Janine Liladhar
Jenny Eclair, `The Rotting Old Whore of Comedy`
A Feminist Discussion of the Politics of Stand-Up Comedy [1]



This article examines the sex difference approach to language use. Despite a number of powerful refutations of this approach, it continues to influence both academic and popular studies of not only conversational language but, also, the humorous speech styles used in stand-up comedy. One of the consequences of such studies, which associate confidence and joke-telling with men, but not women, is that stand-up comedy becomes associated with masculinity. Thus, a performance such as Jenny Eclair's Top Bitch (1995), a video recording of a live stand-up performance in which Eclair conforms to the 'masculine' conventions of the form, can be read as a transgression of femininity. Moreover, there are a number of other reasons why feminists might welcome her work. It can be interpreted as contributing to positively changing the meaning of words that are currently used against women; it fills some of the lexical gaps in the English language; and it deals explicitly with the female body and sexuality. Furthermore, if Eclair succeeds in getting men in her audience to laugh at her humour, she overturns what research has shown to be the dominant gender hierarchies within which men often direct humour at women, but the obverse rarely occurs. However, there are also are a number of reasons why feminists might not welcome her work. Any gender hierarchy reversal she achieves is merely temporary, lasting only as long as the performance. Furthermore, if it establishes the stand-up routine as the appropriate place for such reversals, it may establish itself as the only arena in which this can occur. Moreover, there is a problem about audience response, since any audience members with misogynist and anti-feminist 'knowledge' may read her performance in sexist ways and this reading may subsequently reinforce their sexism. In the light of both the positive and negative aspects of Top Bitch the article concludes that it can be read as a paradoxical contribution to and a negation of feminist politics.

Author Details

Janine Liladhar is an associate lecturer with the Open University and is currently completing her Ph.D. at Sheffield Hallam University, under the supervision of Sara Mills. Her work is concerned with two main areas: feminist textual analysis and 'mixed race' families and she has published in Feminism and Psychology, Journal of Gender Studies, Women's Studies International Forum and Women's History Review (the latter two pieces being co-authored with Evelyn Kerslake). She has also written the entry on "Feminist Criticism" in Fitzroy Dearborn's new Encyclopaedia of Literary Critics and Criticism (Murray, 1999).


female speech styles; expletives; sexuality; carnivalesque; hierarchies; destabilisation; reader response theory.

'Female' Speech Styles

Some women have used the arena of stand-up comedy to behave as they cannot easily do elsewhere, using it as a site for transgressing so-called feminine speech styles and for talking about sexuality in a public forum. In this paper I explore both of these potentially feminist aspects of Jenny Eclair's work with specific reference to the video recording of her stage show Top Bitch (1995). I also compare her work to that of two other female stand-up comedians to consider the ways in which she sets a precedent in the form. However, I do not advocate a simple, celebratory interpretation of her performance. Rather, I reveal the ways in which her work may be open to both feminist and anti-feminist readings. In order to contextuale a feminist reading, which focuses on language use and speech styles, I begin by considering the debates about gendered speech styles.

As Sara Mills has identified, many feminist sociolinguists, influenced by the work of Robin Lakoff (1975), have contended that certain features are to be found in greater quantities in women's speech than in men's (Mills, 1992: 4). Mary Crawford summarises these features as: `specialised vocabulary'; `mild' forms of expletives; 'empty adjectives'; 'tag questions'; and `a wider range of pitch and intonation' (than men). Furthermore, they include, 'superpolite' forms or `compounded and indirect request forms... [and] other excessively polite and euphemistic language'; `hedges'; `hypercorrect grammar', an avoidance of `vulgar or coarse' terms and a use of `precise pronunciation'. Finally, these features include an inability to either tell or `get' jokes (Crawford, 1994: 2-5). I discuss the terms in which the cumulative effect of all of these features has been explained shortly. However, here I discuss the second feature, that women use milder expletives than men, in more detail since the use of `strong' expletives is an integral part of Eclair's act.

