Deborah Frances-White: The Guilty Feminist creator explains why women should be noisy and annoying

Ella Alexander
·8-min read
Photo credit: Linda Cooper
Photo credit: Linda Cooper

From Harper's BAZAAR

Five years into hosting one of the UK’s most popular feminist podcasts, Deborah Frances-White finally considers herself part of the feminist club. At the start of The Guilty Feminist, Frances-White thought the focus of the show - a comedic take on the way in which our values don’t always line up to our values - might be received frostily by purist women’s rights campaigners. She was wrong. Over 85 million downloads later, the Australian comedian is a much-loved voice among the country’s high-profile feminist campaigners.

One of her first ever confessions detailed how she ditched a women’s march to use the department store bathrooms but found herself distracted by trying out face creams. She left the shop to discover the march had disappeared. “I started The Guilty Feminist as a tentative feminist,” she says. “I didn’t know if I was allowed in the gang because of my hypocrisies, because I don’t always think the right thing. Five years on, and I feel part of the ‘we’, part of the community that can change things. I feel an important thrusting part of the ‘we’.”

What Frances-White did through the podcast was look at what it means to be a modern feminist, to reassure all women that it’s ok not be perfect – in fact, she and her guests warmly laughed at their perceived feminist failings with wit and kindness. She debunked the idea that to be a feminist you weren’t allowed to shave your legs, watch Say Yes To The Dress or enjoy Snoop Dogg. Far from being reviled for her misgivings, the comedian and writer found that women in their droves identified with her. “I thought people would tell me I was a bad feminist, but hundreds and hundreds of women came back and told me ‘I have also left a march’, some because they were tired, others because they needed the loo and others because their feet hurt or they didn’t bring a proper raincoat,” she tells us. “Most people don’t make it to the end of any march. But we never think, ‘well done me, I turned up, I was counted’. We think, ‘I’m a slacker because I left early.’ Turning up and going is the important thing.”

Photo credit: David M. Benett
Photo credit: David M. Benett

Feeling shame and embarrassment for all the ways in which we might fallen short of our values isn’t helpful, she says. An lofty moral high ground serves no one, but rather alienates the people it aims to protect. “It’s important to exfoliate guilt, laugh it off,” she urges. “The psychiatrist Felicity Waters says avoidance is the maintenance of any problem. If you avoid the problem, you maintain the problem. Either we need to look at it and laugh it off, or if it’s a bigger issue, explore that and think, ‘what’s blocking me here from being the person I want to be?’”

Frances-White was born in Australia and was adopted when she was 10 days old. Her family later became Jehovah’s Witnesses, which she has since described as a male-dominated controlling ‘cult’ and the reason she became interested in feminism. Eventually she moved to the UK to study English at Oxford where she also took up comedy. She has since turned her talents to radio, stand-up, film and activism as an Amnesty international ambassador, scooping numerous awards in the proceeds. Next up is a new book out in spring 2022, Six Conversations We’re Scared To Have, and a new Radio 4 series in which she has chosen four very different writers to explore the theme ‘The Devil You Know.’

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The idea of giving talent a prompt to get their creative juices flowing is a formula that has worked well for Frances-White before. In 2012, she used the same template, enlisting a roster of rising stars to write under the umbrella subject of ‘chancing your arm’. One of her chosen names was a then little-known writer called Phoebe Waller-Bridge. “She was producing new writing at that point, but she wasn’t performing her own,” recalls Frances-White. “She said to me, ‘it sounds like stand-up comedy.’ And I said, ‘I’ll get you a stool and you can sit down.’ She said she’d do it.”

Waller-Bridge performed the first 12 minutes of Fleabag, a show that by now needs no introduction. Frances-White urged her to turn it into something bigger and the play version was staged at Edinburgh Fringe not long after. “I am not responsible for her success,” she says firmly. “Phoebe was always going to make something equally brilliant.”

For all Frances-White’s humour and positivity, she – like the rest of us – hasn't had the easiest of years. As an extrovert, who finds energy in social interactions, she wasn’t sure how she’d get through lockdown. “I nearly fell apart,” she says of her experiences of lockdown one in March 2020. “I was so low. It was like coming off the caffeine of humanity, I felt as if I was going to die.”

Taking up morning dance lessons gave her reason to get out of bed every day. “It’s hard to dance to All That Jazz and still be as miserable as you were at the beginning of the class,” she laughs. “Some people might like to go for a run, maybe they don’t like show tunes, those people are not my natural people.”

Regardless of the challenges of the past 12 months, Frances-White is more galvanised than ever before to turn the world into a kinder, fairer place. She spoke at the digital vigil for Sarah Everard earlier this month and has been vocal about the police brutality faced by mourners at the physical event in Clapham. “Women need to come together and rise up,” she says. “If women could stop men killing us, then we would have done it now. It’s not that we’re not vigilant enough – women can be as vigilant as they like and still get killed. It’s not about what about what clothes we wear. Victorian women were killed by serial killers while they wore dresses down to their ankles. There are places in the world where women cover their bodies and their faces and they are still hurt.”

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She pauses before correcting herself. “I want to rephrase that. Women are not getting killed. Men are killing us,” she says. “Even that language is problematic – men are killing women, women aren’t being killed. This is not our fault.”

Frances-White is terrified by the government’s plans to clamp down on protests. The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill passed its second reading last week, legislation that will make non-violent protests or ‘intentionally reckless acts’ without a ‘reasonable excuse’ that cause ‘serious annoyance’ or are judged to be too ‘noisy’, punishable with a fine or up to 10 years in prison.

“Being noisy and annoying is the definition of a protest,” she says. “You are being noisy and annoying because you want to be listened to. Protests are about saying ‘hey the government or whoever it may be, you’re doing something we don’t agree with. We are your bosses because we voted you in and pay for your wages through our taxes, so we are going to tell you that you should feel uneasy about this because the people don’t want it.’"

The bill also prevents the public from protesting outside the Houses of Parliament, which Frances-White will also prove damaging. She uses the example of activist Amika George, who aged 17, staged a demonstration outside Parliament demanding that sanitary products were made free in all schools to end UK period poverty. “Because of where it was, Stella Creasy and Jess Phillips, came outside their place of work and said they’d take it on,” she says. “Amika got that law changed. Had we been protesting in Croydon those MPs wouldn’t have known and they wouldn’t have listened. Our ability to protest outside Parliament is important.”

Frances-White isn’t prepared to let our right to protest go without a fight, and is currently working on a campaign against it. “I remember Gloria Steinem talk and she said, ‘a movement has to be moving somewhere.’ There was a period of stagnation in the 90s and the 00s, but now we are moving again. Feminism today isn't just about having a hammer to knock things down, it’s about bringing bricks to build a world we do want to live in.”

Deborah Frances-White gives storytellers the prompt of The Devil You Know in her curated storytelling series for BBC Radio 4, Deborah Frances-White Introduces… Available to listen to here. Follow The Guilty Feminist on Instagram and Twitter.

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