Turning comediennes into token women

Dara Ó Briain, host of BBC comedy panel show Mock the Week, has spoken out against the BBC’s ban on male-only panels on its programmes. The ban, launched to tackle the disproportionate presence of men on BBC shows, will require panel shows to feature at least one woman in each episode. This has been interpreted as a dig at male-dominated comedy shows in particular.

‘A certain number of women want to go into comedy, and they should be cherished and nurtured’, Ó Briain reflected in an interview with Radio Times.  ‘But you’re not going to shift the fact that loads more men want to do it. Legislating for a token woman isn’t much help.’

The edict was issued by the BBC’s director of television Danny Cohen, who said that the underepresentation of females on BBC shows was simply ‘not acceptable’.

The rationale behind this move seems to be that having a greater representation of women on the box would serve, in and of itself, some sort of social good, and would open the door to struggling female comedians.

However, as Ó Briain rightly pointed out, this move would only undermine those female comedians already working the panel-show circuit, and any who might break through in the future: ‘[This ban] means Katherine Ryan or Holly Walsh, who’ve been on millions of times, will suddenly look like the token woman… We bring through female comics earlier than we do male comics because there is such a tiny pool of female stand-ups.’

The obsession with female representation on television seems to suggest that rather than judging comedians on their comedic talent, comediennes should be given a leg up. After all, so the thinking goes, women are incapable of breaking into comedy’s macho world by themselves. As Caitlin Moran, a columnist for The Times, remarked, ‘it’s not like they built [Mock the Week] to screw women over, it’s just that boys built it so they made it to work for boys’.

From this viewpoint, despite the fact that Mock the Week tries to encourage female talent, such shows are sexist purely because men make them and women are helpless to do anything about it. This purely symbolic ban by the BBC is patronising and pointless. Ó Briain should be applauded for speaking up against it.

Charlie Pearson is a spiked intern.

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