In her discussion of gender and expletives, Jane Mills sees femininity as a discourse which `functions as a strong mechanism of social control', influencing women to be `nice' and 'ladylike' and to `carefully monitor their language and behaviour` (Mills, 1991: 90). She argues that the expression, `to swear like a fishwife', indicates the extent to which `speech is integrated into a basic notion of femininity' since, although it can only be used when women transgress the social norms, yet it attempts to stifle such transgressions in the future. Although I will argue that the discourse is neither as prescriptive as Jane Mills suggests, her contention does indicate that Lakoff's argument is part of a wider discourse around women and language: not only is there an expectation that women should and do use milder expletives than men but when that expectation is confounded, femininity is transgressed and censure may follow. Thus, as my later discussion of Eclair indicates, any feminist celebration of such transgressions needs to be moderated by an understanding that there may be adverse implications for the individual woman, or even for other women or groups of women, from such transgressions.

The use of mild expletives combined with all of the other features that Lakoff claimed constituted a women's speech style were seen by her as having a largely negative effect giving `the impression that female speakers were tactful and polite but also hesitant and lacking in authority' (Swann, 1992: 60). However, this and subsequent assertions that women use a `powerless' speech style have not gone unchallenged (Crawford, 1994: 25). Feminist linguistics has developed considerably in recent years and many theorists have supplied powerful counter-arguments (see, for example, Mills,1992; Swann, 1992; Crawford, 1994; Bergvall, Bing and Freed eds.1996). One problem which has been identified with Lakoff's work is that the features she identifies are characteristic of feminine speech rather than female speech: in other words they are stereotypes of what women's speech is supposed to be, as indeed is implicit in Jane Mills' discussion of swearing, cited above. Yet, although contemporary stereotypes of femininity influence women's speech, other influences also play a role since `despite the constraints of femininity, many women express themselves competently in speech... they judge the type of language behaviour that is appropriate to a context, varying their speech in terms of their audience and in terms of their own needs' (Mills, 1992: 13).

However, despite such challenges `sex difference has remained a dominant framework for research and theory on gender and language' (Crawford, 1994: 4). This continuing influence is apparent in academic studies, for example, Goodman (1992), which I discuss shortly; and more popular work, such as, Gray (1992). Many of these sex difference texts are eagerly read and accepted as 'truth' rather than just research: `people believe in sex differences... when it comes to communication, Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus' (Crawford, 1994: 1). Moreover, whereas Lakoff's work is primarily concerned with everyday conversation, a context that is very different in its purposes and style to stand-up comedy, yet her work has been applied to this area, both by academics and comedians. I now explore two such occurrences: one in a popular form; and one in an academic text book. I argue that the sex difference approach is manifested in both of these, since both associate formula jokes with male performers and narrative comedy with female performers. I begin by discussing the TV programme which was part of the BBC2 series, A History of Alternative Comedy (January 1992) [2]. The episode in question was entitled, 'I need a woman or a juggler' [3].

Gendering The Joke

Much of the programme `I need a woman or a juggler' dwelt on the subject of joke-telling and some commentators suggested that women were less likely to tell jokes than men. For example, although Morwenna Banks stated that `it's impossible to say whether women have a different approach to comedy than men. Everybody has an individual approach to comedy', she then went on to gender joke-telling, of the past at least, by suggesting that,

[h]istorically, women tended to do more kind of character-based, observational material, whilst (um) men were more likely to do sort of standard traditional jokes. In a way, a woman coming on and doing a character, putting her comedy in the mouth of somebody else, as it were, was somehow more acceptable than saying, 'This is what I am, this is what I do' (A History of Alternative Comedy, January 1999).

Donna McPhail's comments broadened this historical association of the joke with masculinity to encompass the contemporary world of stand-up comedy since she suggests that,

'cause, like, men, like to get to the point, know what I mean? They do the set up, they do the punchline, thank you very much, and off they pop, you know, to bed, whatever, and women like to go round the houses. So, they've got this set up line and they've got the punchline over here and they like to take a little A-road, 'Ooh, and which reminds me'.

