Edinburgh 2013: Women get the last laugh at last at the Fringe

The Edinburgh Fringe has found feminism, says Alice Jones, who talks to the female comedians who refuse to be the punchline

It is 3.30pm on a Wednesday afternoon and in a small, stuffy room with blackout curtains in Edinburgh 30 men and women are watching a young female strip. But this is no ordinary burlesque routine – this is a “feminist burlesque routine”. As Nadia Kamil peels off wrap dress after wrap dress after tunic after T-shirt, all without revealing so much as an inch of flesh, she cheekily reveals slogans that are stuck to various body parts – “Equal Pay!” is splashed across her chest; “Pubes are normal” shouts from her nether regions; “Stop asking 'Are women funny?' and do some proper journalism!” runs seductively down her leg – until the big finale, when she whips out a degree certificate that is decorated with nipple-tassels. Now that, she says, is how you make burlesque “empowering”.

A couple of hours later, in the same room at The Stand, the Fringe's most traditional stand-up venue, Mary Bourke, a 49-year-old comedian from Dublin, finishes up a hour of jokes about phallocentric culture, the Kardashians and internet trolls by handing out badges to her audience. They say, 'This is what a Muffragette looks like'; audience members grab them eagerly from her.

The next morning, at the unheard-of Fringe hour of 11am, people queue around the block for a chance to stand at the back of the room for Bridget Christie's show and howl with laughter as she makes jokes about Refuge and Beyoncé. An outraged and outrageous romp through everyday sexism, from John Inverdale to FHM, it is the word-of-mouth sensation of the festival so far.

This is the year that the Fringe found feminism. It has always been there, of course, thanks to trailblazers like Jenny Eclair, whose current show includes a typically withering takedown of 50 Shades of Grey. But this year it's everywhere. There is Maisah Sobaihi's one-woman show about divorce and dating in Saudi Arabia, and one-man shows dedicated to the radical theories of Andrea Dworkin. Kate Smurthwaite skewers women in the media and Nadine Dorries's views on abortion while Katie Goodman, aka the “female Tim Minchin”, sings subversive songs about being a working mother. And then there is Adrienne Truscott's Asking for It: A One-Lady Rape About Comedy Starring Her Pussy and Little Else!, an extraordinary title for an extraordinary show, in which the comedian, naked from the waist down, reclaims the rape joke in a way that, if they dared watch it, would probably silence Frankie Boyle and his ilk for good.

In theatre too, gender tops the agenda with plays about powerful female politicians (Who Wants to Kill Yulia Tymoshenko), journalists (Anna, about Anna Politkovskaya) and fighter pilots (Grounded, featuring Lucy Ellinson). DC Jackson's Threeway takes a skew-whiff look at sexual roles while XY is a series of 16 plays, all written with non-gender-specific roles, and played by different actors and actresses each day.

Why now? “There is something in the air,” says Bridget Christie. “You can't pick up a newspaper without seeing a story about sexism. Misogyny is the last taboo, the last thing we've not sorted out.” The comedian jokes in her show that she adopted feminism a year ago “as a career move”, but she is right that there is a prevailing wind of protest, a new generation of female campaigners, writers and bloggers – Caitlin Moran, Mary Beard, Grace Dent, Vagenda, Jezebel, the Everyday Sexism Project, to name but a few – who are putting topics like Page 3, BBC sexism and Twitter trolls on the front pages, and are not afraid to use humour.

Christie, 41, has been a stand-up for a decade. Last year she was ready to quit, in order to spend more time with the two children she has with her husband, comedian Stewart Lee (which gives her quip, “women were invented by God when he realised that Adam needed someone to laugh at his jokes”, added frisson). “I didn't care anymore,” she says. “I decided to write a show about the emancipation of women and put it on at 11 in the morning.  I didn't think anyone would come but the audiences have been unbelievable.”

“I wrote the show very quickly. The depressing thing is it's not difficult to find ideas.” She has now been commissioned by Century to write a feminist memoir and is writing a second series of her gender comedy Mind the Gap for Radio 4. “And I am not at all worried that I won't be able to fill the space. I haven't done anything about older women, childless women, single women yet. It's limitless.”

Her stand-up show, A Bic for Her, which she performs in a T-shirt saying “Deeds not Words”, is a warm, witty, laugh-out-loud hour about women's rights which roams from sexist sports commentators to Bic's invention of a pretty, easy-to-grip pen for women (“perhaps that's why the Brontës were so bad at writing,” she ponders). There are serious moments, too. Towards the end she talks about an exchange with a women's magazine who asked her to write a piece about her heroine. When she chose Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani activist schoolgirl who was shot by the Taliban, the editor emailed to ask if she would mind nominating Lena Dunham instead, “because they wanted to use a big picture of her.”

Does she worry about the stereotype that feminists are humourless? That feminism and comedy might be, as Louis CK has said, “natural enemies”, since “stereotypically speaking, feminists can't take a joke and comedians can't take criticism?” “Humourless? I'm a comedian!” she says. “But why should a feminist have to be funny? Amnesty International and Martin Luther King have never been accused of lacking a sense of humour.”

