Interview – Karen Pickering, Cherchez la Femme

I first saw Karen Pickering in action when she MCed a Lip Magazine launch party in 2012, when I was Editor-in-Chief of the mag. The launch was a combined one with Voiceworks, and Karen somehow pulled the two, very diverse magazines and their audiences together for an evening that was equal parts amusing, enlightening, and engaging.

When I next saw Karen, it was at her feminist talkshow in a pub, Cherchez la Femme in Melbourne one winter evening. So many people had recommended the event as a must-go-to for any feminist-minded individual, that I wasn’t sure it could ever live up to the hype.

I was wrong – Cherchez la Femme far exceeded the hype. The show brings together a range of smart, funny feminists to discuss diverse topics – anything from Beyonce to slut-shaming, from fashion and cabaret to politics, and gender equality, in the friendly environment of a local pub.

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At the centre of it all is Karen, as founder and host. As well as running a continuously growing and evolving live talkshow, Karen is a feminist presenter and educator, and she also occasionally does some comedy, acting and voice work.

I couldn’t resist the opportunity to chat to Karen for Feminartsy, to gain some insight into her personal feminist awakening.

You’re basically a feminist wunderkind – did you ever have an ‘aha!’ feminist awakening, or was it just something you always knew you cared about?

Thanks! When I was young I didn’t think about gender at all. I had powerful women in my life and then going to an all-girls boarding school meant that I just thought of being a girl as the default position. I thought boys and men were exotic and weird but I didn’t get until my twenties, really, that they had all this privilege that I didn’t. Being pretty privileged in most other ways I think I was insulated from having to think about social justice too deeply. Though my teachers and boarding mistresses were post-Vatican II nuns so they were pretty bolshy, and I think that was where I got my first inklings of an activist imagination. And even though I studied gender theory at uni, I learnt far more about feminism from experiencing sexism in real life and from the internet – all the pieces came together for me quite late.

You get a lot of internet backlash for being awesome – how do you deal with it? Any advice for other women who get trolled?

I think everyone deals with it in their own way, just like all difficulties we face. There’s no magic formula. But I do recommend talking to people about it, switching off when it’s hurting you, using the block and delete and report buttons liberally, and sending the picture of Dawson crying back to the really imaginatively awful ones. It’s weirdly satisfying to have a laugh at them occasionally. But seriously, a wise woman once told me that we should always pity bigots and that has served me very well. When I get really bad stuff I often think ‘I feel sorry for you because whatever is driving you to this terrible behaviour is pain I can’t even imagine’. But that’s the Pollyanna in me.

Cherchez la Femme started up in 2010, and is beloved by the Melbourne community – what made you start the night?

Truthfully, I just started the exact event that I wished already existed. I was sick of going to lectures at universities and seeing panel discussions and in conversations that were just wall-to-wall dudes. The title of the show literally means “look for the woman” because I couldn’t see her anywhere! Or I’d go to events where feminism was framed as idiotic or angry or outmoded – Has feminism failed? Where did feminism go wrong? Is feminism necessary? etc. But I knew it was amazing and alive and fun and funny because I was living it and I knew so many boss feminists. So basically I just invite them all on every month, along with amazing people I approach who mostly say yes, and that’s been working out okay since March 2011.

Will you ever take CLF national?

We went on the road seriously last year after the first interstate show in Hobart in 2012. Last year a Cherchez la Femme was held in Canberra, Sydney, Newcastle and Adelaide, and this year I’m planning on more Sydney shows, visiting regional Victoria, going back to Tasmania and maybe taking CLF to Brisbane for the first time. The plan is to take it everywhere it’s wanted and I would love to do WA and NT to make a full set!

I know you’ve recently started charging more for the event, and you started an innovative ‘Girl Gang’ program – can you explain the ethos behind this a bit?

We increased ticket prices this year, yes, and started a new thing called Girl Gang tickets. We also just started ticketing the show online so people could prebook and pay a bit less than on the door. The main reason for all this was so that CLF could become a show where everyone who works on it gets paid, and not be one that I had to subsidise any more. So a budget was hammered out and ticket prices set according to that.

But I was also really aware that lots of people love coming to CLF who are low income or in and out of work, and also that I never wanted the ticket price to be an obstacle for anyone who really wanted to come to a feminist event. So we invented the Girl Gang system, where people can buy an extra ticket and donate it to a pool of people who want to come but can’t afford it. It’s trying to strike a balance between making the show accessible to more people who want to come while also respecting that artists and crew should get paid. It’s worked really well so far and we’ve had more tickets donated than taken up so they just carry over to the next month.

We also moved to a new venue that is fully accessible, which was a priority for me and obviously for wheelchair users who often can’t attend cool stuff that they want to or are invited to.

What is the biggest surprise you’ve ever had in your life or career? Something you didn’t see coming?

This is pretty personal and a bit hard to explain, but something I’ve realised recently is that instead of having children like I thought I would, I probably won’t and that I already have a family. A family of women. It’s the strangest thing but meeting a partner who didn’t want to have kids and having to think about it really seriously, I surprised myself utterly by realising that everything I thought I’d get out of parenthood is already in my life and that makes me very happy and whole. I always thought I’d be a great mum and matriarch of a big family but it turns out the love of my life is other women. That’s a much longer and more complicated story, obviously, but that’s the biggest surprise of my life so far – healing, becoming okay with myself, being true to myself, all because of other women.

If you could be doing anything in a year, what would you like that to be?

More CLFs, I think. They’re my favourite thing to do. They’re my baby. If I could do one a week anywhere in the country I’d be happy as a clam. I’ve always said that in an ideal world some old-style philanthropist would pay me a small stipend to just travel around organising feminists, like a travelling evangelist. But as we’ve no wealthy feminist church I’ve had to take the crowdfunding route! Happily it’s something other people care about too, and I’m so lucky to do this job. I never forget that.

Image credits: (1) Zan Wimberley, (2) Ron Killeen

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