Thus, not only does she associate the joke with masculinity but she also associates a more indirect style of comedy with femininity. Jenny Eclair also appeared in this programme and she broadens McPhail's suggestions further to argue that not only female comics, but also women more generally, are less likely to tell jokes and more likely to use an indirect humour style. Eclair argues,

if there's a load of women at the bus stop, they're less likely to tell a joke than tell somebody that they've just had a hysterectomy. Women tend to go for that sort of (...) they (...) it all comes from the gut. We spill our guts. We're really messy people .

Whilst Arthur Smith, who appears later in the programme, does not state that women are less likely to use jokes in their acts than men, he also present jokes as masculine, albeit implicitly. This occurs when he repeats `a theory... that was current in the 80s`, that theory being that `a joke (er), a one-liner, re-enacts a male orgasm'.

In summary, as is apparent from the comments of Banks, McPhail, Eclair and Smith, the programme `I need a woman or a juggler` tended to associate one particular element of the genre with masculinity: the joke. This process was effected by a number of commentators on the programme who distanced women, both comedians and others, from joke-telling and, moreover, associated women with a more diffuse, narrative style of humour. A similar perspective is also manifested in Lizbeth Goodman's (1992) work on gender and humour. Goodman claims that `one significant contribution of women's comedy has been a shift in the form of the medium: from jokes with punchlines to other forms` specifically `narrative situational comedy` (Goodman, 1992: 295). Narrative situational comedy is described as including,

a punchline of sorts... but the lead-up is not contained in one feed line; rather, it is spread over a series of lines with subordinate punchlines building towards the 'climax'. The humour is diffused over the situation, rather than contained in a single phrase.

Although Goodman offers no explicit definition of the joke, it is implicitly defined since it is characterised by the features that are lacking from narrative situational comedy: the joke has a punchline, a single feed line and its humour is contained in a single phrase. [4] Goodman cautiously notes that narrative situational comedy is only `a general characteristic of much women's comedy' (Goodman, 1992: 295, emphasis added). However, this caution is undermined by other aspects of the chapter which implicitly suggest that narrative situational comedy is characteristic of all women's comedy. This suggestion is made in several ways. Firstly, not only are jokes and narrative situational comedy constructed as oppositional, the former is associated with masculinity and the latter with femininity. Not only does Goodman contend that `joke telling is still a predominantly male form; joke telling is still less 'typical' for women as comediennes'; but, also, one of the sections of the article is called, 'Female forms: rejecting the joke' (Goodman, 1992: 298-9 and 294, emphasis added). Thus, whilst overtly it is merely stated that it is less `typical` for female comedians to tell jokes, implicitly there is a suggestion that they never tell them. Moreover, this suggestion is supported by 'evidence' from women who work in stand-up comedy, including Helen Lederer, who describes her own act as `rambling on'; comedy duo Donna and Kebab who explain that their act contains `few` jokes since `it's mainly observational humour'; and Sue Ryding, of the comedy duo Lip Service, who says `that women do tend to take the essence of a situation and tell it in a more subtle way [than men]` (all in Goodman, 1992: 295).[5]

In summary, both the TV programme on alternative comedy and the academic work explored here associate the use of formula jokes with male performers and the use of narrative comedy with female performers. Later, I return to the theme of joke-telling and then consider how this can be used both by and against women. However, before doing so, I now outline the elements of Top Bitch that are most significant for this discussion.