Mary Bourke, an elegant Dubliner with a singsong voice, takes a slightly different tack in her show, Muffragette, which aims to rid the word feminism of its “toxic baggage”. Her show is less whinge and minge, she says, more giggles and gash. She contorts her husband into the favourite poses of models in lads' mags and heckles the avowed non-feminists in the crowd.

“What's your name?”

“John.”

“Hello John. And what do you do – when you're not oppressing women?”

The crowd love her.

At 28, Nadia Kamil, she of the feminist burlesque, has written perhaps the angriest show on the topic – Wide-Open Beavers. Or at least the only show that starts with the haka and ends with a version of Azealia Banks's “212”, with lyrics adapted to talk about smear tests. It is a sustained, impassioned attack on sexism with some neat observations on women in Hollywood and why adverts for yoghurts never feature men. “I felt so miserable about misogyny, so overwhelmed and vulnerable as a woman. I thought, 'if I don't do anything about it, why should anyone else?'” says Kamil. “Comedy is brilliantly cathartic, a really good coping mechanism. Doing this makes me feel better about it.”

Can jokes about feminism make a difference in the wider world, though? “I'm a comedian so this is what I do,” says Christie. “Everything I do has to work as a joke primarily. If I can create a really good routine about it and it's not misjudged, then I will do it.” While aware of the limitations of comedy to change the status quo, all three comedians offer their own tips for playful activism. Christie talks at length about her one-woman campaign to rid supermarket shelves of sexual imagery. Bourke shares the put-downs that she and her friends, the self-styled “Vigilante Sandwichers”, direct at trolls who tell her to “get back in the kitchen and make me a sandwich” every time she dares to make a feminist point online. And Kamil shows off the T-shirt she made to stop men hassling her every time she went out for a run. It says 'Honk If You Love Feminism' in big reflective letters; she now sells them to fans by the pile after her shows.

It's not just women. Men are getting in on the joke, too. In his Fringe show, John Robins uses a Sharon Olds poem about menstruation to make a point about awkward adolescence; Tony Law talks about gendered toys and why he has invented a new superhero for his daughter called Normal Woman, “whose superpower is tolerating everyday sexism”; Brett Goldstein has written a fascinating show about why he has given up pornography.

Elsewhere, the Scottish novelist and performer Alan Bissett bares his soul in an investigation of the male gaze. He interweaves the story of his own development – from young boy brought up in an all-female household, to teenage visitor to strip clubs to adult discovering sex on the internet – with the anti-pornography tracts of the American radical feminist Andrea Dworkin. It's intelligent, often hilarious, heady stuff – and it has been playing to sell-out audiences at 9pm.

Feminism is no longer a niche topic. And at all of the shows mentioned, the crowd has been 50/50 men and women. “I get a lot of young, twentysomething males coming in,” says Kamil. “There is an audience for this – not just for people who notice funny stuff but for people who have something to say. I feel so much more confident about putting political stuff into my material now.” The increased prominence of female comedians and the rise in alternative comedy nights has helped, she adds. “If you're the only woman on the bill or on the panel show and it goes badly, then everyone thinks that women are awful. You end up representing all women. When there are five men on the panel, no-one thinks that.”

As the traditionally male, often misogynistic circuit changes and more females break through on stage, they are finding their voice off-stage, too. Earlier this year, a female audience member heckled the American comedian Daniel Tosh for making poor jokes about rape. His response – “Wouldn't it be funny if that girl got raped by like, five guys right now? Like right now? What if a bunch of guys just raped her?” – caused uproar.

Christie has witnessed the change from behind the mic over the last decade. “Last year I did a gig in the back room of a former strip club up in the North East. The acts before me came on and did a load of misogyny material and rape jokes. I thought there was no point me going on after that, but I did. And I could see the relief on the faces of everybody in that room. They didn't want that stuff.”

Kamil had a similar experience at a gig in aid of the Arts Emergency charity in London in June. When the surprise headliner, Jimmy Carr, walked out on stage he was heckled first for his tax avoidance and then, more violently, for his sexism. “I counted about 15 sexist or ablist jokes before the audience had had enough. Then he did three rape jokes in a row and someone just shouted out, 'you're a misogynistic cunt',” recalls Kamil. “He said, 'they're only jokes', but this time the audience said 'no'. There has been a sea change. That wouldn't have happened a couple of years ago. Audiences have a choice now.”

Feminist fun: Four of the best

Women were invented years ago when God realised that Adam needed an audience for his jokes. (Bridget Christie)

Germaine Greer once asked the BeeGees how much money they made. They said: “More than a woman.” (Mary Bourke)

The only circumstance I'd ever want to be the token woman is if I was working at a funfair. (Nadia Kamil)

I don't like porn because it gives young girls false expectations – of how quickly a plumber will come to their house. (Mary Bourke)

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