Wednesday, 28 September 2011

An amazing article by Kira Cochrane

Someone tweeted this and although it is a few year's old now, it certainly still needs to be read and re-read.

Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Mock the Week Mock the Women

A few weeks ago, a disgruntled BBC viewer tweeted that popular comedy panel show, Mock the Week, once again featured only white, male guests.  Since then, the Mock the Week twitter feed has been embroiled in a debate about how male dominated its line-up is, with one statistically driven tweeter (@princesstoffee) discovering that in the last series, only 13% of the comedy guests on the show were women.

Throughout the social media row, the Mock the Week twitter feed has insisted that it features proportionally more women than there are in the comedy world, and that they don’t select guest based on gender because that would be ‘sexist’. They have argued that women watch the show, and that – in spite of the BBC’s diversity duty – they have no responsibility to put on a show that reflects their audience. Mock the Week have pointed out that in their history, 18 out of their 63 guests have been women, arguing that this made their representation ‘higher’ than the number of women working the comedy circuit, (although I am not sure what stats they were using to back up this assertion, beyond the 20% number about Edinburgh comedy award in Guardian articel i pointed them to However when you consider the number of appearances over the six years the show has been on, the percentage drops to 8.3% women. Whichever way you cut it, that’s pretty poor.

When one tweeter suggested that seeing as Mock the Week are happy to have all-male line ups (over and over and over again) they could have an all-female line up, they reacted with predictable horror. But that’s not representative of the comedy world! they spluttered. The fact that the comedy world is not all white and all male seemed to pass them by.

Excited by something I read about the women in comedy competition, I sent them a link to a news article about women comedians, quipping that they clearly had plenty to choose from. Their response was as follows:

“thanks, but we'll keep booking female comedians relative to how many there actually are, or else it'd be positive discrimination”

This rather spectacularly misunderstands how sexism, the silencing of women’s voices and the invisibility of women on our cultural stage actually works…

It was perhaps unfair to single out Mock the Week when criticising the lack of women’s voices on TV, particularly on comedy panel shows. As examples of what Bidisha calls ‘cultural femicide’, comedy panel shows are leading the way. Never will you turn on Mock the Week, QI or Have I Got News For You to see more women than men behind the desk. @princesstoffee continued her diversity audit to find that an overall chance of seeing a woman on the latest series of comedy panel shows was 27.25%, with Mock the Week being the least likely show to feature women. She found that Never Mind the Buzzcocks featured women 18/64 (28%) of the time; Shooting Stars 8/24 (33%); Just a Minute 6/28 (21%); 8 out of 10 Cats (S11) 14/27 (34%), Would I Lie to You 10/22 (31%); QI 10/48 (21%); Have I Got News For You 7/28 (25%) and The News Quiz 12/36 (33%).

The issue isn’t just about representation. It’s also about the acceptability of misogyny and sexism in the Mock the Week show (and other comedy). I stopped watching the programme after one of the male regulars informed a woman guest (the only woman on the show) that he would be picturing her when masturbated back home. Another incident (from a woman comedian) involved saying women would make bad world leaders because they would spend the whole time talking about shoes. Incidences of rape jokes, and mocking of women’s bodies and physical appearance also had me reaching for the off button. I don’t want to be seeking out sexism to entertain me on a Thursday night after all.

Two and a quarter years ago, Jo Brand wrote in the Guardian about why women don’t appear on panel shows:

‘Women don't want to go on panel shows for six reasons. 1) They won't get a word in edgeways. 2) They may be edited to look stupid. 3) They may get the piss taken out of them. 4) They may not be funny. 5) They don't like competing for airtime. 6) They may be patronised, marginalised or dismissed.”

Three years on, this still stands. Particularly point one, and point six, as the Mock the Week masturbating comment shows.

Mock the Week’s twitterfeed has now stated:

‘We're done w/ this topic now. We've listened, we've stated our position, we've responded fairly, and we've bored the hell out of most of you’

But us feminists – we’re not done. Because contrary to Mock the Week’s dismissal, this issue matters. It touches on big issues of cultural silencing of women’s voices, sexism and misogynistic assumptions about women and men.

