Difficult Women – Helen Lewis at the Aye Write Festival, Mitchell Library Glasgow, 20th May 2022

I would say I’m a pretty Difficult Woman. I’m sure most of you who know me would agree. Luckily, this has gone from being an insult to a badge of honour, in no small part due to Helen Lewis‘ book of that name. “Difficult Women, A History of Feminism in 11 Fights” is pretty much what it says it is. Political and legislative change in British history told through the stories of the women who made it happen. What makes Lewis’ book different from a textbook or a pop social history book is that she delves deeper into the lives, beliefs and actions of the women, discussing their shortcomings as well as their victories, their flaws as well as their virtues. I read it earlier this year and when I saw that she was due to appear as part of the “Aye Write” book festival in Glasgow (can we just take a moment to appreciate the genius of that name?) I decided to go along and hear her speak about it.

Unfortunately the friend I was due to go with had to cancel last minute due to illness, so I headed in on my own. I tried to time my entrance to arrive just at the start so I wouldn’t have to mingle or look too much like a lonely loser. It was all going well until a staff member sent me to the wrong event, I had to navigate back up the various floors and sections of the labyrinthine Mitchell Library and ended up getting to the door just as Helen Lewis was being introduced. My attempts to subtly take a seat in the back row while quietly taking off my coat were thwarted by a steward who asked, “Are you here on your own?” and requested that I move to make room for others who might arrive later. Others, presumably, with friends or partners who would want to sit together while I, Nora No-mates was just in the way. There should be a dating type app for folk who want to go to these events on their own. Maybe I’ll invent it and capitalise on my loneliness (more on that here), lemons and lemonade and all that. Anyway, I digress…

It was an interview-type affair with the host asking a series of questions which Lewis answered at length, often straying from the topic of the question or referring to other relevant matters so it felt more like a solo talk than an interview. The questions provided some structure but they weren’t strictly necessary as Lewis has a lot to say on a lot of issues and I’m sure we would all have been happy to just listen to whatever she wanted to discuss.

Helen Lewis speaks as she writes – direct, to the point and with well-researched facts liberally strewn throughout. She is eloquent and quick and funny. She writes in the kind of style that I aspire to, in fact listening to her made me almost regret not pursuing journalism as a career as I once aimed to. Ironically it was sexism and insane competition in the profession that put me off back then, but that is history without any fights. I wasn’t a fully-fledged Difficult Woman back then.

After an interesting and entertaining 45 minutes or so, it was opened up to the audience to ask a few questions. Sadly the event only lasted an hour, we could easily have gone for twice that I’m sure. Afterwards the author was at a table selling books and signing them so I queued up, purchased a paperback copy and waited my turn. I got the book signed with a personal dedication which was nice, and had a brief chat with Lewis. I told her that I already had a copy on kindle, but that I wanted a one on a shelf in my house so that my kids might pick it up one day and have a browse. We had a brief chat about the importance of teenagers today knowing about feminism, then it was time to go.

I do worry about the future of feminism. My eldest is coming up for 13 and while that age group do seem to have a strong sense of justice and equality, there is a feeling among them that feminism is a fight that has been won already. They see it as something that is part of history, not relevant to their present or future. I can see why – when I was at school girls had to wear skirts, we were segregated in PE into hockey for girls and football for boys and only girls got taught sewing. My kids won’t experience that, thankfully. They have LGBT+ clubs and gender-neutral toilets and all their tv programmes have an ethnically diverse cast. Yet the world still won’t treat them equally or fairly. They are going to need feminism and perhaps feminism will need them. The way things are going in the world just now we need as many Difficult Women as possible, not just creating hashtags and participating in social media campaigns but in protecting our legislative and constitutional rights. I hope that in 50 or 100 years time there are 11 more, in fact 50 more fights to write another book about. I hope feminism moves us all forward, that our young people take up the reigns and do revolutionary, amazing things with it.

There were several other events on in the Library and as I made my way out I saw a pile of Val McDermid’s new book on a table. I remembered that I’d bought it a wee while ago and made a mental note to read it asap. Then I saw the actual Val McDermid sitting at a table signing her book. As much as I would have loved to meet her I’m not sure she would have waited for me to run home to fetch my copy. I could have chanced my arm and asked her to sign Difficult Women, I’m sure she’d be delighted to be in the Difficult Women club. All the best ones are.

It’s really not funny.

The other day I was disappointed by a sitcom and spiralled into a world of despair about the state of modern feminism.

The sitcom in question is “Out of Her Mind”, it’s on the BBC iPlayer and was written by and stars comedian Sara Pascoe. I like Sara Pascoe, I would go so far as to say I am a a fan – I have admired her turns on various panel shows, enjoyed her stand-up performances and even read her books. These books are quasi-academic looks at the female body (Animal) and sexual desire, relationships and sex work (Sex Power Money). Both are easy to read, enjoyable and offer some interesting perspectives. When I heard that there was a sitcom based loosely on the ideas explored in both these books, I was definitely interested.

I was disappointed. Granted, I’ve only watched the first 2 episodes, but still I was disappointed.

