Funny women need to develop some balls

If TV panel shows are confrontational and laddish, female performers should stop moaning and get stuck in.

Patrick West
Columnist

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Returning to the theme of last week’s column, I thought television comedy needed further examination. This follows accusations by Sandi Toksvig, Victoria Wood and Jo Brand that the format of TV quizzes discriminates against women because it is ‘testosterone-fuelled’ (1), a charge that Ian Hislop laughed off in this weekend’s episode of Have I Got News For You (2).

This furore has come in the wake of Observer pin-up girl and occasional politician Caroline Flint (3) walking out of the government after accusing Gordon Brown of operating a ‘two-tier’ administration, where women are treated like ‘female window dressing’ (4).

So it transpires that the world of politics and comedy are both dominated by egotistical, power-hungry and implicitly sexist males. Now there’s a surprise. But is it justified? Should we expect to see an equal number of males and females represented on television, whether this be on a comedy show on Friday nights or on prime minister’s questions on a Wednesday afternoon? Does the current disparity accurately reflect gender differences between the sexes found within our genetic make-up, or does it mirror Western culture’s perverted patriarchy which skews imaginary differences between male and female that are largely, if not entirely, fictional?

It is a hackneyed old question and I’m not really qualified as to pass judgment as to the pros and cons of the gender essentialism vs gender-as-construction debate. I agree that Western society is and has been patriarchal, as any linguistic deconstruction of Indo-European exposes, but does that make patriarchy necessarily wrong and unnatural?

My favourite analogy on the subject of ‘are men more aggressive/funnier than women?’ is one which I think I heard in a pub some years back – a place where all the sagacious repositories of eternal wisdom naturally reside: consider the statement ‘men are taller than women’. Now, it would take a moron to believe that this statement implies that ALL men are taller than ALL women. We’re just dealing with an accurate generalisation (a word that has become unfairly maligned these days by people who don’t understand ‘generalisation’ can be a mathematical term, just like when people who say ‘homosexuality is not normal’ aren’t always passing a moral judgement, but merely pointing out that being gay isn’t the statistical ‘norm’ – very different from saying ‘homosexuality is not natural’, which is an empirically false statement).

I think men generally are crueller and funnier than women, which doesn’t mean the same as saying no woman can be more amusing and aggressive than a man. I suppose that makes me a gender essentialist, but I like to think it also makes me appreciate the vagaries of nature, and the degree to which culture makes societies interpret and refashion gender differences upon natural templates.

This debate about women comedians does have the potential to lead us into some misleading avenues of discussion. It is important to keep in mind that Toksvig and others were not talking about television comedy in general, but a particular genre thereof: the comedy panel game. This form of TV can indeed be very aggressively male, as anyone who has seen Mock The Week, Never Mind The Buzzcocks or They Think It’s All Over will appreciate. That’s because males generally tend to thrive on competition, which women (in general – stay with me on this point) tend to shy away from, instead often seeking ‘consensus’.

This is why all these ‘Blair Babes’ can’t hack it in parliament, feeling it’s too ‘confrontational’. They are the opposite of those exceptions who proved the rule, such as Barbara Castle, Shirley Williams, Ann Widdecombe and Margaret Thatcher, women who were not to be messed with because they didn’t moan about ‘ya-boo’ politics and relished a challenge, rather than timidly retreating from one. And like most men, they actually enjoyed being cruel in return because cruelty and humour are usually inextricably linked. Rival parliamentarians love John Prescott because they enjoy him making a verbal fool of himself – for much the same reason that the oldest form of humour is the prat-fall. Watching people fall over is essentially and eternally amusing because we are delighting in someone else’s misfortune.

But not all comedy panel games are this way. QI does rely on mockery and humiliation in that it concludes with Stephen Fry excoriating and mocking contestants for their display of ‘general ignorance’, but otherwise it’s quite civilised. Likewise, Have I Got News For News For You‘s essential remit is to point to the ridiculous nature of politicians, but it too is largely cerebral. These two programmes rely far less on antagonistic banter between contestants. Their humour is usually satirical and self-deprecatory, rather than Mock The Week‘s savage toilet humour. The same can be said in favour of BBC Radio 4 for its News Quiz and I’m Sorry, I Haven’t A Clue.

But elsewhere in comedy, gender differences seem to fade. Jo Brand is herself no mean stand-up and Joan Rivers could have given Richard Pryor a run for his money. On sitcoms you have the likes of Sally Philips, Doon Mackichan, Jennifer Aniston from Friends or Julia-Louis Dreyfus from Seinfeld. This is because stand-up acts are by their nature solo efforts, removing the need or opportunity for competition, and sitcoms are similarly communal efforts. No TV producer of a sit-com could tolerate competition between characters in a sitcom becoming manifest too obviously when it came to shooting the series.

This is why to complain about the masculine nature of comedy quizzes is silly, and misses the point. If you don’t like their fundamentally confrontational nature then just don’t go on them. If they were not often juvenile and ‘testosterone-fuelled’, most of them wouldn’t be funny and would be taken off air – ironically making it more difficult for any comedian to get on the telly. People who decide to make a living in an environment that requires a bit of mettle should realise this from the outset, rather than trying to dilute and pacify that which they seek to enter. Have I Got News For You regulars such as Germaine Greer, as well as former no-nonsense stars of the House of Commons such as Margaret Thatcher, don’t or didn’t start crying when they get or got insulted, because they understood the nature of the beast.

Patrick West is spiked’s TV columnist.

Read on:

spiked-issue: TV

(1) Women – beware panel shows!, Guardian, 10 June 2009

(2) Have I Got News For You, BBC iPlayer

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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