Why privilege, power and Love Island are all part of winning arguments about equality
I’m a feminist but I love a costume change during a photoshoot,” would be a fitting start to this interview with Deborah Frances-White, the woman behind The Guilty Feminist podcasts.
The comedian and podcaster is apologising about the time it’s taken to do the pictures before speaking to me, because unlike most comedians, it’s a process she actually enjoys.
“A lot of them are ‘oooh, don’t photograph me’, they hate it, but not me. And yes, there was a costume change,” she says. She can’t contain her excitement about her costume for the forthcoming Glasgow show either, but more of that later.
If feminism ever suffered from an image problem – and clearly it did, given the number of women still adamant they’re not ‘feminists; even though they’d like equal pay, or clarity on consent – then Frances-White and her tribe can be credited with making it more user friendly, dare we say giving it a make-over. But most of all, with their podcasts and live shows, they’ve put the funny into feminism.
Created with comedian Sofie Hagen at end of 2015, The Guilty Feminist podcast is one of the most listened to in the UK, with 60 million downloads in three years, and this year was nominated for Best Comedy Podcast at the British Podcast Awards. Recorded in front of a live audience, the 147 (and counting) podcasts feature stand-up from Frances-White and a panel of guests, the likes of Gemma Arterton, Hannah Gadsby, upskirting campaigner Gina Martin, Leyla Hussein of the Dahlia Project and Jo Brand, with special episodes featuring The Windrush Generation and Suffragettes.
Each podcast kicks off with “I’m a feminist but” jokes that highlight hypocrisy despite good intentions, so Frances-White obliges.
“I’m a feminist but one time when I went on a women’s rights march, I popped into a department store to use the loo, got distracted trying out face cream, and when I came out the march was gone.”
“I’m a feminist but once when getting on a light aircraft from Boston to Cape Cod the pilot asked my weight in front of everyone in order to determine how much fuel to put in the plane to make a safe crossing, and I lied by 20lbs, endangering my life, that of the pilot, the other passengers and a Border Collie that was along for the ride.”
“I’m a feminist but I sometimes fantasise about being dominated by famous fictitious misogynist Don Draper from Mad Men. If only he met ME I would make him whole and heal his pain.”
Humour is central to the Guilty Feminist ethos, undercutting the serious nature of issues, from inequality to infertility – even a discussion about upskirting is uplifting. For Frances-White humour isn’t so much a weapon to smash the patriarchy, more a device to disarm it by tickling its funny bone.
“I had a man write to me that he listened to the show because he hated feminists and wanted to see what the enemy was up to, but had to admit 18 months later we’d worn him down. He listened for 18 months! Because he said it was funny and made him laugh. He said the comedy drew him in, then he let his armour down and said he was learning something. He said sometimes what we say still annoys him, but to keep saying it, because it’s working.”
Not that F-W doesn’t think there aren’t grounds for anger and frustration.
“Listen, anger is a perfectly valid response to exclusion. If the suffragettes hadn’t got angry we still wouldn’t have the vote. When people are excluded, some go away, some get angry, and the third response is to learn to charm your way past the bouncers, become influential, the Oprah Winfrey, Ellen deGeneres Michelle Obama response – just be so charming and charismatic, assume you’re included then start to include others.
“So the ‘I’m a feminist but’ intros sum up everything about the podcasts,” says F-W. “It’s the idea that we’re all human, other people feel these things too. It’s saying, this is my hypocrisy, this is my self-paradox. Because our values and actions don’t always meet. We say something’s important, but then we might stay on the sofa and binge a load of Netflix. ‘I’m a feminist but’ is a space for people to come together and say we don’t have to be perfect to change what we don’t like in our world.”
As for feeling guilty, whether it’s a Kardashian habit or thinking “still got it” after a wolf-whistle, why does Frances-White think feminists are tortured by guilt?
