The term ‘female comedians’ is a, well, funny one. Should we still be so insistently adding the ‘female’ part? Female comedians are comedians. But there is still sound justification for the need to preface the role with their gender. Women are funny. They’re hilarious. But female comedians are still marginalised, given one seat – at a push – on the likes of Mock the Week and Have I Got News for You. We don’t need more ‘comedians’, we need more ‘female comedians’. That is why we must have this seemingly arbitrary addition of the prefix ‘female’.
We know that women are funny, even if some people try to dispute it. But, to put it in the most simple and crude terms, funny women disturb the patriarchy, and a lot of men don’t like that. And I’d argue, women are at their funniest when being crude about sex and relationships. Whilst a part of me still has to mouth the word “sex” in a Miranda Hart-esque style each time I say it, the enjoyment that is gained from listening to female comedians talk about sex is high. Phoebe Waller-Bridge has done much to alleviate stigma around female pleasure. But it seems we love to criticise female comedians as unfunny or, as I once heard someone say, “too fat to laugh at,” all the while heralding Jack Whitehall as the epitome of modern comedy. The man is a wet flannel. Another diversion, but an important one, takes us to the issue of these comedians’ social backgrounds. I love Phoebe Waller-Bridge, I think Miranda is great, and that Jack Whitehall can, on occasion, be entertaining enough. But there is a running theme here, and that is their poshness. They’re not just a bit more middleclass than the average comedian, but they’re proper posh.
Working-class women can also be really, really funny – just with less Whistles clothing and Crémant. Caitlin Moran’s Raised by Wolves and Lisa McGee’s Derry Girls depict young women being both honest and hilarious. Though Moran has made some questionable comments in the past, and her journalistic background perhaps doesn’t make her a ‘comedian’ in the traditional sense of the word, she is undoubtedly hilarious, and definitely contributed to the ground work for how young women can talk, and laugh, about sex. Victoria Wood also deserves a mention, here who broke through comedy when it was still hugely maledominated. The American comedian Phoebe Robinson – who co-hosted the podcast 2 Dope Queens – has spoken at length about sex in her comedy. One of her most popular videos on Comedy Central’s YouTube channel shows her discussing a relationship. In it she quips how, in a relationship you “eat, watch Netflix, stop growing as a person so you can stay in that relationship.” The crowd laughs, because it’s true. It’s as if the worse the reality, the more ground there is to laugh.
The most uncomfortable truths make for the most perfect comedy moments. Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag, for example, switched from moments of hilarity to moments of deep sadness, peppered with trauma and filled with honesty. A line from the first series, “I have a horrible feeling I am a greedy, perverted, selfish, apathetic, deprived, morally bankrupt woman who can’t even call herself a feminist” summarises the state of women and comedy. Women can be funny, selfish, even morally bankrupt if they want to be. Women don’t have to be just one thing. Waller-Bridge is now helping to rewrite the new Bond script, while another brilliant comedian, Lolly Adefope, is breaking into America at high speed with a role in Shrill, a comedy that examines body positivity and breaks down the connection between body weight and value. Female comedians are, as these shows highlight, not one-dimensional. Ultimately, it is honesty that connects us to these comedians. The audience can open up when they see themselves reflected on stage – which is, obviously, why there needs to be more diversity in comedy. Fleabag’s first episode opened with a monologue: “you know that feeling when a guy you like sends you a text at 2 o’clock on a Tuesday night … so you have to get out of bed, drink half a bottle of wine, get in the shower, shave everything, put on some agent provocateur business, suspender belt, and wait by the door until the buzzer goes.”
It is Fleabag’s honesty that makes us laugh, the lack of feminist pretence. In a time when feminism has come to feel like a pressure cooker in which we all must be the perfect feminists, Fleabag has showed us otherwise: she masturbated over Barack Obama, she exclaimed “do I have a massive arsehole?”, and she slept with a priest. Waller-Bridge has taught us that the sex we have is not mutually exclusive to whether we are feminists or not. It is no surprise that the movement of sex-positive comedy is coming at a moment when women are shedding their layers of shame.
We cannot be naïve, though; female comedy that confronts reality is funny, but right now for many women all over the world the reality of their lives is bleak. The new abortion laws in Alabama reveal that even while women have control over their jokes and their words, ultimately, they do not have control over their bodies. I wonder what’s next for female comedy in the current climate.