Top Bitch

In Top Bitch Eclair follows the conventions of stand-up comedy. This type of performance is associated with a masculinity, since the language used - particularly swearing, joke-telling and a confident delivery - are themselves aligned with masculinity in a range of works, both scholarly and popular. In adhering to these 'masculine' conventions Eclair transgresses femininity in four main ways. Firstly, she uses 'strong' expletives. In the course of the sixty minute show she says bastard, once; bollocks, three times; bitch, five times; crap seven times; fart, eight times; piss, ten times; arse, eleven times; shit fourteen times; cunt, seventeen times; and fuck, forty-one times [6]. In total, she uses one hundred and seventeen expletives, thus swearing approximately twice a minute. Secondly, Eclair eschews excessively polite and euphemistic language, since she makes use of words such as prick, slag, slut, snatch and fanny. Thirdly, although Eclair does use a diffuse narrative style at times, she also tells formula jokes. Moreover, these jokes are told with a very fast delivery and with a great deal of confidence. Thus, Eclair does not give the impression that she is a woman who is `tactful and polite but also hesitant and lacking in authority'. However, as I stated earlier, Eclair's performance does not only transgress femininity by her eschewal of the so-called feminine speech styles, she also does so by talking about sexuality in a public forum. Before questioning to what extent both of these transgressions may be something for feminists to celebrate, I explore the ways in which Eclair's public discussion of sexuality is distinct from earlier such discussions by female comedians.

Talking about sexuality...

It is not unprecedented for women stand-up comedians to talk about sexuality. For example, Marie Lloyd's (1870-1922) music hall act made great use of sexual innuendo. During one performance she is reputed to have found a banana skin on stage and offered the aside to the audience `If the man who threw this wants to get his skin back he can come to my dressing room afterwards' (Banks and Swift, 1987: 8). More recently, in her 1980s club act, Ellie Laine exposed sex `in graphic and earthy detail, as a laughable activity', as in her joke `He said: 'If I'd known you were a virgin I'd've taken more time.' I said: 'If I'd known you had more time I'd've taken my tights off'` (Banks and Swift, 1987: 9 and 10). In 1995 Jenny Eclair began her stage show by saying `Here I am! Here I am! The rotting, rotting old whore of comedy. Good to be here. I came on the train - I think I managed to pass it off as an asthma attack'.

In many ways, this opening gag can be seen as succeeding Marie Lloyd and Ellie Laine: Eclair, too, is a woman discussing sex in the public arena of stand-up comedy. However, Marie Lloyd was the mistress of innuendo: `the sexual connotations of her act were never explicitly stated but, through innuendo, were strongly implied' (Banks and Swift, 1987: 8). And although Ellie Laine talked about sex `in graphic and earthy detail`, yet she also diffused `the potential shock at her gags by laughing herself`; a tactic which Eclair does not usually use (Banks and Swift, 1987: 11). Furthermore, although it could be argued that Lloyd's and Laine's appearances both connote or signify their sexuality through the revealing costumes worn, Eclair is the only one who explicitly describes herself as sexually permissive. She says she is, amongst other things: `widely available for gang bangs`; `a bit of a spunk bucket`; and a `loud mouth blonde who has fucked her cousin in a doorway`. She goes on to explain that as a `blonde by choice` she is making a statement `and that statement is 'I can't cook, can't type, couldn't give a shit but I'm a great shag and you can find me in the dark'.

In many ways Eclair's performance can be seen as open to positive interpretation by feminists. Firstly, she can be seen as part of the movement to rehabilitate words that are currently used to describe women negatively. For example, this has been one of the intentions of Jane Mills' (1991) feminist dictionary Womanwords which has noted that, in their original use, many such terms were not derogatory. When Eclair describes herself as a `whore` this is done, not with shame, but a gleeful delight. Secondly, Eclair's work can be seen to fill `lexical gaps' as revealed by Joan Swann who draws attention to `the absence of a feminine equivalent to virility` (Swann, 1992: 57); and Jane Mills who notes that `the English language has no word to name the female experience of penetration' (Mills, 1991: xv). Some feminists have tried to fill these lexical gaps (for example, see Daly,1979) and Eclair's use of the term 'wide-on', as a female alternative for the phallocentric 'hard-on' or 'horny', can be seen as serving the same agenda. The final way in which Eclair's performance can be seen as open to positive interpretation by feminists is that she talks explicitly about the female body in relation to other experiences besides sexuality, ranging from body-piercing and ageing through to childbirth and menstruation. For example, as in this following short transcribed extract:

I'm not going to have any more kids 'cause childbirth, ladies and gentlemen, childbirth ruins your body. I am just a shambles from the waist down. I'll tell you the bit that really hurt me about having a baby, the bit that really made my eyes water, was when the midwife referred to my vagina as 'the birth canal'. Canal? It's not that big. Well, it wasn't until this baby shoved her great, fat head down it. Now it's gone like a woolly in the wash: it's all baggy round the neck. I don't use tampons anymore, I just roll up the duvet. If they really wanted to lower the number of teenage pregnancies, they should hire me to tour secondary schools, flashing my gams: 'Look at this girls! This is your future!' That'd put the silly slags off sex for the rest of their lives. And they'd never eat chopped liver again.

This extract not only talks about the parts of women's bodies and experiences that are usually not discussed, or if discussed shrouded in euphemism, in phrases such as `down there` and `women's problems`, but also critiques that euphemistic tendency.

Despite the fact that Eclair is, for me, very funny, and despite the potential of a positive feminist reading of her work, I believe that there are also some difficulties with her performance if read from a feminist perspective. I now identify these problems by drawing on two different theoretical approaches: the Bakhtinian notion of the carnivalesque as modified by Lynne Pearce, 1994; and a form of reader response theory utilised by Chris Christie,1994.

The Carnivalesque

As Pearce explains, the term carnivalesque was coined by Mikhail Bakhtin for whom it is a literary phenomenon. However, its emphasis on both humour and the destabilisation of hierarchies means that it is also highly pertinent for women performing stand-up. The concept of the carnivalesque has its origins in actual carnival, the main properties of which include `eccentricity, laughter, parody [and] profanation'. (Pearce, 1994: 49) `Its special political significance was the way that it temporarily suspended and upturned the orthodox hierarchy' (Pearce, 1994: 55). Bakhtin suggests that whereas `rank was especially evident during official feasts', when privileges and deference were accorded to those with the highest rank,

all were considered equal during carnival... a special form of free and familiar contract reigned among people who were usually divided by the barriers of caste, property, profession, and age... This temporary suspension, both real and ideal, of hierarchical rank created... a special type of communication impossible in everyday life. This led to the creation of special kinds of marketplace speech and gesture, frank and free, permitting no distance between those who came into contact with each other and liberating from norms of etiquette and decency imposed at other times (Bakhtin, 1965 cited in Pearce, 1994: 10).

Despite Bakhtin's omission of gender from his list of inequalities, some feminists, such as Pearce, have productively used his work in explorations of gender and literary texts and here I suggest that his notion of the carnivalesque is also helpful in exploring Eclair's work. The transcribed extract above from Éclair shares the properties of carnival: it is `frank and free`, `liberated from norms of etiquette and decency` in its detailed, exaggerated, even surreal references to the (supposed) impacts that childbirth has had on the speaker's body: `ruin[ing]` her vagina by turning into a `shambles`, or `canal` which resembles `a woolly in the wash`. Moreover, as a woman performing stand-up comedy, Eclair achieves a temporary reversal of gender hierarchy which associates stand-up, and its financial rewards and 'celebrity' status with masculinity. Moreover, she secures the more abstract privileges and deference which are given to men making humorous remarks but which are rarely awarded to women who make similar remarks, as is indicated the findings of a number of pieces of research. For example, Ruth Laub Coser ,1960, studied joke-telling in a psychiatric work group at staff meetings and observes that although female staff members did demonstrate humour they also deferred to their male colleagues, who made ninety-nine out of one hundred and three witticisms. She concludes `humour followed the staff hierarchy... with those at the top making more humour and directing it downward. Men made more jokes; women laughed harder' (cited in Crawford, 1994: 144). More recently Franca Pizzini's analysis of humour generated in conversations surrounding childbirth made similar observations, commenting, that although nurses joked among themselves, they rarely made jokes when doctors were present. Moreover, `on the rare occasions when humorously intended remarks were initiated by someone low on the hierarchy, the intended recipients 'let them fall in silence without laughing, thus preventing the humour attempt from disrupting the status quo' (Pizzini, 1991: 482 in Crawford, 1994: 144).