“I think women are societally pressured to feel shame, like if you’re brilliant in your job you’re made to feel guilty ‘cos you’re not with your family, and you should feel guilty when you’re with your family because you’re not working hard enough. Then there’s feminism on top – are you on the women’s march, are you in the #MeToo movement, are you paving the way for the next generation? It’s really easy for feminism to become another thing to feel guilty about and when we feel guilt it turns into shame and you have to carry that weight around.
“You go on Instagram and look at people juggling the school run with a big career, doing something for young women in business, speaking in their kids’ school about consent, and think oh god, I’ve just watched four episodes of Love Island back to back.”
Frances-White’s feminism is the inclusive kind, the podcasts providing a space for women, men and non-binary people, an acknowledgment that “it’s not exclusively women who are having a hard time, and some women have much nicer lives than some men. In our feminism we take that into account.”
As well as the podcasts and live shows, there’s her book, The Guilty Feminist: From our noble goals to our worst hypocrisies, published last year. In it she explores her themes at greater length, yet still with a light and comic touch; from patriarchy to porn, from saying no to saying Yes to The Dress, and pointing out that the hunter-gatherer societies that exist now aren’t patriarchal, so why assume they were in the past?
This month The Guilty Feminist is on the road, with live shows that include a date in Glasgow. In August the podcast will be recorded twice in Edinburgh and also during the Festival, The Guilty Feminist teams up with Amnesty International for the Secret Policeman’s Tour, with comedians and musicians.
“The live Glasgow show is a mega celebration of women and a place to be joyful and laugh. We’ve got singers, comedians and will be having a chat, Graham Norton style, with people in Glasgow who are doing things to make life better, fairer and more creative for women, and men.”
“The response in Scotland is always fantastic. We love the energy and the … compassion. As someone who has lived in England for a long time, I always feel a warmth when I come over the border, a kindness and openness to feminism. I think it’s because Scotland has always had a strong spirit of fighting for change, for equality, that’s in its DNA. So Glasgow’s a celebration of wanting the world to be a better place and I really want to reiterate, everyone’s welcome.”
Growing up in Australia in a family of Jehovah’s Witnesses, Frances-White left for the UK on a gap year, went to university here and stayed. Her years in the religion and how she left formed her comedy show at the 2012 Edinburgh Fringe. After starting out in improv, she found her love of talking to the audience grew into stand-up which moved onto Radio 4 then morphed into the podcasts, and the book. She’s also written the script for a comedy film, Say My Name, starring Lisa Brenner, Nick Blood, Celyn Jones and Mark Bonnar, in which a man and woman on a one-night stand get involved with criminals.
“In 2015, the podcasts were about what I most wanted to talk about, and since it’s been about how women can take up more space, have more power, and be the architects of the world, not just included in male spaces, but actually help build mixed gender and female-driven spaces.”
“Women are thirsty and a lot that’s directed at us is either cocktails and shoes – some of us do like cocktails and shoes, but it’s not the only thing we like, and some of us don’t – or very, very serious lectures about feminism that are going to be very difficult, with no jokes, no fun, no levity. So I think creating an entertaining play space that talks intelligently about things women actually care about is the reason for its power.”
Today’s feminism is a broad church that includes various movements, ideologies and standpoints, but Frances-White and her tribe stress inclusivity as the way forward.
“I’d say all feminists agree that there are power structures that favour males, but I would suggest that contemporary intersectional feminism would also say those power structures favour and centre white, straight, non-disabled, and people whose gender expression conforms to a norm or an expectation. So there are all sorts of ways that I am a privileged person and might have privilege over a man, and it’s those intersections that are interesting.”
Frances-White gives the example of being in a sinking dinghy, where the expectation is that the men will get out because of a women and children first tradition.
“Why? I haven’t got any children or dependents and if there’s a 20-year-old guy with his whole life ahead of him, probably lighter and will be more help with the children, logic says I should get out. But privilege says HE should get out, so the power structure is favouring me, saying you are entitled to that place in the boat. And it’s hard to get out of the boat of privilege. I can’t promise if it was three o’clock in the morning, freezing cold, that I would!
