness to broach a subject widely regarded as taboo across Europe has angered many Poles who regard the achievements of a decades-long process of Polish-German reconciliation as sacrosanct. A recent survey showed that a majority of Poles oppose the reparations claim.

“This policy is not only primitive and unwise but also deeply immoral,” says Piotr Buras, the head of the Warsaw office of the European Council on Foreign Relations. “To blame and punish the second and third generations of Germans for atrocities committed over 70 years ago threatens what should be our ultimate goal – that of peace and reconciliation between nations.”

Karolina Zbytniewska, a journalist and member of a Polish-German network of young professionals, says: “It’s true that Poland didn’t receive proper compensation, but times have changed and Germany has changed, and that matters a lot more than money.”

Government propaganda about contemporary Germany is curiously contradictory. On one hand, Germany is portrayed as a threat because it hasn’t changed enough – Kaczynski has implied that Merkel was brought to power by the Stasi and that Germany may be planning to reclaim part of western Poland. On the other, Germany is presented as dangerous because it has changed too much, into an exporter of liberal values that could flood Poland with transsexuals and Muslim migrants.

The government’s supporters also denounce the “pro-German” sentiments of Poland’s liberal opposition, whose members are portrayed as German agents of influence. This paranoia came to a head during protests in cities across Poland in July, when tens of thousands took to the streets to oppose a government attempt to pass legislation giving the ruling party control over judicial appointments and the power to dismiss the country’s supreme court judges. PiS leaders accused foreign-owned – and, in particular, German-owned – media outlets of stirring unrest as part of a wider campaign to deny the Polish people their sovereignty.

But if the government’s fears of a German-engineered putsch are exaggerated, so are fears that its German-bashing will poison the attitudes of Poles towards their neighbours. Too many have visited, lived and worked there for anyone beyond a cranky minority to believe that Merkel’s Germany is the Third Reich in disguise.

“I have German friends, and I don’t think of them as the grandchildren of Nazis or people in Warsaw in 1944. They are not responsible for it on a personal level,” says the runner Beata Tomczyk. 

This article first appeared in the 14 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The German problem