Friday, 28 September 2012

Mad About The Boy – Bristol Old Vic

Who needs to go to Edinburgh to see fine fringe theatre, when Bristol Old Vic delivers it to our doorstep here in the South West? Yet again, this trusted theatre delivers a packed programme of excellent and challenging performances.

My fist visit during the venue’s Autumn 2012 programme was to the downstairs Studio to see Mad About The Boy, a blunt three-hander written by Gbolahan Obiesesan. After deservedly winning the Fringe First Award at Edinburgh last year, the play is now on tour around the UK… and it’s only on in Bristol for three days, so catch it while you can.

Our protagonist is Boy (Bayo Gbadamosi), a 14-year-old youth struggling to find his place in contemporary inner-city life. He is supported by Dad (Jason Barnett) and school social worker Man (Simon Darwen). Boy is on the cusp of falling out of school and into a detention centre, while the older Man and Dad struggle to understand where things went wrong and how they can help.

What particularly struck me was the message, plainly and clearly delivered by Man, that Boy needs to respect women. When Boy asks for advice on how to make a girl like him, saying “If you want me to adjust my attitude, tell me how to get the girl I like to give me head”, a frustrated Man tells him “You got no respect.” Boy goes on to list the various uses he sees the girl offering him, all of which are derogatory.

Meaning it comes as no surprise that the crisis in the plot centres around an appalling and violent attack on a girl. The atmosphere in the Studio’s audience as Boy, Dad and Man argued over what happened was thick with tension, and I found my fingers tightly gripping the glass in my hands. While it would have altered the dynamics to introduce a new character at this point, I also wondered about the potential benefits of introducing the girl at this stage.

All three actors are faultless in their passion, vivacity and performance. Throughout four acts, the characters stand facing the audience - rather than each other – to deliver their fast-paced lyrical lines, in a directorial move by Ria Parry that really engages the audience and includes them in the action. When Man says “So what do you choose?”, he could be asking the audience as much as he’s asking Boy.

Mad About The Boy is astonishingly good theatre, delivering quick-fire, intelligent lines with precision, talent and a touch of humour (“I ain’t no Peter Andre, though”). That the underlying message was about respect for women and for taking responsibility for your actions, only makes me recommend this play even more.

Please click here to visit the Bristol Old Vic website for more information and to book tickets. Mad About The Boy is on until 29 September.

In which sexism in comedy is mansplained

There’s a lone voice in the crusade to end these beastly women-only comedy nights. And that voice belongs to Sean Ruttledge – a man who, according to his 'official blog' (not that I could find an unofficial one), is “the man of over 9000 voices”. But there’s only one voice coming through loud and clear on his blog, and that is the one saying he knows best and women must be told (especially the ugly ones).

Sean has spent a lot of time and energy on his campaign to put a stop to women-only comedy nights – although why the issue threatens him so much remains unclear. Though he does seem to have made a habit of living his life online, and having a record for the most number of accounts blocked from YouTube (at least 110).

I’ll agree with one of Sean’s points: namely, the absence of women in comedy is a topic that has been discussed to death. See this, and this, and this, and this, and you get the idea…

Sean is so sick of talking about it that he’s written a bog post, stating his views on the situation. He’s called the post: “’Sexism’ in comedy, those poor downtrodden lady comics: The sad plight of female comedians”. I think it’s clear where he’s pitching his stall. But let’s read on because Sean is a comedian by trade and his post is nothing if not entertaining.

In it he says: 

'Self-victimise'. Isn't that another way of saying 'victim blaming'? Regardless, what would Sean expect from 'manipulative' women folk, albeit ones who he acknowledges might be more 'political' then teh menz? Which, hang on, surely suggests women are better informed of social and economical injustices?

Sean goes on to say that he thinks sexism in the comedy industry is indeed rife. But it’s not the men who are being sexist. Nope! It’s the bloody women, with their man-hating women-only gigs who are the sexist ones. (I doubt Sean’s stopped to consider that maybe the women-only gigs were created as a result of the difficulty for women to get bookings, regardless of talent or, obviously, looks – an issue he goes on to discuss later in his post. Yes, really, that's how serious he is.)

Explaining why it is the women (sorry, ‘lady comediennes’ in Sean’s language) who are the sexist ones in the comedy world, Sean says:

Wow! Those are some strong claims in there. Firstly, while it’s true there are a handful of women-only comedy clubs (as in women-only performers, but anyone is welcome in the audience), does Sean realise that – even if they don’t label themselves as such – many of the comedy clubs in the UK are male-only comedy clubs (eg: 60% of the clubs listed in my previous post have exclusively men on their bills tonight - September 28).

Where Sean’s already-weak argument really falls apart is when he starts to discredit various female comedians because of their appearance. Under a photo of Sarah Millican’s DVD, he has inexplicably inserted the caption: “Jo Brand, funny but you wouldn’t shag her”. 

