Sofie Hagen on Anger and Including the Excluded
Ahead of her tour arriving at Citizen's Theatre, Sofie Hagen discusses her psychopathic step-grandfather, Made of Human podcast and social media trolls
When you leverage a personal tragedy into sympathetic laughter over a one-hour arc, it’s sometimes known as a 'Dead Dad Show'. You talk about how your dad was annoying and your relationship was frustrating at times, but now he’s gone, you realise how much he meant to you. Sofie Hagen’s latest show, Dead Baby Frog, is about her step-grandfather, and though she tells me it is about his death, she adds: "He’s not dead yet."
It’s a brazen way to start the show: "If people aren’t on board then, they never will be."
Since coming to the UK from Denmark a few years ago, Hagen has made her mark on the comedy scene in the form of award wins, podcast appearances and social media activism. The sex-positive, left-wing, obsessively inclusive message of her stand-up shines through whatever subject she tackles, all of which could form the illusion of her being constantly perky and all-accepting, but this is far from true. Hagen is angry. Angry at the alt-right, angry at the acceptance of bigotry, angry at certain members of her family, and mostly, she is angry at people telling her not to be angry.
Growing up, one of these people was her grandfather: part of the emotionally abusive behaviour he subjected her to in her formative years. "It is a dark show but I love it. I talk about trying to confront him, I talk about my upbringing and his abusive tactics, and I talk a lot about anger, and my little meetings with anger in my life."
Taking control of the story by telling it on-stage night after night is one way of working through that anger, but it wasn’t something she could do straight away. "There are things that I don’t talk about yet, and my grandfather was one of them. It wasn’t because I didn’t want people to know, it was just before I could do this justice, some things had to happen. I don’t think I could see the funny in talking about a psychopathic narcissistic emotional abuser. There was nothing funny in that up until last November."
What happened last November?
"I went to confront him about everything that he’s done."
The result of that confrontation makes up the kernel of Dead Baby Frog, and it is no spoiler to reveal that the anger is still there. The show is not about forgiveness or about therapy: Hagen doesn’t find the stage therapeutic as such, but does find it helpful in recognising past trauma as just that. "For ten years I didn’t know that what was happening was wrong, and now every night I hear people gasp when I tell them, and they’re appalled by what happened. You don’t have to normalise it all as something that was meant to happen to you."
Sustaining anger can be tiring, but so often that’s the only way to work through it and put things right. Hagen is aware that expanding this view to the world in general, it’d be all too easy to shrug her shoulders and accept the way things are, whether that’s austerity politics or the continued demonisation of certain groups of people.
"What’s really hard is allowing yourself to just be angry. I feel like it’s so easy to understand why people do things, if no one’s ever told them about empathy and scare tactics. But it’s just no use. I think The Fight needs people who are willing to have an open dialogue and blablabla, and then we need people like me who just really want these people to go away."
Where someone would fit into The Fight is now a recurring question for Hagen’s guests in her podcast Made of Human. After an hour of talking about life, careers and how they think they’re doing at both, guests get to imagine whether they would be on the frontlines of an imagined resistance or looking after them and theirs. Answers are many and varied, just like the guests themselves.
"The most important thing is that I can’t ever not focus on diversity – I have very very few white straight cis-gendered men, and that is fully on purpose. It’s usually voices that won’t normally be heard in mainstream media."
As well as comedians, Hagen has spoken with activists, actors and sex workers, and the line-up is a great cross-section of interesting perspectives. The cheery surface persona plus the intimacy of a podcast can lead to false conclusions about a person, and that’s before you add in the highly personal nature of stand-up comedy.
"I just am quite honest, which is why it’s so strange when people try to make some kind of revelation. I made a comment on my Facebook page a few days ago and called a man trash, then these Danish trolls took a screenshot and put it out like 'A-ha! We’ve revealed that she’s done this! Sofie thinks all men are trash! We have screenshots and everything!'" She laughs, completely unruffled, "Yeah! That’s literally all I talk about, it’s not a secret! It’s almost as if the more honest and open I am about stuff, the more people want to reveal secrets: I don’t have secrets! That’s not the point!"
It’s easy to be drawn in towards a public figure if you consume so much of their work, and an hour of conversation every week being played directly into your earholes can only increase the effect. "I wrote a piece about it recently where I said that I don’t want people to assume that I’m nice. They’ll get disappointed, because I’m not always nice – no one is always nice."
Besides, being nice isn’t the point: "I would rather that people don’t assume we could be best friends, but instead just loved my work and respected it." Hagen is nice where it counts, though, putting in the effort to make her gigs as accessible as possible, from gender-neutral toilets to anti-anxiety seating policies.
"I did it on my last tour as well: there were these people who needed to sit by the aisle, people who needed to sit by the exit, people who wanted to come in before the audience because they didn’t like being in big groups of people. There was someone who wanted to know if I said specific words that would trigger them: It’s on an individual basis, and I would never change anything if it in any way jeopardised the show. I’ve had to put a trigger warning for this show, which feels weird, but I’ve had a few people who saw it before the trigger warning who said that they were taken aback, and they would have loved to know that that was what the show was about."
This all sounds like a lot of effort on top of the normal trials and tribulations of creating a good, funny, interesting show, but Hagen insists that it is all worth it. "Long story short: the world is built for a certain type of person, and we have to do a lot of extra stuff to include people who aren’t usually included. I’m one of the people that the world isn’t built for. And it is hard work, and it is sometimes tiring, but we just have to. Someone just needs to start making those changes."
Perhaps we need a politician who has that kind of mantra. Hagen agrees, "And then we need them to win."