A Woman’s Place is on the Fringe…

As we celebrate 70 years of Edinburgh Fringe defiance, Fay Roberts suggests that more work is needed to make it truly open access for everyone.

Within minutes of putting out a call for stories, I was inundated with horrible tales

The Edinburgh Fringe celebrates itself as a place to be bold, to take good risks. Increasingly, voices that are less well-represented in the mainstream are engaging stages here. You can see the expanded platform for women’s voices, LGBTQ+ voices, voices of colour, disabled voices, and for shows tackling mental-health issues. More women are winning Fringe awards (four of nine 2017 Comedy Award nominees are female). More fiercely feminist shows are gaining positive coverage. We should be celebrating the progressive diversification of this enormous conglomeration of talent and work and people.

And we do celebrate, it’s just… Look. You may not want to hear this, but the Fringe is still an incredibly embattled place to be a female-presenting person. There are still an extraordinary number of people putting effort into limiting the amount of space we’re permitted to take up.

In 2012, the first time I’d brought a show to the Fringe, the big trend in stand-up was rape jokes. I immediately felt like I’d stepped into battle. Some years are worse than others, but what seemingly goes unchanged is the persistent, low-level nastiness that no amount of award-winning shows and individuals appear to be able to shift.

I found myself saying, last week, about to embark on flyering with a young, female performer new to the Fringe: ‘At least I haven’t had any unsolicited face-touching yet this year.’ She grimaced sympathetically. ‘As if that’s the bloody bar!’ I added, appalled by my own stoicism. Thirty minutes later, she came back for more flyers and to tell me of the photographer who’d spent the entire time talking to her chest.

The inequities range from the microscopic (mostly casual ‘womanlike = inferior’ language) to the outright. Within minutes of putting out a call for stories, I was inundated with horrible tales (far too many for this article alone). We’ve all experienced inappropriate flyering interactions: from leers and vile propositions to unwanted touching ranging from shoulder-taps to face-pats, hugs, and bum-gropes, to one young woman being seized by the wrist, immobilised so that the man who’d already propositioned her, and repeatedly touched her without consent, could ‘apologise’ for his behaviour. My show costume leads to a fair amount of street photography. I’m always happy to comply to those seeking explicit consent to take my picture, but I’ve more than once had a man lead me into what turns out to be a darkened alleyway (‘It’s better for the light…’) and ask me to smile properly, smile more, smile while looking over your shoulder, smile like you mean it. Time to walk back into the clean light…

Off the streets, women tell stories about having their own shows explained to them by men; others of their performances being interrupted by men who start cat-calling or vandalising their equipment. One woman said that the follow-up to yet another disruptive incident was the men in question repeatedly posting a video of themselves urinating on her flyer (incorporating a picture of her face) to her Facebook Page, accompanied by a narration of sexual threats, describing her as a ‘man-hater’. ‘Feminism’ is still an unclean word to some.

Others talk about being objectified during their show by audience members. The opposite is also common. Still others talk about the sexual threats and propositions they receive from fellow cast members while trapped in small spaces. And it’s not just performers and flyerers. Female technicians and other staff tell of groping, harassment, aggressive propositions.

And for those who think that ‘feminism has gone too far’ and that ‘women are more than equal now’, we have some professional inequities to illustrate. A 2017 brochure listing the ‘top comedians of the Fringe’ apparently lists not one single female artist. One award-winning female comic’s coverage in the press is more for her body hair than her work. I’ve been told more than once that, in the world of spoken word, ‘there just aren’t enough women of calibre’ to warrant equally gendered line-ups. Yet the BBC Edinburgh Fringe Slam manages an equal ratio of male to female competitors (cis and trans), plus non-binary performers. And let’s not forget the three explicitly intersectional feminist spoken-word cabarets in PBH’s Free Fringe alone this year.

Even female-focused spaces get invaded. Promoters of the above events report this year fielding objectifying hecklers, and men who insist on performing aggressively lewd material (‘You can’t “grab” a pussy… [explicit detail]…’). Apparently the f-word is also a challenge to some who’d like the playing field tilted back in their favour even in those few spaces that are set up for people other than them.

From the microaggressions to the sexual harassment, the stage invasions to the unconscious/systematic erasure of women’s presence, it seems like the Fringe has an awfully long way to go in terms of gender equality – until everyone commits to the necessary effort it won’t get there.

Fay Roberts is one of the two current Artistic Directors for Spoken Word at PBH’s Free Fringe (fulfilling that role since 2013). She has been running spoken-word events since 2008, and running arts events since sometime in the 90s. She is the Hammer & Tongue co-ordinator for Cambridge and an increasingly outspoken queer, Welsh, disabled feminist. Find her online at http://www.fayroberts.co.uk.