Around 2.45pm every day throughout August in a tiny room at the Pleasance, Alice Roots of all-female performance group Figs in Wigs clenched a microphone between her knees and bent double to speak into it. “Someone described us as ‘very, very silly girls’” she says. “And they were being serious”. In the audience we laughed knowingly. Knowing that it happens, knowing that we’re better than that. Knowing that we would never do that, never say something like that. We get it.
But do we get it? That ‘someone' was a female journalist writing for a national newspaper. Someone who would have been seeing up to eight Edinburgh fringe performances a day. Someone who should be well aware of the waves that young women are making in this scene – someone who should get it. And she’s not the only one. Another reviewer, also female, in the same publication branded me a ‘brave girl’ in a write-up of my show 'How to achieve redemption as a Scot through the medium of Braveheart' just two days later. It was meant as a compliment; it was a nice review. But it didn’t feel like that. Because suddenly, with that one word I was brave despite my age, despite my gender. A kid making a good go of it. No longer a working artist with three years research behind my show. Just another girl who thought, perhaps misguidedly, that she had something to say. That she might be able to do this.
This year’s fringe was full of strong, smart women with something to say, and the articulacy to say it – I would suggest more than ever before – but again and again I read about these ‘girls’, and it confused me because that’s not what I saw. Whether you like the shows we make or not is irrelevant: because these women are just that – women.
And you may think I’m being picky, that surely, this doesn’t really matter. That there are bigger fish to fry, and I should take my good review graciously and be quiet, but I believe that language is important.
Britney Spears, or her songwriters, asserted that she was not a girl (though, admittedly, also not yet a woman) at the age of 20. My generation did not have this luxury. Graduating in the middle of the worst recession since the 1930s, many of us were girls for much longer than we wanted. We were shop-girls, bar-maids, wait-resses and a league of other depressingly gendered ‘smiling jobs’ that we took to pay the bills. We were also girls in the jobcentre – “you’re a smart girl! Why did you do a theatre degree?!” – and girls who had to move back in with our parents. Well I don’t want to be a girl anymore. I’m bored of smiling. Now I want to talk.
In a culture where artists can still feel like the bottom of the art-world pecking order – delicately negotiating relationships with venues that might book us and journalists that might give us a nice review – I’m worried that we’re not talking enough. And I think there are conversations we need to have.
Let’s at least start those conversations with the right word.
Rachael Clerke is a Bristol-based maker of performances, drawings, writings and films. She is one half of Clerke and Joy, and a member of Interval Collective. Her Edinburgh Fringe show 'How to achieve redemption as a Scot through the medium of Braveheart' was a recipient of the 2014 Ideastap Underbelly Award. Follow her on Twitter @rachaelclerke
Pictured: the writer dressed as a girl