It started a bit weird, nothing wrong with that. Could be interesting, a bit quirky, 4th wall broken, ok, let’s go. Then it got cringy, desperate, a bit too self-serving and overly self-aware. I literally grimaced through 90% of it, and was mostly baffled through the other 10%. Then after 2 episodes I gave up and the disappointment set it.

I was disappointed that it didn’t go far enough to take us to the different, often challenging perspectives that the books did. I was disappointed that it wasn’t quirky enough, it used clichés in a knowing way, yet was still full of clichés. I was disappointed that it didn’t really SAY anything, I was mainly disappointed that it was about women talking about men, and women talking about their weight. Yes, it tried to do it in a different sort of way, but still…

When I was younger and discovering comedy, there was a distinct lack of diversity in the demographics of comedians around – they were white, they were male. But within that very white, very male group there was diversity of styles. Whether they were in sitcoms, doing stand-up or presenting gameshows and playing charming, joke-telling host, we could see the traditional, the classic, the edgy, the surreal, the slapstick, the dry, the storyteller, the one-liner. Billy Connolly, Russ Abbot, The 2 Ronnies, Fry & Laurie, John Cleese, Ben Elton, Benny Hill, Harry Enfield, Mr Bean, I could literally go on and on.

There were a few women comedians. Actually, there were 4 that I remember – French & Saunders did French & Saunders and one of them did Absolutely Fabulous, Victoria Wood had her tv shows and Jo Brand did stand-up. That was our lot. Jo Brand talked about being a woman. She talked about not having a man. She talked about her weight. Fair enough, that’s her thing. She was good at it. She was funny. She was literally peerless.

As I got older and had more power to view beyond the offering of the 4 tv channels I had been limited to growing up at home, I discovered comedians that I liked – Eddie Izzard, Bill Bailey, Dara O’Briain. I liked slightly surreal, meandering, there’s maybe a punchline coming but maybe not and who cares the journey through the story is funny anyway kind of comedy. Not sure if you could call it a sitcom, but The Mighty Boosh was revelatory to me. Still all-male, still all-white.

In the intervening years, the comedy field had become slightly more diverse, but we still had women talking about their weight or their (lack of) men (Sarah Millican, Katy Brand), Black and Asian people talking about being Black or Asian (Gina Yashere, Stephen K Amos, Shazia Mirza). If you were not white or male you’d better just talk about the fact that you are not white or male. That’s all we will allow you to talk about. White, male comedians get the full gamut of topics, styles and modes to chose from. They can do whole sets without mentioning the fact that they are white or male. Or their weight.

There were a few exceptions. Goodness Gracious Me took talking about being Asian to a whole new level, but was as much aimed at an Asian audience as the “mainstream” white British audience and was littered with Asian culture jokes that the rest of us were largely oblivious to. Smack The Pony was a group of women just being generally funny, it was ground breaking but who followed on that ground? Very few. More recently we have had Fleabag, lauded as the next big thing in feminist comedy. It was good, especially the first series, but I found the whole priest storyline of the 2nd series a bit weird and egotistical.

Incidentally, in writing this I did some google searches to recall names, check spellings etc.

If you search for “British comedians”, google helpfully displays a line of names with thumbnail photos along the top of the search results page. You can scroll right to reveal more. I had to scroll right past 15 men before I got to Dawn French and Jo Brand. Then past another 11 men before I got to Victoria Wood. 3 women out of 29. I had to go past 26 of them to find the first non-white person in Lenny Henry.

And sad but true, the suggested questions related to my search for “male British comedians”…

We might want to know who is the best, most popular, most famous? Ok, seems fair enough.

And for “female British comedians”?

We want to know who is the best, ok….and hottest? *massive eye-roll*

I feel like when it comes to other fields, I have almost compiled lists of great women that I want to introduce my daughters to. We have started on music – the eldest can sing along to Blondie and recognise “that girl that comes from Glasgow” (Lauren from Chvrches) and I have an all-female indie/rock-with-a-wee-bit-of-pop playlist that I put on in the car as often as I can get away with. They are discovering great female actors for themselves in the likes of Dr Who. Strides are being made, progress is evident, but somehow it still doesn’t seem enough.

I was disappointed in Out of Her Mind because I had higher hopes for something from Sara Pascoe, and I’m disappointed that now, 30 years after I started watching comedians on tv, the women are still only talking about their weight and their (lack of) men. I am disappointed that we still don’t have a great variety of women comedians able to turn their hand to any given style, without being judged on their looks, or told sorry, we already have one of your gender/colour and there isn’t room for any more. I want to see women being themselves, being surreal, doing puns and one-liners, telling hilarious stories, talking about anything other than being a woman, finding/losing a man or their goddam weight.

Disclaimer No. 1 – I have focussed on the UK, I know it’s a whole different ball game in America and maybe elsewhere but I wanted to talk about the situation at home for this post.

Disclaimer No. 2 – I don’t know all comedy. I don’t have the time to consume much comedy these days, so there will undoubtedly be women who I haven’t heard of who are fab. Please tell me about them!