Yes, there are more female comics at the Fringe – but it’s hardly time to celebrate

Letting off steam. Author provided.

The amount of female stand-up acts that are appearing at the Edinburgh Fringe has provided fodder for many a headline this summer. The gist? There are more (I’m one of them), and they’re winning more awards. Yes this is a good thing, but simply focusing on this positive development means that the (extensive) changes that still need to be made are being skimmed over.

Australian comedian Zoe Coombs Marr’s show “Dave” is one that illustrates some important ongoing issues. It sees her in character as a young open-mic stand-up called Dave who tries to get the blokes in the audience on side with constant pleas of “am I right fellas?”. He’s desperate for approval of his material, which is largely built around the difficulty of finding the clitoris and walking around with a penis. I have met many real-life Daves in my time as a stand-up performer.

Guardian reviewer Brian Logan acknowledges that he enjoyed the show and Coombs Marr’s impressive performance but gave it three stars, saying:

It’s not subtle and the brand of chauvinist comedy depicted makes for a fairly soft target. Without being complacent about sexism UK style, it seldom presents itself in quite such lurid colours as Dave.

Such minimising of the issues still facing female comedians in the UK is part of the more optimistic narrative now surrounding them. We should be under no illusion that the problems are in the past.

Dave. Zoe Coombs Marr

Number crunching

The announcement of the Foster’s Comedy Awards usually prompts an annual debate about the lack of women winners and nominees. Bridget Christie won the main prize in 2013 and became the third solo female winner in the award’s 34-year history (following Laura Solon in 2005 and Jenny Eclair in 1995), and Adrienne Truscott’s “Asking for It” won the panel prize in the same year.

This prompted a flurry of optimism about how the tide was turning for female comics, who were winning recognition for tackling comedy’s sexism head on. This translated into a belief that women were breaking through in greater numbers, though this wasn’t reflected in nominations the following year (Sara Pascoe was the only solo woman out of seven on the shortlist and John Kearns took the award).

In fact, when I counted named female solo stand-ups in the official Fringe guide, there were 71 in 2010, rising to 121 in 2013 and then a slight dip to 116 this year (As against 372 male comics). Comedy website Chortle‘s official directory of comics lists 1,627 men and 275 women, so a proportion of about one in six female comedians.

Despite this, Phill Jupitus has been quoted this year as saying that female comedians are “the new punk rock”. Top comedy agent Hannah Chambers added, “women comedians are a lot more visible and mainstream”, while Fosters Awards director and producer Nica Burns said: “There is much more confidence among women. If Phill Jupitus is saying that it’s women’s time then how lovely is that?”

Yes, we’re moving in the right direction. Feminism and comedy are traditionally seen as oxymoronic, and Christie and Truscott’s success has paved the way for more acts to resist this in their work. More women are labelling their shows as feminist, which they would have been loath to do in the past (I saw my 2013 Edinburgh solo stand-up show as a feminist show – it was about not wanting children – but didn’t label it as such because I thought it would put potential audience members off). Yes, there are a series of shows in 2015 that mention periods. All of this is very well, but that doesn’t mean the job is done.

Deeper issues

Meanwhile this year I saw Stephanie Laing preface a piece of material about her favourite sex positions in her free fringe show Nincompoop with the observation that Comedy Store founder Don Ward had told her not to do it as it was “slaggy”. He also told her, after her spot at a comedy competition in his venue, that she was just ordinary looking enough not to threaten female members of the audience though “you look better close up”.

Another female performer, a friend of mine, posted on Facebook that she saw a 21-year-old comic from Edinburgh “doing jokes about ‘smacking a bitch’ and smashing his girlfriend’s face into a vending machine last night, then got a man in the audience to mime punching his girlfriend in the face”. Not so lovely.

Heading too quickly into post-feminist narratives of optimism about the proliferation of women in the industry may dangerously mask deeper structural issues. And it’s not just gender. The massive economic and cultural pull of London means that class is also a problem.

There’s a strong perception, borne out by other research, that young, middle-class comedy scouts are more likely to promote and reward young middle-class comedians like themselves. It will be interesting to keep an eye on future Fringe show listings, award nominations and panel show line-ups to see how far positive stories about the mainstreaming of female comedians becomes a smokescreen for an industry getting ever less diverse across a number of measures, including class and regionality.

Meanwhile I’ll continue to ponder whether, despite it’s reputation as one of the funniest parts of the UK, the fact that there have only been two winners of the big awards with northern English accents (Daniel Kitson for Best Comedy Show in 2002 and Sarah Millican with the Best Newcomer award in 2008), is statistically significant or just coincidental.

After all, stand-up comedy is a meritocracy, isn’t it?

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