In Search of the Happiness Max


Blatant blog-pluggage. I was bored this morning and went through the guests they’ve had on HIGNFY, just to see how it looks in terms of gender balance of guests. I wasn’t expecting it to be good, but I was shocked at how bad it was.

One example: the last time all the guest places (both guest panellists pre-2002, guest panellists and host post-2002) were women was in 1997. The last time they were all men was last night - the 107th time that’s happened since the last time they were all women.

I know I get annoying tweeting about this every time this happens - about one in four times someone has a go at me for doing so. About as frequently I also get retweeted. The reason I do it is not to be annoying, but to keep on standing up and saying ‘THIS IS NOT NORMAL AND IT IS NOT OK’, because it has been utterly normalised. Shows like HIGNFY and QI don’t even restrict themselves to comedian guests, so the excuse that there are far fewer female comedians (or comediennes if you prefer; I do not) is simply not valid. And don’t even get me started on the question of why there are so many less lady comedians than gents (hint: sexist representation of woman as unfunny, more reticent, and not to be listened to is a part of it; but so is the way female comedians are treated in comparison to male ones).

Moreover, they frequently discuss sensitive women’s issues in a mocking manner that usually belittles the woman or women in question with reference to their appearance when there is no woman present.

When a woman is present any question concerning gender is routinely handed to her as ‘spokesperson for the sex’, usually in a manner that seeks to undermine her authority or respectability in the name of ‘humour’

Conversation almost always trends towards discussion of differences between men and women, regardless of topic, usually reinforcing gender stereotypes with jokes that were old in the 90s.

Similarly independently of topic, at some point the woman’s own appearance and sexuality are likely to be the topic of conversation - usually at least one person will flirt with them.

The camera is less likely to return to them and when they start to speak their words are more likely to be talked over than their male counter-parts.

Victoria Coren is a stand-out example of a woman standing up to this sort of treatment whilst managing not to have herself labelled as a raving feminist. In her first appearance on HIGNFY she very politely handed Ian his arse when he patronised her by advising her that a cutting remark she had made about the sexist attitudes on the Today programme could be detrimental to her career. They clearly recognise her value, as she is one of the tiny number of women they cycle through as the token female (on a panel show where three people are always changeable and two are always male). The others that spring to mind are Jo Brand, Clare Balding, and Louise Mensch (although it sounds as though we won’t be seeing much of her now that she’s been pressed out of politics - say what you will about her (and I have), but she’s had a hard time of it for being a woman in politics, and I don’t believe for a moment that she resigned to spend time with her husband (especially now he has denied this)). I can name them. Think about that.

Despite having earned her place with her cutting wit and intelligence, Victoria Coren is now introduced as being engaged to David Mitchell, rather than as a presenter and champion poker player, as she used to be. It’s not that her other attributes aren’t mentioned, it’s that her relationship with a famous man is deemed of equal importance as her job and her skills. Funny, I haven’t heard David Mitchell being introduced as being engaged to Victoria Coren as well as being a comedian.

If it seems irritating to you that I tweet every time a panelist show is all male, consider how irritating it is for me not to have my own gender represented at all most of the time on my favourite shows. And consider also how it encourages casual sexism from the male participants either when a woman is not there to remind them to reign in their less politically correct tendencies, or when one is and they treat her in a sexist manner, because her rarity makes her an invader, to be dismissed, undermined, or attacked.

And yes, comedians should be allowed to make tasteless jokes, but it always puzzles me when people think that this means we shouldn’t judge or criticise them for it. That’s the point of free speech - we put our opinions out there to be put to the test, and either accepted by out peers or criticised. Yes, putting boundaries on humour is bad, but the usual reason given for this is that boundaries would prevent vital satire of people in power and dominant opinions and regimes. Tired, outdated, lazy jokes based on sexual stereotypes and undermining women are not the cutting edge of satire, and they are aimed at the under-privileged rather than those in power. Last night HIGNFY ‘satirised’ an Italian politician by showing her in a bikini. They mentioned in passing that she was a fascist, but no, that wasn’t important enough to mock. Her personal appearance and her (shock!) having been photographed in a swimming costume were the prime political comedy. I’m sure her looking good in the bikini had nothing to do with it. There is a difference between mocking Berlusconi for surrounding himself with scantily clad beautiful woman and mocking a woman for being beautiful and wearing a swimming costume, sidelining her policies in the process to get not only a cheap laugh at her expense, but also please the male gaze. One is relevant to political satire, the other is an excuse to undermine a woman’s authority and reaffirm the patriarchy with very little effort on the part of the comedian. In short: it’s not just that the joke is sexist, it’s that you could have done better, and you didn’t. It’s not simply a question of confronting people with the sexism in our mainstream comedy, it’s about asking why the people on our screens don’t make the effort to say something better. It’s not like a stand-up ad-libbing in response to an audience heckle, often the worst offences are auto-queued, and if you think Ian and Paul don’t come preprepared with quips you are woefully naive.

So that’s why I’ll keep complaining every time I see few or zero women on a panel show. It doesn’t have to be that way. We can do better. It tires me out to have to put up with it week in week out, you can put up with a little tweet.