Sara Pascoe’s excellent new book Animal takes us on a tour of the female body. Read an excerpt here AND win signed copies! We’re good to you, we are.
When I do my job, I’m referred to as a ‘female comedian’. With most occupations, being a doctor or teacher or chef or whatever, you are defined by the type of work you do. But my job title also includes my gender.
I don’t do it any differently to the non-females, I stand there speaking words, sometimes walking from side to side or throwing a hand in the air. My boobs don’t get in the way or make me fall off the stage or anything, yet ‘female’ pre-empts my ‘comedian’. Like a disclaimer.
I don’t hate this and I’m not angry, but it’s made me notice gender more than I would have otherwise. Lots of jobs have feminised titles: waitress or mermaid. There are women who work under a male title, firemen or postmen, a lazy catch-all that maybe they get annoyed about? Sometimes I am called a comedienne, which I like, because it makes me sound French and cooked.
The thing that’s odd about people noticing or commenting or presuming as to my gender is that they do; notice and comment and presume. I never told anyone. I didn’t ring up for my first gig and announce, ‘Hello there, I’m a woman, could I possibly have five minutes of your standup comedy next Tuesday?’
I was 26 when I started doing gigs and I’d been female all of my life. I’d been dimly aware of that from pregnancy scares and the difficulty of urinating standing up but it’d never been commented upon when I entered a room. I’d always identified as a person. Human being. Ordinary. But when I began to perform at standup nights, bookers would say, ‘It’s always nice to have a woman on.’ They might warn the audience, ‘The next act is a woman,’ so they wouldn’t be shocked and topple their chairs.
People might wait afterwards to tell me that I was ‘good for a girl’ or that they ‘usually hated female comedians’. Or they would give me helpful advice like ‘You shouldn’t talk so much about lady stuff.’ No one was cruel or nasty. No one explicitly told me, ‘This is a man’s job, you are not welcome.’ But I was baffled. Why did my being a woman seem so noticeable to everyone else? Why was it the first thing that they saw?
When I became more successful, after a few years on the circuit, I would do interviews for radio stations or local papers. They would ask me, ‘What’s it like being a female comedian?’ and I never knew how to answer. Did they want logistics? I travel to shows on a train, I write words down in a pad.
‘It’s such a male industry,’ they might helpfully clarify. ‘What’s it like to be a woman?’ When I really think about it, I have no idea what it is like to be a woman. I’ve no experience of gender or species apart from my own. I’ve nothing to compare it to. I cannot fathom anything other than being inside my mind and body. That question is asking me to extend my subjective experience to all women, to speak universally and comparatively of a gendered condition, and that’s an existential ask for someone promoting a Wednesday night ‘Chucklefest’ above a pub in Norwich.
“To return to my question ‘Are you a woman?’, the only person who can answer that is you. You define for yourself what gender means and how you fit within it, if at all.”
Whenever someone wants a gender comparison, I remember the Greek myth about Tiresias. He was a man, but then he got turned female for seven years after hitting some snakes. And because he had experienced shagging as both sexes, Zeus asked him whether men got more pleasure from sex, or did women enjoy it more? Tiresias said women got 10 times as much pleasure as men.
But of course this is MYTH not science. You cannot compare the genders in any quantifiable way. You just can’t. We can’t understand the world from anyone’s perspective but our own. So I’ve become hyper-aware of my womanhood and that’s made me think a lot about what gender even is.
I have daydreams where I wonder: what if I woke up with a penis? Would I still be a woman? Imagine someone as a horrible prank has sewn a penis on me, and I have to walk about with it in my trousers, but – I’d still feel like a woman, I’d just be a woman with a penis.
So it’s not my genitals that define me…so what then? Ovaries, womb. If they were removed, I’d still be a woman. I’d be a wombless woman. With a penis. If I took lots of testosterone, had my breasts removed, had a deep voice and a beard and short hair…at what point would I drop the ‘female’ and become a comedian?
I have decided it’s my mind that’s woman. It’s my narrator. It’s my relationship to myself, and oddly, nothing at all to do with my body. To return to my question “Are you a woman?”, the only person who can answer that is you. You define for yourself what gender means and how you fit within it, if at all.
For a long, boring time, gender has been a binary with sweeping fictional stereotypes. “Men are physically stronger than women,” an idiot shouts. No they’re not. If you took all the strongest women and pitted them against the weakest men, the women would thrash them. All men are not stronger than all women, there’s about a hundred million exceptions, and if there are that many exceptions then it’s not a rule.
Ditto boys don’t cry, girls are nurturing, women aren’t hairy, blah blah blah, it’s a prison. An invisible trap we’ve unknowingly lived in while wondering why the boys are so frustrated and aggressive and the women spend so much of their energy hating themselves and we’re all so needlessly unhappy.
Every time you hear someone say “Men are like this” – or “Women are like that” – they’re wrong and you should stop listening. There is no statement that is irrevocably and absolutely true across an entire gender through culture and time and geography. Except male toilets always smell worse, but apart from that— A lot of negative things have been allowed to happen because we believe our gender defines us, or that there is a correct way of being male or female.
If you are reading this it means you are one of the luckiest people in the world – I can presume that you live in the first world. You are educated to a high reading standard; you have leisure time and a little money and live under a government that allows you to think your own thoughts. We can free ourselves from invisible prisons. We escape from old ideas by replacing them with new ones.
The book I have written is about the experience of growing up in a female body and with the physiology of a female body, and this excludes the experiences of many women. But gender is a mere idea. It’s a spectrum, you can slide up and down on it or stay solidly placed – what I’m trying to say is that it’s likely your way of being a woman is completely different from mine.
I identify as female and I’m heterosexual. And I’ll always be white. My subjective world-view cannot speak for all women’s experience or reality. I forgive myself for this and hope that you will too. I’m not attempting to be the last word in a conversation, I just want to be part of it, and then I’ll sit back and listen some more.
Excerpt from Animal (Faber), which you would do well to buy here.
We have five signed copies of Sara’s book to give away. To bag yourself one, simply send a message to our mailbag with the subject line: “I am an animal”. Closing date 23 May; winners will be picked at random.
Anne Miller chats to Sara Pascoe in her Fully Booked column this Thursday.5939 Views
Comedian and actor. I have won QI and Pointless.