Stand-up comedy and feminism often cross paths. Questions abound about the lack of female comedians (and the consequent abundance of male ones), the concept of excluding ‘laddish’ humour, whether subjects such as rape, domestic violence or ‘friend zoning’ are legitimate joke material… Luckily though, not all of their meetings are for bad reasons. I saw two excellent, very different feminist stand-up shows at the Edinburgh Fringe this year that made me laugh and gave me hope.
Rosie Wilby’s show, Nineties Woman, tells the story of her experiences working on the feminist newspaper Matrix at York University. It’s anecdotal, rather than a routine of jokes, and all the more touching for it. Using video clips, photos and the odd prop (and I mean odd in both senses – some of them were unnecessary clutter) she recounts her awkward student years – the crush that led her to join the collective, her inspiring fellow contributors, and how the discovery of an old copy of Matrix in her parents’ attic led her to wonder how this small group of 90s feminists had evolved since their uni days. In the course of tracking them down, Wilby discovers that many of them – once avowed lesbians – are now married or in straight relationships. Twenty odd years on, the audience laugh at this dramatic change, but Wilby points out that lesbianism was once part of pushing the radical feminist agenda. On a broader, less personal level, Nineties Woman demonstrates what cultural and social shifts have occurred, and how feminism has changed. But as Wilby leafs through pages of an old newspaper and reads the article titles on body image and drinking safely, I can’t help but feel that the majority of young women – and men – could profit from the influence of Matrix today. Things haven’t progressed that much, after all.
In the same day, I went to check out a show intriguingly titled ‘Feminism for Chaps.’ My friend and I only just squeezed into the tiny pub venue and were forced to sit on the front row – something I always try to avoid with stand-up comedy. Fortunately, we had nothing to fear (beyond being boiled alive in what turned out to be a sweatbox of a room) because Andrew Watts’ set is absolutely flawless. His opening statement is that this is a show for men, and that he has nothing to offer women. I admit, this put me slightly on edge – but it’s all a clever ruse. Even the title of the show is a trick because, as Watts proves, feminism is for everyone. Gender inequality negatively affects all of us, not just women. His prime evidence for this is having recently become a father, which has led to him suffering endless rounds of ‘where’s mummy?’ whenever he goes anywhere with his son alone, or ‘aren’t men useless?’ if he ever makes a mistake. His set moves quickly and intelligently through all sorts of issues – birth, sex parties, relationship politics, the accusation of misogyny once levelled at him by a reviewer – and his passionate belief in what he is saying is evident. His list of concluding points makes one final threat to generalise and belittle, but it gets flipped on its head: ‘what do women want? ASK THEM.’
Both of these comedians prove that it’s completely possible to make people laugh while provoking thought on serious issues. Food for the brain and the funny bone? Winner.