Interview
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By: Johanna Kinnock

Photos: David Vintiner

Feminists: Don’t fear your failings

It turns out that when we stop trying to be perfect, the results can be inspirational. And very funny. Deborah Frances-White, comedian and host of The Guilty Feminist podcast, speaks to 5 about exfoliating the skin, exfoliating the soul, and the radical potential of humour.

Takeaways

  • Comedian Deborah Frances-White hosts a podcast that asks feminists to confess their unfeminist habits.
  • It’s funny, but there’s a serious message too: we’re all human. And that’s fine.
  • Deborah used to fight her imperfections. Now she befriends them.
  • It’s impossible to live up to the current standards expected of us, Deborah believes.
  • Despite their flaws, people can change the world for the better, she says.

Deborah Frances-White’s self-isolation anecdotes are not that different from everyone else’s. On a recent isolation day, the Australian-born, London-based comedian and podcaster called a friend for a catch-up via Zoom. A few minutes into the call, her friend’s five-year-old son – who knows Deborah well – sidled into the frame and asked who the woman on screen was. He’d failed to recognise the unkempt isolation-worn face on screen as the same Deborah he’d met not so long ago. “A child thought I was a whole different person,” she tells me incredulously. “I’m a feminist but ever since a five-year-old dissed my Zoom face I’ve been brushing my hair and wearing eyeliner before every call,” she laughs down the phone.

Deborah is not the only woman to recognise how ridiculous it is that, even in these self-isolatory times, women still feel such pressure to look good. One shudders to think how many ‘10 ways to stay skinny during isolation’ articles have been hastily churned out in the last few months. The fact is that even when they’re not being watched, women self-regulate. And then, as feminists, feel guilty for that same self-regulation: for trying to fit into the normative beauty standards of a patriarchal society. Thus, a self-reinforcing circle of shame is established: “Feminism becomes yet another thing for women to feel guilty about,” as Deborah puts it. Again, she’s certainly not the first woman to feel guilty that she doesn’t put her money where her mouth is 100% of the time. The difference, of course, is that she’s converted that guilt into a successful comedic career.

“We are all noble, we are all not noble. That’s what human beings are”

“I’m a feminist, but …”

Deborah came up with The Guilty Feminist podcast after she and fellow comedian Sofie Hagen went out for lunch. “We were talking about how we wanted to be better feminists but we were sort of concerned: secretly, do you think this, or do this? And then of course because we’re comedians it had to be a podcast. That seems to be the rule.” Since it began in 2015, more than 75 million episodes of The Guilty Feminist have been downloaded. Deborah attributes its popularity to the fact that “women are thirsty for content made by and for them – that aren’t just masculine shows redressed”. The duo parted ways a year on but Deborah has made sure to fill Hagen’s seat with a roster of diverse female and gender-minority co-hosts ever since.

The premise of the show is simple. Guests introduce themselves with the now familiar line, “I’m a feminist, but…” followed by a shamefully unfeminist confession. They do the only thing a reasonably self-aware person could do when faced with the gulf between lofty feminist principles and everyday actions: they laugh. Some personal favourites of Deborah’s are, “I’m a feminist but, some days my life doesn’t even pass the Bechdel test,” and, “I’m a feminist but one time I went on a women’s rights march, popped into a department store to use the bathroom and got distracted trying on face cream. When I came out the march was gone.”

The anecdotes aren’t just funny in all their glorious absurdity, they serve a higher purpose. “It’s an exfoliation! You get it out, you look at it, you laugh at it. Don’t carry it. The problem is when we carry the guilt, when we’re expecting too much of ourselves.” Suddenly she sounds earnest: “When we’re not understanding that the heart and the mind are different. You’ll be like, oh my God I really want to look like that because I’ve been trained by all these billboards that I have to look like that. We are all noble, we are all not noble, we are both of those things and that’s what human beings are. We are complex, contradictory creatures.”

“I don’t have therapy. I wait until I get upset and then I analyse whatever I say in that moment”

Striving to be average

Deborah’s unyielding belief in confessing, or – as she calls it – exfoliating, is in contrast to what she was taught during her time as a Jehovah’s Witness, from her teens to her early 20s. In that world, she says, you’ve got to “put your sinful self away”. “It’s all about striving to be best and there is no space for imperfection. It’s a very unhealthy way of living.” At 23, she left it behind.

