Space – The Final Frontier

Reclaiming spaces, Suffragettes


This weekend I went along to the launch of the book Suffragette Legacy: How Does the History of Feminism Inspire Current Thinking in Manchester (Mørk-Røstvik and Sutherland 2015) at The People’s History Museum. It was an opportunity to see some of the contributors to this wide ranging consideration of Manchester’s feminist credentials, which included academics, artists and activists, talk about their work.

I was particularly interested to hear about the work of Helen Davies and Jenny White of Warp and Weft who made use of their craft skills to highlight the lack of female statues in Manchester City Centre with their project Stature. These inspiring craftivists crocheted a series of masks of women from Manchester’s history (including the author Elizabeth Gaskell pictured), which they placed over several of the male bronzes and statues in Manchester’s town hall.


Crochet mask of Elizabeth Gaskell from Warp and Weft

The project drew attention to the lack of representation of the achievements of women in the city and has successfully provoked a response (a step in the right direction) from local councillors, who have committed to creating a statue capturing Manchester women’s achievements ready for International Women’s Day 2019.

This approach reminded me of the way on opening night The Women in Comedy Festival team had stuck a variety of images of female comedians to the walls of The Frog and Bucket. The venue was supportive of this move, and the festival in general. However, these walls are usually adorned with portraits of comedians who have earned their stripes on the stage at the venue – not one woman amongst them, even though The Frog and Bucket has been home to regular women-only line-ups, Laughing Cows, for a significant period of time.


The walls of the Frog and Bucket Manchester ready for opening night of Women in Comedy Festival 2015

This is of interest to me as part of my research will touch on the way that the physical performance space for live comedy has shifted from a male specific space (working men’s clubs) to dedicated spaces which are allegedly accessible to all (although are often not accessible in terms of access for disabled performers or audience members as explored in the recent work of Dr Sharon Lockyer). Even though women may now be in the audience and also perform on the stage, the images we see of achievement in comedy remain predominantly male and this normalises the idea of comedy as a male arena.

Additionally this week a public discussion of sexism broke out on an academic mailing list I subscribe to. A female user had put forward the idea that women were being responded to more negatively than their male counterparts when making similar requests (help finding examples, locating references etc.). The word sexism was not used at this initial stage but the argument was made that female users were responded to in a patronising and dismissive tone, whereas males asking almost identical questions would be responded to more considerately. Immediately this suggestion was responded to in a patronising and belittling way (ironically and unwittingly proving the initial point). In and amongst the 50 or so emails that ensued were several comments along the lines of ‘don’t we all have better things to do than argue about this’.

This mailing list is subscribed to by 2,500 people and although the key protagonists were limited to a core group everyone could see their arguments. How many women observing this in their inboxes (as I was) were put off ever posting in this space for fear of similar criticism??

It was incredibly depressing to witness established male academics dismiss this point or fail to take the comment in the way it was meant – as a reminder that we should be cautious when responding by email to anyone and that as women working in a patriarchal environment (which overwhelmingly academia continues to be see here) we are sensitive to this in a way male colleagues may not fully appreciate. In the U.K women are still paid less than men in academia and there are significantly fewer female professors. This virtual space is supposed to be an inclusive one but it does not exist a vacuum we all bring our previous experiences to the way we read and respond to others.

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Tweet from the European Research Council 6/11/15

After a while the argument died down with apologies from those who fell into the trap of responding in the heat of the moment with dismissive or rude statements, and the proposal to get together as a collective and discuss these issues was put forward. So progress possibly??… But I found the comments that fell into the ‘we all have other more important things to do with our time’ particularly infuriating. These issues should be discussed and considered publicly. It is important because it feeds into and feeds off the way women are treated in the real world (see Everyday Sexism for a myriad of examples). The face of success, especially in academia, is still that of the (white) male. If spaces are not inclusive to women or reinforce notions of gender difference then it will take longer to create a more equal image of what it means to be successful.

So overall this week provided an excellent reminder as to what the spaces we inhabit, both physically and virtually, say to us about what we, as women, can achieve.

The Difficult Second Post (Field Notes)

Birthday Girls pic

Birthday Girls Party Vibes show 2013 with Women in Comedy Festival crew.

This Friday I am off to see the marvellous Casio keyboard-wielding comedian David O’Doherty. I see a lot of comedy and I’m excited to be seeing his new show, having used my Edinburgh Festival trip strategically to see people I was unfamiliar with.

When I proposed my research area in August 2013 I was already seeing a lot of comedy. This has shifted up a notch over the last few years….since I can now without any qualms call it research. I’m also lucky enough to live in Manchester where the U.K’s Women in Comedy Festival takes place (more on this to come as it deserves more than a passing mention) so my opportunities to see hilarious women have never been greater.

