This show works well on two important levels: Rosie Wilby is charming, and her subject matter, Nineties student feminism, is full of stories worth telling. As part of a collective running a women’s newspaper at York University, Wilby experienced a massive sea change in feminism, when Eighties radicalism was replaced by lad culture and girl power. Her story sits right in the midst of these shifting times, which is why it is interesting – but might also be why it sometimes struggles to find a steady footing.
This is a show that mixes stand-up and storytelling, and sometimes falls between the two. Comedy that tells the truth can be more engaging than a series of jokes, but real-life stories can also feel light on funnies, at least for an audience used to a stand-up gag rate. There are points in Nineties Woman when I wasn’t sure whether I was meant to be laughing or listening.
I wanted to be listening, because there are some fascinating points to the story. Firstly, there’s the revelation that Matrix – the feminist newspaper that Wilby and co were producing – was laid out using traditional cutting and pasting because the women creating it didn’t feel comfortable using computers. What’s fascinating is that, although Wilby does now point out the oddness of the position, at the time the women working on the paper didn’t feel this was a feminist issue. It was simply the way it was: men handled computers.
Another startling moment comes when Wilby revisits her old university, to discover that the goodie bags given out to Freshers are now gendered pink and blue. The male version containing a lads’ mag, and the female one a bottle of cellulite cream – such a depressing example of the different expectations offered up to men and women, I’m surprised Wilby didn’t make more of it. I’m not usually swayed by arguments that things are getting worse, but this was as grim an example as I have ever encountered.
Unfortunately though, gems like these often got lost in this very personal show. I would have liked Wilby to step outside her gang and talk more about the way the world was shifting around this small group of women. The early Nineties were a key time for feminism, but I never felt much of a sense of that. The stories about Wilby and her specific friends never felt universal enough.
But there are still plenty of insights in this amiable, at times ridiculous, piece of social history. This is definitely a welcome nostalgia trip for anyone of the right age. And there just aren’t enough shows about feminism at its daftest.