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 land of Gandhi can never be racist": is India in denial about its attitude to skin colour?

“If we were indeed racist, why would we live with the South Indians?" was how one politician addressed the debate. 

When we were kids, my younger brother and I would spend much of our time thinking up new and innovative ways to get under each other’s skin, as siblings often do. One of the most reliable weapons in my brother’s arsenal was a taunt about skin colour - he was quite fair even by Punjabi standards, a fact that he was inordinately proud of. I on the other hand, had a permanent tan. This is now politely referred to as a "dusky" complexion, but back then was just "kaala" (black).

Being older, I generally had the upper hand in this cold war of insults and condescension, but my brother employed this particular tactic to great success for a couple of years. Because it rankled, it really did. No amount of explanation about melanin and sun exposure, or the fact that we were both "brown" in the eyes of the world made a difference. He was fair, I was not, and that was that. We didn’t have the context or the vocabulary to articulate why that minor difference in skin tone was important, but we knew instinctively that it was. It took us years to realise how problematic these little exchanges were. By then, we had  recognised how racism and prejudice about skin colour had wormed its way into our psyches at a young age, even growing up in a fairly liberal household. We laugh about it now, and my brother is more than a little embarrassed about that short phase during his pre-adolescent years. But as recent events have reminded us, for many people in India, racism and colourism is no laughing matter.

Two weeks ago, a video posted on Facebook by the African Students Association of India (AASI) went viral. It showed a mob of 40-odd Indians armed with snooker cues, dustbins and chairs brutally assaulting two Nigerian students inside a mall in Greater Noida, a city in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, just 40km from the national capital, and home to hundreds of students from Africa who study in the city’s many private colleges and universities. This was part of a wave of violence unleashed by residents of the city that saw at least four Nigerian students admitted to the hospital with serious injuries, and countless others being treated for minor injuries. The details of what transpired over that week are as familiar as they are sordid - a missing Indian student, who was later found, and died in the hospital of a suspected drug overdose. Rumours of Africans being "cannibals", a new addition to the long, long list of racist stereotypes about black Africans that are bandied about to justify such violence. Demands that all African residents of the area be kicked out. And eventually, inevitably, mob violence.

The response by the government and the police followed the general SOP for when such attacks happen - and they do, with alarming frequency. There were promises of swift action (which rarely materialises), brazen denials that the violence was motivated by racism or xenophobia (“Criminal not racial” is how External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj described one attack in 2016) and victim-blaming (“Africans are involved in drug-dealing, Africans don’t assimilate”).

Then there is the Gandhi factor. “India is the land of Gandhi and Buddha…we can never have a racist mindset,” declared a pompous Swaraj, conveniently ignoring the fact that Gandhi himself was a proponent of anti-blackness in his early years, separating the South African Indian community’s struggle for freedom from that of the Zulus and writing that “about the mixing of the Kaffirs (blacks) with the Indians, I must confess I feel most strongly.” The truth is that, despite three centuries of experiencing racial discrimination at the hands of British colonisers, India’s unrequited love affair with whiteness has remained undimmed. We - specifically the North Indians who dominate so much of our national political and cultural discourse - take pride in our "Aryan" heritage, thereby aligning ourselves with global white hegemony. We have internalised the pseudo-scientific European racial theories that were in vogue in the 19th and early 20th century, but have lingered on in our school textbooks long after they were debunked. Indeed, when black Africans in India talk about being treated like a caged animal in a zoo, it’s hard not to make connections with 19th century Europe’s infamous "human zoos".

But while much of India's anti-blackness can be traced back to a colonial hangover, it is also fuelled by our own indigenous strain of "colourism", one that predates European theories of racial superiority. Last week, former Bharatiya Janata Party MP Tarun Vijay went on an Al Jazeera programme to talk about the recent spate of attacks. “If we were indeed racist, why would all the entire south – you know Kerala, Tamil, Andhra, Karnataka – why do we live with them?,” he said. “We have blacks…black people around us.” In his attempt to defend India from charges of anti-blackness, Vijay inadvertently laid bare the full extent of India’s problem with skin colour-based bigotry - our othering of not just black Africans but also of the darker-skinned citizens from our own country. It’s not hard to guess who the "we" in that statement is - the fairer, upper caste North Indian Hindus that form the BJP’s core constituency, and who have for ages thought of themselves as the template for the "true Indian". Everyone else, whether it’s Dalits and lower caste citizens from across the country, or the Dravidian residents of the southern parts of the country (both associated, though not entirely accurately, with darker skin colour), are merely tolerated. These two strains of bigotry - race and caste - combine to create a society where darkness is, at best, treated as a personal failing, something that you must strive to overcome. At its worst, it leads to dehumanisation and, eventually, violence.

