What Women Want – in conversation with Amy Annette

Fran Newton speaks to the producer of What Women Want, a new comedy show tackling generalisations about women one stereotype at a time.

What do women want? For generations, people have sought to answer this question. Stand-up, producer and editor Amy Annette’s new show ‘What Women Want’ is pointing out the funny and ridiculous sides of talking about ‘women’ as one collective beast. She discusses the common generalisations made about women, welcoming a fresh new panel of comedians every night.

I caught up with her in July to chat about the show, and hear some of her thoughts on societal stereotypes, female voices in comedy, and the changing face of feminism.  

Fran: What Women Want deals with the generalisations that surround women. Was there any particular moment that sparked the idea for the show?

Amy: I wanted to platform the conversations that people have all the time. Often groups of friends come together, and you walk away from that conversation feeling like you’ve really figured something out. We all have these conversations – they’re often gendered, kind of like mothers’ meetings – and they’re not considered important. That ‘mothers’ meeting’ is a classic thing – it probably could have been another name for the show! It’s exactly that conversation, but on a platform in front of others.

Fran: It’s great to see a comedy panel featuring more women than men. Often panels seem to feature just one token woman. Do you think there’s any danger that female comedians could get pigeon-holed into only having that majority in shows dealing with gender issues?

Amy: I don’t think this show pigeon-holes them in that way, but they’re already pigeon-holed. When I first started booking the line-ups it was all women, but it changed in part because the point is that they’re comedians ­– that’s the only specificity. The reason that they’re comedians is that I think comedians are in a uniquely good place to observe. That’s their job. They see the holes in our logic.

But there’s a counter-issue with women on panel shows, which is when their presence comes from the thought ‘we must have more women in panel shows because they’re women’, rather than because there’s a whole wealth of funny performers out there, who, because of our culture, don’t get chosen normally. That’s a problem. Recently Mock the Week had two women on for the first time ever – Angela Barnes and Kerry Godiman – which is insane. I felt for them, because for them, it was just a booking – but there they were, suddenly representing all women. So it goes both ways.

Fran: So what is it about comedy that makes it good for discussing serious issues?

Amy: Well, there’s what I said before about comedians observing. But also, I’ve worked in comedy for years now, and people will listen to comedians talk about pretty much anything. There’s an acceptance that you can give a comedian a platform, even if they’re talking about things they’re not an expert on. So it felt like people would get the show, without necessarily being super interested in its subject. People come who have an express interest in talking about feminist issues, but also, people come because they love Lolly Adefope and James Acaster, and want to see them.

Fran: Do you think that comedy is a particularly good platform on which to bring up issues around gender, specifically?

Amy: Yeah. I find in a lot of sets I’m seeing at the moment – I wonder if it’s because comedy is being particularly targeted right now for not being representative – that people are talking about that, in the newer generation of comedians especially. There’s still a long way to go. People still say ‘female comedian’ when they’re talking about comedians who happen to be women. We did a show with Nish Kumar, and he said he thought that it was easier to be a Person of Colour in comedy than a woman. Obviously, in the real world, it’s much easier to be a white woman than a Person of Colour (if intersectionality has taught us anything), and of course that’s just Nish’s successful experience. But there is something particularly interesting about how women are treated in comedy.

It’s a value thing, and a platforming thing. It’s still an instinct in culture not to listen when a woman speaks. If you’re in a certain bubble, like I am in the media, you’re used to having your voice heard. However, it doesn’t take you very long to come up against what I would call ‘old-fashioned’ – though I guess some people still have them – sets of ideas: women should speak less than men, women can’t be funny, women need to be pretty.

Fran: Do you think that mindset still exists more in comedy than in other industries?

Amy: No, I think it’s everywhere. With comedy, and stand-up in particular, you’re so quantified by your label value: by who you are, by what your voice is, by what you look like as you come onstage before you even speak – it’s more explicit, perhaps.

Fran: Do you feel like your place on the comedy scene has been more precarious because you’re a woman?

Amy: I’ve been in comedy for a long time, but I’ve been doing stand-up for a lot less time, so I’m maybe not the best person to speak to about that. Definitely, for younger people starting in stand-up now, things are changing. I did a gig with Josie Long recently, and she spoke about how she was excited about the scenes that were emerging for young female stand-ups, and that those stand-ups were explicitly talking about politics in a personal way – not needing to prove that they’re clever, but just being. Rather than having to explain why they’re doing stand-up, they’re doing stand-up as it naturally comes to them, talking about the interesting things that young women deal with.

