Thursday, 11 October 2012

Standing Up for Female Comics

I’m going off-piste today to write about an issue which has been bugging me for some time. In the last few days I have come across an unusually high number of articles, interviews and blogs which focus on the issue of women in comedy. It’s a topic which journalists keep returning to, despite the fact that one should assume by now that it is such a commonplace phenomenon it is barely worth debating. But debate they do, and yet nothing I have read recently has quite satisfied me. I am no expert on the field by any means, but appreciate good comedy as much as the next person and am a fan of stand up, sketch shows and panel shows. Some of my favourite comics are women and yet their gender has never been something that I have considered, as such. It is not as if I go through some kind of filtering process when first assessing the talents of a comedian: are they a woman? If so, are they good enough to be liked? And yet, there is in popular media an almost obsessive need to link sex to humour.  The question is brought up time and time again.

I am not the type of feminist which people associate with anger and tirades; indeed I barely register on the scale of feminism at all. I am absolutely pro-equal rights, however, and do get angered by examples one comes across in everyday life of where women are treated as second best, weaker or are objectified. Despite the leaps of progress that have been made over the last century, women are still not equal to men. The ‘Everyday Sexism’ project proves this (
). Perhaps the question about how women fit into comedy is always posited to comediennes because it gives them the outlet by which to justify themselves: to defend their profession and to have their say in a male-centred world. I am writing this not as a feminist rant but to merely speculate reasons behind why females in comedy are still a relatively rare breed and to consider the value of constantly questioning their place there.

The traditional environment of the comedy circuit can be intimidating. The stage in many clubs is something reminiscent of a bear pit, or a Roman Gladiatorial Arena. An entertainer is placed in the centre of the ring and has the task of making the audience laugh nearly constantly for their whole time slot. This audience are demanding: more often than not they are rowdy, drunk and apt to lose their normal inhibitions. It takes a great deal of confidence to step into that situation, especially when hecklers decide to make their voice heard. Many women are put off by this idea and it takes a tough kind of person to bat this off. Jo Brand has spoken about how invaluable her background in mental health nursing was in stand up: “hecklers aren’t imaginative and I have to say, hats off to them, psychiatric patients really are.” She adds that many women “find the knocks harder to take because they are naturally less self-confident...they could not stand the fact that they were being abused about their physical appearance endlessly every night.” Although some women stand ups do make it beyond the fringe and become more widely popular, such as Sarah Millican, it is noticeable that it is generally only male stand ups who can take their shows to arena tours or to TV shows such as Live at the Apollo.

Those brave enough to try have to be good. The old ‘women aren’t funny’ complaint could be blamed on the type of weak female stand ups who bleat about men, menstruation and motherhood. I was once at a comedy club and a female comedian stood up to take the stage. My male friend muttered, ‘Oh God, a woman. I bet she talks about her periods.’ Sure enough, her ten minute routine was entirely on that topic. It is frustrating that she should have been so unimaginative. This ranting, bitching style is not uncommon. Is this again a form of defence? Perhaps women feel it can appeal to the women in the audience whilst also fascinating (or at least appeasing) the men? To truly entertain the whole audience though, more originality is needed.

A recent article by Katy Brand in The Telegraph examined the link between women’s beauty and their comic talents. It asked if women could be both beautiful and funny simultaneously. The question that I was asking on reading was: why should this even be considered? Why are we still debating such issues, even if, as Brand does here, they try to suggest that looks shouldn’t matter? After all, no one would write a similar article about male comedians; their looks aren’t important. Instead, it is only their comedy talents which are judged. Brand does her best to make this point, but still, in the process makes comments such as “The cast of the film Bridesmaids was more of a mixed bag in the looks department (in terms of mainstream beauty), but they were all equally funny”. Here she tries to make a valid argument but undermines it by declaring who is good looking and who isn’t. Does anyone ever think about the relative attractiveness vs. funniness of the cast of The Inbetweeners, or of Mitchell and Webb? It seems females cannot escape the apparent significance of their physical appearance, even from the scrutinising assessments of other women.

Just as the most successful female stand ups have to brush off aggressive comments, the most successful female comedians of the sketch show and sitcom genres don’t care about how they look. BBC staples such as Catherine Tate, French and Saunders and Miranda Hart prioritise being funny over looking pretty, much to the advantage of their shows. As it happens, they are all beautiful women, but this is irrelevant to their comedy and they would rather act behind a clownish appearance, cover up with makeup and prosthetics or generally do whatever they think will get the biggest laugh. Of course, some of their best sketches come from the sheer shock of their altered appearances once in that state – take French and Saunders’ ‘old men’, or Catherine Tate’s ‘Nan’ – but transcending this is their astute observations of the behaviours of these characters.

