This is something that is outrageously common when reading any interview with a female comedian. But why are we so intent on asking that question? In most circumstances, we don’t even really want to know the answer but ask it as a rite of passage. It’s as if we feel compelled to address the so-called elephant in the room and remind ourselves that to be a successful female in any industry is just not that common. But maybe the best way to approach the disparity is first off, to stop treating women’s experiences differently.
“You would never ask that question to a straight white male, they just get to be a person,” says comedian Sofie Hagen, who despite getting riled up where it matters is nothing but a ray of sunshine in chilly Brighton, even though suffering from a cold. Feminism and being a woman in comedy is not a new topic for Hagen, who, being one-half of The Guilty Feminist podcast alongside Deborah Frances-White, is seen as something of a hero amongst avid listeners. But though being a proud feminist is important to her, it shouldn’t be the be-all and end-all of her comedy, it’s just the lack of women on stage that makes people think they have the right to comment on her material in that way.
She recalls to me an experience in Latvia, where being one of the first standups to do a show there, no one saw her as abnormal as there wasn’t a societal construct to suggest that women aren’t normally on stage. “I want people to see me as a comedian and I don’t want them to be afraid of laughing at me just because I’m a woman.” To be seen as someone whose prime focus is to make you laugh is the most important thing and it seems, quite often, audiences forget that. “I do think it’s important for audiences to understand they’re being slightly condescending if someone on stage is making a joke and they feel like they need to pity instead of laugh.”
Hagen has never been one to play by the rules, but rather define them, something she intends to do with her new show Shimmer Shatter. A prone sufferer of anxiety, she’s made it her main aim to make her shows safe spaces for the nervous – a priority due to her own experiences. “I have a lot of anxiety and when I go to comedy shows, there are a lot of things that scare me like where I’m going to be seated, and if there was a way that I could choose where I wanted to sit that would make the whole thing so much better.” As part of the tour, Hagen has advised anyone with worries about sitting in a room surrounded by strangers to email her directly, and she will do what she can in terms of their seating arrangements. “It could be anything; if you need to stand at the back or sit in an aisle, whatever you need! I’ll figure it out and try and let the people get what they want. I’m also trying to have gender neutral toilets.”
Removing the stigma associated with mental health is a strenuous, enduring battle, and it’s not just Hagen who is recognising the need to speak out loud about these issues. Take Felicity Ward’s self-assurance at discussing the link between anxiety and bowel movements, plus Richard Gadd’s award-winning Edinburgh show on masculinity and mental health, for example. You may even think that in 2016 depression is no longer a taboo subject, but in reality there’s a lot more to do, and we need to start with talking about it and being accepting, that’s just one tiny step on the way to normalising anxiety. “Once I’ve done a gig and I’ve spoken about my mental health issues, if afterwards someone comes up to me and tells me that it’s made some sort of difference, that’s what signifies to me that my experiences have happened for a reason. And through the medium of comedy they’re helping other people, that’s cathartic”
It’s easy to admire Hagen as she exudes confidence and charm on stage; her easy-going attitude and straight-talking, friendly humour resonates with almost every crowd she encounters, with not a shake or stutter in sight. “The stage is the one place where I feel no anxiety at all – the stage is my safe space I feel calm, at home,” Sofie tells me. But this doesn’t extend to all aspects of day-to-day life. “Transportation especially, I’m very very bad at trains, tubes and buses in London [they] are so crowded, in hindsight maybe London isn’t the best place in the world for me to live! I probably wouldn’t live there if it wasn’t for comedy.”
I’m not the only one in awe by her obvious talent, the excitement surrounding [Shimmer Shatter] continues to build, even selling out Brighton’s Komedia date. But despite all the hype, she claims that she still hasn’t made it, and nor does she plan to. “I think that if I did I would have failed in some way, if I wanted an end goal I would have gone into another career, into a 9-5 job where I could measure success and performance, but to me, comedy isn’t about that, it’s constantly growing and always going, so I hope I never feel like I’ve made it.” Even with new opportunities on the horizon, Hagen will always stay true to her funny roots. She’s got her fingers in pies all over the shop, but being on stage is where she feels most at home, and if her growing success and friendly attitude is anything to go by, I have no doubt that she’ll be creaking the floorboards of the stage for a long time to come.