When Bristol Feminist Network and Bristol Fawcett ran the Where are the Women project (, we found a shocking absence of women’s voices in our popular culture. TV, radio, music, books, film, comedy – all these industries proved to be incredibly male dominated. And the continued male domination of these areas further entrench sexist assumptions and misogynistic ideas about whose funny, whose talent matters, who creates ‘art’. Earlier this year, novelist V.S Naipaul claimed that he was better at writing than every woman writer who has ever put pen to paper, because women aren’t as good at writing as men ( He’s a Nobel Laureate. People listen to him. And he, like Mock the Week, perpetuates the idea that women are somehow culturally ‘lesser’, that our voices, are stories, are less valid of being heard, and that we can’t compete with the male norm.

It is a tired and old stereotype that women aren’t as funny as men. We know that this isn’t true. Find any group of women friends and you’ll find laughter and giggles and more laughter. Victoria Wood is consistently found to be one of the nation’s favourite comics. But the perception is continually there that women simply aren’t as funny as men – or that when women do make jokes it’s about ‘womany’ things like periods and boyfriends (never mind the fact that male comedians regularly jokes about dicks and tits). And it is this sexist perception that prevents women from having equal representation on comedy line-ups, comedy panel shows and at the Edinburgh Festival. It isn’t that women can’t do stand-up or won’t do stand-up – although this argument is often put forward just as the argument that ‘women simply don’t want well paid high status jobs’ is commonly presented when discussing the glass ceiling. The reason women are not represented is that so long as the belief exists that women aren’t as funny as men, comedy clubs won’t ‘take a risk’ on booking a woman. And this leads to less women higher up the food chain, meaning they don’t have the same opportunity to be picked to appear on panel shows.

What has been so frustrating about the Mock the Week twitter debate is the acceptance that a lack of women’s voices in comedy is somehow inevitable and that nothing will change. They repeatedly defended the sexism in comedy with the assertion that they already have women on there, and that there are no more women to pick from. There was no recognition that they could play a role in changing this.

Only by challenging sexism in the industry, by recognising that women’s voices and jokes and performances are as good as men’s, and by giving women performers equal chances to be heard and perform as men, can we tackle the sexism in comedy. This is how women’s representation improves. If we continue to accept sexist assumptions about where women ‘belong’ on our cultural landscape, then things simply won’t change. But I really believe that they can.

Anyway – here’s the amazing Stewart Lee talking Mock the Week to make us all chuckle… 

Update = princesstoffee has written a great post on the f word about her stats:

Friday, 9 September 2011

Gender studies, sexism, male bias and privilege

This week the London Evening Standard reported that ex gender studies student Tom Martin is suing the London School of Economics because he believed his course to have an anti men bias and was expected to read books that positioned women as always victims and men as always perpetrators, and never dealt with men’s issues. LSE have responded:

‘The university's legal team has asked for the case to be struck out, claiming the core texts were not compulsory, merely recommended readings, and that the texts were equally available for both men and women to read, so therefore did not directly discriminate against men. The team also argues that "any discriminatory effect [against men] was plainly justifiable".’


I personally believe that Mr Martin took the course with the express intent of calling out what he saw as an anti-male bias, because for the life of me I can’t understand why someone studying gender studies would object to exploring how layers of patriarchal privilege overlap to create inequality between women and men. Gender studies, as far as I can tell, is about looking at intersectionality and how women’s ‘issues’ (and other groups) or lives or stories or history or social status had traditionally taken a back seat to the overwhelming white male narrative that forms the canon and backbone of academia.

This piece on CIF is very good on why gender studies isn’t about women good men bad:

In this piece, Jonathan Dean makes this very pertinent point:

‘In my own discipline – politics – the key undergraduate texts are overwhelmingly by and about men. And yet this is seen by most as unproblematic, as natural or inevitable. Gender studies is an attempt to critique this entrenched male bias.’

As I say, to take a gender studies course and then accuse it of critiquing academic and social male bias makes me pretty suspicious about why he took the course in the first place. Fame? Notoriety? Apparently this guy runs an anti sexism website. I wonder if it includes information about rape culture and the impact of conflict and war on women, as an example…(or would that be SEXIST? Talking about WOMEN!)

