‘Feminism has become one more thing to feel guilty about’
Meet Deborah Frances-White, the Guilty Feminist using jokes as weapons
“Jokes are a very powerful way of getting an idea to travel around a world very quickly,” says Deborah Frances-White
“Sometimes comedians make jokes that marginalise people and people say ‘oh, that doesn’t make me feel good’, and they’ll say ‘oh, the PC brigade, ugh’. I don’t advocate censoring comedy at all but what I say to comedians is that jokes have power.”
Deborah Frances-White is the presenter and co-creator of The Guilty Feminist podcast. Running since 2015, it’s recorded in front of a live audience. Her co-host, comedian Sofie Hagen, left early this year, and since then different guests, such as Catastrophe’s Sharon Horgan, Crazyhead actress Susan Wokoma and Smack the Pony’s Sally Phillips have joined Frances-White each week to cover a breadth of issues that “all 21st century feminists agree on”.
“Jokes are a very powerful way of getting an idea to travel around a world very quickly,” says Frances-White, on the phone from London. “Before the internet, jokes used to go viral. A joke could be passed from person to person. Jokes are the quickest, easiest way to send an idea.”
The humour in the The Guilty Feminist and the confessions are like “a little bit of steam coming out of a kettle”, where it gives women the chance to dissect the paradoxes that they find within modern feminism. You sense from the podcast that many of the guests are ready to unload.
“It felt to me that we are made feel guilty about so many things: you’re not good enough at your job, you’re not a good enough mother, you’re not a good enough daughter. There’s a sort of constant guilt we live in and feminism has become one more thing to feel guilty about, like . . . and now you’re not a good enough feminist.”
When she brought up a story about a sleazy yoga teacher who only assisted the “hot, young, athletic women” in her class during a live podcast, she was relieved that other women felt annoyed that a sleazy yoga teacher might ignore them.
There’s a little piece of you inside that’s always checking if you’re attractive
“That’s a paradox and you don’t admit that to anyone. Like, before the podcast, I would have told the story about the sleazy yoga teacher but I would never have said ‘And a part of me wondered about my own sexual attractiveness because he didn’t seem that interested in me’. Because it’s embarrassing. But there’s a little piece of you inside that’s always checking if you’re attractive, that I get is probably biological.”
The Australian, London-based comedian says that when the podcast first began, make-up and fashion would crop up a lot. But with Trump, Brexit and Ireland’s legislation around abortion, she is far more interested in helping women find their voice.
“Women want to take up more space in the world. It’s really easy to get trained to start sentences, wherever you are in your job, with ‘Oh I don’t know if it’s worth mentioning, I just had a thought’. [We are] retraining ourselves away from apologising, to allow anger and express it.”
Frances-White has a background in public speaking about inclusion and diversity, and she saw firsthand how many women accept structural sexism on a daily basis. Now the podcast’s listeners are being motivated to change that.
So much change can happen, and you wouldn’t think that could happen from comedy but actually, comedy is very powerful
“I love that the audience feels that they can do more. I get emails from people about the show and what they all say, I could sum up in two categories: ‘Because I listen to the podcast, I said yes’; or ‘Because I listened to the podcast, I said no’.”
She is referring to women who have applied for PhDs when people told them that they shouldn’t, or women who have finally done something about the boss who has been sexually harassing them for years. “So much change can happen, and you wouldn’t think that could happen from comedy but actually, comedy is very powerful.”
Place of privilege
To highlight the power of a joke, she refers to an unnamed famous male comedian who once tweeted a famous female sports commentator saying that he would only shag her if she was “younger and in a speakeasy”. It was retweeted thousands of times and she says that this comedian used his position to perpetuate the idea that women must be sexually attractive to be on television. That tweet came from a place of privilege, something she says we all have to work on.
“I am working on identifying my privilege and sharing my platform and breaking that down. Am I doing that perfectly? God no. But I am working on that and I think that’s all we can do,” she says.
“If you are a good comedian, then your jokes have power so what do I want my joke to lift out of the way? What do I want my joke to open windows to? Given that I believe that jokes can change perceptions and therefore change the world, what do I want the punchline to be?
“I often say to comedians, ‘You only have to worry about this if you are a good comedian. If you are only okay, probably don’t worry about it – say whatever you want.’ And I find that comedians respond very well to that because they say ‘Oh, well I’m a really good comedian so my jokes have to be really hitting the right target’ and I go ‘Yup.’ ”
By questioning everything, The Guilty Feminist feels like a constant learning curve for the host and her listeners. It breaks things down without putting anyone down and that seems to be Frances-White’s main approach: to use humour to lighten the load of everyday life.
“Come on,” she demands. “We’ve got to start giving ourselves a break.”
Deborah Frances-White will record the Guilty Feminist Podcast live as part of the Vodafone Comedy Festival in the Iveagh Gardens at 4.30pm on Saturday and Sunday, July 29th and 30th. See vodafonecomedy.com for details