Open Letter re Disparaging Autism Humour

Dear Professor Attwood,

I am writing this open letter following your talks at the National Autistic Society’s Autism and Mental Health conference in Reading on the 23rd May. I have read of considerable discomfort and distress from autistic members of your audience because of humour aimed at them (who said they felt “abused” and “exploited”) and subsequently engaged in social media conversations around the issue.

It’s of interest for me because I’m a researcher in humour (currently writing up my PhD at the University of Leeds) and also a professional stand-up poet, having just recorded my second comedy series for BBC Radio 4.

I’m also currently seeking an official diagnosis of autism and have done work for the National Autistic Society as an ambassador.

I’m aware that you’ve fielded complaints about your use of humour which makes autistic people the butt of your jokes before (For example, here: https://asdculture.wikispaces.com/Tony+Attwood+is+a+Bully%3F) but I wanted to share with you some psychology studies you may or may not be aware of. I’d particularly like to draw attention to social psychologist Thomas Ford’s recent work on disparagement humour. I attach an article which also has further links to his excellent papers but, in extreme summary, he concludes that when marginalised people are joked about, it gives other people a sense that it’s okay to disparage them too. (Link here: http://theconversation.com/psychology-behind-the-unfunny-consequences-of-jokes-that-denigrate-63855)

As a professional comedian, who places great value on the use of humour to confront difficult issues, and sees it as something that shouldn’t just be light and fluffy but can be used to break taboos, hold people’s attention and shake up dull academic presentations, I am the very last person to ask someone to stop using it, and very much admire people who are good at it- as it sounds like you are.

But I believe studies like Ford’s are a great illustration of how having the skills to deploy humour comes with power and responsibility- as do those of being an expert in your field who, I’m aware, has done much good for Autistic people and who is listened to with respect.

I think you could still use humour in your presentations, and get just as high a laughter rate, but without consistently making significant numbers of autistic people feel so upset. You would just need to consider more carefully (and with the savvy of a professional stand-up) how to take account of the fact that you are speaking to some sections of your audience as a “You” and some as a “We”. Stereotyping that minority we, who are already a stigmatised group, is as fraught with offence as the strategies of sexist and racist comedians who thankfully no longer get mainstream airtime. However, there are laughs to be had from specific situations you’ve found funny, from the stigma that Autistic people face and the quirks of NTs. As well as, I’m sure, your own quirks and idiosyncrasies.

I’m afraid the reactions of your audience members suggest that you’re not “laughing with”, but rather “laughing at”, (certainly by definition if they’re not actually laughing with you) and by using stereotypes and caricatures of autistic people, you’re “Othering” them.

I’m aware of the sad irony of writing a painfully earnest post about humour. I make audiences laugh all the time in real life and have sometimes inadvertently caused offence myself and resent the idea that I should forever walk on eggshells. Someone will always be offended. I don’t think comedy should be safe. But if I was consistently getting complaints from a group of people, over a period of years (There were at least five people on Twitter who talked about being upset at that one event alone), particularly stigmatised people who I was helping in other areas of my work, then I would rethink my comic strategies. Perhaps come to the International Society of Humor Studies conference and hear some current research (In Montreal this year, I’m sure you can think of plenty of good Canadian jokes), or attend a stand-up workshop (maybe I should start running them for the ever-growing numbers of men who inadvertently offend conference-goers).
I am making this an open letter via my blog so that it can be shared by others and will be copying in the NAS, as I would hope that it is of concern to them that a speaker is deeply offending some of the people they’re set up to help and advocate for.

It’s also quite a big thing for me to do this openly, as I am not officially “out” as seeking diagnosis. However, I have noted how often adult Autistic women in particular have their voices silenced in public discourse, and felt I had something useful to add here.

I hope you’ll consider what I’ve said and wish you all the best and many future laughs at your talks, which I’ll look forward to attending in person one day (while hopefully not feeling I’m being laughed at, in connection with my autism. That’s something reserved for people I’m comfortable with, rather than when I’m in a minority among an audience with more power than me. I’m also happy to laugh at myself). Perhaps you’d reciprocate and come to one of my shows one day.