In both of these examples, gender hierarchy has been confounded with the workplace hierarchies of rank and status. However, a useful way of considering how gender hierarchy is reflected in humour when other hierarchies are less salient is by an examination of informal sexual humour. Mary Crawford argues that `the assumptions underlying men's sexual humour, and the ways in which it represents male-female relationships, may function both to express male dominance and to support and strengthen it' (Crawford, 1994: 144/5). Feminist scholars have critiqued a number of formulaic jokes based on such principles including Mills,1995 in her discussion of 'Essex girl jokes'; and Crawford ,1994 in her examination of the 'beer is better than women' one-liners. Such studies make it clear that in men's dirty jokes the male voice always prevails over the female `it is not only women's bodies and services that are at men's disposal, but also women's language' (Mulkay, 1988 in Crawford, 1994: 145). [7]

However, this principle, that women's bodies, services and language are at men's disposal, does not only operate in such formula jokes, but also in a use of 'humour' by some men against some women, or groups of women. Crawford cites Mulkay's discussion of a study of cocktail waitresses to illustrate that humour in conversation is sometimes used by men to `silence women, negate their personhood, and maintain conversational control' (Crawford, 1994: 145). In this study the cocktail servers were all women, the bartenders all men. The bartenders, `had legitimate authority over the waitresses' and one way in which they exercised their control and maintained their authority was through 'humour'. For example, if a waitress made a mistake with a customer's order `[t]hey made fun of the women's bodies with remarks like, 'It'd look better if you had some tits. Who wants to pull down a zipper just to see two fried eggs thrown against a wall?' (ibid.). For these women this 'humour' was a source of frustration since they perceived that they had much less latitude in what they could say: as one of them commented, 'There's no way we can get them back... The only way to get them back is to get on their level and you can't do that. You can't counter with some remark about the size of his penis or something without making yourself look really cheap' (Mulkay, 1988: 145 in Crawford, 1994: 146).

Since Jenny Eclair is able to give voice to what this woman is unable to say, her performance can be interpreted as a political statement. In defying the social convention identified by Coser, Pizzini et al that, 'Men made more jokes; women laughed harder' Eclair's show overturns the established gender hierarchy which had the men at the top making more humour and directing it downward to the women. However, there are problems with this suggestion. Firstly, as with the carnival, so with Eclair's show: the suspension of hierarchical rank achieved in both situations is temporary. Once the carnival or the show is over, the status quo remains intact. It may have been challenged and therefore become less monolithic, yet it does still remain, if not omnipotent, yet still potent. Indeed it is even possible that by creating one particular place where the hierarchies are suspended, this might be seen to imply that this is the only appropriate place for such a suspension. In other words, it could suggest that stand-up is the sole permissible arena in which women may achieve this destabilisation. Bakhtin phrases it more strongly in arguing that carnival time enables `a special type of communication impossible in everyday life'. His assertion is to some extent supported by the words of the unnamed waitress in Mulkay's study. At least for this one woman, an attempt to use carnival humour in her everyday life to disrupt the gendered workplace hierarchy is, indeed, impossible. Further problems for feminists with Eclair's work can be revealed by bringing a form of reader-response theory to a consideration of her work.

