Why are there so few women on BBC panel shows?

Programmes like Mock the Week are a great platform for stand-up comedians, and yet fewer than one in ten of the guests are female. Why do the likes of Caitlin Moran and Grace Dent feel compelled to turn down BBC panel shows?

Lydia Graystone
24 July 2012

Where are all the funny women?

Don’t tell me they don’t exist. I see enough of that on my Facebook feed. Christopher Hitchens may have treated the ‘humour gap’ between men and women as irrefutable fact, but I’m not going to argue with someone who writes off an entire gender as unfunny just because a couple of female comedians told some shoddy jokes on television. Funny women are all over the place, ranging from brilliant comedy writers like Victoria Coren to the bakery customer who told me that she thought the delicious jam Danish I was selling her looked a bit like a used sanitary towel.

So why aren’t these women represented on panel shows on the BBC?

To be fair, Never Mind the Buzzcocks and Would I Lie to You tend to have a relatively even mix of male and female panellists (although there is no female equivalent to regulars like Phill Jupitus and David Mitchell). QI, however, is much more predominantly male; moreover, its recurring female guests (Jo Brand, Sue Perkins, Sandi Toksvig) are all very much of a type, and that type is not traditionally feminine. They do not behave in the way that society expects a stereotypical woman to act. As a similarly unfeminine woman, I can’t say I’m overly bothered about this, but it does beg an interesting question: is there no room for femininity in British comedy?

Most people would say no. As a rule, traditional femininity is about being sweet, attractive, and sexually available. These traits are completely out of place in the world of British comedy, which often involves being unpleasant, hostile, ridiculous, and generally unattractive in a lot of ways. Up until the last five or six decades, women were not allowed to behave in this way without someone alerting the church elders. But it’s the 21st century now. Surely the BBC should be doing something to counteract the troubling statistic that Mock the Week has featured fewer than 1 in 10 female guests throughout its entire run, while Have I Got News For You is little better.

Why is this lack of oestrogen so prevalent in the comedy circuit? Perhaps it’s because we’re just not accustomed to listening to other women in any situation. One study shows that in the classroom at school, interaction is already dominated by boys. Moreover:

'[Dale Spender] noted that teachers who tried to restore the balance by deliberately ‘favouring’ the girls were astounded to find that despite their efforts they continued to devote more time to the boys in their classrooms. Another study reported that a male teacher who managed to create an atmosphere in which girls and boys contributed more equally to discussion felt that he was devoting 90 percent of his attention to the girls. And so did his male pupils. They complained vociferously that the girls were getting too much talking time.'

This demonstrates that as our society is still relatively unused to letting women have their say, when we actually do give them a fair shot it feels like pandering and tokenism, something for which the BBC came under fire fairly recently.

In other words, we still (secretly, in the back of our minds, squashed down with all the other things we’re a bit ashamed of) expect women to be silent while the men are busy making witty remarks about politics. This means that panel shows are automatically a hostile environment for women. The producers are on edge, hoping they won’t be accused of sexism or tokenism. The male panellists are on edge, keen to take as much airtime for their own contributions as possible. The audience are on edge because of everything they’ve ever heard about women making jokes.

But more than anyone, it is the female panellists who are on edge. How easy is it to be funny when under intense pressure to do so? Many female comedians including Victoria Wood and Mariella Frostrup have complained about the ‘testosterone heavy’ environment of the panel show; Jo Brand has stated that she will not go on Mock the Week again because of its overly competitive environment.

Mock the Week host Dara O’Briain put the lack of women panellists on his programme down to a general dearth of female comedians, but accurate as this may be, there are other factors at play. Caitlin Moran has turned down appearances on Have I Got News For You:

‘Because she knows she will be on as the token female guest, that she will rarely be allowed to speak – it will be edited out before screening in order to “save her from herself”, with the result that the only clips of her actually shown would be her politely tittering at a man’s jokes. The implication, said Moran, is that women don’t get politics and can’t understand political humour. So she doesn’t bother anymore. [Grace] Dent agreed.’

Perhaps this is why the BBC is so frequently accused of tokenism when it comes to the presence of women on panel shows. So often a female comedian will appear once on a show like Mock the Week, say very little and never return; could this be because the editing is skewed in favour of the male panellists, to the point that the comedian will have no desire to return because of the way she has been presented to the public? A number of women seem to think so.

And what should the BBC do to tackle this issue? The answer is simple: give funny women a platform. If they’re happy to go on a panel show, get them on there, and keep a keen eye on the editing room to make sure no one’s trying to ‘save them from themselves’.

As for the growing number of female comedians who are unhappy with the overbearingly male environment of Mock the Week and Have I Got News For You – why not give them their own panel show? Not a programme about ‘women’s issues’ – just a smart, funny panel show whose host and regular panellists happen to be female. It’s not as if the lack of a male authority figure would cause it to devolve into a morass of high-pitched shrieking about shoes and celebrities. We are not all Loose Women. Many of us just like to have a laugh, and would be much happier if this was reflected by the BBC. 

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