All best

Kate Fox

How To Get Paid As a Poet 

I gradually picked this stuff up as I went along. Then I forgot I knew it. It seemed like stuff I always knew. Sometimes we can forget that there are people going “I want to do this-how do I start?”. Underneath it all of course there’s “Is it feasible?” “What can I actually earn?”. I’d say it’s better if you start the steps below when already earning money doing something else. They can take time and resources. I’m acutely aware they’ll be harder to access for some than others. Though my emphasis on being able to do paid gigs partly comes because that then makes it accessible to people who otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford to take the time to develop as poets. My paid poetry work enabled me to take the time to become a better poet. 
How poets become semi/professional poets has come up a couple of times this week in various contexts. Can be harder to answer as someone who has been one for 11 years full-time. But perhaps I should put something on my website about possible routes. Am I missing some? 
1. Enter poetry competitions. Small and large. Writing comps and slam comps. Travel further afield if you can. The aim is to have your work seen/heard. 
2. Develop your work. Read and write as many poems as you can, see and speak as many poems as you can. When people start offering you paid work, this can be a sign you’re getting better. Or at least, more payable. 
3. Connect with development schemes and awards whose function is to signal that you’re the future. The Eric Gregory award/New Writing North awards/Verb new voices. 
4. Look at what poets a step or two above the ladder than you are doing and see whether that route’s for you. 
5. Develop your work more. And more. Go on workshops, get a bursary for an Arvon course.
6. Make things happen. Start a gig so you have stage time and make connections with other poets at all levels. Run groups or workshops for others, start a festival or a magazine. 
7. Develop your own poetry projects and apply for Arts Council funding-for a show or a project working with particular people. 
8. Take a show to the Edinburgh Fringe. Consider being on a bill with one or two other poets and sharing slots. 
9. Get plugged in to local and national opportunities and funding. Subscribe to newsletters (I think I’m on New Writing North’s and the Arts Council’s). 
10. If you start getting paid gigs/workshops, consider saying no to unpaid ones. Or at least, asking for payment.
11.Present your work like a professional poet. For some that will mean having a book (if not via a publisher then a decently self published one). For nearly all that will mean having a website. Possibly a reasonable quality video of you live gigging. Maybe at very least a business card.

Lass War

I have had the idea of spoofing man-heavy Northern Powerhouse photos rattling round in my head for a while now.

Then with a ping and a click, it became clear the the time to do it was outside the Northern Powerhouse Conference in Manchester. Helen Pidd of the Guardian pointed out they’d sent out a press release highlighting 15 main speakers. All men. Now was the time to hold up a mirror to them. I’ve explained more about it here on my Campaign for Northern Voices site. Lass War Blog  I set this up before Brexit. Then worried it didn’t quite fully address the issues facing the North of England which are now even more urgently structural as well as cultural.

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I asked for women to come join me with hi-vis, hard hats and man suits. It looks like a good few will be coming, despite the short notice and early hour (8am-8.30 am as delegates register and then at 1-2pm as they lunch on Tuesday 21st February). Another piece I wrote about it here for Standard Issue: (This piece is basically chapter 3 of my PhD condensed). Article Link

“Can something humorous have a serious point?” asks a journalist. Yes. Yes, yes, and yes.

Another thing that made me want to go for it is that Pussy Riot’s Punk Prayer took place on February 21st and some commentators had said that was no coincidence. They do carnivalesque protest and that day is mardi gras- “Fat Tuesday”. A day of carnival.

(I though this was Pancake day but that’s actually next Tuesday 28th February though- a good day for tossers as I used to say in every Pancake Day news bulletin I read- aah, happy days).

This is Thesis 

I don’t write about doing my PhD very often (at all) on this blog, though it makes it’s way into Facebook posts quite often. 

I’m in my third and final year now and writing up my research. I kept saying to people that I’d turn into a hermit and mainly sit in a room typing. This isn’t quite the case. There has been lots of sitting in my room typing. At least 60 000 words worth since August (which sounds brilliant but I’m only supposed to submit 50 000 and I’m only about half way through the sections I need. ALOT of pruning is ahead). But there is also lots of performing and gigs and poetry and comedy writing. Partly because my PhD is practice-based and this stuff is part of it (including studying the two Radio 4 comedy shows I’m about to record. Meta). Partly because I’m bad at saying no. Not to everything. But to things that sound like they might inform my thoughts about class, gender, northern English regional identity and resistance in stand-up. 

However, I’m also aware this is a time to stop saying the big research Yes. I can’t research everything and know everything. 

But something else is happening. My brain is very awake. To attempt up get it to think about other things than the PhD I have to divert it into equally stimulating processes. Slightly obsessional ones. I’ve been lurking on “web sleuth” sites on two murder cases. Intriguing communities of people solving media murders. I only lurk but it engages my brain. “Who murdered so and so” can temporarily replace “Why is rationalism not always sufficient to explain human actions?” (See above murders). 

Also, my research calls for praxis. A word that was new to me at the beginning. The mixture of practice and theory. Doing stuff informed by critical reflection. My thesis quotes “calls to this” and “manifestos for the other”. It says don’t just sit in a room and think -do. But don’t just do-sit in a room and think first. Preferably with others. 

So I’m trying to balance the Yesses and the Nos. There are also practical considerations. I still want people to offer me work from the autumn when I’m done and 17k isn’t quite enough for a household to live on. 

I’m having about three weeks now in which I won’t often be sitting at my desk for hours at a time. I’ll feel guilty. But I’m living my thesis all the time. Embodying it. It’s like the TARDIS when Suranne Jones became it and vice versa. What are you doing? If anyone asks I’m praxis-ing.

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.