Reader Response Theory

I have already implicitly begun to discuss the idea of reader response theory in connection with Eclair's performance by suggesting several positive interpretations of her work that feminists might make. I now explicitly theorise this approach and further develop it to argue that her work is also potentially problematic for feminists because of the ways that other groups, including anti-feminists, may interpret it. In order to do this I draw on work by Chris Christie,1994 who, along with many other theorists, argues that texts are clearly polysemic, that is, capable of generating a range of meanings. However, Christie's work is unusual in that she then argues that what is less clear is exactly which range of meanings will be inferred from any one text, since the features of a text are `just one piece of evidence amongst many that a reader uses in producing an interpretation' (Christie, 1994: 63). In other words, Christie argues that extra-textual features also shape a reader's interpretation of the text. These features may include not only the reader's existing knowledge but also her assumptions about the intentions of the speaker: `in interpreting a text the reader makes inferences (i.e. a series of logical deductions) based on a selection from the available evidence' (ibid.). Consequently, communication is an uncertain process, particularly in situations where the reader `cannot provide verifiable proof' that her interpretation is `that which the speaker intends' (ibid.).

Thus, although I have argued that many positive interpretations can be made of Eclair's performance, other interpretations, which feminists could find at best negative, at worst offensive, are also possible. For example, in interpreting Eclair's act members of the audience who are either unaware or contemptuous of discourses of feminism might use a dominant discourse of femininity in interpreting Eclair's performance. So, the 'knowledge' that they use to interpret her act is a stereotyped definition of femininity. Thus, some members of her audience might be shocked by her 'unfeminine' use of strong expletives, as Eclair herself acknowledged in a recent interview with The Sunday Times Magazine (19th October, 1997). Others may be shocked by her apparent definition of herself as sexually permissive. When Eclair uses the slogan `slags unite` members of the audience may interpret this through their knowledge of sexist discourses around female sexuality and condemn, judge and despise her portrayal. This would lead to the performance serving as a reinforcement of their own misogynist ideas or double standards on sexuality. Those who dismiss her as a `slag` will be unlikely to be open to any political interpretation of the act such as I suggested earlier. Furthermore, others may be concerned that her use of 'slags' in this way serves to perpetuate the hierarchical binaries that operate around female sexuality (such as, madonna/whore). Moreover, whilst I have suggested that within carnivalesque terms the description of the vagina as a `shambles`, or `canal` which resembles `a woolly in the wash` can be interpreted as `frank and free` and `liberated from norms of etiquette and decency`, yet it can also be read as reinforcing a misogynist notion that women's bodies are there solely for male sexual gratification and any process that is seen as limiting the potential for such gratification is undesirable. Additionally, if Eclair is defined as working within a carnivalesque format, then she is establishing herself as a figure of fun, since `'Carnival laughter'... is... a dialogic laughter in that it mocks the begetter as well as the object of the ridicule` (Pearce, 1994: 56). Thus some, it could be argued, will read her not only as someone whose sexuality puts her beyond the pale but, also, as someone who is not to be taken seriously.

A further problem with Eclair's work is connected with the ways in which she talks both to and about other women. Since Eclair addresses the women in the audience directly in such ways as `What do we want girls? Fat cock! Fat wallet!' , she assumes an unproblematised heterosexual identity for not only herself but also for her audience members, and thus implicitly rejects or excludes lesbian women. Moreover, this use of directed address also identifies or positions the women in the audience as she has positioned herself: in other words, as `slags`. Furthermore, her description of teenage girls as `silly slags` means that she is broadening the definition of `slags' to include not only herself and the women in her audience but also other women beyond her audience. Additionally, she talks about other well-known women in disparaging terms, describing Paula Yates, for example, as a `super slut and crap mother'. By identifying two disparate groups of women (teenage mums and celebrities) as `slags` and `sluts`, there is an implicit suggestion that, perhaps, all women are sexually permissive. Thus, some members of the audience could use their knowledge from 'dirty jokes' that `all women are sexually available to all men even when they pretend not to be' in interpreting these particular phrases of her act. So, although in asserting her sexuality Eclair appears to be in a position of strength, within terms defined by many men (and some women) to be a `slag` is not a position of strength and, thus, the position which she has taken up undermines itself. This positioning is also the one in which she has placed other women, whether they wish to take it up or not, since Eclair has defined them, too, as `slags`.


