Sandi Toksvig now hosts QI and there are more female comedy writers than ever before. So why are we still fighting the tired ‘women aren’t funny’ rhetoric?
It’s a busy time for women in comedy right now. Gigs in beery comedy clubs, or festivals courteously opening their formerly male-only stage doors wider, aren’t the only bookings to look forward to anymore. This is because BBC boss, Danny Cohen, announced a few months back: “We’re not going to have panel shows anymore with no women on them. You can’t do that. It’s not acceptable.” So on British television, they’re going to try to book more women… but definitely at least one.
How considerate! Thanks very much.
But the impassioned statement is a token gesture. TV comedy’s elusive entrance is merely ajar, lest the floodgates open up and too many women – who obviously aren’t as funny as men – appear on our screens. Oh fine, the BBC seem to be saying, if we have to. Television is going to try really hard to let you in the men’s club, but before you get ahead of yourself (because as we know most women aren’t funny) they need to test the waters first. We’ll hire you, they say, but it’s up to you to prove how funny you keep insisting women are.
It’s strange realisation that in 2017, gender segregation is still so common in comedy. It would be jarring if, in mid-conversation, a person said to you: “You’re funny, for a woman.” Yet television hasn’t grasped the simple concept that just as some men are funny and some aren’t, some women are funny and some aren’t. Poor, slow Society. Still having difficulty divorcing humour’s reliance on a penis.
And we wonder why many women relied on other ways to be taken seriously in comedy. Forgetting Nora Ephron’s dry wit or Lucille Ball’s iconic physical comedy for a second (like many who hate women in comedy often seem to), women’s comedy is often mockingly reduced to man-bashing and period jokes. Misogynists wouldn’t bother questioning why those female comics used that material in the first place: That the intent was to wrangle an eye-rolling audience’s attention through shock. Why would they? The jokes weren’t aimed at men, so clearly weren’t funny.
Plus, according to Christoper Hitchens, “women have no need to appeal to men in this way”. The late writer peppers his 2007 Vanity Fair article with backhanded compliments, waxing lyrically about women’s lack of humour. Deriving his opinion from the mental chasms of his own ignorance, such gems include the assumptions that women “can’t afford to be frivolous” because they’re too busy rearing children, and don’t need to be funny because “they already appeal to men, if you catch my drift.” But after defining wit as “the unfailing symptom of intelligence,” how anyone could adhere to Hitchins’ assertions when his key risible topics include premature ejaculation or poo is beyond comprehension.
He does, however, graciously raise an insecurity of his: that men want women “as an audience, not as rivals.” A funny woman threatens a man’s masculinity, the same way they did when they entered the workplace. Because being funny requires intelligence, timing and command of an audience. If women have more assets than mere beauty and baby-making ability, the competition becomes too steep.
These archaic assumptions often make female comedians reject pretty stereotypes or indeed ‘man up’ their appearance: Convincing audiences to forget they’re women, and start seeing them as funny people. In a recent interview with The Pool, writer and comedian Sara Pascoe spoke candidly about how she dressed in ‘the most invisible way possible’ so audiences wouldn’t assume she was a woman who ‘thought she looked nice.’ But television ignores these attempts: ‘On TV […] you have to be a pretty flower. The boys can wear suits, but the girls … [they think] well, we have to have one now, so at least look bright for us,’ she admitted in her interview, ‘…You get angry because you think “I’m an intelligent woman. Why can’t I just switch [worrying about looking pretty] off? That isn’t what I’m offering to the human race.’
A lot has changed, however. Considering Sandi Toksvig is now successfully hosting QI, and household names like Sarah Millican, Katherine Ryan and Zoe Lyons headline sold-out tours, why in 2017 are we whipping a seemingly dead horse?
It’s because things haven’t changed enough. Only four months ago, a study found that only once since 1967 has there been an all-female panel show in the history of British television and radio: an episode of BBC Radio 4’s Heresy hosted by Victoria Coren Mitchell. ‘My theory is that,’ Coren-Mitchell responded, ‘because productions usually put one woman on a panel show (or none) and stop there, women get used to having to (at some wearisome level) represent female humour when we appear on these shows… but [when it was all female] the pressure was off. It was nobody’s individual responsibility to prove anything, so we all got the chance to mess about, relax and make free jokes like men do.’
The answer isn’t a words-are-wind promise to include at least one woman a programme – that’s missing the point entirely. TV execs need to stop trying to quiet noisy feminists and focus on producing the best possible programming. They need to be trusted to expand their all-male phone book and start hiring the funniest person – whether they’re female, male or anywhere in between. Why book a mediocre female comedian last minute to fill a quota, and then watch her ruin a show’s ratings and bomb comedy for all womankind? Before they realise this, the conversation isn’t over. The whipping needs to continue until this chauvinistic horse is well and truly dead.
Words: Mimi Davies
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