Back in 2005, I was at the Edinburgh Fringe, and it was one of those mornings where we were hanging with a gang of comedians outside the Gilded Balloon as the sun was coming up, deciding where we would kick onto. I was chatting to a comedian mate of mine (a really nice guy, who is now extremely successful, and whom I had performed comedy with in the past) and he made an offhand comment about me being a “groupie”. He hadn’t intended to be offensive, but even in the haze of the moment, I was horrified. I may not have been performing at that particular festival, but I had performed at many festivals in the past. I was a comedian, and I was attending a festival with my like-minded friends. Would a male comedian, who was hanging with his comedy friends be called a groupie? Would a male comedy fan who was hanging with comedians be called a groupie?
But this idea that women are spectators, groupies, or the sideline cheersquad persists. It persists in Chris Gayle’s treatment of professional sports reporter Mel McLaughlin, it persists in “fanboys” eternal insistence that girls can’t be true music fans, or movie fans, or comic book fans, or “geeks’ in general. It persists in Jimmy Iovine claiming that women need help to find good music. Or the ever-present insistence that movies, or books, or music that are written by, or enjoyed in the majority by women, are somehow lesser. Less important. Less valid.
Women can’t be serious sports fans. Women can’t write serious literature. Women aren’t funny. Films by women will just be lightweight chick flicks. Girls are only in bands to be eye candy, they can’t really play. Stories about women are “chick’s stuff” and not worthy of male attention.
I cannot count the number of times I have been reading a historical novel, at a bar or a cafe, and I have (unsolicitedly) been asked by a man what I was reading. And when I told them, I had the eye-roll, or the “oh a chick book” shrug. As if I ever asked for their approval, or invited their opinion in the first place. But it does (anecdotally, I admit) highlight a real issue.
In fact, I challenge every single man I know to name one book – ONE BOOK – they have read that was written by a woman, had a central female protagonist, and was not written by Jane Austen or J.K. Rowling, or assigned by a school curriculum. (Remembering, of course, that J.K. Rowling specifically non-gendered her author’s name so that boys would read her books.)
One of my favourite novels, a depiction of the War of the Roses, is called The Sunne in Splendour. It was originally published with this cover:
And later republished with this one:
For years I tried to get men I knew to read this book. It is full of battles and swords, and surely enough “manly” stuff to keep them interested – as well as being a great read and incredibly well researched. And only one man I ever asked to read it did. (Thank you, Adrian.)
But now, with the surging popularity of Game of Thrones, they have re-released the novel with this cover; a not-so-subtle attempt to appeal to masculine tastes:
But is masculinity so fragile that men need a have a man-cover to read a book which inside is EXACTLY THE SAME?!
Frankly, I could go on and on about how annoying I find gendered novel covers, but that is a side issue, and just an illustration of a bigger problem. That women are not perceived as important, knowledgeable, or respected commentators, or creators of culture. We are seemingly only there to wear short skirts and cheer the boys on. We are there to laugh and smile and make men feel big, and manly, and successful about their contributions to the world. And that if we want to make our own contributions, could we just do it to the side, in the “girls” section? Where men don’t have to participate. Because god-forbid they watch or read something that’s “for girls”.
The good news is, things are changing. Hollywood, music, the games industry are all fighting what has been a systemic problem for far too long. And sure, some boys aren’t going down without a fight. But some are seeing the problem, and listening. Some are trying to help change things, and make a difference.
So I hope that from now on, when you see a girl carrying an amp into a gig, you won’t think she’s helping her boyfriend load in gear. If you see a girl at a comic book convention, you don’t assume she’s just there because she thinks Henry Cavill is hot as Superman. When you see a female sports commentator, you don’t just say she’s there for her looks. If you see a book written by a female author, you consider reading it (even if the cover is hideous). And that when you meet a girl who is into comedy, or music you recognise that she is just as valid an aficionado as you are.
And whatever you do, don’t call her a groupie.