The comedian Bridget Christie – a hopeless failure, as she emphasises throughout A Book For Her, until she started performing a standup act about feminism – has a voice so idiosyncratic that it transfers uncannily well from stage to page. Having recently seen her live at London’s Soho theatre (two days after the election, with the first five minutes spent breathing, “What the FUCK just happened?”. Nobody laughed – we just signalled our approval with groaning and sighing), I read the book hearing her accelerating cadence, the thought spirals, the galloping catastrophe. Part of Christie’s comic persona is a woman having a political panic attack – what if, what if, what if.
“What if the Head of Women, Jimmy Somerville from Bronski Beat, hears on the feminist-practice-and-post-structuralist-theory-lecture grapevine that this book is supposed to be about feminism and becomes so infuriated and confused … that he only reads the Introduction and then writes a horrible review of it for the Spectator … ” This in itself is so surreal and absurd (how can gender politics make you feel as though you’re having a heart attack?), so intimate and personal (to create psychic terror for people to trample straight through), so bold and high risk (because if people don’t get it or buy it, you’re just a woman talking extremely fast about a set of unlikely, exaggerated scenarios), so discombobulating and so true, that I find it hilarious. I find her whole shtick hilarious. I say that as a declaration of interest, really; I was predisposed to find the book funny even before it did anything.
I was gulled by the elaborate self-deprecation: “I won’t be explaining all the various waves of feminism, what the different feminists fought for, or what they were wearing”; “The show didn’t say anything new because it’s pretty impossible to say anything new about feminism”. This isn’t to say I took such courtly, bookish modesty (“the genius all theirs, the errors all mine”, yikyak, yikyak) at face value.
But it took me a while to recognise the originality of this project: her intention is not to riff on the fundamentals of feminist theory and practice in an approachable, inclusive way, while humbly acknowledging not all feminists think the same, all shot through with memoir (I like the kind of books that do this as well). Christie’s question is much more particular: never mind what feminism is and isn’t, how do you make it funny? In a cultural environment where women are still considered unfunny by definition, how could an ideology devoted to their equality ever be funny? It’s almost a contradiction in terms.
On that first point, Christie darts through misogynistic reviewers who wondered who she’d slept with (“There isn’t a casting couch in standup comedy. There isn’t even a couch. That’s why we’re always standing up”), across a whole culture of female comedians being bunched together, with even deeply surrealist physical comedians written off for their domestic material. She checks her privilege, in a likable way, and is always careful to express her certainty that sexism is no worse in comedy than, say, engineering or aeronautics.
I don’t actually agree: there is something unique about the social determination to keep women from being publicly funny. The persistence of all-male comedy panels, the comperes who introduce female comedians as if they’re something between a freak show and a child’s tap dance, the reviewers who can’t disaggregate a Josie Long from a Jo Brand: this is distinct from what a female scientist might experience. Standup is an act of profound self-exposure, and laughter is the ultimate gesture of acceptance: I think it’s actually easier for society to concede that a woman might be good at physics than it is to countenance the sight of her being unguarded and shameless, and to approve of that.
“You have to liberate yourself,” she writes, “from the need to be liked or popular, and do what you do. In fact, I even liberated myself from trying to be funny.” Overstatement is her thing. I was often perplexed – was she really one of nine children, or is that just funnier than being one of four? – but I surrendered to it. I don’t know if she totally stopped trying to be funny, or just began to allow herself shocking gear changes, one minute describing the brutality of FGM, the next observing that “labial surgery is like pollarding a tree”. She has an agile, lateral mind, so that when she’s in a strip joint, she doesn’t go immediately to her political opposition marked “objectification of women”, instead ruminating on how the grandest such establishments serve Dover sole and have starched napkins (“the napkins were better turned out then I was”).
Elements of her writing and her show – surrealism, reductio ad absurdum, reversal of expectation, the rule of threes – make feminism funny for the same reasons they would make any material funny. But there is also a very particular interplay between the comic and her material, in the way that she ridicules the shame of being female, derides the structures that insist on its shamefulness, and castigates the world for its vindictive edges while allowing herself to be vulnerable, mentally naked, within it. It’s courageous, but more than that: it is very funny.