“You look really hench,” a man at the gym tells the comedian Jessica Fostekew. Her response – to her audience, if not to him – is a sarcastic “Thank you for my compliment – why am I trying not to cry?” Because all women know “hench” or “a powerhouse” is nothing to be proud of. Women are meant to be graceful and thin. Muscles are for men. Now let’s settle in for half an hour of stand-up on dating, dieting, parenthood and patriarchy, punctuated by digressions into the joys of weightlifting.
The problem with Powerhouse is that we’ve heard it all before. Maybe on The Guilty Feminist – a podcast for which Fostekew is a regular guest– or maybe on other Radio 4 shows seeking an injection of this feminist-first brand of humour. There’s nothing wrong with it, and goodness knows there are enough male comedians on air rehashing tired mirror-image material about how hard dating is for a 21st-century man and why people (read: women) are so quick to take offence these days. But nor does it feel particularly original to bemoan the diet industry or unrealistic standards of female beauty.
This is disappointing, because Fostekew does have serious – and subversive – things to say about society’s gendered view of “strength”. She skewers the absurdities of a world that insists it is “unfeminine” for elite female athletes to flex their muscles, that says “it’s fine for a woman to look strong as long as she also looks hungry”, and that refuses to acknowledge the toughness – both physical and mental – required for that most feminine of acts: childbirth. The liberation she clearly feels leaning into powerlifting makes me want to quit the treadmill and join her in the weights section of the gym. Briefly.
Fostekew ends by urging women to stop grasping for unreachable body ideals. “But they can’t because the diet industry and the patriarchy are very loud, very old, and very tall. Well, I’ve got a microphone now, and I’m not very old, and I’m not very tall – but I’m really hench,” she concludes. “Thank you for my compliment!” It’s a nifty call-back, expertly crafted to get a laugh. If only the rest of the show was as sharp.
7:15pm, 26 September, BBC Radio 4
[See also: To dissect a good joke, do you have to kill it?]
This article appears in the 22 Sep 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Great Power Play