I’m focusing on the live circuit in the U.K and so it’s important for me to see people at different stages of their career, in different venues and on both mixed-gender and women-only line-ups. Context is a vital (and sometimes neglected) factor when discussing comedy and much research falls into the trap of ‘content-only’ – boiling down comedy to words on a page devoid of the context of performance. I’ve been keeping track of all the comics I’ve seen in this time as this helps me form a better understanding of who is working in the context I am discussing.

My plan is to try and keep track of who I am seeing as part of this blog but I thought it might be useful to flag up who I’ve already seen in action. Some of these people I have seen multiple times, in multiple contexts too (from back rooms and basements and work-in-progress shows to arenas).

Note: Records began October 2013 and the following is in alphabetical order because I’ve put this info in a spreadsheet (of course I have)…….. I’ve been busy that’s all I’m saying.

Adrienne TruscottAisling BeaAllyson June SmithAmy VreekeAnnette FagonBarbara NiceBeth VyseBethany BlackBirthday Girls (sketch), Bridget ChristieCaz ‘n’ BritneyChella QuintComedy Sportz Manchester (improv), Dana AlexanderDanielle WardDaphna BarhamDebra Jane ApplebyDotty WintersEleanor ConwayEllie WhiteFelicity Ward, Flick and Julie (sketch), Grainne MaguireHannah BrackenburyHarriet DyerHawkeye and WindyHayley EllisHayley-Jane StandingJana KennedyJaney GodleyJen CarssJess FostekewJessie CaveJo CaulfieldJo CoffeyJo EnrightJo NearyJosie LongKate FoxKate McCabeKate SmurthwauteKatherine RyanKerry LeighKiri Pritchard-McLeanLara A KingLesley KershawLou ConranLou SandersLouise ReayLucy BeaumontLuisa OmielanMae Martin, Maureen YoungerMiranda HartO’Shea and O’GaukrogerPenella MellorRose JohnsonSara PascoeSarah FrankenSarah MillicanShappi KhorsandiShort and Girlie Show (Improv),  Sophie HagenSophie WillanSoula NotosSusan CalmanSuzi RuffelTanya Lee DavisTiff StevensonTory GillespieZoe Lyons……**

There are 71 people in that list – all funny in a myriad of different ways. No wonder it’s so hard to find women to go on all those panel shows. (rolls eyes)

**I’ve tried to add links either to a site or twitter feed if anyone wants to find out more.

So what’s your research area?

Comedy research

On average I get asked this question about once a week and every time I struggle to find the words to briefly outline what it is I am doing. I’m now two years in as part-time student and so now’s the time to really pin this stuff down.

Comedy/Feminism/Post-feminism/Gender/Marginalisation all pop up time and time again and often I can see I’ve lost the enquirer completely or they panic and tell me they ‘really like Sarah Millican’.

I went to an excellent Feminist Research Methodologies conference yesterday at Sheffield Hallam University (my home institution), which talked through some of the challenges facing feminist researchers. I  spent a lot of the day meeting new researchers and discussing the basics of my research area, and Jessica Ringrose’s emoji-embracing keynote inspired me to finally start blogging about my work.

As you have to start somewhere with a blog I thought I’d challenge myself to articulate what I am researching…..

(NOTE: But first what I’m not doing. This is NOT a research project investigating the ‘are women funny’ debate. My research takes this as a given, women are evidently funny.)

  • My research seeks to analyse the current state of the British stand-up comedy industry in relation to the increasing inclusion of female and feminist comedians. My argument is that in all aspects of our current society the voices and experiences of women are marginalised and I am researching how this is reflected within the U.K comedy circuit.
  • I am interviewing female (and those who identify as female) comedians and promoters currently working on the live circuit  to better understand their experiences. Do the individuals I am speaking to have experiences in common and how, when their identity is intertwined with ethnicity, sexuality, age (and other points of difference from the most powerful members of society – white, educated, males), do their experiences differ?
  • I am using a mixed-methods research approach, to gather information about the motivations and attitudes of audiences for women-only comedy nights/ festivals. Why do audiences go to women-only comedy line-ups? Do they think they are getting something there that they wouldn’t get from a mixed-gendered comedy line-up? This is to attempt to understand the impact of women-specific comedy organisations on the circuit.
  • I’ll also be looking at the work of specific female comedians in order to make arguments about the existence of both feminist and post-feminist comedy being evident on the current live circuit. The reason for including this is to look at the content of performances that are situated within the context I am researching (the current U.K live circuit).

Feminist research is inherently political, it seeks to forward the cause of equality. Comedy is an area that has been under-explored in terms of research into female experience and this is something I’d like to address through my work. To sum up then people still regularly say ‘women aren’t funny’ and for me that is only one dangerous step away from more problematic concepts about what women are capable of. We can do and be anything, we are equal.

It may seem crazy to focus on comedy when there are many overwhelming barriers facing the fight for equality in the U.K (appalling rape conviction statistics, lack or equal pay for equal work, the tampon tax). However, as comedy helps to maintain the status quo, by propping up what is considered ‘the norm’ and making other alternative structures or approaches seem laughable, for me its as good a place as any to start.