Under a photo of Kate Smurthwaite reads the offensive caption: “Smurthwaite, ‘really pretty’”, implying Sean believes the opposite. But then, Kate is a person about whom Sean has written the following:

From this, aside from the unnecessary rudeness about Kate, we can learn that as well as not liking female-only comedy events, Sean's own leanings are towards right-wing politics, men's rights and he's definitely anti-choice. 

In the meantime, I look forward to hearing from Bristol City Council, who Sean intends to report me to for the crime of holding an event that only promotes women comedians. 

PS: You don't know what mansplaining is? Click here. 

Stop the ‘gender apartheid’ of women-only comedy nights!

From a march demonstrating against ACTUAL gender apartheid

When I began organising comedy nights by women comedians in January, I anticipated a slew of ‘what about teh menz?’ moaning from the type of men who enjoy diminishing the work of women. This is because after several years as a feminist activist, I’ve grown used to hearing the same arguments about how downtrodden men are and why aren’t feminists campaigning about that?

However, regarding the comedy nights, I received only one comment from one man suggesting that perhaps it was ‘patronising’ to put on a comedy night featuring women comedians. He is entitled to his opinion, but because the other 99% of the women and men who were aware of the event were 100% supportive, enthusiastic and bought tickets in droves, I decided to push on and launch What The Frock! anyway.

And launch it did, with a sold-out event in May. It’s become such a success that What The Frock! is going monthly from January, and almost every day I get requests from people (even, gasp, men) to bring What The Frock! to their city.

TNT Comedy (above) is connected to Sean Ruttledge, who performs at some of their gigs and promotes some of their gigs online. After I blocked TNT Comedy, Sean started tweeting me from another account (below), although denies he is the same person.

That said, in the last few days, there’s been a lone internet crusader (see screengrabs above) who is banging the gong about the ‘gender apartheid’, ‘sexism’ and ‘misandry’ of What The Frock!, because it is only promoting women comedians. His main bone of contention seems to be that there are, in name, no comedy nights featuring only male comedians. (NB: You may need to read that sentence again to be sure you read it right.) OK? Now, please read on for the hard-to-argue-with stats (although I’m sure one or two will try).

Here come the stats...

Now, I’m going to do a little test. I’m going to randomly search for 10 listings for comedy clubs around the UK who have events on tonight (Friday, September 28) to see who they’ve got on, and see what kind of gender balance there is. I will search for one club in 10 UK cities. To avoid accusations of fixing the answers, I will go to Google and type in ‘[city name] comedy club’, then go to the website of the first listed club with an event on today. The results are alphabetical by city.

  • Birmingham, The Glee Club
  • Mark Nelson, Ivo Graham, Ben Norris and Karen Bayley
  • Men - 3
  • Women - 1

  • Bristol, The Comedy Box
  • Lloyd Langford, Celia Pacquola and John Robins
  • Men - 2
  • Women - 1

  • Cardiff, The Glee Club
  • Craig Hill, Mark Olver, Caimh McDonnell and Marlon Davis
  • Men - 4
  • Women - 0

  • Glasgow, The Stand Club
  • Brendan Dempsey, Steffen Peddie, Eddie Hoo, Owen McGuire and Susan Calman
  • Men - 4
  • Women - 1

  • Leeds, The Highlight
  • Anthony King, Quincy, David Whitney, Fergus Craig and Red Redmond
  • Men - 5
  • Women - 0

  • Leicester, Just The Tonic
  • Ian Cognito, Lloyd Griffith, George Ryegold and Jim Smallman
  • Men - 4
  • Women - 0

  • London: The Comedy Store
  • Mick Ferry, Jeff Innocent, Ian Stone, Tom Stade and Paul Sinha
  • Men - 5
  • Women - 0

  • Manchester: The Comedy Store
  • John Moloney, Markus Birdman, Mark Maier, John Lynn and Andrew Ryan
  • Men - 5
  • Women - 0

  • Nottingham is in the middle of the Nottingham Comedy Festival
  • Today they have: Dave Fulton, Elis James, Maff Brown and John Hastings at one event. Simon Bligh, Steve Shanyaski, David Hadingham and Andrew Stanley at a second event. A third event is a one-person show by Sally-Anne Hayward
  • Men - 8
  • Women - 1

  • Portsmouth, Jongleurs 
  • Ryan McDonnell, Paul Garvey, Bryan Lacey and Daliso Chaponda
  • Men - 4
  • Women - 0

So, of that straw poll from 10 randomly selected clubs, there are a total of 48 comedians performing. 

Of those 48 comedians, 44 are men and four are women. 

Of those 10 clubs, six have zero women on the bill at all, and the four that do have women on the bill have just one woman each (alongside a proportionally greater number of male comedians). 

