I am a white, able-bodied, heterosexual woman. Do I have a right to be angry? Yes!
The world’s anxieties are bleeding into her personal life, but the comedian is done with political despair. Ahead of her new tour, she explains why it’s time to bring something new to the table
Written by Zoe Williams in The Guardian on February 23rd, 2018
In Bridget Christie’s first standup comedy routine about feminism, she appeared dressed as an ant. It was 2010. “At that time, it was really quite a hard sell, doing feminism on stage. I came on dressed as an ant, going: ‘Oh no, not another ant, going on about jam and the division of labour.’ And comics would understand what that was. But the audience were like: ‘What’s she going on about? There aren’t any ant comedians.’ And then I dropped the ant costume and went on as a woman, which was much more alienating.”
If it’s no longer a hot-button issue that there’s a woman on stage, talking, there are still frames of perception that are peculiar to women: not unlike the early days of the female novelist, say, in which their work was assumed to be autobiographical. This week, the comedian Louise Reay was sued by her ex-husband for talking publicly about their relationship. This isn’t a women’s issue, for Christie. “A lot of comedians have absolutely no qualms whatsoever about divulging. I’m quite a private person. I might talk about how I’m feeling, but I wouldn’t tell anything that wasn’t my story to tell. I’d be constantly running things past people, if I wanted to do that. I make a lot of stuff up, though. And then people will come up and go: ‘I didn’t know your son did that,’ when he didn’t.”
Confession has never been her schtick anyway: surrealism, physical comedy, dressing up as things; the “messing about on stage” started in 2004 when “strangely, it wasn’t financially viable at all, putting a black sheet over myself and pretending to be the plague”. Fiscally, she could have been derailed by a gust of wind. One of her early routines involved re-enacting the ascension of Christ with a tiny plastic Jesus and some fishing wire, of which the last item was nearly confiscated at security in Belfast. She persuaded them to let her keep it on the grounds that, without it, she would go bust.
She begins a new tour next month. “I think of it as my Chris de Burgh show. I’ve tried to write something that lots of people might enjoy. I’ve never done that before.” Parking for a second how that would actually work, all the architecture of her stage self being prickly, spiky, elusive, a little bit She-Devil, a little bit Road Runner, dancing before your expectations, going “meep meep”, is the world anywhere near ready for a thing that everyone likes? “I did an anti-Brexit show and that was quite raw and angry. But it was exciting then, it was all in the air and everyone was talking about it. Now we’re 20 months in and it’s still dragging on, we’re trapped in it, and it’s just a boring, Kafkaesque nightmare, where nothing moves forward and the delusional people are in charge. But they’re not happy; nobody’s happy.
“All the anxieties of the world,” she says cheerfully, “are bleeding into my personal life, into my friendships – well, I haven’t really got those any more.” Yup. This is sounding very Chris de Burgh.
I saw one of her shows the day after the Conservative victory in the 2015 general election – in no mood for anything but the most radical politics yet miserably distrustful of spending an evening in a room of like minds – and that was funny for its vaudeville desperation (she spent the first five minutes going: “What the fuck just happened? I mean, fuck”). Nearly three years into this quagmire, she still talks about her “bafflement, I’m the Baffled Comedian”, but she has a very different timbre, much less playful, but more – and it sounds schmaltzy – loving. “There are all these things that are terrible, the Syrian crisis, poverty, terrible violations everywhere, and yet we are amazing, we are silly, funny, living, breathing things, we all just want to have a laugh, and we all want to be loved, and we all want to be taken care of, and none of us want to die alone; we all have the same needs. But obviously that’s not funny.” There’s one world in which it is, though: when nobody else is saying it. When reconciliation sounds like some kind of sly insult. So, you know, this could work.
Christie took off in a specific feminist environment, in 2011 – no, that’s not quite true, she had won awards before that, bespoke ones for funny women. But paradoxically, if unsurprisingly, it was as a feminist that she broke out of the niche “female”, getting her own show on BBC Radio 4, winning a Rose d’Or international award for it, publishing a book (A Book for Her, 2015) and being the first British female to be given a Netflix special for her show Stand Up for Her. The #MeToo movement looks like the biggest shift since then, and it is, from the mainstream perspective. If someone had said, even immediately post-Weinstein, that whole careers would be capsized by garden-variety predatory male behaviour, you wouldn’t have believed it. You can see the significance of the sea-change by the lameness of the backlash, as Christie describes: “I don’t know if I’m allowed to compliment a woman now.” Yet within the feminist fold, it was never a vexed issue as to whether or not leveraging economic power for sex was a bad thing – we were just waiting for the rest of the world to catch up.
The issues thrown up by the suffragette centenary were more complicated, broadly clustered around intersectionality. Was middle-class feminism advancing the rights of all women or just occupying the space where more structural economic questions should be thrashed out? Has white feminism managed, or even seriously tried, to describe the experience of women of colour? “I try and flag it up. I understand that what I look like is a white, financially comfortable, able-bodied, heterosexual woman. Do I have a right to be angry? Yes, I do. Everybody has a right to be angry.”