The media tells women to be beautiful. It tells them to dress, eat and behave in a certain way. Women are constantly bombarded with a huge set of ideals: from the covers of glossy magazines; dietary advice; television adverts and window displays. It is not surprising that to drop this ingrained image is hard therefore, especially for someone in the public eye. When considering the points I have made above, it becomes no shock to note that there are fewer women than men in comedy. They have to be able to supersede society’s expectations; not care about looking or speaking in a certain way, whilst being incredibly talented in an original and quick-witted manner.

In an interview with Stylist Magazine, Sheridan Smith made a good point when asked if ‘women have to sacrifice something to be funny’. She enthused about these types of comediennes who will break the mould and be outrageous in the name of a good joke. She gave the example of Kathy Burke as Waynetta Slob, not caring what she looked like. However, voicing a sad truth about the media industry, she then added, ‘That inspired me, because not being your typical beautiful girl, you’ve got to make the most of the roles you are given’. Even in a throwaway comment like that she summarises women’s position in the entertainment world. The ‘beautiful’ ones will get the best roles, the serious dramas and money-making rom coms, while everyone else has to be inventive and ‘make do’. It also suggests that a girl who happens to match society’s idea of beauty cannot or will not go into comedy: presumably men would be too distracted by her face to concentrate on what she has to say! Or perhaps she would be too afraid of making herself look silly as it would sacrifice the best thing she has going for her.

So, women stand ups must be unorthodox in what they say and comedy actresses unorthodox in caring about how they look. Women who appear on television panel shows, meanwhile, must compete with the men in terms of the way they behave. There are increasing numbers of women slowly creeping into shows like Have I Got News For You, Mock the Week and QI but they are still clearly in the minority. A recent episode of QI had all female panellists apart from Alan Davies and a huge point was made out of it. However, no one bats an eyelid on the weeks where it’s all men.

Panel shows of this type have something of a gladiatorial feel to them and contestants battle their wits, fast-paced insults and put downs. It is an intimidating environment in which one has to be faster, cleverer and crueller than the person next to you. Miranda Hart says of the matter, “comedy used to be about clowning about and being self-deprecating but nowadays because all the men are much more competitive it’s got much meaner; it’s about being the cleverest person not the stupidest person.” This puts many female comic off. Those who partake must harden themselves to it: Jo Brand says she can only get on there because she’s ‘mean’. She says that although she doesn’t always enjoy the experience, on good nights it’s great and she feels she’s ‘doing her bit’ for the female sex. No doubt she again employs her background in nursing to help, whilst other women get through armoured with different tactics. Victoria Coren, for example is quiet, contributing just a few things, but using her intelligence to ensure they are particularly relevant and funny. Sue Perkins meanwhile occasionally employs her sexuality as armour, at other times throws herself into the quiz, unafraid of making herself look silly and attempting answers to most questions, uncaring of whether they are right or wrong.

The type of female comedians who appear on these shows, therefore, risk coming across as too brash, snooty, loud or shy. As they stand out because of their usual absence, eyes are naturally drawn to them, with their behaviour analysed more than their male counterparts. These behaviours, as they don’t fit in with the natural idea of how women should be, can seem too rakish, particularly for some male audience members.

On the whole, it is men who complain ‘women aren’t funny’. And to be fair, where do they most commonly see comediennes? At fringe, club or pub comedy nights, where a mediocre stand up may be speaking about her menstrual cycle, or on BBC2 where a woman there will be trying to get her say on a panel of bolshie men trying to out-funny one another. This is not reflective of the whole.

It is simply stupid to sweepingly claim that women aren’t funny, and any man who does is mad to risk saying so if his wife or girlfriend is within earshot. After all, just how many Lonely Hearts adverts request a ‘GSOH’? Humour is a part of life which makes everything more bearable, and it’s not as if the male half of our species give a constant running stand up show in order to make up this quota. So if the ability to be funny is evenly spread, with the potential to lie in everybody, then, like any other talent, it is bound to be more generously awarded to some than others. Therefore, you will get funny women just as you get funny men. Women are funny. But the media and the way women are seen within society can make it more difficult for the ‘fairer sex’ to always be seen as such.

But if you don’t believe me, let me refer you to Susan Calman’s blog, where she makes all of my points in a far more succinct and brilliantly coarse way!


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