In only one instance is a woman headlining (Sally-Anne Hayward), and that is because she is doing a one-person show!

So, dear doubters and hard-done-by men, tell me again that there are no men-only comedy clubs in the UK. 

And tell me again that it is ‘sexist’ to have brands such as Funny Women, Laughing Cows, What TheFrock! etc that promote women comedians. 

And please try harder to make your arguments for ‘misandry’ stand up straight. Because based on the solid figures above, your arguments are as limp as (skips over obvious analogy), err, bizkits.

Please note: the term ‘gender apartheid’ used in this context (eg this article) is extremely offensive considering the term's actual meaning. That is the economic and social sexual discrimination of women in the non-Western world, including the practices of legally killing adulterous wives in Syria and Haiti, wife beating in Nigeria, and legal kidnapping and marriage of women in Guatemala and Lebanon. So please think more carefully before misusing such an emotive term.

Perhaps those who throw the term ‘gender apartheid’ around like it’s clever or funny should read this article from women in SaudiArabia about what gender apartheid really means. And then think again before using it so flippantly.

PS: In answer to the question posed in the opening paragraph: if you are one of those men who are genuinely worried about how hard done by your gender is, why don’t you mobilise yourself, with some likeminded friends, to take action to raise awareness of the gross inequalities men face in life, rather than expecting us nasty  ‘man-hating’, ‘ugly’, ‘lesbian’, ‘feminazis’ to do it for you? Positive campaigning is an extremely empowering action, and you might realise just how privileged you were in the first place. Now, go and change the flat tyre on my car before you mow the lawn, there's a dear (see screengrab below).

Wednesday, 26 September 2012

The Exciting Life Of Being A Woman

I’m pleased to be telling you about a recently published book by independent Bristol publisher Hammer/On called The Exciting Life Of Being A Woman: A Handbook For Women And Girls.

Bidisha has endorsed the book, saying: “The Exciting Life of Being a Woman is part of an urgent and wholly necessary movement which reflects millions of women's hopes, fears, jokes, passions, questions, activism and energy in a way which is accessible, enjoyable, stylish and intelligent.”

And feminist legend Susie Orbach says: “This book is full of dos and great ideas to build young women's confidence, and challenge individually and together the pressures that too often undermine them.”

With praise from those two strong female personalities, The Exciting Life of Being a Woman has a lot to live up to. But that’s fine, because it does.

The book is the culmination of a lot of hard work from an enormous collective of women known as the Feminist Webs, as well as Bristolian force-to-be-reckoned-with Debi Withers. This is a cross-generational youth project based in the North West of England, that draws on history, practices and activities to help women of all ages feel empowered to be the people that deserve to be.

You can treat it as a workbook, a discussion kick-starter, an educational resource, a fact-finding mission, a consciousness-raising tool… or anything else. The Exciting Life of Being a Woman is illustrated with ‘spirit women’: women who’ve gone before us to achieve amazingly good things, from suffragette Annie Kenney, to scientist Marie Curie, and musician Yoko Ono (as well as a lot of others). These spirit women help to inspire and inform readers about the potential within themselves.

But that’s not all. The chapters tackle issues including resilience (how to be a strong person), recognising the absence of women in most of history (and pointing out the glaring holes in the history books as a result), inciting readers to peaceful activism (joining marches, setting up discussion groups etc), and so on. In short, The Exciting Life of Being a Woman is a really positive and necessary tool for young women today. The fact it’s largely illustrated with hand-drawn pictures only serves to demonstrate the love and enthusiasm the women at Feminist Net have for their foremothers and their fight for women’s rights.

The Exciting Life of Being a Woman is the feminist survival manual that I wish had existed when I was a frustrated 15-year-old girl, thinking that I was the only one thinking thoughts that I later realised were feminist ones. It would have made me feel a lot less alone. But the good thing is that this good exists now, and for future generations of young women.

You can buy a copy for £10 (plus £2.50 p&p) direct from Hammer/On by clicking here.

Thursday, 13 September 2012

The 'act' of depression

One of the things a depressed person has to do most is to perform. To act 'normal', 'strong', 'well', 'confident' etc for the benefit of others… who might be uncomfortable or inconvenienced by your depression.

But acting is tough. I'm not a trained actor and I have no inclination to perform in plays or films. I don’t enjoy the act I put on almost daily for the benefit of others and I don’t like attention.

Yet I do it out of a misplaced sense of duty. Many days, I wake up and feel completely and unbearably unable to go to work, where I must attend stressful and responsible meetings, talk with clients and colleagues etc. But I must do it. Because my role on those days is 'employee', and it's a role I need to do well in order to earn the money to fulfill some of my other character parts.

