The very different faces of feminist comedy at the Fringe

From overtly titled shows such as A History of Feminism (As Told By A Sexist Pig), Feminasty and Feminazi (see what they did there?), to the less obvious Puppy Fat, and Guilty Pleasures, all the way to being The Wrong Sort of Feminist, there is something for every feminist at this year’s Fringe.

Siobhan Smith spent a day (and night) watching a variety of feminist comedy shows…

Not a feminist you say? Well, you probably are. Unless you’re a massive dick.

Not into ‘feminst comedy’? Again, you probably are. If you like comedy.

While 2013 is historically the year that the Fringe embraced feminism, when Bridget Christie became the third solo female ever to win the Edinburgh Comedy Award with A Bic For Her, this year sees 116 solo women performing, in comparison to only 77 in 2010.

OK, so it’s not exactly equality but this peak in numbers seemed like a good enough reason as any to check out some ‘feminist comedy’. So, I spent a full day, from 11am until 11pm watching comedy performed by people who identify as feminists and who address feminist issues in their stand-up routine.

There were many different approaches. All were funny. Some were (much) funnier than others.

Harriet Kemsley incorporated it into her show subtly with comments about Barbies and porn, Megan Ford played out a ‘victim blaming’ rape sketch (“Remember rape is your fault. Don’t be dumb, stay indoors”), Zoe Coombs Marr dressed up as a man and told a LOT of sexist jokes, while Bridget Christie joked that she didn’t know what feminism was until she studied up on it for marketing purposes.

One thing that is clear is that people’s perceptions of feminism are evolving – slowly shaking off the bra-burning, man-hating stereotype – and it seems that different types of comedy have played a big part in that.

Don’t be scared of feminist comedy. Challenging the patriarchy is funny. (Give or take the odd awkward rape joke).


‘All the cool kids are feminists’

The first thing that is clear – without labouring a well rehearsed line – is that you don’t have to be anti-shaving and anti-men to be a feminist. In fact, you don’t even have to be a woman. Germaine Greer is no longer the main frame of reference. Beyonce, Harry Styles, Caitlin Moran, Mary Beard, Grace Dent, Emma Watson and Greg Proops are all blazing the trail for feminism.

Harriet Kemsley, who’s debut hour Puppy Fat references growing up and feeling under pressure to be a ‘perfect woman’, told me:

“All the cool kids are feminists, it’s fashionable now, we’ve just got to wait for all the boring people to catch up.  I think comedy clubs are becoming less male dominated and I hope this just reflects what is happening all over the country in boardrooms and pizza expresses.”

Bridget Christie summed it up best during her show A Book For Her, where she likened Ed Miliband wearing a “This is What a Feminist Looks Like” t-shirt to your friend turning up at the bowling alley, and taking off their jacket to reveal a t-shirt that reads “I Am Not a Racist”.

Erm, of course you’re not. Hopefully. And nobody would ever take that as being a default, or something that needed to be clarified. Unless you act like a racist, we will assume that you are not one.

Feminism is the same. Equality between men and women is surely the base point for us all? And if it’s not, then we must ask why.

Using a completely different approach, Zoe Coombs Marr’s debut hour Dave edifies this point with a ridiculous routine from the title character. Dave is Marr’s grotesque alter-ego: a misogynistic, failing stand up performing outdated sexist material and addressing only the men in the audience, qualifying every hideous line with an increasingly desperate “Am I right fellas?”

Example of aforementioned hideous line: “If I could, I’d use a skinny chick as a condom for fucking a fat chick.”


While the content is, on the surface of it, highly offensive, anti-feminist and actually not very funny, it serves to highlight the fact that this kind of comedy is so ridiculously unacceptable these days, while at some point in time it wouldn’t have been quite so frowned upon. Which is kind of unbelievable. And strangely useful. I think.

There’s a fine line between that and downplaying the seriousness of it, but let’s give her the benefit of the doubt.

zoe coombs marr dave

Zoe Coombs Marr as Dave

‘I don’t know what ‘feminist comedy’ is. I’d hope most comedy was feminist’

It’s not just people’s perceptions of feminism that are changing, ‘feminist’ comedy is evolving too.

US TV show Inside Amy Schumer has been lauded as being one of the most effective and outspoken feminist comedy shows ever, using humour to tackle serious issues about body image pressures, gender stereotyping and sexual assault.

Schumer’s fast rise to popularity this year is a positive message for feminism and feminist comedy. Her comedy is funny. And popular. And not all about periods. And she’s a woman.

When asked if she felt that people’s perceptions of feminist comedy were evolving, Pippa Evans told me:

“I don’t know what ‘feminist comedy’ is. I’d hope most comedy was feminist. Just as I’d hope it wasn’t racist or was progressive. Probably some people think tampons and ‘women banging on about women things – you know, like love and life and control pants.”