 

 

Five Shows I’m Not Going to Make

 

 

  1. In “Tether, Release” Kate embodies the post-human by living as an owl for twelve days. She internalises subject-object distinctions in process by hunting mice, eating them and vomiting up their skeletons and troubles linguistic categories by calling rather than speaking. She will extend the technology of her body by wearing wings  and claws as she sits on a perch for five hours a day and allows the public to interact with her as long as they’re wearing gauntlets. This becomes a Foucauldian interrogation of the limits of our biopower and what it truly means to become-animal.
  2. In “Expression Shopping List. Part VII” Kate and six performers who have made work  in Northern cities since graduating, celebrate the place-making and place-destroying element of their practice. They question the ways that belonging has become commodified and implicated in creativity. They will interpellate the audience as ambivalent shoppers by reading out collections of their shopping lists over a period of eighteen hours, whilst improvising comments such as “Pesto is more expensive in Shoreditch”.
  3. Kate’s company “J!zz The?tre” once again explores the limits of performance with its deliberately lo-fi aesthetic and examination of the boundaries between performance and life. The piece “Strictly” sees performers wearing ripped ballgowns watching an episode of “Strictly Come Dancing in real-time. In a searing resistance to mediatised jouissance they destroy the television set at the end of the piece by pouring water and other fluids on it. J!zz The?tre use their extensive performer training to appear not to use performance skills or techniques and reject traditional theatre snobbery. Please see attached PDF for a list of their awards and prestigious commissions.
  4. In “Ste (real) isation” Kate challenges gender conditioning about the categories of inside and outside, production and reproduction as her womb is removed live on stage, while the audience see a live camera feed of her uterus on a screen. During the surgery she performs a stand-up monologue about handbags and, after the operation is complete, she leaves the stage with her womb in a handbag. The audience are suspended in an ambiguous state somewhere between their implication in the staged spectacle of extreme emotional labour and comedic appreciation of her brilliant punchlines.
  5. In a tribute to the seminal work of The Wooster Group, Kate stages a reading of Alan Bennett’s works, with audience members invited to come up on to the stage and read sections themselves. In this multimedia, experimental, groundbreaking and post-post modern performance, all the readers will be invited to ingest Red Bull first. The subsequent readings will play with perceptions of time, speed, vowels and ultimately the nature of reality itself. In the climactic re enactment of “A Cream Cracker Under the Settee”, the whole audience will play the part of the cream cracker.

 

Speaking as Not a Mother 

Generally  as a child-free person, I don’t think there’s much need to speak out about it.
We’re not oppressed or overtly discriminated against and on most social measures it seems that parents, particularly Mothers, have it worse. Employment laws and work culture generally discriminates against them horribly. Culturally they also suffer from the conflicting pressures of what women are “supposed” to be. Leaning in, having it all, being Madonna, Mary, Yummy, MILFish and bikini body ready. 
Though when I did a comedy show about not wanting to be a Mother. I expected some flak. Especially when it was broadcast on Radio 4 after the Archers on a Sunday night right into the heart of Middle England. But there wasn’t a flicker of annoyance. Not one email. Unless everyone had switched off in disgust the minute my Northern vowels sounded out. I took it as something of a counter to studies which had shown women without kids were seen as “childish, neurotic and selfish”. At a time when 1 in 5 women (and rising) in the UK don’t have children, I thought that social attitudes had mostly progressed. 
I also think that women who want children but can’t have them have a much harder deal. Both when seeing the rhetoric around mothers as “real” women, in issues around arduous infertility treatments and the lack of awareness of the devastating impacts of miscarriage and stillbirth. 
When I performed my show live, young women did sometimes say that it was a relief and a change to hear this presented as a positive choice. But I still didn’t think this needed to constitute a mission statement. It’s, after all, about not wanting something. Not having children doesn’t define my life. 
However, after Conservative leadership candidate Andrea Leadsom’s remarks Here about  feeling that being a mother gives her a “real stake” in the country’s future, as opposed to her childless rival Theresa May, I think there is a reason to speak out after all. 
Especially when the idea of the happily child free person is removed from the narrative entirely and we have the responsible Mother who cares about the future, and the sad Non-Mother who has had her stake in it removed. 
Both are emotional tropes of course and the idea that people only care about the future of those that they’re related to by blood is being easily picked apart elsewhere. 
But I want to represent the idea of a happily childfree woman. One that is resisted by the dominant narratives about womanhood. A New Statesman article  Heresuggested that we’re seen as the Unicorns of society-as in, mythical creatures. Honestly, I sometimes feel guilty about elements of my life that are easier than the women around me juggling childcare, not having much time to themselves, hitting career walls and having to go to Wacky Warehouses. It means I don’t say it often enough. Not having kids is great! It’s just what I want. I can’t tell you how many sighs of relief I breathe when I spend any time with children or parents in any context and know I’m going home to my husband, cocker spaniel and quiet house. 
Unfortunately it is obligatory in these articles to end by saying what a nice person you are, how much you do for society and love people EVEN THOUGH you don’t want to raise humans. I’ll just say that if I supported a party that has presided over the terrible inequalities perpetuated on women, children and everybody else as detailed in this week’s UN report, Here, I would cower in shame at the short sighted lack of concern for the future of all of us shown in policies that privilege profits over people, short term gain over long term sustainability and political expediency over a far sighted tackling of shameful global inequalities.