These character parts include wife (thankfully my husband is one of the few people I can be myself with), friend (I’m grateful that my friends are very supportive), comedy promoter, feminist, activist, writer, critic, homemaker and a million other bit parts. It's exhausting. All of these are roles I must assume at one time or another every day, putting on the costume and acting the part... while inside I'm breaking down, torn in pieces, screwed up with painful fatigue, and enduring self-doubt (sometimes reinforced by others, who don’t understand or realise my illness, and perceive my behaviour or comments, sometimes, as wrong/stupid/lazy/etc).

It’s really tough to hold down a full-time, responsible job while dealing with a mental illness – not to mention the sometimes debilitating side-effects of my medication. On one hand, I don’t want anybody to make allowances for me or treat me any differently because I suffer from depression and anxiety, but on the other hand, I need people to understand that these are very real and serious problems for me that do impact on my ability to be ‘normal’ (whatever that means).

Depression is not always caused by A Bad Thing happening. Sometimes it just ‘is’ because that’s the way a person’s brain is unfortunately programmed – there doesn’t always need to be a trigger. And that’s tough to explain to people who don’t understand. Some people think that if you don’t seemingly have an issue to deal with (eg a relationship problem), then why are you depressed? But when you’re in the middle of that depression, having to justify your mental illness is both impossible and insulting. It may be invisible to the outsider, but it’s painfully evident to the person feeling the pain.

Perhaps I invite the battles. By choosing to be an outspoken feminist, choosing to campaign, blog, review and write, by putting myself out there more recently as a comedy promoter, I'm creating situations for my confidence to be knocked, as well as inventing new costumes I need to perform my ‘acts’ in. But it’s tough, because a lot of the time there are things I want to do and firmly believe in, but it’s frustrating and exhausting that my depression slows me down, mentally and physically.

It's really tiring. Honesty would be so much better. A global understanding and empathy for mental health issues would be amazing. The stigma is stifling. The stigma - and the acting required to avoid the stigma - make the day-to-day realities of depression 100 times harder for the one in four who are like me, and who have some kind of mental health issue. 

Monday, 3 September 2012

Naomi Wolf – Vagina: A New Biography

In 2009, Naomi Wolf discovered she had a rare form of scoliosis that meant she had damaged her pelvic nerve. She discovered this after realising that over the previous few years, her enjoyment of sex had been lessening… and, understandably, she wasn’t too happy about that. Following a blunt conversation with her gynaecologist Dr Coady, Naomi learned that scientists have long proved that there is a clear correlation between the female brain and sexual pleasure.

What this meant for Naomi was that because the nerves connecting her brain to her clitoris were, to be technical, squashed, she wasn’t enjoying sex so much. After invasive surgery to her lower back and three months spent in a brace, Naomi was pretty chuffed to discover she was as good as new again.

This personal story is the starting point for Vagina: A New Biography (Virago, £12.99), in which Naomi shares her explorations of every aspect of this oft-considered taboo female organ. From the portrayal of the vagina in literature, to the role of rape in shaping a vagina’s herstory, Naomi rigorously leaves no stone unturned.

Swerving between personal anecdote and pop science, Vagina: A New Biography is eminently readable and quick to digest. Some chapters are pretty brutal (no one is going to come away from the rape chapter feeling anything less than shell shocked), others are personal (as above), and some are grim but enjoyable (her chapter about the role of porn in shaping the vagina reads like an article from the Guardian’s Weekend magazine… in fact, I fully expect to see it reprinted there as promotion for the book).

Stylistically, the chapters sometimes make for a disjointed read, but collectively they create a beautifully detailed and descriptive ode to this greatly overlooked, yet hugely important (for oh, so many reasons), female organ.

But coming in the wake of taboo-crashing pop culture like The Vagina Monologues, is the word ‘vagina’ even that titter-some in polite conversation anymore? Cynically, I feel that it is going to need to be for a lot of the marketing campaign surrounding Vagina: A New Biography. That said, when a friend saw the book on my table, she said: “Well, that book cover puts Fifty Shades of Grey to shame.” And why? There is nothing graphic on the cover, just a simple illustration of a flower (interpret it as you will), and the word ‘Vagina’ in large capitals. I don’t think it was the flower my friend thought was shameful!

In short, Naomi Wolf’s latest book is another example of her thorough and meticulous approach to writing. From The Beauty Myth to Promiscuities, Naomi has proven herself to be a reliable and respected source of feminist inspiration and information. And Vagina: A New Biography is just the latest example of this. For anyone interested in the role women play in society (and surely that should be everybody), then this is a sensitively written and vital book.


Bristolians: Naomi Wolf is coming to @Bristol on September 5 to give a talk about her new book, hosted by the Festival of Ideas. Please click here for full information and tobook a ticket.


NB: I have deliberately avoided reference to Naomi Wolf’s comments in which she stated that she felt those accusing others of rape should be named. I have avoided mentioning this because I do not feel it is relevant to a review of her new book.