“It’s the same if there are 12 men on a board of directors and their customer base is 80 per cent female, who’s going to get out of that boat of privilege, give up a place the world has told them they’re entitled to?
“So one of the useful things is to look at places where WOMEN have privilege, and if we acknowledge those it’s easier for men to do the same. Because it’s a difficult time for men, the world is changing, expectations are changing, and I want to take them on that journey with us, and also acknowledge my own privilege where I have it.
“There are all sorts of interesting ways of looking at the world and it’s not just simply about gender lines, it’s not just women good, men bad. It’s not as simple as that.”
So with the Secret Policeman’s Tour, the focus is human rights, with a line up reflecting the identities of those whose rights are most routinely taken away: people of colour, women, LGBTQ, disabled people. “We’re not banning white straight men off the bill, but it does have a different flavour,” says Frances-White.
Another big concern for Frances-White is body image, and as ever, it comes with a joke.
“I’m a feminist and I want to close the pay gap, but I also want to look good sitting down naked.” She laughs, then asks: “What does ‘good’ even look like? It’s a photoshopped billboard that no-one looks like.”
Frances-White has personal experience of this, catching sight of a billboard of herself at a venue, carefully made-up, yoga fit and with great lighting, thinking she looked good, then immediately feeling she didn’t live up to it.
“I thought if you’re frightened of walking under your own billboard ‘cos you don’t look like that in real life, how the hell do you think you’re ever going to live up to a billboard of a model? And SHE doesn’t think she lives up to her billboard either! It’s absurd, something we’re being sold and it’s holding us back.
“Men are insecure about their looks too, but in a work context, if a man’s pitching for funding or a job, he’s not trained to think cosmetic things count first and foremost. He just thinks ‘well, this body is a perfectly good example of the genre, or irrelevant in a work context’. But we work ourselves into a state, that gets internalised and you give off micro-signals. We need to be able to walk in and say the reason I need the funding or the reason I’m going to be great at this job is this....”
Which brings us on to confidence, another area Frances-White thinks we need a re-think, some of us more than others.
“There’s a survey goes round every six months that says men assume they need 50 per cent of the skills before they go up for a new job while women assume they need 100%. The conclusion is always women should be more confident, like men.
“And I think yeah, OK, but perhaps men could stop going up for jobs they are unqualified for and crashing the whole thing off a cliff, like President of the United States of America or guys who run hedge funds then crash the economy. Maybe we could all go up for roles we’re basically qualified for, basically competent.”
Four years on from the first podcast, with nearly 150 of them stacked up and a live tour ahead, is F-W feeling any less guilty?
“I’m probably guilty about different things now,” she says. “But I’m MUCH less apologetic. And I’m much more powerful in my own body. I own the space a lot more. And I’ve learnt so much about my own privilege. In truth I started the podcast to wallow in my own oppression, and what I’ve learnt about more than anything is my own privilege. I’m much more experienced at amplifying others and bringing them into the show now. It’s about making sure that different voices are heard.”
Which brings us back to Glasgow and the Guilty Feminist: Live this month. If you’ve ever felt guilty about feminism, want to hear different voices, or just want a laugh, there will be singers, comedians and people determined to make Glasgow a happier place to live.
And finally, what IS her costume for the Glasgow gig?
“A full-length green sequinned cloak with a hood!”
She’s a feminist but she can rock a full-length green sequinned cloak with a hood. Guilt free.
The Guilty Feminist: Live, Glasgow Pavilion Theatre, Wednesday 29 May, www.paviliontheatre.co.uk
The Secret Policeman’s Tour Live at Edinburgh Playhouse, Saturday 24 August, www.atgtickets.com/venues/edinburgh-playhouse/
The Guilty Feminist: From our noble goals to our worst hypocrisies, by Deborah Frances-White, Virago, £14.99; www.guiltyfeminist.com;