In recent weeks, there’s two subjects I’ve been preoccupied with: Systemic racism, particularly in my field of scripted television, and the abuse of women in live comedy. As I’m both a TV writer/producer and a female comedian, I care about both. But as a white woman, one of these subjects is clearly much more my area of expertise than the other. On racism, my intercom is firmly set to ‘listen’, not ‘speak’. So I was in listening mode, hearing what Black Lives Matter campaigners had to say, when my attention was suddenly diverted to the other topic, which is closer to home.
My own experiences of sex discrimination and toxic masculinity (for want of a better term) have been outside of live comedy. On the stand-up circuit I’ve possibly been protected by people knowing I’m a TV producer and mistakenly thinking I might have some power to help their career. (If I’m right about that, it shows the abusers absolutely did know what they were doing, by the way). But fellow female comedians have told me about how they’ve been targeted, gaslit and stifled, in ways that sound horribly familiar. So of course over the last fortnight this subject has filled my timeline, my conversations with friends, and the parts of my lockdown brain previously occupied by Black Lives Matter; and before that, Covid infection rate graphs, banana bread recipes, and how to get my parents’ webcam working.
But then I realised, there’s no zero-sum battle for my attention here. I find that as I reflect on the appalling experiences of many female comedians, as well as making me think about what needs to change in comedy, it’s also been acting as a sort of empathy shortcut to help me try and understand what black and brown people in my industry have to deal with.
Perhaps I shouldn’t connect these two very different issues. Does it mean I’m making my empathy conditional, like those fathers who only decry sexism when it dawns on them that their daughter is female? But why not draw on whatever personal experience we have, if it motivates us to act? Everyone, whatever their privilege, has at some time felt the sting of unfairness. Perhaps there was a time when nanny didn’t give little Jacob Rees-Mogg a crumpet, and let Annunziata have two. Perhaps a young Boris de Pfeffel Johnson had to go out to hunt on a runty horse. Who knows? Compulsory psychotherapy for our leaders might help them access these early memories and discover a compassion that extends even to the type of people who don’t have offshore investment funds. Whatever works, I say.
In any case, other people will connect race and gender, sometimes in perverse ways. Dominic Raab was so very proud to tell us he wouldn’t make a gesture in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, because he would only take a knee for the Queen and his wife. Apart from the unwelcome mental images that created (does he go round Matt Hancock’s place and ‘subjugate’ in front of that portrait of the queen?), this piece of dog-whistle banter reminded me of a more general phenomenon: An oily form of faux-feminism that some people brandish when they want to deflect from their own racism. I’m thinking of the people who are obsessed with the Rochdale scandal, and its British Pakistani perpetrators, but are curiously quiet about all other instances of sexual exploitation or violence against women. Women aren’t asking for this kind of alliance. There’s nothing less feminist than trying to insert your bigotry into #metoo without our consent; or in the case of Raab, telling women we have your respect because you esteem us above all black people.
It’s so easy for one disadvantaged group to be made to feel resentful of another. I’ll admit, as a new female screenwriter just getting a foothold, I had a momentary flash of selfish panic when I saw the recent announcements of various schemes for BAME screenwriters: Did this mean the TV industry had now moved on from trying to get more female voices on screen? Had that brief window now closed? I had to remind myself that of course the two causes aren’t mutually exclusive. Television can and should benefit from increasing the diversity of voices in all ways. As it happens, after bingeing the explosively brilliant I May Destroy You, I now firmly believe that all television should be written by Michaela Coel anyway.
When a topic is much-discussed amongst your peer group, all over your social media bubble, and part of your own life experience, it’s easy to forget how unfamiliar other people can be with its phenomena and terminology. I remember, in 2018, pitching to a male TV executive an idea that involved gaslighting, and being astonished to discover he’d never heard the term. This was at a time when gaslighting jokes were ubiquitous in my echo chamber, but before Donald Trump and Dominic Cummings had made the concept mainstream.
Similarly, I’m on a steep learning curve when it comes to everyday racism in this country. For example I read in Akala’s enlightening book, Natives, that black people regularly hear white people say to them, ‘I don’t see colour’, a phrase that manages to be simultaneously virtue-signalling, grossly complacent, and invalidating of black people’s justifiable grievances. I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone say this weird phrase, but then — they wouldn’t say it to me.
Like a lot of white people in television, I don’t believe I’ve ever directly witnessed someone being belittled or discriminated against because of the colour of their skin. But hearing how common it is, from those who’d know, I realise it’s unlikely not to have happened in my presence. It’s taken the Black Lives Matter movement for me to realise I have to make a conscious effort to look out for racism, to notice it in all its subtle guises.
By the same logic, I can understand how many decent men of comedy are genuinely astounded to discover the extent of the harassment of women that’s been going on in their midst. That’s absolutely not to absolve the comedians or promoters who did know about the abuses and excused or enabled it. But I can see how it was possible for some not to be fully aware, until now, or not to know what they could do about it. I hope one positive outcome of the women of comedy so bravely telling their stories is that all of us — women, men, non-binary — will be much more actively vigilant in future, watching what goes on in the dark corners of comedy clubs, or sometimes in brightly-lit dressing rooms, and having the courage to intervene.
Oppression always seems to follow a familiar pattern, whatever the particular dividing line. Anyone who’s seen the classic blue eyes / brown eyes exercise created by Jane Elliot in 1968 knows how readily people will stereotype and dehumanise another group. Prejudice is everywhere, if you look for it. So let’s find common ground in our feelings of injustice, whatever the source in our own lives. Let’s say to the Dominic Raabs of this world, your ‘support’ is not required thank you, not if it’s at the expense of another group. And let’s hope that the powerful, in comedy, in the media and in politics, can understand what’s being asked of them, by digging back to that time somewhere in their past, when they themselves had cause to say, for whatever reason, ‘That’s not fair!’.