Voices: The comedy industry is determined to silence mothers – why?
There are two areas of my life that have taught me equality still has some way to go: motherhood and the comedy industry. When you put the two together you soon realise there is still a very strong cultural pull that wants mums to be, essentially, voiceless.
Gone are the days of calling a woman hysterical and palming her off to a doctor to subside her outrage at social pressures. However, we are still in the days of dismissing a mother’s voice as whiny, naggy, dull and uninteresting.
One of the incredible things about stand-up comedy is that it is a place for all: to speak and to watch. All opinions, beliefs and quirkiness can be represented and appreciated by a crowd of people seeing themselves in our stories and jokes. Yet, even in an arena meant for all, mothers are still being shoved out of the spotlight.
I started stand-up when I was on maternity leave from teaching. I had a two-year-old and a five-month-old and I was still breastfeeding (not on stage, although that may have given me an edge). The first full hour stand-up show I ever did, I spoke about all the areas of my identity and how I failed to meet expectations. I had some lovely reviews and wonderful audiences.
However, again and again in all my feedback I was told that the topic of motherhood was not of interest, but my ethnicity was. My ethnicity is a huge part of who I am, and proud to be, and trust me being the only Arab kid in an Essex town during the time of the Gulf War definitely had its impact on me. However, let’s be very real: motherhood has too.
Motherhood changed how I was perceived by others, physically and emotionally. Having gone through such a drastic change, it was only natural that I talked about motherhood on stage. Throughout both my solo shows I often reference the different expectations placed on mothers and fathers. This has gained me a following of parents who relate to my material; men who recognise themselves in the descriptions of my husband, and women who take pleasure in hearing me say things they may not feel comfortable saying themselves.
It’s these jokes that make women in the audience nudge their partners with affiliation to my exasperation or cause men to raise their eyebrows in recognition of the woman next to them. I relish this connection with the audience, especially with the mothers.
So given this, why, as a comic, was I still told to “stay clear of motherhood material so you are more appealing”? One time I was even referred to as a “middle-aged comic” at the age of 36 because I ranted about motherhood on stage.
The sad thing is that while that is upsetting to me individually, those that will suffer most are the huge section of the UK comedy audience being ignored, most of whom are women. That’s women who earn a living, run a household, have sex lives, drink alcohol, dance on nights out, have breakdowns, laugh loudly, make mistakes, are judged for their ability to remember 37 school activities a week, are side-eyed for not ironing school uniforms, sneered at for not registering for 12 different summer holiday clubs, and who all along silently sigh at tits that now sag and a belly button that looks like a sad mouth. Why on earth is comedy not a celebratory place for these issues to be aired loud and proud?
Instead, the comedy industry has failed to shake off a very powerful anti-mother feeling in new voices. “Maybe you should establish yourself and then have kids,” they say. “But don’t call yourself new and be yapping on about motherhood: it’s uncool and it’s not fashionable, babe.” Why not everyone stick to more important topics that everyone wants to hear about like veganism, the Tories or another penis-related joke? We really need more of those!
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Being a mother has changed my entire life. It’s why I now have Tena Lady on monthly delivery. It’s the reason my husband is told he is “good” by others for looking after his own kidswhile I gig. It’s why trolls online have said my kids deserve better. It’s why I gig on two Red Bulls and a Pro Plus numerous nights a week. It’s why I am saved in other mums’ phones as “Sonny’s mum’’ rather than being acknowledged by my own name. It’s why I can tuck my tits into my knickers, and it’s why I am responsible for two human beings.
So, let me rant. if you don’t want to hear it, don’t come. I have cried with laughter at Michael McIntyre, Dara Ó Briain, Micky Flanagan, Rob Beckett, Jason Manford and Sean Lock’s descriptions of married life, kids and domestic frustrations. But I think it is valid to also presume audiences want to hear a mother’s perspective too.
Mums on the circuit should not be scorned for commenting on one of the biggest identity changes in their lives, especially when we still live in a society that sadly still has an anti-mother sentiment.
So if I want to have a comedic rant about my life while I await my Tena Lady delivery, just let me. For the sake of all mothers, let me at least try.
Esther Manito is a British-Lebanese actor, writer and stand-up comedian