As part of Marie Claire's 30th birthday conversations issue we put two of our favourite comedians in a room with a dictaphone and snacks. What followed was one of the smartest, funniest chats about feminism (and dildos) we’ve ever eavesdropped. Enjoy.
As the host of hit podcast The Guilty Feminist (50 million downloads and counting), Deborah Frances-White tackles all the important (and trivial) questions of 21st-century feminism.
With a new book out this month, we asked her to sit down with stand-up comedian and pal Aisling Bea to talk confidence, early ambitions and birthday cards from Gabby Logan.
The conversation kicks off with a discussion about The Handmaid’s Tale-themed hen weekends. Aisling suggests this is a ‘two million dollar business idea’. Deborah isn’t so sure…
Deborah: Talking of hen nights, can I tell you a lovely story? One of the things we’ve been doing [on my podcast] lately is drawing attention to the refugee situation in Calais. Someone recently wrote to me and said, ‘I was going to go to Vegas on my hen do and then I heard your episode about Calais and I thought, right we’re not going to Vegas, we’re going to Calais.’ She said, ‘Some of my friends have been enthusiastic and others are like, “What the fuck? I signed on for Vegas.” But it may be the one time in my life when I can ask all my friends to something I want to do as a group.’ Isn’t that beautiful?
Aisling: It is, to be fair, a classic Deborah or Aisling hen. So we’re all like, ‘Isn’t that beautiful?’ I’m sure there are readers of Marie Claire going, ‘Fuck those lefty bitches trying to make me take my weekend off to go to Calais. I’ll help people in my own way in my own time.’ I have been to some hens that are definitely worse than the Calais jungle, so for me it’s much of a muchness.
DFW: To be honest with you, if you’re going to invite me on your hen, I would like it to be a day. I don’t really want it to be a whole weekend. My hen was before I knew you, so don’t be sad.
AB: I want to superimpose myself into the photos.
DFW: I don’t really like having birthday parties, so I’m going to have a book party. Three hundred and sixty-five days have passed. Why does everyone have to come and stare at me in a pub?
AB: My birthday falls before St Patrick’s Day, and because my parties are always so big, until this year everyone has thought it was my 30th. There’s been this myth, even when I was 27, that it was my 30th; when I was 32, it was my 30th. This year, Gabby Logan came and she said, ‘Oh, you just look amazing for your birthday.’ It was the first one of mine she’d been to and I was like, ‘Thanks, Gabs.’ She said, ‘Honestly, I would never think you’re 40.’ And I replied, ‘Because I’m not 40, Gabby.’ And she’s like, ‘Don’t read your card, don’t read your card!’ It said, ‘Happy 40th Birthday, Aisling.’ It’s the one card I’ve kept from my birthday because it makes me laugh so much. In six years, I’ll give it to her to give back to me [laughter]. How did you picture your 30-year-old self when you were a teenager, Debs?
DFW: Well, I was a Jehovah’s Witness, so I would have thought I’d be what we used to call ‘serving where the need is great’. I would have been knocking on doors. So my life has changed dramatically.
AB: When did the hope kick in that you might not be doing that any more?
DFW: When I was on what we’d call a gap year, though it wasn’t called that by the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
AB: I’ll be honest, I’ve never wanted to do anything other than perform. Up to the age of five, I wanted to be a builder. My neighbour, a builder called Paddy White, would come in for a cup of tea with my mother. I’d assemble all the pillows together at interesting angles, thinking he would spot my talent at a raw young age and take me on as an apprentice.
‘Someone recently wrote to me and said, “I was going to go to Vegas on my hen do and then I heard your episode about Calais and I thought, right we’re not going to Vegas, we’re going to Calais.”‘
DFW: That’s a really young feminist aspiration, because there was no gender role model there presumably. Do you do your own DIY now?
AB: I’m not good at it but, God, I’ll give it a go. There’s not a straight photo in my house, but it hasn’t stopped me. [But] I think my teenage self would have thought I would be a lot further by now. I think I genuinely saw Hollywood, movies.
DFW: You’ve been working in America, though.
AB: Yes. Success is never going to come in the way your teenage self sees it. I remember my aunt saying, ‘Oh, you know ****** didn’t have any children till she was 30.’ And we all couldn’t believe it. [To Marie Claire] Please delete my aunt’s name or she’ll be annoyed.
DFW: Do you want to give her a fake name?
AB: No, because my aunt will be doubly annoyed if there’s a fake one. If I told my 16-year-old self that at 34 I’d have no kids and not be in a movie in America, I wouldn’t think I was still successful. [I’ve always been confident], but I’d be surprised by how long it’s taken for me to get my self-esteem together because when I was 16, I was untouchable. And slowly that wears away with all the different things that happen in your life; your self-esteem then gets pushed in different ways.
DFW: That’s interesting, but I’d like to point out you’ve got a big TV show coming out [Channel 4 comedy Happy AF]. It’s going to be revolutionary, and that’s more important than running after a guy in a movie, which is a lot of what the options are in Hollywood. It’s your own show, you’re in the driver’s seat and it’s sharing something vital about depression and anxiety from the point of view of a young woman. It’s going to speak to so many people.
AB: I hope so. I read a quote the other day that said something like, ‘Always be confident in your opinion, but never certain.’ Once you become certain of your opinion, there’s an ignorance. That’s what I love about your show, Debs, you’re confident in it, but never too certain, you want [to learn].
DFW: My new book has two chapters about confidence. Philip Kidson from The Mindful Place encouraged me to look at the roots of words. Confidence comes from the Latin confidere, which means ‘to trust’, so self-confidence is self-trust. Women often suffer from what I call ‘tribal confidence’, which is you thinking, ‘I know I’m going to be great at this’ and the tribe looks at you and goes ‘Oh, but you’re a woman. Are you going to be up to this job?’ As a teenager you thought you were great, then the world started to say, ‘The tribe doesn’t have as much confidence in you as you have in you’, so your trust in yourself erodes.
[The chat turns to comedy and feminism]
AB: I was scared for a bit by saying the word feminist because it was associated with zero craic. Like being a feminist isn’t going to be a load of fun. But painting feminism with a boring brush was a way of keeping it [down] because I want to be sexy, I want to wear nice clothes, I want men to have sex with me, I want to have sex with men […] The idea that you go, well then you can’t be a feminist, it’s like making something you want to drink not cool but you’re like, ‘It tastes really nice.’
‘Confidence comes from the Latin confidere, which means ‘to trust’, so self-confidence is just self-trust’
DFW: Do you know what I think shifted? Feminism used to be seen as standing against something, and now it’s standing for something.
AB: If you could give every woman in the world a present what would it be?
AB: A big dildo.
DFW: The ability to feel she deserves to be heard, and to know the times when she should insist, ‘You need to see me and hear me right now’, and not just respond to the tribal confidence in the room to get back in your box.
AB: I would give every woman a bubble of safety, so she can walk anywhere and not be scared… I think between the two of those gifts, we’d be feminist Santa Clauses.
Overheard by Lucy Pavia. The Guilty Feminist by Deborah Frances-White is available in hardback (£14.99, Virago). Aisling stars in The Comedy Lineup on Netflix, and her series Happy AF will air on Channel 4 early next year