Deb­o­rah-Frances White on us­ing jokes as fem­i­nist weapons

Com­edy can be an agent for change and can help women find their voice, the Aussie co­me­dian and pod­caster tells

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“Some­times co­me­di­ans make jokes that marginalise peo­ple and peo­ple say ‘oh, that doesn’t make me feel good’, and they’ll say ‘oh, the PC brigade, ugh’. I don’t ad­vo­cate cen­sor­ing com­edy at all but what I say to co­me­di­ans is that jokes have power.”

Deb­o­rah Frances-White is the pre­sen­ter and co-creator of

The Guilty Fem­i­nist pod­cast. Run­ning since 2015, it’s recorded in front of a live au­di­ence. Her co-host, co­me­dian Sofie Ha­gen, left early this year, and since then dif­fer­ent guests, such as

Catas­tro­phe’s Sharon Hor­gan, Crazy­head ac­tress Su­san Wokoma and Smack the Pony’s Sally Phillips have joined Frances-White each week to cover a breadth of is­sues that “all 21st cen­tury fem­i­nists agree on”.

“Jokes are a very pow­er­ful way of get­ting an idea to travel around a world very quickly,” says Frances-White, on the phone from Lon­don. “Be­fore the in­ter­net, jokes used to go vi­ral. A joke could be passed from per­son to per­son. Jokes are the quick­est, eas­i­est way to send an idea.” The hu­mour in the The Guilty

Fem­i­nist and the con­fes­sions are like “a lit­tle bit of steam com­ing out of a ket­tle”, where it gives women the chance to dis­sect the para­doxes that they find within mod­ern fem­i­nism. You sense from the pod­cast that many of the guests are ready to un­load.

“It felt to me that we are made feel guilty about so many things: you’re not good enough at your job, you’re not a good enough mother, you’re not a good enough daugh­ter. There’s a sort of con­stant guilt we live in and fem­i­nism has be­come one more thing to feel guilty about, like . . . and now you’re not a good enough fem­i­nist.”

Sleazy

When she brought up a story about a sleazy yoga teacher who only as­sisted the “hot, young, ath­letic women” in her class dur­ing a live pod­cast, she was re­lieved that other women felt an­noyed that a sleazy yoga teacher might ig­nore them.

“That’s a para­dox and you don’t ad­mit that to any­one. Like, be­fore the pod­cast, I would have told the story about the sleazy yoga teacher but I would never have said ‘And a part of me won­dered about my own sex­ual at­trac­tive­ness be­cause he didn’t seem that in­ter­ested in me’. Be­cause it’s em­bar­rass­ing. But there’s a lit­tle piece of you in­side that’s al­ways check­ing if you’re at­trac­tive, that I get is prob­a­bly bi­o­log­i­cal.”

The Aus­tralian, Lon­don-based co­me­dian says that when the pod­cast first be­gan, make-up and fash­ion would crop up a lot. But with Trump, Brexit and Ire­land’s leg­is­la­tion around abor­tion, she is far more in­ter­ested in help­ing women find their voice.

“Women want to take up more space in the world. It’s re­ally easy to get trained to start sen­tences, wher­ever you are in your job, with ‘Oh I don’t know if it’s worth men­tion­ing, I just had a thought’. [We are] re­train­ing our­selves away from apol­o­gis­ing, to al­low anger and ex­press it.”

Frances-White has a back­ground in pub­lic speak­ing about in­clu­sion and di­ver­sity, and she saw first­hand how many women ac­cept struc­tural sex­ism on a daily ba­sis. Now the pod­cast’s lis­ten­ers are be­ing mo­ti­vated to change that.

“I love that the au­di­ence feels that they can do more. I get emails from peo­ple about the show and what they all say, I could sum up in two cat­e­gories: ‘Be­cause I lis­ten to the pod­cast, I said yes’; or ‘Be­cause I lis­tened to the pod­cast, I said no’.”

She is re­fer­ring to women who have ap­plied for PhDs when peo­ple told them that they shouldn’t, or women who have fi­nally done some­thing about the boss who has been sex­u­ally ha­rass­ing them for years. “So much change can hap­pen, and you wouldn’t think that could hap­pen from com­edy but ac­tu­ally, com­edy is very pow­er­ful.”

Place of priv­i­lege

To high­light the power of a joke, she refers to an un­named fa­mous male co­me­dian who once tweeted a fa­mous fe­male sports com­men­ta­tor say­ing that he would only shag her if she was “younger and in a speakeasy”. It was retweeted thou­sands of times and she says that this co­me­dian used his po­si­tion to per­pet­u­ate the idea that women must be sex­u­ally at­trac­tive to be on tele­vi­sion. That tweet came from a place of priv­i­lege, some­thing she says we all have to work on.

“I am work­ing on iden­ti­fy­ing my priv­i­lege and shar­ing my plat­form and break­ing that down. Am I do­ing that per­fectly? God no. But I am work­ing on that and I think that’s all we can do,” she says.

“If you are a good co­me­dian, then your jokes have power so what do I want my joke to lift out of the way? What do I want my joke to open win­dows to? Given that I be­lieve that jokes can change per­cep­tions and there­fore change the world, what do I want the punch­line to be?

“I of­ten say to co­me­di­ans, ‘You only have to worry about this if you are a good co­me­dian. If you are only okay, prob­a­bly don’t worry about it – say what­ever you want.’ And I find that co­me­di­ans re­spond very well to that be­cause they say ‘Oh, well I’m a re­ally good co­me­dian so my jokes have to be re­ally hit­ting the right tar­get’ and I go ‘Yup.’ ” By ques­tion­ing ev­ery­thing,

The Guilty Fem­i­nist feels like a con­stant learn­ing curve for the host and her lis­ten­ers. It breaks things down with­out putting any­one down and that seems to be Frances-White’s main ap­proach: to use hu­mour to lighten the load of ev­ery­day life.

“Come on,” she de­mands. “We’ve got to start giv­ing our­selves a break.”

Deb­o­rah Frances-White will record the Guilty Fem­i­nist Pod­cast live as part of the Voda­fone Com­edy Fes­ti­val in the Iveagh Gar­den sat 4.30pm on Satur­day and Sun­day, July 29 th and 30 th. See voda­fonecom­edy.com for de­tails

Be­fore the in­ter­net, jokes used to go vi­ral. A joke could be passed from per­son to per­son. Jokes are the quick­est, eas­i­est way to send an idea

“I love that the au­di­ence feels that they can do more. I get emails from peo­ple about the show and what they all say, I could sum up in two cat­e­gories: ‘Be­cause I lis­ten to the pod­cast, I said yes’; or ‘Be­cause I lis­tened to the pod­cast, I said no’.” Change agent

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