Engulfed by Stand Up and Burning Bridges.

After a recent gig, various people came up to say various things afterwards, as they do. One talked about how nice it was to hear Bradford accents and to see a woman on the line up. One said that my accent had veered a lot between Yorkshire and North East. Another said that I should listen to the Guilty Feminist podcast or in fact be on the Guilty Feminist podcast. Another said he had bought my book for his wife for Christmas as she loved poetry.

It used to be very important to me to believe that my gender was not a big factor in my performance, writing and how people reacted to me- even though I was doing stand-up comedy which is overwhelmingly male (about eight men to every woman on the pro circuit). When I was in my twenties, male comics and audiences were very nice to me. I was very nice to them. I thought it was about being nice and nothing to do with gender. Being a smiley young woman who did knob jokes. At some level, I recognised that women needed extra support and spaces and I ran workshops and women’s stand-up projects and encouraged them but was still in denial about why that was important.

My Mum was a single mother of twins who was abused and exploited by a man who treated her (and me) badly. It was bad enough to admit I was sometimes ignored or abused, how much less of a self would I feel if I couldn’t think that it was personal- if I thought it was because of my gender? Generic abuse, not even personal. Audience responses were redemptive. But I wanted their laughter or their poetry “Hmms” to be particular to me, not generic. My fragile selfhood rested on this. Not that I thought I was fragile. I had lived on my own when I was 16. I argued back. I wasn’t a victim. Feminist “we”s didn’t seem to include me. They talked about sisterhood and motherhood and crying together and being angry together. All of those things could be varying degrees of unsafe or rubbing me out.

Laughing together though… maybe. My funny friends. The gigs and workshops, collaborations. French feminists like it when women laugh together- Cixous, Irigaray- but they don’t really talk about the power of making other people laugh. I started doing comedy club gigs again in 2011 after doing mainly poetry ones for a few years. Now I was older and less inclined to smile nicely while doing knob jokes. I was less placeable by audiences and comics. Not an ingenue, new-starter. Not a confident old hand. At the new act nights, young men were doing rape gags. I still didn’t really like to mention being a woman. I hoped people might not notice. None of us knew where I was. At comedy nights I started to feel like I didn’t exist.

Then I saw Bridget Christie talking about being a female comedian by talking about war donkeys. She said of course she was a feminist, everyone should be a feminist if they believed women should have equal pay and rights. This was a year before she talked about this stuff more clearly, directly and at the right time and was heard by lots of people. That year at Edinburgh she took off  a donkey suit, Rachel Mars took off a wolf onesie and Hannah Gadsby stripped down into an all in one bathing suit and back. I thought that being a female comedian might mean you could still hide yourself and reveal yourself without disappearing completely into a gender. The next year I talked about not wanting to be a mother whilst dressing as a nun and a unicorn. That would make a PhD I thought, though literally only I am interested in studying me, and in the ultimate bid to make sure I don’t disappear: I am. (Studying me in a PhD I mean, alongside class and gender and northern english regional identity and the way that audiences and performers make each other up during each performance event and don’t have to ignore or engulf each other).

I talked online about the lack of women at a comedy festival and lots of male comics got very annoyed and told me I had no right to mention this stuff and that comedy is a meritocracy. Lots of people have told me that stand up comedy is a meritocracy. I miss the camaraderie with the comics who used to be nice to me, though when I told a line up at one comedy club that they were very unrapey compared to the line up at another in the same chain, they were pleased to engage and one of them told me he is secretly glad that he has a penis. I forgot that I wrote an email to this comedy club in 2013 saying that I couldn’t commit to the gigs they kindly offered me and that I would never be a club comic. I forgot and started doing open spot gigs there again this year with my new techniques for being a woman on stage without disappearing, then wondered why they don’t really want to book me even though I’m so much better now. It was as if I had been trying to protect myself from going back to an abusive partner because I knew part of me would always be tempted so I burnt my bridges then to protect myself but forgot now that I think I’m all strong and gender-impervious.

I’m just reading Edmund Gordon’s biography of Angela Carter and identify a lot with the type of feminist she was- mostly socialist, seeing men and women as equally oppressed and reluctant to belong whole heartedly to any group or movement. He sees this as connecting to her relationship with her overly invasive mother in which she feared both abandonment and engulfment. This connects hugely with me and says something about comedy that I can’t quite yet articulate. Something about how stand-up is the perfect form if you fear other people taking you over, getting too close to you and blurring your boundaries. You get close and then you prick it with laughter. You reel them in, send them away, reel them in, send them away. Stewart Lee talks about disliking the consensus of comedy, The giant roar of laughter. There’s a man who fears being engulfed, I think. I’ve interviewed comedians who have none of this fear. They can do intimacy. Hold an audience close. Tolerantly. Close enough to change them. Not me, yet. Except sometimes for about a minute in a poem. Maybe that’s another reason I burnt my bridges at the comedy club and forgot. I think that stand-up poetry is where I can find the perfect balance between revealing and concealing. Getting close and holding back. Or maybe it’s just that the money’s better (and I’m better at it so I’m treated better. Treated as an individual. Not a Generic Comic Next in the Line Up).

Dear Comedy Club, I can’t write, I have learned how to play the game better now. I’ve been studying Bourdieu. I appreciate the spaces in between that I can find a place to resist. That I can find an audience to resist with. I appreciate the training in relaxing my body in front of an audience so that they no longer make me shake or terrify me with their vibrating tonsils, wide open mouths and/or blank faces and angry eyes. I will not again forget that I am a woman and I have now found appropriate ways to address this fact without upsetting my own internal organs. The ones that I have never seen on a scan but I’m sure are appreciably individual and hardly generic at all.



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