Back in the 70’s, Robin Lakoff released a theory about gendered language, one of the main points being that women and men have completely different speech patterns and that ultimately this leads to complete failure in female comedy. This absurd idea came with absolutely no evidence and was pretty quickly disregarded as sexist nonsense, which I thought was the resounding opinion - until I had the misfortune of reading George Ruskin’s piece for Inter:Mission.
Ruskin was reviewing the one-night-only production of ‘Keeping up with Bristol Improv,’ a performance in the Pegg Theatre in which students improvised a narrative. I must stress to you that the point of improvisation is that the actors - as much as the audience - do not know what to expect. Yet, apparently, this needs saying, as Ruskin seems bizarrely unaware of precisely what he was reviewing. He laments the ‘hackneyed choice’ of a beauty pageant and the stereotypical character choices; he was upset about the lack of ‘wholistic, multi-faceted’ stage personalities (it seems he had swallowed a thesaurus prior to the composition of his masterpiece). However, it was made abundantly clear at the opening of the performance that the theme of a ‘Charity Watford Beauty Pageant’ was plucked from a hat full to the brim with other equally tickling anonymous audience suggestions. Apparently Ruskin missed this very obvious fact. Furthermore, after doing about two minutes of research on the subject of improvised theatre, I have found that the use of caricatures in performance is a common, and highly successful trope of comedy.
To quote Ruskin’s namesake, ‘to banish imperfection is to destroy expression’. The performance may have been a little unrefined, but I cannot stress enough that it was improvised ; who has ever had a good time whilst striving to be pin-neat-perfect? The production was never meant to be an academic piece: the title is literally a pun on a reality television show. It seems that Keith Johnstone, the teacher and author of two notable books on improvisational theatre, was right when he theorised that education has ruined our ability to enjoy and engage with art. Thesaurus-happy Ruskin seems inexplicably hell-bent on criticising what seems to have been a perfectly enjoyable show.
As far as I am aware, a successful comedic performance is one which makes the audience laugh. From Ruskin’s article I can glean two things: it was a comedic narrative, and it made people laugh. How then, one asks oneself, could it not be considered a success? As it was the first time that the cast consisted entirely of women and other oppressed genders, so it would appear that Ruskin seems to have accidentally outed himself as a sexist.
Ruskin is vehemently upset that these women did not provide a thoroughly groundbreaking performance (a ‘revolution’ in fact), which is completely misguided, as nowhere was there any advertisement of such. Ruskin has simply further marginalised these women and other oppressed genders by expecting a new level of excellence which isn’t expected of men. To acknowledge the audience’s laughter and then slander the performance based solely on the gender of the actors is unacceptable. I myself am ‘bitterly disappointed’ that a young academic cannot grasp the notion of equality between all genders, and instead just resorts to the sexism of days gone by.
The thought that men still hold women accountable for wrongdoing purely due to their gender is maddening. I don’t want this damning, sexist article to receive any more traction, but conversely it is absolutely necessary that we shed a light on this blatant sexism in order to rise above it, and not be walked all over anymore. Had Ruskin demonstrated the grace and decency to understand that some opinions differ from his own, perhaps this review would not have upset me so much. But Ruskin has labelled the audience as ‘gracious’ for laughing at the women, presuming they all pitied the cast, which is absurd. Is it so difficult to believe that the laughing audience were enjoying themselves? They don’t somehow owe it to the cast to laugh at them - they aren’t the ones putting on a show. They went for a good time, and they got it.
To read George Ruskin’s review, click here
The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own.