Joking aside, critics should examine their sexism

DO women’s lives matter? It’s not the question I expected to be asking myself after reading a 97-word comedy review, but that’s the Edinburgh Fringe for you. One minute you’re enjoying a laugh, the next you’re having an existential crisis.

The previous day I’d been listening to two engaging writers – Reni Eddo-Lodge and Juno Dawson – talk at the book festival about the tendency for women’s writing to be viewed as subjective and personal, in contrast to the objective and authoritative words of men. I was pondering the idea that male (and white, and straight, and cis) are not just the norm but the default, and how celebrated meditations on the “human condition” so often come from the perspective of a very particular type of human.

The review was of Eggtime, a show by the comic Jenny Bede – or rather, according to the newspaper critic, the “actress pretending to be a comic” Jenny Bede. The reviewer did not enjoy Eggtime. “Jenny Bede”, she wrote, “has created a one-woman musical comedy about wanting a baby with no notion that people in her audience might have a different experience of life.” The review described Bede’s delivery as screeching and said of listening to her sing: “you feel like your ears are bleeding”.

How, I wondered, might a comic – or an actress pretending to be a comic – convey an understanding that members of her audience might have life experiences different to her own? By adding an asterisk to the end of her punchlines? By projecting #NotAllHumans onto a screen at the back of the stage? By writing a completely different show about someone else’s experiences? That is, of course, to assume this show was autobiographical. Jenny Bede is an actress, after all. A professional liar.

As a woman whose life experiences have included watching plenty of Sex and the City, I couldn’t help but wonder: is this the sort of criticism a male comic would attract? The best way to find out would have been to apply for PhD funding, gather all of the comedy reviews from this year’s Fringe, then spend four years analysing the data while gradually losing the will to live.

Instead I looked up the same paper’s review of a show which – unless the title is massively misleading – centres on another fairly specific experience of life: Fringe veteran Richard Herring’s Oh Frig, I’m 50! I’ve seen a lot of Herring’s stand-up, which has evolved over the years from high-concept hours about specific topics (penises, fascism, Jesus Christ) to more personal, confessional and self-reflective material. Herring, the reviewer writes, is “happy, a husband and a dad”, and “a great guy with whom to spend an hour”. Oddly, it doesn’t seem to matter that the audience might have different experiences to this 50-year-old straight, white, Oxford-educated father who’s reflecting on ageing at a milestone in his life. Of course he won’t be screeching at them, so that helps.

These reviews were by two different critics. Both are women.

Comedy reviewing is a funny business in both senses of the word, and the vast scale of the Fringe impacts negatively on the quality of criticism produced. In some publications a few harsh sentences beneath one or two stars is considered adequate for the purpose of warning readers off, while several paragraphs of glowing praise are allocated to those shows deemed the cream of the crop. Reviewers have the challenge of conveying the flavour of an experience without retelling the jokes or spoiling surprises that are part of the thrill or charm of a performance. Some attempt to be funny themselves.

If a male comedian talks about his personal experiences as a man, he is not performing “man’s comedy” – he is simply performing comedy. If he talks about masculinity, or fatherhood, or masturbation, or being rubbish at talking to women, he is not expected to convey to the audience that he understands his perspective is different to that of a gay man, or an infertile man, or a married man. Why would he? The very notion of it barely computes.

Humour is always subjective. What we find funny depends on what we know, what we believe, what TV shows we watched growing up, what experiences we’ve had of hipster cafes or sticky-floored nightclubs or camping holidays or Tinder dates. The show that made me cry with laughter this Fringe, Lucy Hopkins’s witch-clown theremin extravaganza Strong Women Are About, would doubtless leave many people scratching their heads.

That’s not to say that comedy criticism is nothing more than one man or woman’s opinion. Good criticism is not just a consumer guide; it forms part of an ongoing conversation about art and life and politics and the whole shebang. There’s no place in that conversation for asserting that a performer – such as the comic Jenny Bede – does not even exist. There’s no place for ruling that because a performer has the audacity to reflect on her own life experiences, she is at best niche and at worst intolerably self-absorbed. (Or intolerably absorbent, as per the audience feedback Sara Pascoe once received that declared her “too tampon-y”.)

It’s sad to see women perpetuating the idea that the world of comedy is an old boys’ club into which a select few girls are grudgingly admitted. If a comic simply isn’t funny then a critic should of course say so, but the blatant marginalisation of women’s perspectives is no laughing matter.

A version of this article first appeared in The National.

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