“I don’t have time for anyone whose feminism isn’t intersectional”
BY FELICITAS SOPHIE VAN LAAK
Comedian Sophie Duker is back with her debut comedy hour, Venus. Here the comedian speaks to DIVA about stereotypes, wokeness, and why she does not want to be your Venus…
DIVA: Tell us more about your promo picture for Venus (above).
SOPHIE DUKER: The show is called Venus, and I wanted to look like a goddess, but because it’s about the fetishization and stereotyping of black women, the chicken shows how the celebration of black women under a certain gaze incorporates all of these problematic aspects. So, for me, the chicken means that I don’t want to be viewed as, “black women like chicken.”
In your own words, you’re a “triple threat minority.” How do you deal with that in your show?
With my comedy, I’ve only been out on stage for about a year. I don’t usually speak about personal aspects of myself, but I felt that it was very important to do that in Venus because it is the show where I want to show that I exist – all of these parts of me exist. The way I deal with that in Venus is as something that is essential to how I see myself as a sexual being. I used to think that it’s not important that I’m black or queer, but now it’s something that I want at the forefront, so I say “I’m a triple threat minority” pretty early on in the show. My queerness is an essential part of the show and about how people receive it.
The show’s focus is on race and sexuality. In your experience, how do the two intersect?
The way sexuality and race intersect are in the background of everyday life. When you start to be sexual, you realise that you’ve internalised some of the messages that you saw in advertising or pornography – or even just conversation. I found this intersection to be most explicit in porn. In a porn film with a black and a white woman, black women are directed to be more dominant or sexually aggressive and, sometimes, there are even more explicit racial tropes used. I haven’t seen any porn with fried chicken – thank God – but I have seen some pretty dark things.
Is comedy one of the best ways to address and subvert stereotypes?
Yes, I think comedy is good at doing that because it has to use stereotypes. Even if you’re saying that using stereotypes is bad, you have to come from a jumping off point which everyone understands – a stereotype or “common knowledge.” What we can do now is to take old stereotypes and then show them to be untrue, or subvert them, or change them around. I think it’s very hard to do comedy that doesn’t have any clichés, but you can certainly rework them and turn them on their head.
Your show is about your unconventional journey to self-discovery. What else did you discover about yourself?
I think that I realised that it’s okay to be vulnerable because, even though I’m someone who speaks on stage in front of a lot of people, I still bought into the myth of the “strong black woman”, or the confident woman that has got her shit together. And through doing the show, I realised that, even though it can be used as a positive stereotype and you can have people who are killing it and are successful, it does not allow you to fail or to be vulnerable. And learning that it’s okay to deal with my own vulnerability even if it’s not pretty and it takes time, is something I learned about myself.
Is being this confident and quick-witted something you had to practice?
Yeah, I used to be super shy. When I was little, I was a massive book worm and I was really insecure about how people would view me. I remember that I would practice phone calls to friends. I don’t think it’s a case of “fake it ’til you make it”, I just didn’t know how to be myself. Through meeting cool people that were doing theatre or comedy, that were open about themselves, I kind of copied that and tried it out. And that made me more confident.
Why do you reject the association with Venus, the Roman goddess of love?
Firstly, I reject Venus because one of the things I talk about in my show – that I’m excited to not talk about in my future work – is white men in terms of having power and being the people that are controlling the gaze. And Venus is a goddess that is still framed in that patriarchal way. She’s been put on a pedestal by men with virtues like fertility and femininity and that’s not the kind of goddess that I want to be. With Venus, even though it’s fun to be sexy and beautiful, I think there are many ways to be powerful. I would like the show to be a rejection of that fetish.
How do you deal with fake-wokeness and fake-feminism?
I think “woke” is like the term “hipster”: it started out being pretty neutral and now people who hate snowflakes, or women, or young people tend to use woke in a cynical way. Woke is a term that, in its origins, is intrinsically radical and black as it came from African-American vernacular English. It suggests being awake, being aware and constantly being adaptable. A lot of people who I consider fake-woke think they don’t have to do any more work. But being woke is about staying alert, about being adaptable. There is no end point to woke. You have to keep working, we have to keep doing better. And with fake-feminists? I don’t really have time for anyone whose feminism isn’t intersectional.
According to Hannah Gadsby, jokes are not a good way to tell your story, because they can marginalize your narrative. What is your take on that?
I have mad respect for Hannah Gadsby but I don’t agree with that statement. I think that jokes aren’t a substitute for therapy and jokes aren’t activism. But I think that in terms of telling your story, the power of that is that you can tell your story however you want. The stage isn’t a place to document things necessarily exactly as they happened in all their complexity, it’s a stage where you have the power to present a new kind of fiction. There are so many amazing queer women killing it and I think it’s magical. I want to hear all of those stories and I think the power that being on stage gives to queer women is incredible.
Sophie Duker performs Venus at Soho Theatre from 29 October-2 November 2019, and 13-18 January 2019. Get your tickets here. Sophie also hosts Wacky Racists on 27 October and 9 December 2019. Tickets here.
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