…at the Bottom Rung

Photo: Nicola Kinghorn Design: Chris McAuley

Gemma Flynn is a feminist stand up comedian, a regular contributor on film and feminism to Filmme Fatales and a Teaching Fellow in Criminology at the University of Edinburgh, specialising in media representations of crime.


You perform your strength, your sense of humor, your personality so that it is palatable, easily consumed in small, sweet, bite-sized pieces.

Jessica Valenti’s ‘Sex Object’ describes how she copes as a public feminist on the internet, knee deep in all the targeted hate and normalized misogyny. I can’t imagine the strength it must take to be a Jessica Valenti or a Lindy West on the internet. That both of these women have been able to look past those horrors and produce significant feminist works this year is a testament to their mental strength and talent. The anger would eat me alive, if Lauren Mayberry hasn’t destroyed a MacBook with a shotgun by now she should be heartily commended. I’ve been trying to properly do stand up about feminism since my first hour last year at the fringe and Valenti’s description of coping by becoming more palatable hit me like a truck.

Performing stand up is slightly different to writing online, it’s not as frightening because even the worst hecklers are much more timid than a protected, anonymous picture of an egg. The temptation, though, to make your points palatable or less challenging is in-built in the form, where you have to practice stand up by doing it in public and doing it many times over to lots of different kinds of crowds. While online figures attract both visceral hatred and support, stand ups play to the indifferent middle. We test out ideas on drunk people, people who have taken a flyer and thought ‘let’s kill an hour with this’, on people who will audibly disapprove of you with silence if you get it wrong.

Here’s what it’s like to talk about feminist issues when you’re an unknown stand up. Sometimes the crowd is on board or at least open-minded and your writing and tone and comfort on stage are just convincing enough to make the point in a funny way and there’s nothing better. Sometimes they hate it, you drop the F bomb and they stand up and walk out. So you adapt, make it clear before they enter that it’s about feminism, especially to large groups of women who are often the most likely to balk at the introduction of the issue. Warning: this show argues for gender equality! Sorry! At open mics you follow 10 minute set after 10 minute set of UniLad style banter or sometimes as a treat an ambitious Louis-style pushing the boundaries guy who’s got that cool Al Murray thing going on where you’re not sure that the audience is enjoying the right layer. Sometimes you go to self-consciously alt nights that boast a roster of free-thinking men, some of whom already have complex issues with feminism because their ex girlfriend had all the Caitlin Moran books and will engage you in an argument along the lines of ‘all the women and children on the Titanic were first, so how can misogyny really be a thing’. That one is a real treat. But frequently what happens is one lone girl will sidle up to me and whisper ‘I really liked your set’ and we can both roll our eyes at Louis Al Murray who tried to drop the N word ironically.

It really feels like doing feminism at the coal face and it can be exhausting and brutal and so gradually you start to tone it down, you move away from using the word feminism, you try to do material that doesn’t even reference your gender, you perform your strength, your sense of humor, your personality so that it is palatable, easily consumed in small, sweet, bite-sized pieces, you make everyone in the room laugh and you survive, you settle in to the cosy, neutered middle-ground and the ladies stop telling you they liked your set. You start to hate your material, you feel like you’re so much smarter than what you’re saying and you experience a strange kind of disembeddedness from the words coming out of your mouth. But you’re surviving, you’re still making people laugh, you’re not alienating anyone and survival is key right now.

If you’re a writer you might wonder how it can happen that you can really create something that you don’t agree with. In stand up, beyond the very real survival instinct that is at the forefront always, you also contend with a mountain of advice and apocryphal stories about the practice of stand up, evolving from its mystique as a truly difficult feat along with hours and hours of podcasts on the subject. There are now stand ups who arrive at their first 5 minutes with every episode of the WTF podcast memorized and the knowledge that they just gotta keep going bro, get out there, get the stage time, keep after it, do what Louis did, burn the hour after a year, get used to bombing, earn your stripes. So you get out and do it, again and again, to terrible indifferent crowds and you convince yourself it’s good practice, even though it’s gradually making you less and less dangerous.

For my money, the most problematic legacy of WTF on stand up, is the idea that you work it out on stage. Absolutely, of course you do, you fine tune it, but you have to write it first. Combine this in Glasgow with the glesga charm and a certain Kevin Bridges-ian ability to spin a yarn at 17 and you find that writing and reflection and making a dangerous point are just not that much in evidence and look, you try following that with a lively anecdote about structural inequality. I should be good enough to do it, I’ve been telling myself for a long time now that it’s me that needs to get better, or if I want to do stand up, I should really just move on from talking about feminism.

Maybe feminism in stand up is over anyway, doing feminist stand up post Bridget Christie is a little like getting into frescos in 1513 amiright guys?! The reason I want to talk about feminism though is because it’s what I care about, it feels like a pressing, urgent issue to me and I’m an expert in this topic, in the same way that many many 17 year olds are an expert in the fun behind the scenes shit that happens at McDonalds. I don’t feel the same as those who say this is a tired subject, I experience misogyny and inequality all the time and so do all women. I was at a wedding last year and the Vicar made a joke about my tits. This is how acceptable the objectification of women is now and when this happens, or when a random, drooling guy on the street says something lascivious to me I feel powerless and afraid. This is what stand up should be used for, so I can have my voice amplified a little to take back control with humour. That’s why it feels so powerful to me when I hear other women talking about feminism and why I understand the women who sidle up to me, it’s relief in feeling less alone and that feels important to me.

When I talk about feminism in therapy, my counselor – a woman – asks me if I’ve ever been abused by a man and says that she thinks of feminists as man-hating, that we should explore this tendency. I understand that this is what most of society, most of these crowds think when they hear the F word, they think here comes a buzzkill, harping on about something that is probably all about her own shit, it’s probably about her having been rejected or treated badly by men. Valenti says of this perception that it causes her when public speaking to ‘make [her] come across as funny! And relatable! Rather than angry, because for a feminist anger is forbidden. It gives your opposition too much ammunition, even if you have every right to be angry and even if the stereotype should be long gone by now’. The straw feminist is still very much the idea of the feminist in the public imagination, no matter how far Beyonce has come and how well Bridget is doing.

I want to be in the feminist conversation and not in the business of educating the general public on why they shouldn’t balk at the idea of a woman talking about equality. I see brilliant women in all kinds of genres doing detailed, challenging work in this area. Young women (and men) who are up all night on the internet are doing exciting things and I want to use the forum of stand up to continue that work. I’m sick of making myself palatable for the wrong people, it’s diluting my chance to really get into it with the right people and this is a fundamental, structural problem in the way that stand up careers evolve.

So here’s the punchline. Come and see my second fringe hour, 6th to 28th August (except the 15th) at Sportsters on Market Street. That’s right, emboldened and ready to take on the patriarchy every day in a Sports bar. Thank you Based God, Bridget and Beyonce for this opportunity. Prayer emoji.


Image credits:
Gemma performing (Bryce Powrie), Gemma bio photo (Photo: Nicola Kinghorn. Design: Chris McAuley)