In 2011, you could arguably have made quite a straightforward critique of the hijab, as Christie did then, that it oppressed women by making their bodies a source of shame, and by making male desire both their fault and a force against which they were powerless. But that has been weaponised by the right to turn the hijab wearers into an assault on British (or European) culture and to exert an equal and opposite control over what women wear (by banning the hijab, in case the wearers, I don’t know, rob banks). Christie is conflicted: “When culture and religion are involved, it is really a complex thing; it’s quite hard for people who are not in that community to understand. It’s not for me to say that it is obviously wrong. But maybe it can be for me to say a child has no reason to cover herself. If you follow the logic of why a child has to cover herself, it unravels very, very quickly.” No culture is entirely – or even at all – logical, and yet, without an appeal to the overarching logic of universalism, all equality arguments are lost. “There will be Muslim women who love their families and they’re devout. And they will be feminist as well. Talk to them about it, don’t bloody throw me to wolves.” It looks cranky, written down; it was anything but. She has funny bones.
Similarly, not that long ago, we wouldn’t have had to confront a campaign such as period poverty, which distills this class issue for me – not the campaigners themselves, but the way politicians fall upon it as a safe way to talk about destitution. How can you have an early-day motion about tampons, when the person who couldn’t afford those most likely couldn’t afford a bus fare, either, or spinach? “Why are there girls and women who can’t afford Tampax and why are 130,000 British children homeless?” Still, Christie is upbeat about the campaign’s impact. If everybody has their own single-issue campaigns, “if there’s something you can sort in a relatively short period of time, that will help, that does have a cumulative effect. Everyone feels powerless, but everyone’s got something to bring to the table.”
Even when comedy looks as if it’s pushing a line, it’s never that simple. “It’s all about your relationship to the audience and your status. For example, Dave Chapelle …” I have never seen a Chapelle show, but we established earlier on that he has “some great stuff on race, but a complete blindspot on women”, a 70s working men’s club strain of laughs, where you find some hot women in the audience and explore the heady comic territory of whether they will get drunk afterwards and have sex with you. “I don’t know how many millions of pounds he got for his Netflix special, but, to me, the character of Dave Chapelle hadn’t earned the right to say those things about women. If he was a loser and we knew that nothing was going right for him, and he lived with his mother, and he hadn’t been insightful about race, he’d been racist and transphobic and misogynist, and it was a consistent world, and the question was: ‘Am I laughing at this person’s bigotry, or am I laughing at his complete rejection of the world and everything in it?’ – that, to me, is funny.” There are no red lines or no-go areas. “People say you can’t talk about this and you can’t talk about that, but there is always a way of doing it. It’s the same with artists, writers, painters: we’ve got to be allowed to work stuff out. If we’re working in fear all the time, no one’s going to create anything that’s new. Nobody’s going to create anything.”
None of that is to amp down the ambient political despair. “In the good old days, when I was growing up, I used to think: ‘I don’t agree with that politician, but they at least look like they’ve gone to school and know some things. They still have arguments and make sense and are quite eloquent.’ Now they all make Bush and Berlusconi look like geniuses. And the lying – the lying really stresses me out. We’ve just accepted it as something they do. There’s nobody I could get behind now.” But … your cat is called Jeremy Corbyn. (This is something her husband, Stewart Lee, wrote, although he did stress that their cat was named before Corbyn’s election to leader and not in anticipation of it.) She looks at me puzzled. “A lot of the stuff we say is just made up.”
Not altogether surprisingly, she hates talking about her personal life. “I never like talking about him at all, I try and disassociate myself from him,” she says. “Because until very recently … it was very annoying being someone’s appendage. For years and years, the first sentence of anyone’s review of me was as his wife. But then the reader experiences me, has a perception of me, that they wouldn’t have had had that first sentence not been there. You want audiences to experience you as a comedian. I really care about my job, I want people to come out and think: ‘Who’s this? What does she think?’ Not: ‘I wonder who does the washing up.’ I’ve sort of fantasised about poisoning him and stuff, so I could be referred to as just Bridget Christie, but then I thought, no, I’d just be dead Stewart Lee’s wife. Dead Stewart Lee’s white, feminist wife.”
Her atheism is no great anomaly in the comedy world, but it’s atheism with a twist: “My mother had very deep faith and I feel sad that I don’t have that. But you cannot manufacture faith; you’ve got it or you haven’t. But my first instinct in lots of different scenarios would be to pray, still. I feel something, when I’m in nature, when I’m in a field, or I see some bluebells …” But there is a Catholic kicker. “When the sky went orange, I genuinely thought that we were being punished for Brexit. Oh, you’ve really done it now. It’s over. You’ve upset him now, David Davis. Or her.”
Bridget Christie: What Now? opens 16 March in Glasgow. For tour dates and tickets see bridgetchristie.co.uk