Sunday 16 June 2019

Finally, that glass ceiling has cracked

After years of being told that being a girl was the problem while trying to break into the comedy industry, Deborah Frances-White is now doing it for herself

Deborah Frances-White, 'The Guilty Feminist', has shed a few tears along the way to success as she celebrates the publication of her book and the announcement of her movie
Deborah Frances-White, 'The Guilty Feminist', has shed a few tears along the way to success as she celebrates the publication of her book and the announcement of her movie

Julia Molony

Deborah Frances-White, creator of The Guilty Feminist podcast (50m downloads and counting) is listing just a few of the long-cherished dreams she's ticked off her wishlist recently.

"My movie got announced yesterday, which is really exciting," she says. Her voice cracks. "And my book came out." She dissolves into sobs. After years of graft, she's a bona fide huge success. So why is she crying?

It's just, she explains in ragged breaths, that she's so very, very tired. This morning on her way out the door for her book tour, she mislaid her reading glasses. She eventually found them, but there was a flap and it was the last straw.

"I was supposed to take a holiday before the book tour, and I ended up working through the time when I was supposed to go on a yoga retreat and have some downtime," she says. The relentless pace is catching up with her.

We know, from The Guilty Feminist podcast (Episode 24, Crying), that Frances-White is already someone "quite in touch with my tears".

As a phenomenon usually disdained in paternalistic cultures as a sign of feminine weakness, crying in public is exactly the sort of topic she likes to tackle on air.

There she addresses it in her trademark style - digging into its social and political significance, and mining the subject for laughs.

Sample joke: "I think crying is the emotional equivalent of an erection. It doesn't happen when you want it to, and it does happen when you don't... sometimes you have the emotional equivalent of a 'semi' on a bus. It's just the vibrations."

Today, mid-interview, we are probably slap-bang in one of those moments in which she'd rather the tears hadn't happened, or at least, to stretch her analogy further, might wish for a strategically placed book to hide them behind.

We are sitting under the vaulted cathedral-style ceilings of the St Pancras Renaissance hotel in Kings Cross St Pancras, where two publishing executives wait, suitcases packed, to whisk Frances-White off on a whistlestop tour of the UK to promote her new book, The Guilty Feminist, inspired by the podcast.

The podcast was borne out of frustration.

Originally from Brisbane, Australia, Frances-White moved to the UK in her early 20s.

Having renounced education due to her Jehovah's Witness beliefs, she eventually escaped the church and found her way to Oxford University and then spent years on the UK comedy circuit.

She produced a number of hit shows, had her own radio show on the BBC and made a well-received documentary. Yet, she kept finding her head connecting with the glass ceiling.

She couldn't get an agent to watch her perform live for love nor money. One wrote back, she says, explaining that he couldn't "consider someone of the female persuasion" offering his apology "it's not me that is sexist, it is the industry".

Another declined with the excuse that "'we're a bit saturated girl-wise at the moment'. And I was just like, well that's the thing I can't change about myself. I can change my comedy, I can write a new show but I can't change the fact that I'm a woman".

She smarted at the injustice of it all. "I cried so many times," she says. "Really cried... I'm good at my job. I'm trying really hard. I just want to be in the pool that's considered.

"I don't want special treatment, I know it's going to be hard. I just felt like I wasn't in the pool being considered."

Overall, she had the sense that the prevailing attitude in comedy was, "look, it's lovely if the tits are in the room at the end of the day and we are having a few drinks and want to flirt, but we don't want the tits distracting us from work".

Being the self-starting type, she took matters into her own hands, and instead of seeking an intermediary, decided to address her audience directly through a podcast.

The idea for the show's title was born out of her own feminist awakening and the almost simultaneous feeling of inadequacy that followed.

Could she be a feminist and still love Don't Tell the Bride? She was nagged by the sense that "good feminists would be watching a six-hour documentary on Gloria Steinem but I actually really would just like to watch Bake Off."

"For many of us," she says "feminism has become another thing to feel guilty about. You're not good enough at your job and you're not a good enough partner and you're not a good enough mother or daughter or friend. You're always letting somebody down."

