Voices

What About Me?

Margaret Cabourn-Smith explores the idea that when it comes to stages and screens, what we see translates into what we expect to get. And more often than not, when you’re a woman, that’s not enough.

One woman in a group of male writers

Illustrations by Harriet Carmichael.

FULL DISCLOSURE: I was brought up in London by liberal parents. I went to an all-girls secondary school and it never occurred to me not to apply to university.

I have always had strong and clever female role models in the form of mother, sisters, aunts and friends. I’ve only ever had female GPs.

When I was 14 I remember standing up in an RE class and proclaiming to my class and the beleaguered teacher, “Any man who comes between me and my career can get lost” – even though I was far from knowing what that career would be, and didn’t have anything resembling a boyfriend until I was 21. My point is, I’m not an obvious victim of sexist oppression.

Growing up, I was a comedy nerd and an indie snob. And the truth is, most of the stuff I ate up then (and still love now) is almost entirely male.

My favourite and formative films, albums, books and plays are full of male experiences. Male, male, male. Yes, I loved Victoria Wood and French & Saunders and Elastica but boy, were they outnumbered. It was exciting to see a woman, but unusual – to the point where on some level at least, it felt wrong.

And there’s the problem. If someone as hungry and obsessive (not to mention feminist) as my teenage self found it so hard to find female role models then what about everyone else? It’s so easy to be complacent.

I enjoyed the novelty of being the ‘geezerbird’ at gigs and I’m ashamed to say that I even occasionally felt put out when there were other girls there. I wanted to be special. With hindsight, there was an element of consoling myself that I was the one that nobody fancied and relished pretending I was OK with being everyone’s friend and nobody’s crush.

“Trees, clouds, bricks… I’m a woman, talking to a girl and I still reach for the male pronoun first. Animals are not all male!”

I think the worst thing I found myself doing was developing an irrational hatred of Josie Lawrence because she got to be ‘the girl one’ of the Comedy Store Players. Sheer jealousy of a brilliant woman.

I feel now that if there were two women per show – and I feel like this about panel shows today – the audience (not to mention cast) would relax a bit and not expect ‘the girl one’ to represent all women, but instead be as varied and unique as the men get to be. No one looks at Milton Jones or Frankie Boyle and thinks they represent any group – just their unique selves.

The weird thing is that it took me ages to notice and longer to mention this huge imbalance. I’ve been working, joyfully I should add, in comedy for 16 years now and the majority of my work has happened in rooms full of men.

I love my job, and I’ve always enjoyed the company of male creatures (although I have never been one of those women who says, “I prefer the company of men, women are so bitchy blah blah.” Those people are at best, narrow-minded/disingenuous and at worst, MORONS).

So it wasn’t a horrible gut-punch to find that comedy was full of men. It wasn’t surprising either. I was conditioned to expect it. So I did expect it and in turn, accepted it. And then became afraid to speak out in case I lost the little I had gained.

But it’s EVERYWHERE: women make up about a fifth of what we see and hear on screen, in comedy, in drama, in music. So even when that doesn’t reflect what’s on the street or in our homes, we’re still taking it on board. We think this is what’s normal. But it shouldn’t be. And it should be OK to ask for more.

toys, with a lone female one in the centre
I have to pre-correct my brain and make sure I don’t immediately address a new animal toy as ‘he’. Why did it take me so long to notice all the toys in the original Toy Story are male except for Bo Peep – the love interest?

Why do I have to do the same with all the inanimate objects my seven-year-old daughter and I bring to life? Trees, clouds, bricks… I’m a woman, talking to a girl and I still reach for the male pronoun first. Animals are not all male!

These days, I’m trying to make sure my daughter does a bit better in terms of what she consumes but it’s hard. I want her to be asking, “Where am I?” instead of simply accepting what she’s offered… I don’t want to her to think she should be someone’s love interest and not the protagonist in her OWN LIFE.

Mind you, I may be overcompensating – the other day Girls on Film came on the radio and my daughter dutifully said: “Why is it girls on film? Boys can be on screen too.” We’ll get there…

@mcabournsmith

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Written by Margaret Cabourn-Smith

Margaret is a comedy writer performer popping up on your TV and radio who over thinks and over talks.