Funny Fears

After a short break and a successful application to the Arts Council, feminism and funniness are well and truly back in my life. And with them; the task of explaining my idea (to create a funny and feminist performance piece based on Aristophanes’ THESMOPHORIAZUSAE) to a myriad of wide eyed and – quite frankly – terrified-looking people. “Feminism… and Funny?!” their fearful eyes seem to say… “you’re brave!”.

And I suppose – in some ways – I am. Despite the work of comedians like Bridget Christie, Sarah Pascoe, Katherine Ryan, Sadia Azmat, Miranda Hart, Natalie Haynes, Francesca Martinez, Margaret Cho, Amy Schumer, Kate Smurthwaite, Sarah Millican (and to go a bit further back) Shappi Khorsandi, Mel and Sue, Victoria Wood, French and Saunders, Jo Brand, Smack the Pony, Roseanne Barr (and to go even further back) Joan Rivers, Wanda Sykes, Phillis Diller (and… breathe!), it is still a little bit terrifying to think of feminists being funny.

Let’s look at why this is. There is a strong argument (put forward very well by American cultural critic Susan Douglas) that one of the ways the media has turned feminism into a dirty word is by presenting feminists as women with “the complete inability to smile—let alone laugh” (Douglas 2010). Consider, for instance, the media’s branding of Fourth Wave Feminists as “touchy Feminazi(s) with the sense of the humour of a Ryvita” (Vine, Mail Online), which started in June 2015 when Sir Tim Hunt resigned after making a sexist joke.  Whether you agree with what happened there or not, it is clear that presenting feminists as joyless Nazis that are unable to take a joke doesn’t just make them easy to hate. It robs them of their humanity and makes them seem dangerous and fascist.. and it certainly doesn’t create an environment that is conducive to feminists having a go at being funny.

Feminists, also, are very often the butt of jokes. I’m sure you’ve heard the one about the man trying to find the humour section in the feminist bookstore? (He couldn’t, because it doesn’t exist.. geddit?). Or the one about feminists changing a lightbulb? (they couldn’t do it, because they can’t change anything.. hahaha). All this contributes further to a situation in which feminists feel – perhaps quite rightly – that humour is a boy’s club that they cannot participate in.

If we look back at classical literature, this is not a new thing. In Shakespeare’s THE TAMING OF THE SHREW, for instance, Katherina is disciplined through continual belittling as well as physical violence. The play (which is really an ABC of how to abuse your wife), charts/celebrates the transformation of Katherina from fiery, independent woman to meek and mild wife through a variety of humiliating experiences that the audience is encouraged to laugh at. Similarly, the female chorus in THESMOPHORIAZUSAE is brought to heel through ridicule. Like Katherina (and most women in today’s society), the female chorus want justice and equality and the space to speak their mind. The character of Mnesilochus (Euripides’ father-in-law), who is pretending to be a woman at the time, mocks them by saying:
“Oh, women! I am astonished at these outbursts of fiery rage… Just because [Euripides] has shown up two or three of our faults, when we have a thousand!”.
The female chorus are made out here as the Feminazis of Ancient Athens: over-sensitive, erratic and unable to cope with the ‘reasonable’ way they have been portrayed in Euripides’s plays.

I would argue that the use of humour to take the sting out of women standing up for themselves – which, if we are look to Aristophanes, has been going on for over 2500 years – is one of the most poisonous forms of misogyny. As well as rendering the female perspective laughable; it reinforces the fear that most women have that comedy is not ‘for them’ and that they cannot be funny. Humour becomes a tool used against women, as opposed to a tool that can be used by women. All that’s left for ‘good-humoured’ women to do is laugh along as they are sexually objectified and patronised – watch as the camera dives down Holly Willoughby’s top on any episode of Celebrity Juice if you want to see an example of this in action!

When sharing some initial development ideas connected to THESMO at the West Yorkshire Playhouse’s recent Furnace: Scratch event (in the form of a slapstick routine showing a female comic trying and failing to tell a joke – get in touch if you’d like to see a film of it), I asked women: ‘how do you feel when you tell a joke?’. Their answers included: “terrified”, “sick” and “decreasing in confidence until it just fails and I forget the punchline”. Many women feel able to ‘be witty in normal life’, but not able to occupy an actively comic space without an awful lot of fear. Perhaps this is why so many female comedians still find a reason to apologise within seconds of coming on stage – for being fat, for being clumsy, for being Canadian (in Kathryn Ryan’s case!) – as though to distract everyone from the terror they are experiencing, and perhaps the fear that the audience has that they are going to be confronted by an angry feminist instead of a comedian.

But what if jokes are the answer? The truth is, the well-placed joke is one of the most effective weapons for social change. By playfully criticising and inverting social norms, comics can offer glimpses of a better world. Because of their fears of comedy, feminists can end up missing out on this, brooding over the past and allowing themselves to be weighed down by facts about violence against women and hostile workplace climates in an attempt to be taken seriously, as opposed to using humour and irony to cut through ingrained ways of thinking about gender. Sadly, the victim mentality rarely changes anything. Just like the female chorus in THESMOPHORIAZUSAE, feminists lay themselves out to being taken the piss out of, called Feminazis and ignored.

Through the next stages of development of THESMO, I hope to unpick some of the knotty issues around our societal fear of feminists being funny. I’d also like to make a couple of jokes. Perhaps, through laugher, I will be able to temporarily allay some of our fears and open up fresh possibilities for a bright new future to be imagined. Perhaps…

by Natalie Diddams

Natalie’s blog

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