Tiff Stevenson, who has brought her show Mad Man to this year’s Fringe, takes a similar stance. “Nearly all female comics are feminist by virtue of getting up there in the first place,” she told me.

She added that although people’s perceptions of feminism have changed over the years, “there are still a few people who think feminism means hating men when it’s about equality plain and simple.”

TIff Stevenson - Danny E. Martindale/Getty Images

Tiff Stevenson

Reclaiming the period joke

In an ironic twist of fate, one of the first things that quickly becomes apparent during my feminist fest is that comedians have reclaimed the period joke. With female comics traditionally fighting against the stereotype of referencing their monthly cycle – they have owned it this year, and they pop up all over the Fringe.

The influx of period jokes seem to be in response to a zeitgeist that, this year, has seen women take down Donald Trump on Twitter for suggesting that Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly was on her period during the first Republican debate, Kiran Gandhi run the London marathon with no tampon (bleeding), and Rupi Kaur get one over on Instagram after a censored photo of her with a spot of menstrual blood on her pyjamas went viral.

But the real catalyst is tampon tax.

Perhaps most effectively of all – 45 minutes into a set which tears apart Nigel Farage, Jeremy Clarkson, Rachel Dolezal and Katie Hopkins – Christie ends by waving around a pair of bloodstained knickers and urges the audience to post their own pairs to George Osbourne. She calls for revolution against tampon tax and calls out the ridiculous idea that sanitary products are classed as “luxury items”.

Non-luxury items include lentils, houseboat moorings and FLAPJACKS, by the way. Yep, that’s right. Tampons – what a luxury. Flapjacks on the other hand, can’t do without them.

Addressing the same issue, Tiff Stevenson asks in her routine:

“If tampons are luxury where’s my Chanel Tampax, where’s my Dolce & Gabbana with wings?”

Christie has a serious five minutes at the end of her set where she questions the British public’s priorities when it comes to tampon tax.

She gets out her notebook and recites some facts. Jeremy Clarkson, a “violent racist”, lost his job after assaulting a member of his team and acting in a completely unacceptable manner. Within a matter of days, over a million people had signed a petition to try and get him his job back at the BBC.

In 2011, a petition to ban tax on sanitary products was signed by 50 people.

What does that say about the Great British public, she asks?

‘You’re shit you are, you’ll never be on a panel show’

The BBC, in fact, crops up in almost every show, with their decision not to record any more panel shows without at least one female on the panel, (perhaps surprisingly) providing its fair share of fodder. The general consensus is that, while in theory, it is a positive move – in a positive discrimination kind of way – it is somewhat insulting and suggests that women can’t be there on their own merits.

In her show There are no Guilty Pleasures, Pippa Evans references an eagle of despair that sits on her shoulder telling her repeatedly, “You’re shit you are, you’ll never be on a panel show.”

Despite all of this, Tiff Stevenson acknowledges that it is becoming easier to be a woman in comedy because of changing attitudes like this, and is in support of the BBC’s decision. (But she does add that she would still consider surgery to have a penis attached – mainly so she could earn 19.7% more money.)

Things are apparently the best they have ever been for female comedians. Phill Jupitus this year described female comedians as the “punk rock” of the Fringe, telling the Independent:

“At the moment, women are the punk rock of comedy; they are doing all the best, most interesting new stuff. It’s a cultural reaction. There is proper big punk rock stuff to talk about.”

phill jupitus
Phill Jupitus

In the same article Nica Burns, director and producer of the Foster’s Edinburgh Comedy Awards agreed:

“There is a new confidence with women. When you’ve overcome prejudice, you really do break boundaries. The audiences’ attitudes have changed. In the early days people would cross their arms and say, ‘Oh yeah, prove you’re funny,’ whereas now they are given a fair shot.”

While things are certainly improving numbers wise, there is still a long way to go. This year there are 372 male comics in comparison to 116 females. The official directory of British comedy site Chortle lists 1,627 men and only 275 women.

It can be difficult to make the distinction between positive discrimination and apparent token gestures. Most of the acts that I saw made it clear that they resent being referred to as a ‘female comedian’ or a ‘funny woman’. Megan Ford quipped:

“I hope there’s no press in. They always give me glowing review but then I can’t use it because they call me a FEMALE comedian and then I need to go to their office and set their desk on fire…”

If women don’t like being distinguished as ‘female comedians’, should those figures even matter?

Either way, there are some bloody funny shows out there to see in the last week of the Fringe, for feminists of all shapes and sizes. Give it a go*.

*Unless you’re a massive dick, that is

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