Fran: We had an article recently in TWSS from someone involved in comedy at university, discussing the diversity issues there. Do you have any words for anyone nervous about taking their first steps into comedy, or any heavily male-dominated industry?

Amy: As someone who didn’t get into any of the university societies she auditioned for, and then came to performing in comedy, I understand where they’re coming from. But god dammit I tried! Don’t take that as an indication of your worth. At university, you’re sort of playing at being grown-ups, aren’t you? When you do that, you take in all the rules and lessons that you see around you. So it’s not a mark of whether or not you can be successful. But it takes a long time to get good at something, so start as soon as you can!

Fran: Back to the show: is there any particular generalisation about women that annoys you the most?

Amy: I really dislike the idea that all women are emotionally intelligent. Emotional labour naturally being the job of a woman – I find that hard to deal with. It makes you become sort of perfect assistants, even if you’re not in assistant roles. There are all these things that are good for people in the workplace to be good at, but the idea that you’re naturally supposed to be good at them because you’re a woman is disturbing.

There’s a chapter in the book I edited (I Call Myself a Feminist, 2015) by Isabel Adomakoh Young about the idea that women should be able to be shit too. Feminism and equality shouldn’t be because women are great, and so we should let them be great, and that it’s a waste not to have all these great people – it should be that equality is great because it’s great.

Amy Annette interview

Fran: What do you think are the biggest dangers of generalising female experience?

Amy: It ignores the internal problems that women and non-binary people face when they have to try to assimilate their personality into constructs. It ranges from the Sheryl Sandberg level of women not being COOs, to issues of domestic violence, and how people are treated on the basis of skin colour or gender identity. Those generalisations pervade everything. They can also affect men, because they’re just constructs of gender, and assumptions around those. But there’s a lot still to work against when you’re a woman trying to do something new, or even trying to do something normal.

Fran: What can the rest of us do to help combat those generalisations?

Amy: Always take a second to wonder where your thoughts are coming from. If you hate on a female celebrity, are you doing that because you actually don’t like them, or are you just buying into a sense of what a woman should and shouldn’t be? Also, decisions within yourself: if you feel like you can’t join a comedy society, just examine whether or not you are really afraid of it, or if it’s because you think women shouldn’t be funny. If you find out that that is the reason, and it still stops you doing it, that’s OK. But it’s about knowing that it doesn’t come from you, and making space within yourself just for the person you really are, separate from society’s inputs. It’s good to have a grip on why you’re doing things the way you do. That sounds a bit deep – I should say that this show is funny!

Fran: In I Call Myself  a Feminist, you dealt a few times with the fact that more people seem to be distancing themselves from the label ‘feminist’ – why do you think that is?

Amy: That book came out at the end of 2015, and even since then, there have been changes in the way people engage with the word. There were versions of feminism – I don’t know if it’s helpful to call it the ‘Emma Watson school of feminism’ – that seemed accessible, but actually were only accessible for people who look and sound like Emma Watson. People were pushing back on feminism because it didn’t represent them – against ‘White Feminism’, with a capital ‘W’. Since the publication of that book, there’s a greater understanding of intersectionality, and how alienating feminism can be.

In Reni Eddo-Lodge’s book Why I’m no Longer Talking to White People About Race, she talks very eloquently about how, as white people, we centre ourselves in everything – so I can understand why some people don’t find themselves in feminism. It’s fine with me if people aren’t using the word ‘feminism’, if they still believe in the values that I believe feminism stands for. I don’t personally require people to use the ‘F’ word.

Fran: What does feminism mean to you?

Amy: From a personal point of view, it’s sort of a life-raft. You can use it to separate yourself from what’s going on – to understand how you feel, rather than how you’re told to feel. For me, it’s allowed me to take a break, and take a hold on things – so if I feel unattractive, feminism is a life-raft that tells me ‘you feel unattractive because of other people, not really because of yourself’. Or if I feel unsafe, it’s not me, Amy Annette, who’s under attack; it’s me, a woman, in this society.

‘What Women Want’ is on at the Underbelly Med Quad (Venue 302) in Edinburgh from 16th-20th August (tickets available here), and at the Bill Murray in London on 26th September (tickets available here).

Collage by Fran Newton

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