In conclusion, I suggest that there is much pleasure that feminists can take from watching Jenny Eclair's performance in Top Bitch. She confounds the stereotyped notions of femininity by her use of strong expletives and other 'impolite' language and by telling jokes well and with confidence. Additionally, whether intentionally or not, much of Eclair's material works towards feminist agendas: she can be seen as part of the movement to rehabilitate words that are currently used to describe women negatively; she is providing terminology which can fill some of the lexical gaps in the English language; and she talks explicitly about the female body and sexuality. Furthermore, as a woman performing comedy, if she succeeds in getting men in her audience to laugh at her humour, she overturns existing gender hierarchies. However, any such reversal is only temporary and ends when the show ends. If her performance has a longer lasting impact, it can only serve to erode patriarchal institutions, not dismantle them. That is not to say that any erosions are not welcome but rather that the potential impact of her act needs to be seen in perspective without over-stressing its political potential. Furthermore, if her performance establishes the stand-up routine as the appropriate place for the destabilisation of gender hierarchies, it may serve to preclude attempts to achieve a similar destabilisation in other arenas, such as the workplace, much as the 'disordered' behaviour of the carnival served to reinforce the 'ordered' behaviour of the rest of the year. Additionally, some audience members will bring a certain amount of misogynist and anti-feminist 'knowledge' to their interpretation of her act and so may read her performance in sexist ways. This reading then in turn may serve to reinforce their sexism. In conclusion, there is the potential for feminists to make a political reading of Top Bitch and yet a number of factors serve to undermine this. Consequently, for this particular feminist, ambivalence remains the dominant response to Top Bitch.


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Gray, J. [1992] Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus, Harper Collins, New York.

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Mills, J. [1991] Womanwords, Virago, London (F. pub. 1989).

Mills, S. [1992] 'Discourse Competence: Or How to Theorise Strong Women Speakers', pp. 4-11, in Hypatia, 2/7.

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Mills, S. [1995] Feminist Stylistics, Routledge, London.

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The Sunday Times Magazine, 19th October, 1997.


1. This article was developed from a conference paper originally given at `Women Behaving Badly`, Nene College, Northampton, 15th November 1997. My thanks go to all of the women there whose questions and comments assisted this development. My thanks also go to Sara Mills for her invaluable assistance in this process. Finally, thanks are due to the anonymous referees of this journal for their constructive suggestions. [Back]

2. 'Alternative' comedy is so called since it positions itself as an alternative to much of the earlier stand-up comedy which relied on racism, sexism and homophobia. [Back]

3. This title was taken from an interview with Hattie Hayridge where she recalls how, when she began her career. [Back]

4. Women comics were kind of put in this category of speciality acts really, cos there were so few of them and [er] cos they were thought of like 'Ooh!' You were like given the idea of a visual act- it didn't matter what you said, people would stare at you. So, [er] you'd get 'phoned up and they'd say [er], 'Can you do this night? Cos I've got three comics and I either need a woman or a juggler' (A History of Alternative Comedy, January 1999) [Back]

5. Donna in Donna and Kebab is Donna McPhail who now appears solo and was quoted in the earlier discussion of A History of Alternative Comedy.[Back]

6. Each word may have been used in different forms, for example, fuck was used in the forms, fuck, fucks, fucked, fucking, finger-fucked and mother-fucker. [Back]

7. This is not to suggest that only men circulate such jokes. Groups of women also ciruclate jokes about men, particularly on the themes of men's inability to satisfy women sexually and men's general unreliability and boorishness. These include those formulaic jokes that can be interpreted as a female equivalent to the 'why-beer-is better-than-women' jokes, the 'why-cucumbers-are-better-than-men' jokes, for example: `cucumbers stay hard for a week`; `a cucumber won't tell other cucumbers you aren't a virgin any more`; `a cucumber won't eat all your food, drink all your beer, go home and leave you in the lurch`; and `you don't have to wait until half time to talk to your cucumber` (URL http://www.netcomuk.co.uk/~davidw1/cucumber. html, June 1999). [Back]