Written by Juliette Burton


Comedy… made me a feminist

Standard Issue writers explore when they knew they were feminist. A change of career sounded Juliette Burton’s klaxon.

Illustration by Louise Boulter.

Illustration by Louise Boulter.

It’s funny, but choosing a career in comedy led me to realise I was a feminist.

Only a few years ago, I began being called ‘a comedian’ and then came the repetitive question: “What’s it like being a female comedian?” And I kept thinking to myself “Why are you asking me this? I never read male comedians being asked, ‘What’s it like to be a male comedian?’” and suddenly it struck me – I’m not seen as equal.

In a world where my job is to poke fun at things that anger me, to joke about bigger, scarier powers, to say the things that piss me off and I see as absurd, the weirdest thing is how differently people see men and women in the entertainment industry.

And then I realised it’s the same in every industry, in similar ways. Once I began reading more and more feminist articles, I realised: I’ve been a feminist all my life without knowing it.

From my childhood onwards, I idolised Miss Piggy: a strong female character with passions and a strong voice. OK, so she was actually voiced by a man, but still, in a world full of skinny Disney princesses, Piggy was a beacon of the hope I could be so much more than a voiceless mermaid with legs or a Cinderella figure – a slave to my gender, only revered for being pretty.

I began to realise that I only chose comedy because I felt so muted in my role as an actress. I’d been an actress for a few years before I chose to work in comedy and during that time I kept being cast in films where I had one of two roles: voiceless love interest to the main, male protagonist, or sex object with no real backstory and no real personality. It became increasingly frustrating.

“Years after I first started being called a comedian, I was asked to do another Q&A that included the questions: ‘What’s the best and worst thing about being a female comedian?’ and ‘Is it hard being the only girl on the bill?’”

So I starting writing my own stuff, and found I liked being able to write things that made people laugh. My own life had been so absurd, the only way I could talk about it was to laugh, otherwise I’d cry.

Most of my life I remember wanting more than just what was offered to me, wanting to break free from what people thought I should do, should be, should look like. Being an overweight child with goofy teeth that were a space apart at the front, as well as double-jointed and flat-footed, I was bullied for being fat and ugly. (By a boy, as it happens.)

My muted voice was swallowed down even more during my teens as I found a home within the illness of anorexia. As a woman, I was meant to be only beautiful and thin, thinner still, taking up less space until I was just a ghost wandering through other people’s lives, not having a life of my own; a Disney princess. Looking back I can see so clearly how angry I was, how silenced I felt, and how loudly my frustration spoke through my illness.

Even recently with certain ‘beach-body ready’ fiascos, my frustration with being told how to look, what to be, that I should shut up because my views differed from other people, that I was “fat” once more – as if that was the ultimate line to silence all these feminists who dared to have a voice. It only strengthened my conviction that feminism is necessary.

Feminism means having the right to choose whatever life we want. My sister chose to get married aged 22, have four children by 27, and find a job that suits that lifestyle. I chose to prioritise my career, to ensure I have a life I love and makes me want to live. I haven’t yet chosen to get married or have children.

Neither of those pathways are ‘better’ or ‘worse’. I am increasingly frustrated when I encounter the idea that a woman’s ‘job’ is to have children and marry a man. I am not defined by whether I procreate. I am defined however I want to define and redefine myself. As a human being, I want the right to be seen as a whole, complete and respected person with or without children, with or without marriage.

Women have fought for my right to vote, and for that reason I vote at every election – even if I simply spoil my ballot paper. I want my number to be counted as a thank you to those to whom I owe my voice being heard.

When I first started working in comedy, I’d wear jeans and a checked shirt. I realised I was just trying to look like every male comedian ever, when really I wanted to wear feminine clothes and that not mean I be judged as less in control or too soft. I wanted aspects of myself perhaps seen by some as ‘weaknesses’ to be seen as the strengths I knew they always were.

Feminism to me is simply about wanting everyone to have the same values. It is not the idea that one gender is better or worse. It’s that all genders have equal value; we may be different but we can work together with respect to ensure every voice is heard.

“As a woman, I was meant to be only beautiful and thin, thinner still, taking up less space until I was just a ghost wandering through other people’s lives, not having a life of my own.”

I knew I was passionate for equality throughout society long before I realised that so passionately stretched to feminism. I want to know our society doesn’t discriminate against sexuality, disability, mental illness, race, religion or gender. Every human being needs to be free to be who we feel we are.

Equality for all is something I will fight fiercely for, and my weapon of choice is humour.

Even in the run-up to this Edinburgh fringe this August, years after I first started being called a comedian, I was asked to do another Q&A that included the questions: “What’s the best and worst thing about being a female comedian?” and “Is it hard being the only girl on the bill?” and “Are you a feminist?” “Do you feel added pressure when all the other acts are men?”

The thing is, as frustrating as this is to answer the same old questions, the tone has changed in the past few years. There has only been one pre-Edinburgh Fringe interviewer who kept skewing their questions towards the ‘female comedian’ angle. And at least the tone was supportive; I got the feeling that they wanted to help women in the industry, although the most helpful thing is to treat us the same as men who happen to be comedians.

At a family wedding a man asked my partner his name, his uncle was asked his name, and then the man asking for people’s names looked at my partner, gesturing towards me as if to say, “and this one?”

My partner responded, “Oh that’s Juliette.” I immediately held out my hand to this man and, with a big grin, said, “I can speak for myself. Hi, I’m Juliette!” My partner smiled proudly and later on told me it was the fastest he’s seen feminism kick in since he’d known me.

I think that’s what I’m most fascinated to discover: feminism is an ideal I’ve always held, but it’s perhaps lain dormant inside me for so long, that nowadays it sometimes comes out fiercely or with anger. But it’s growing inside me, or rather my confidence in my own convictions is growing. I’m reading more and learning more, from other women, from feminist men, from my own experiences. The world is shifting and I’m proud to be growing with it.

Read more of our writers’ feminist lightbulb moments here.

Juliette is currently at the Edinburgh Fringe with her show, Decision Time, until 28 August (not 15 August), Gilded Balloon, 4.30pm. Get tickets here.

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Written by Juliette Burton

Juliette Burton is a docu-comedian, actor, writer, thinker, dreamer, doer and person. She has a history of mental health problems and loves The Muppets. These two things are in no way linked.