But anyway, I digress…

What this story has got me thinking about is that entrenched male bias and how this impacted on my own university career (which ended, with a First Class Honours in English Literature, in 2006). I went to UCL in Bloomsbury, right next to Virginia Woolf’s old house. And what I learnt there was that (with some exceptions, i.e. the aforementioned Woolf) male authors were named, and women authors were ‘women in literary period or movement’.

The male bias on my course was overwhelming. In my second and third year we would have four set texts per module, and on every single module 3 of the texts would be by men and one by women. I had lectures on Wordsworth, Manley Hopkins, Dickens and ‘women in Victorians’ (George Eliot was the exception). Lectures on Hemingway and F Scott Fitzgerald with no mention of Gertrude Stein. Over and over again on my courses the message was sent out that whilst men were individuals, greats; who formed movements and spoke out from the canon, women were a group, an interest, a sub-section.

Of course, a lot of my feminist lecturers recognised this and goodness knows things were better than when, as one lecture informed me, the Norton Anthology of Poetry had something like 30 women in it (for non lit grads, this is the bible of the English literature under-grad). But whereas the very idea of a lecture titled ‘Men in Modernism’ would be ridiculous, talking ‘Women in Modernism’ was perfectly acceptable, even though if we look at those women modernist writers, the difference and range between them and their books is as different and diverse as those men writers. Djuna Barnes and Dorothy Richardson? Hardly the same are they?

In my second and third years I had feminist tutors who let me run wild with my gender angle on literature (writing on Woolf, Mansfield, Rhys, Plath, Brontes, Djuna Barnes - women everywhere!) which unfortunately left me floundering a bit when it actually came to studying the set texts. But their supportive and feminist ideas helped me become the activist and writer I am today. Not so good was my first year, where my tutor asked me not to write any more gender essays after doing one on Paradise Lost (come to think of it, I don’t think there were any women writers on that ‘key text’ course).

I also attended all the gender seminars. Male and female sexuality in modernist literature, gender in Shakespeare – courses almost always run by women with all women classes. The idea that gender was a subject for men too didn’t register where men were canon and women were specialist.

Of course, women weren’t the least represented group on my course. BME writers and colonialist theory did get a brief look in (Zadie Smith, Hanif Kureishi as examples) but despite a disappointingly un-robust post-colonialism course; just as the syllabus was mainly men, it was also mainly white.

In fact, the one ‘minority group’ that was well represented on my course was gay and queer literature – thanks in part to the famous ‘History and literary representation of homosexuality’ module. And of course, a lot of canonical authors were likely to be, or definitely were, gay or bi. After all, even Shakespeare had Mr. W.H ;-)

What I am trying to show here is that even on a course that I loved every minute of (except Chaucer. And Old English) there was an exceptionally male bias. Embarrassingly so. So there is a good reason that a course that seeks to challenge the unquestioned male bias, like gender studies, is allowed to do exactly that.

What Tom Martin has a problem with, in my mind, is his privilege. He has never experienced that othering that comes from your status in society as a woman. He has not experienced that exclusion, that sense that you are not part of the ‘greats’, that feeling that you are not half the population, but a minority, a specialism. He has lived with male privilege all his life (I don’t know what other privileges he may or may not have as an FYI, so sticking with male) and when that’s challenged, when that is not the priority in his academic world, he panics and lashes out and calls sexism.

Last night I had a conversation on Twitter with Mock the Week about their lack of female representation. They informed me that in their six-year history, ‘18 out of 63 of our regulars & guests have been female, which is... 28.6%, so we're doing alright? :-)’.

No, that is not doing ‘alright’. It is not alright that women are so marginalised in our culture, that women’s voices are silenced and not heard, that women’s stories are seen as ‘other’ or homogeneous.

And it is certainly not right that when this is challenged, that there are accusations of sexism or female bias.

Throughout academia, throughout pretty much every damn point of life, male privilege is entrenched. Gender studies is a place where that inherent, unchallenged privilege is questioned and where an alternative view and criticism of power structures is offered. Where different voices and stories are given weight and attention. Where women are considered.

That’s not too much to ask. To be considered. To be recognised. To be seen and heard.

Check your privilege. You never know, you might learn something.