Much of the blame for the persistence of such toxic attitudes towards skin colour rest with India’s pop culture and mass media industries. Bollywood, as always, has been a pioneer. For decades, people of darker skin colour have been pushed to the margins, relegated to the role of caricature or villain. Take for example the still iconic song from the 1965 film Gumnaam, in which comedian Mehmood tries to win the attention of Anglo-Indian actress Helen. “Hum kaale hue to kya hua dilwale hain (so what if I’m black, I still love you),” he sings, reinforcing the improbability of a beautiful (read fair-skinned) woman like Helen falling in love with a dark-skinned man. More recently, there was the 2008 film Fashion, in which Priyanka Chopra plays a model whose descent into drugs and depravity finally hits rock bottom when she wakes up one morning next to a black man. There’s also a long history of Indian films featuring "blackface" and racist stereotypes of black Africans, best exemplified by a horrifying scene from 2000 film Hadh Kar Di Aapne, in which… actually, just watch it yourself because I can’t figure out a way to put it into words without throwing my laptop out the window.

Indian television is no different, with dark-skinned actors - especially women - so rarely seen on programmes or advertising, that any advertisement that dares to break the norm is celebrated as groundbreakingly progressive. And then there’s the fairness cream industry, endorsed by a host of top film and television celebrities, with advertisements that inextricably link fairness not just to beauty but also to employability, self-confidence and suitability for marriage. Just take a look at this epic five part tele-commercial by Ponds, appropriately titled White Beauty. The focus on whiteness is relentless, and this colourism runs rampant even as Indian movies and television borrow and steal from black culture at will, even bringing in rap artists like Snoop Dogg and T-Pain to perform on Bollywood songs. It’s another thing that Snoop Dogg - or anyone with the same skin colour - has as much chance of playing the lead in Bollywood as I have of becoming Potus.

In recent years, as Indians outrage about racist attacks against non-resident Indians (NRIs) in the US and Europe and get involved in global conversations about racism and cultural appropriation, many of us have also started turning a spotlight on racism back home. The fairness cream industry is facing increasing criticism, even from high profile actors like Abhay Deol who would otherwise earn big money by appearing in their ads. Explicit racism in film and in advertising no longer goes unchallenged. When former Miss World and current Bollywood royalty Aishwarya Rai appeared in a print ad for a jewellery brand that alluded to 17th century European paintings of noblewomen, complete with emaciated black child servant holding up a red parasol, she was met with a barrage of criticism and outrage that forced the company to withdraw the ad. But as last month’s attacks make clear, this is not nearly enough.

First, the Indian government and our political class needs to acknowledge that racism and anti-blackness are a real problem, instead of trying to brush it under the carpet. Step one would be to bring in a long overdue law against racial discrimination. But as the persistence of caste despite the legal abolition of caste distinctions 70 year ago shows, having laws on the books is not enough. We need massive programmes to sensitise police, bureaucrats and the public at large about the toxic effects of racism and how to counter it. Racist stereotypes in media and public discourse should be shut down, not tolerated or even reproduced by political leaders as they are now. Anti-racist and anti-caste discourse should be an integral part of the school curriculum. Celebrities, activists and civil society needs to be much more vocal in their critique of racist and colourist speech and actions. There are more than enough policy prescriptions out there, if we can find the political will to put them into action. And we must find it soon. Or our kids will continue to grow up with the notion that social worth is tied to where you are on the Fitzpatrick scale, they will continue to weaponise skin colour in schools and in playgrounds. And for those of us with darker skin, whether black Africans or "black" Indians, the possibility of sudden, explosive violence will always lurk around the corner.

Bhanuj Kappal is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. 

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