Deborah then moved to London and was immediately drawn to the city’s improvised comedy scene, of which she remains a part. In improv, being imperfect is the whole point. She shook off the strict godly commands and internalised instead the words of her comedy teacher: “Stop trying so hard to be good. Just say yes, and be average.” Explaining improv now, she says: “Trying to be any more than average is counterproductive. You always do worse. When you’re present, and in the moment, that’s when a flash of brilliance might come out.” Today’s Deborah speaks freely, in a messy waterfall of observations and introspections. She also coolly dishes out wisdoms, perfectly formed, but never sounding rehearsed.

She tells me that her own best confessions – her eureka moments of self-insight, occur in frustrated or angry moments where the gap between consciousness and confession is at its thinnest: “I don’t have therapy. I wait until I get upset and then I analyse whatever I say in that moment when I’m not censoring.” In this way anger and humour can serve parallel purposes for Deborah, as moments of unfiltered truth.

Her most recent such angry outburst was quarantine-related: “I got so upset with technology because it was all so new and I had to learn it all so quickly – I ended up throwing my phone across the room, and saying, ‘I’m not good with technology, I’m good with people, and people are gone.’” She pauses. “And I just sort of thought: that’s my fear – that people are gone. Isn’t that interesting?”

A joyful army

It’s safe to say Deborah is pretty excited to return to her loyal listeners (usually the podcast is recorded live in front of an audience of 1,000). “I caaaan’t waaaaait! It’s gonna be so sooooo great!” she pines. Some might argue that a room full of western women confessing their patriarchy-inspired behaviours and laughing about them trivialises the whole feminist endeavour. According to Deborah, that’s a misconception: “Sometimes I think people who want to change the world think anger is their only tool. Anger has very much got a place, but it’s not your only tool. Humour is a much-underestimated tool. I think a joke is a great way to sell a message and have that message travel for you, because people repeat jokes and they remember jokes. It creates a magnet-like quality for your work, because people want to laugh and be a part of this joyful army.”

Deborah Frances-White’s live podcast at the Royal Albert Hall in London.
Photo: Callum Baker

According to Deborah, a guilty feminist isn’t someone who is unambitious about their feminism, it’s someone who stays ambitious by not focusing on the things that don’t really matter (like caring a little bit too much about your Zoom face). “It’s more about knowing that you don’t have to be perfect to sign up,” she clarifies. Because, in today’s world, “it’s impossible for anybody to live up to a consistently high radical standard”.

When it comes to flaws in feminist thinking and practice, there are much bigger concerns than the trivial imperfections that The Guilty Feminist embraces, she says. For example, Deborah argues that feminists must move past ‘white feminism’, when “powerful white women think: if we can get the same advantages in society that powerful white men have, then the problem is solved. I think that’s problematic. It’s something we need to deconstruct”. Guilty feminists, Deborah assures, always stay sensitive to their privileges and keep their hearts in an inclusive, self-critical place, which is precisely what makes all the other frivolous, not-strictly-feminist stuff they do so insignificant. Deborah’s message is clear: “Our goals are more noble than our actions. Because we’re always striving for more, we’re always striving for better”.

 

“Sometimes people who want to change the world think anger is their only tool. It’s not”

She has looked perfection in the eye and waved it off with a laugh. Nowadays, Deborah’s biggest faith is in something very straightforward: a belief that despite their flaws, people can and will improve the world for the better. The most important pillar of her personal feminist scripture is that it is constructive. In her words, “it’s not just about bringing hammers to smash things down, it’s about bringing bricks to build the world we do want to live in”.

 

DEBORAH’S INSPIRATIONS

People
Activists, writers and thinkers who inspire me to be better and do better include Baratunde Thurston, Feminista Jones, Nikesh Shukla and Stephanie Yeboah.

Playlists
Whatever script I’m writing I make a playlist, or find a period playlist online and play it over and over like the soundtrack to the movie or TV show I’m visualising in my head as I work.

Bumi Thomas, Amrit Kaur and Grace Petrie are three singer-songwriters I feature on The Guilty Feminist a lot who get masses of air time in my flat.

Comedy
Tightly-written scripted comedy or a really loose, freewheeling podcast fills a break beautifully and gives me the joy I need to create something fresh and funny.

At the moment Derry Girls, Difficult People, Atlanta and Indoor Boys are my scripted joys. Fake Doctors, Real Friends with Zach Braff and Donald Faison, Wheel of Misfortune and Pappy’s Flatshare Slamdown are my podcast delights.