Feature - Debunking the myth of the humourless feminist

WRITTEN BY TESSA JOHNSTON, MONASH UNIVERSITY

To the uninformed and unsympathetic, the term ‘feminist comedy’ might evoke images of the dreaded angry woman, come to spread her male-bashing, feminazi agenda. These people clearly didn’t attend the Femmo Hysteria comedy gala at the 2018 Melbourne Fringe Festival.

As someone who logically identifies as a feminist – it’s 2018, people – I wondered how one could possibly make feminism funny without making fun of feminism. In a world where millennials have earned the reputation of not being able to take a joke, this balance seems more integral and daring than ever. We’re the special snowflakes, the trigger-warning generation, living during the social wave of #MeToo and #TimesUp after decades of oppressed silence.

But when it seems like contemporary issues of feminism are either taken far too seriously or not seriously enough, feminist comedy straddles an impossibly fine line. Linguistics scholar Janet Bing discusses whether feminist humour can effectively contribute to public discourse or whether it falls into the traps of being plain offensive or ‘preaching to the converted’ in her aptly-named article ‘Is feminist humour an oxymoron?’The answer appears to hinge on the focus of the joke, as feminist humour which centres on men misses the point and reinforces the ‘angry feminist’ stereotype, thereby damaging its contribution to meaningful public discussion. As feminist satire authors Gloria Kaufman and Mary Blakeley so elegantly put it, feminist comedy should be “humour based on visions of change”. 

There was an encouragingly wide array of female-driven performances at this year’s festivalwith 70 shows listed in the ‘Feminist Guide to Fringe’, an audience roadmap to all things Fringe and “Femmo”. One such show was Hot Mess Productions’ Femmo Hysteria. Described as a entourage of formidable comedy queens, this show promised to deliver “more razor-sharp wit… than you can shake your patriarchy-fighting stick at” and my patriarchy-fighting stick was put to good use indeed. Hosted by the crassly charismatic Claire Hooper, of Good News Week fame, the show set the bar high for itself before the first performer even appeared.

However, the gala’s first performer, 2018 Best Emerging Artist Award Winner Lou Wall, somehow managed a backflip over that bar with a drag-inspired anthem about the woes of being afflicted with the “ginger disease”. The show established its diversity of tone with its next performer, Annie Louey, an easy-going comedian who captured the audience’s attention with a hypnotising sea of head bobs at her relatable tales including a particularly absurd story about a vagina-ear-mix-up at a local GP’s office (maybe you had to be there). 

Next, audiences were thrown back into musical theatrics with a soaring piano number from Claire Healy about the dangers of “bicycle face”. ‘What is this “bicycle face”?’, I hear you ask. Well, it’s a condition popularised by the 1895 Literary Digest supposing that female cyclist’s facial beauty is negatively impacted by the ‘unconscious effort to maintain one’s balance’ on a bicycle, resulting in a clenched jaw and bulging eyes. 

And these women were not slowing down. Following on from this educational experience were the raucous ‘Travelling Sisters’ with an outrageous skit that started out innocently enough with the three preparing their act for a talent competition and unravelled into absurdity, sending the audience into gut-busting glee. The penultimate performer was drag diva Charity Werk, with a hilarious and biting commentary on her trials and tribulations as a drag performer from a theatrical household.  Last. but pointedly not least, was veteran Fringe performer Alice Tovey, who closed the show with a surprisingly uplifting rock number about the inevitability of death, complete with black sequined body suit and tassels galore.

Annie Louey, aforementioned comedy queen, graciously shed some light on the role of feminist comedy in aiding or hindering meaningful discussion of women’s rights. Louey began her comedy career as a teenager when she became a national finalist in the Melbourne International Comedy Festival’s Class Clowns Competition, but didn’t make her Fringe debut until 2017 when she debuted a solo (and completely sold out) show ‘Butt Donut’. This year, Louey not only performed as part of Femmo Hysteria but also had her own one-woman show Before I Forget, which received high praise from Sometimes Melbourne and Hugging Comedians.

Within minutes, Louey cracked the case of how to write a non-offensive feminist joke: You don’t. The comedian stated that she didn’t have a go-to list of ‘“feminist jokes” up [her] sleeve’, but rather chose material the audience could and would relate to. As for whether feminist comedy itself makes women’s issues more accessible, Louey said shows like this allow her to ‘catch people when they’re least expecting it; humour disarms people’.

“I don’t think the word feminism even got mentioned in the show, I think that was the beauty of it. If you came along and didn’t think you were a feminist, you would soon see that [it] isn’t a dirty word.”

When asked about the future of feminist theatre and comedy, Louey showed a relatable mix of optimism and disdain. While acknowledging that shows like Femmo Hysteria are very trendy right now in progressive cities like Melbourne, eventually performers are “going to have to re-invent our performances so people keep paying attention to the topic of equal rights for all (sad, isn’t it?)”.

“I hope in the future there will be more solo female artists too – and I can finally stop being the woman and person of colour on a bill.” 

Fleur Kilpatrick, a prominent Melbournian playwright, theatre director and arts commentator, offered a perspective from outside the comedy sphere. When asked if comedians have a responsibility not to make a joke out of hard-hitting issues, Kilpatrick immediately quipped that “comedians have a responsibility to make jokes out of everything!”.

However, she said that like everyone else, comedians also have a responsibility to do their job ethically and making jokes that laugh at the pain of victims or stigmatise the vulnerable likely won’t meet this requirement, or be funny for that matter. On the issue of whether feminist theatre potentially “preaches to the converted”, Kilpatrick pointed out that no two feminists, like all people, are exactly alike, allowing shared experiences to “re-energise the weary”.

“I think right now we need to be thinking not only about putting feminist content out into the world but making it in a feminist way: ensuring that non-male voices are being amplified, that our work empowers young women (and men) to be better than we were and not take shit from anyone.” 

There does seem to be a loophole which serves feminist comedians well, as victims creating humour out of their own tragedy can help to not only heal, but create connection and a sense of solidarity with audiences. Annie Louey shared her grief and experiences as a burns survivor in her debut show, recalling how the process helped to “close the loop on… painful experiences… and use my unique perspective to inspire others”.

It’s not about carefully constructing jokes that won’t offend anyone, it’s about the person writing them and who they’ve been written for. Feminist comedy isn’t “burning our bras or chanting ‘kill all men!’”, as Louey so concisely put it. It’s acknowledging the barriers and discrimination facing women today, and women throughout history. It’s also about acknowledging that it’s never defeated women before, so why should it now?

Feminist humour is not cynicism about the state of the world or vitriol at the male species, but a way of connecting. Watching the women of ‘Femmo Hysteria’ didn’t fill audiences with a sense of hopelessness, it created a sense of solidarity that felt bursting with potential for change. So, how do you make a joke out of feminism without making feminism a joke? Create and support art that connects instead of divides, because nothing is more empowering than feeling part of something important. And we all are.

  Stand-up comedian Annie Louey performed as one of six acts in the 2018 Melbourne Fringe Festival’s Femmo Hysteria comedy gala as well as in her 2018 solo show Before I Forget.

Stand-up comedian Annie Louey performed as one of six acts in the 2018 Melbourne Fringe Festival’s Femmo Hysteria comedy gala as well as in her 2018 solo show Before I Forget.