Each episode starts with a confession. Frances-White and her guests recount an example of a time they have found themselves falling short of their ideals.

"I'm a feminist," she says on one episode, "but one time I went on a women's rights march but I popped into a department store to use the loo and got distracted, trying out face cream, and when I came out, the march was gone".

If the podcast, which is a panel discussion with a live audience and interviews with guests, has a magazine-show feel to it, the new book of the same name allowed Frances-White to dive deeper into the ideas and ideals, to really examine contemporary gender relations and attendant issues such as intersectionality and the #MeToo movement.

If this sounds dry and pious, it is anything but.

Frances-White is a startlingly cogent and accessible writer. She has a gift for unpacking complex and often contentious issues, using clever analogies to make institutionalised unfairness blindingly obvious.

In the past, she has worked as a corporate coach teaching confidence, and the book includes a practical, almost self-help, dimension, in which she advises women about how they can apply feminist principles to make tangible differences in their own lives. Frances-White, it is clear, really, really, really wants the sisterhood, as a group and as individuals, to thrive.

Part of the pleasure of doing the podcast she says is that she invites guests to perform and "it is a microclimate where women do well". This, she says, relates to a concept she has dubbed 'tribal confidence' as a way to explain how in many areas of our culture, the playing field is pitched against the female gender and other marginal groups.

"When the tribe trusts you and celebrates you, you rise," she says. "But when the tribe is like, 'is someone like you going to be able to do this?' it's easier for your trust in yourself to falter. It's been a really great thing to build. I feel like it is a bit of a petri dish, I put things in it and they just bubble up. I feel very lucky."

Certainly, she has come a long way.

She was adopted at birth and raised by what she describes as "a perfectly lovely Australian family living in a beach town".

But life changed when she was 14 and the family were recruited wholesale into the Jehovah's Witnesses.

Frances-White took up her role in the faith with gusto, "when you are a teenager, your brain is very plastic", she says. Though, even then, certain things sat uneasily with her.

"It was so patriarchal," she says. "A women has never made a decision in the history of the Jehovah's Witnesses...

"I got very much taken over by it."

It was moving to London that broke the spell.

"If you move away from your congregation and you go somewhere where you can go to fewer meetings, the brainwashing can wear off," she says.

With tears now dried, Frances-White tucks into a carb-and-caffeine-fix of chips and iced-coffee to sustain her for the journey ahead, and explains that she's long been someone who tests her own equilibrium by taking on maybe a little more than she can handle.

Even in her earliest days starting out doing comedy improv while in her second year at Oxford University, "I think I was always slightly doing too many things".

It is an impulse that stems from the early intimations of mortality she confronted when she left her faith.

"The Jehovah's Witnesses think that Armageddon will come," she explains.

"We won't die and go to heaven, we will continue to live on earth in paradise forever. So when you wake up from it, you realise you are going to die.

"Most people slowly work out they are going to die and they never really face it. I can always tell if people know they are going to die, because they are really living at a pace, some way or other. I think that's what I'm doing, to some extent."

Her time in the church also explains in part, she says, why she was keen to get married to her long-term partner, producer Tom Salinksy.

"All tradition was taken away from me when I became a Jehovah's Witness, no Christmas, nothing, no birthdays. And I missed it.

"I missed being part of something. And so when I got traditions back, I was like, 'it's nice to be part of cultural agreements'. It's what makes us different from the animals.

"It's nice having these routines and rituals and ways of doing things. So for me, the wedding was just a tradition and a way of being part of society and humanity."

It helped too, that Tom is clearly a progressive person and equality is at the very heart of their relationship.

"Tom said to me when we first got together, if I ever make you less than you are, you should leave me, because a relationship should make you more capable.

"And that's right. It should give you this anchor so that you can go off and soar and if you fail, you've got this nest. Where you can recover. That's what it's for. It's not to keep you in the nest, it's to give you a resting place."

'The Guilty Feminist', by Deborah Frances-White (published by Virago) is out now.

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