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 http://m.guardian.co.uk/culture/theatreblog/2010/aug/12/edinburghfestival-comedy?cat=culture&type=article). 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 (www.rowitm.org), 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 (http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2011/jun/02/vs-naipaul-jane-austen-women-writers). 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: http://www.thefword.org.uk/blog/2011/09/mock_the_tweet