Earlier this year, when Brian Logan and Jenny Paton opened applications for the annual Sprint festival, they were struck by the sheer number that dealt with a recurrent theme: those “that had feminist themes – or at least addressed women’s experiences in particular.” It soon occurred to Logan and Paton that if this many people wanted to talk about the feminine experience, maybe they needed a platform. The result is Calm Down, Dear, a festival of feminist theatre, comedy and performance art, which opens at the Camden People’s Theatre later this month.
“As everyone’s been talking about lately, feminism is clearly enjoying a welcome boom,” says Logan. “In fact, we couldn’t quite believe that no one else was doing a feminism festival – or at least, not quite in the way we were envisaging one. In other words, this was an artists-led idea, we were just responding to what was very obviously already out there.”
It’s hard to say why, but it certainly seems feminism has taken a leap into the wider public consciousness over the past few years. A movement that Sara Pascoe, a comedian who will be performing her most recent Edinburgh Fringe show at Calm Down, Dear, sees as an inevitable journey away from the “anti-feminst backlash… based on the widespread misunderstanding that wanting women to have equal rights and respect was in some way connected to man-hating.”
The decision to include comedy as well as theatre in Calm Down, Dear is an interesting one – after all, surely female comedians like Pascoe must encounter some of the most career-hindering misogyny imaginable, courtesy of the women-aren’t-funny brigade? Not so, she assures me: the only thing people who make those kind of claims are doing is “displaying ignorance of comedy. I have never heard anyone who regularly frequents clubs say that… Also, I never feel the need to argue with people, or name funny women as outliers, as that seems to suggest that they are exceptions to a rule. I also don’t believe that any conversation or journalism investigating ‘are women funny?’ has ever done anything to help.”
What has helped? Well, if it things are changing and growing within the feminist movement, certainly in terms of young women’s attitudes, a certain amount must be attributed to the growth of the internet and online journalism. Giving a voice to women who would otherwise have gone without one, it has allowed feminist websites such as Vagenda and Jezebel to prosper, and feminist issues such as Caroline Criado-Perez’s banknotes campaign to receive greater recognition. Video/performance artist Louise Orwin sees the “emergence of feminist work into popular consciousness [as having] everything to do with the internet”, singing the praises of groups such as the Twitter Youth Feminist Army. “The internet gives us space to create communities in otherwise hostile landscapes, which is a wonderful thing.”
But Orwin knows only too well that there are two sides to that coin. She will be performing Pretty/Ugly at the festival, a performance art piece dealing with a recent trend in which teenage girls post videos to YouTube asking perfect strangers to rate their appearance. The first video Orwin saw of this type “had nearly 20,000 views – and hundreds of comments, most of them negative and vile. Then I noticed that there were hundreds upon hundreds of other videos posted in the same vein.”
Orwin notes that “these girls probably wouldn’t go up and ask a stranger face-to-face on the street whether they were pretty or ugly, so why do it online?”, and put like that, it’s hard to ignore the more disappointing side of feminism’s leap into the twenty-first century. As well as the way in which the internet can make a young woman’s already-complicated teenage years even harder to navigate, there is also the unavoidable fact that with freer speech comes louder shouting from the kind of people who don’t want to listen, and for every woman who manages to make her voice heard there are reams of, say, faceless Twitter trolls ready to threaten her with rape and murder. But then we have projects like Calm Down, Dear – with its huge variety of participants, the hundreds of audience members who will make it possible and many, many things to say that deserve hearing.
“We could have programmed the festival twice over and kept the quality high,” says Logan. “There’s a lot of good work out there that’s communicating about women’s lives today, and the injustices and prejudices they face.” Not content to interact only with the most culturally familiar aspects of feminism, or to preach to the converted, Logan and Paton have programmed work that will challenge people’s views on what feminism means and can achieve – work like artist Rosana Cade’s My Big Sister Taught Me This Lapdance.
“As a lesbian, a skin-headed-queer, a hairy woman and the younger sister of a lap-dancing-porn-star-feminist, I find my views on female sexuality and the sex industry constantly conflicting,” says Cade. Well, you would. Dealing with the way both sisters approach feminism, Cade’s show is aware of the most diametrically opposed elements of “radical feminism and pro-sex feminism” that exist within her own family, as well as “opening up wider questions about family relationships and learned sexual behaviour.” Cade sees feminism as being the gateway to wider change; to “a world where everyone is celebrated as an individual.”
This is feminism that is a million, billion miles away from the reductive image of it perpetuated by misogynists; feminism as a viable means of changing the world, not just angry women and man-hating. Not that there isn’t still room for a bit of anger here and there; sometimes the only logical response is to be angry. The sense I got from speaking to this cross-section of feminist festival programmers, comedians, performers and artists, though, was of a brand of feminism that was hopeful, proactive and ultimately realistic. There was a feeling not of hatred for misogynists so much as pity – for example, from Pascoe, the comedian with nothing to say to people who claim women aren’t funny: “Mostly I think they don’t really mean it – and if they do, what laughter-bereft existences they must live, if their sisters, wives and female friends don’t crack them up.”
Calm Down, Dear, then, is an exciting thing at an exciting time, in a rapidly changing twenty-first century with a long way to go and all to play for. As Logan commented, it is still unfortunately true that “in the traditional theatres, female representation isn’t great among the ranks of playwrights, directors and so on”, and here is a festival full of (mostly) women with things to say, being given a place to say it.
“We didn’t need to socially engineer this lineup,” Logan adds. “It genuinely is a roster of riveting work, proudly and unselfconsciously feminist, and addressing the world from a female perspective (usually), without fear… It’s pointing the way to a better future, I’m sure.”
Calm Down, Dear: A Festival of Feminism runs at Camden People’s Theatre from 22 October until 10 November. For details of the full line-up and tickets, visit CPT’s website.
Photos: The Fanny Hill Project by Theatre State and Rosana Cade’s My Big Sister Taught Me This Lapdance.