The BBC's token woman debate

Last week the BBC’s director of TV, Danny Cohen, announced that it will no longer have any all-male line-ups on panel shows.
"You can't do that. It's not acceptable," he said. 
Only, it has been accepted up until now, which is why I think we should take his protest with a pinch of PR salt. Especially because it feels as if comedy panel shows have been perennially criticised for this. Over the duration of Mock the Week's lifespan, only 11% of its panellists have been female. He's obviously a slow learner. 

The news has predictably resurfaced the trite debate over whether men are just funnier than women. As far as my knowledge goes, although there some differences in the cognitive abilities between men and women like spatial awareness, empathy and walking in heels, I'm not aware of a difference that makes men truly funnier than women. 

After reading several articles questioning why it's got to this, talking about why positive discrimination is needed and how panel shows have been so male-dominated for so long -  I believe the answer  is simply because there is an inherent difference between how we view men and women.

There are things hardwired in us when it comes to gender. Even when it comes to the battle of sexual equality - I might not be the only woman who would be slightly offended if a man looked me up and down and addressed me as 'love'. But if a woman did it I'd think she disapproved of what I was wearing but was mildly friendly nonetheless. 

In the French film Oppressed Majority that went viral last week - telling a story of the day in the life of a man if gender roles were reversed - one sentence in particular stood out to me. After being beaten up and given a hard time by a female police officer, the man's girlfriend comes to pick him up. "Take me home," he says.

The more I think about it, the more I realise that something within me found it a bit of an odd thing for a man to say to a woman. It really shouldn't be - but this just proves that despite it not being logical, these gender imbalances are sometimes there. 

We expect women and men to behave differently and use different language in certain situations, and men have gotten away with turning panel shows into male-orientated territory, because we, as an audience, accept it. Panel shows are the optimum environments for males, not just because they dominate it already but because a lot of the time the male contestants take the piss out of each other and try to compete between themselves. 

On most panel shows the comedians (almost always males) make fun of each other and if there's a woman on the programme who is relatively attractive, often this will be picked up on throughout the show. I don't recall ever watching a panel show where women guests repeatedly refer to a man's attractiveness, which is a shame for David Mitchell. 

And let's not talk about 8 Out of 10 Cats, where women are only cast as either the attractive or stupid one for male comedians to direct their easy jokes to. 

But is positive discrimination ever the answer? 'Let’s patronise women and give them a shot' is all I hear. If an industry didn't want me based on my being a woman, then this move by the BBC wouldn't make any difference. There is often a noticeable difference between the way men talk to men and they way they talk to women, and the men have created their own optimum conditions for panel shows where they get to set the tone. Having more 'at least one woman' on each show won't redress this. 


  1. Hearing this makes me think about the whole Jerry Seinfeld thing. They asked him recently why there was not a lot of diversity on Seinfeld, and he said, bluntly, I don't make it a point to seek out diversity. Oh, our cast doesn't have an Asian person. Then let's put in an Asian person. We also need a black person to fill the quota. No. If you're funny, you'll be on the show. If you're not, you won't. That's all it comes down to.

    So really, I think it's a double edged sword. Yes, we should support diversity and female comedians, absolutely. But we shouldn't hire someone based purely on gender or race alone, just for the sake of diversity.

  2. Someone once told me that the female portion of the audience reacts negatively to attractive female comedians. Because for some reason, women do not like it if a woman is both very attractive AND very funny. And the tv networks don't like unattractive women on the screen. I wanted to say that's BS, but the more I thought about it, the more I realize that I am one of those audience members...

  3. Well, as a massive fan of panel shows, I have mixed feelings about this. I myself do comedy and I dream of the day when I see more women up there (and also dream of sitting up on HIGNFY next to Ian Hislop) but I don't want them to push any woman up there just for the sake of it. Mock the Week keep putting that Canadian blonde girl up there and she's TERRIBLE. Unless they edit her to seem this way, she appears to be a total airhead with nothing good to say.

  4. OH and for women being awesome on panel shows, check out Radio 4's News Quiz. <3