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

Women's Rights in Afghanistan

As we approach the 10th anniversary of 9/11, it is perhaps pertinent to reflect on the Afghan women’s rights movement, and the position of women in the country since the invasion on 7th October, 2001.

As part of the justification for a war against a country that was believed to be sheltering a Saudi man who (as we now know) was eventually found sheltering across the border, the language of feminism was co-opted by the American right. This war was about ‘liberating women’ from the Taliban, ‘empowering’ women who were oppressed. But ten years later, as peace talks loom on the horizon and mutterings about negotiating with the Taliban abound, what is the position of women living in Afghanistan, the women whom the invasion was supposed to ‘save’?

A recent report found that Afghanistan is the worst place to be born if you are a woman. This was put down to lack of maternal healthcare, resulting in a between 1-8 to 1-11 women dying in childbirth; widespread violence against women and girls including forced marriage and trafficking; poverty, conflict violence and lack of access to healthcare. 87% of women in Afghanistan have experienced some form of violence and between 70-80% of marriages are forced. Girls are also often used to settle community disputes via ‘baad’ (this practice is not unique to Afghanistan).

It is important to recognise that some improvements to women’s lives in Afghanistan have been made since 2001. 27% of MPs are now women (more than in the UK), and more girls now have access to schools and education, although 1.2 million girls are still not in school. There is also a vibrant women’s rights movement who are currently campaigning to have women’s voices heard at the negotiating table when it comes to bringing peace to Afghanistan.

Before the Taliban took over in 1996, women – particularly in the cities – enjoyed relative equality. After all, Afghanistan gave women the vote in 1919, before UK women, and long before Swiss women who couldn’t vote until 1971. Women had access to education, were doctors, teachers, civil servants. They enjoyed freedom of movement and were not required to wear the burkha. It is important to note this, as all too often when we talk about women’s rights in Afghanistan, the conversation treats women’s inequality as inevitable, as ‘cultural’, with the implication that the fight for women’s rights is hopeless and therefore not worth fighting for. The fact that the widespread oppression of women is relatively new in Afghanistan proves the opposite; that women’s equality can be achieved.

Both men and women are affected by conflict. However No Women No Peace believe that in many ways it is more dangerous to be a woman in war than it is to be a soldier (whilst recognising of course that women are soldiers too). The impact of war is different on women than men. They are threatened with abduction, abduction of their children, rape and sexual violence, widowhood, increased maternal mortality, starvation and an increased risk of the spread of HIV/Aids. The different impact of conflict on women is just one reason why it is essential that women have a voice at the peace negotiations that will decide their futures.

Take the issue of widowhood. In many parts of Afghan society – as a result of women’s oppression under the Taliban – women are not allowed to leave the house without a male relative. If a woman’s husband is killed, how can she then leave the house to earn a living? To seek medical care? To take her children to school?

Women’s rights activists in Afghanistan live and work under the threat of violence, and a number of prominent women activists have been assassinated. The bravery and determination of these women cannot be underestimated. But all too often, these women’s voices are not heard. Their bravery and their work is not counted. In 2010, a peace conference in Kabul attended by a range of world leaders invited only one Afghan woman to speak. Considering the men around the table are deciding the futures of these women, this simply isn’t good enough.

With the peace conference in Bonn scheduled for 5th December, and the increasing concern that peace negotiators are going to start talking to the Taliban (a move that will be disastrous for women and women’s rights), women activists in Afghanistan have a simple demand. They want 25% of the seats at the negotiating table to be for women. They want to be counted, to be included and to be listened to. They want to be part of the decision process that will shape and define their futures.

This isn’t too much to ask. With so much at stake for gender equality, women should have a voice when it comes to finding peace in Afghanistan. Women’s views and stories must be represented.

This autumn, No Women No Peace and GAPS are asking women across the UK to stand in solidarity with the women of Afghanistan. They are asking for us to write to MPs to ensure that women’s voices are represented. They are hoping for a series of solidarity events across the country to show that in the UK, we take women’s rights in Afghanistan seriously and will not put up with our leaders silencing women’s voices. In Bristol we will be organising letter writing and a big public event. Watch this space for more details.

Stats and resources:   

Many of the stats in this article come from a workshop ran by GAPS and NWNP and are taken from the Powerpoint they presented. You can learn more about them here: