The BBC decision to no longer make all-male panel shows has resurrected the old ‘women aren’t funny’ cliché. Why is this and where did it come from in the first place?
The BBC has decided to no longer make any all-male panel shows. I personally would suggest a reduction of panel shows in general. If current trends persist, soon we’ll be seeing a panel show where a panel of comedians has to answer questions about things that happened on other panel shows, and the whole format will disappear up its own conceptual backside in a puff of self-awareness.
Or not. I don’t know, I don’t watch much TV if I’m honest.
But one consequence of this has been to reignite the dreaded “women aren’t funny” argument, the comedy world’s answer to “creationism is a science”, in that it’s a ridiculous notion with no supporting evidence, but people keep bringing it up again and again because it conforms to their own views.
Many commenters are predictably/depressingly claiming that the existence of an official policy to get women on panel shows proves they aren’t as funny as men. If you know anything about the comedy and the TV industry, this is akin to saying “the fact that women need to have the right to vote enshrined in law PROVES they don’t deserve it”. The assumption that the existing system is 100% fair is laughably naive. Any official recognition of this is a good thing.
But where exactly does this assumption that women aren’t funny come from? Panel shows probably don’t help. It’s common to see comments online like “Just seen [notable female comedian] on Mock the Week and she was rubbish. Just goes to show, women aren’t funny.” One example of one person failing to meet an entirely subjective standard in a manufactured context is not definitive evidence for making sweeping generalisations about half the human race, yet people do this all the time. But the preconception that women aren’t funny clearly predates mainstream panel shows.
People who say “women aren’t funny” as a blanket statement would rarely agree with the opposite “all men are funny”, as they’re clearly not. I try to write funny things but a quick look at the comments on anything I’ve ever written will provide many examples of people who are happy to point out my lack of comedic skills. Even though I’m a man!
So where does this “women aren’t funny” preconception stem from? There are plenty of scientific theories as to why women wouldn’t be seen as funny, most of which don’t stand up to much scrutiny. There’s a general implication that humour is involved in human mating, being a common way for men to gain attention from women (however ridiculously). Indeed, the acronym GSOH is so ubiquitous in dating profiles that it may as well mean “general sort of human”. And men are more well-known for employing seemingly ridiculous tactics with the aim of getting female attention. Is standing on stage for the amusement of strangers the modern human equivalent of the peacock’s tail?
Even if this is the case, it would be an overly reductive, simplified view of the issue; just one factor among many in a complex whole. So what other sex differences are there that may explain this apparent bias in comedic skills? Well obviously men and women have differently wired brains, which could be expressed as a difference in comedic ability. Except this is largely nonsense. Then there’s the fact that comedy and psychosis are linked, and men are more prone to psychosis and schizophrenia. Except this is largely spurious as well (the comedy and psychosis one; the uneven gender prevalence seems to be legit).
Some argue that the comedic differences go down to the genetic level. In a sense this is correct; the Y chromosome is laughably feeble compared to the mighty X chromosome, and may not even be needed. Then there are of course the anatomical differences, which may also be a factor. The external male genitals are generally funnier than the internal female ones, because you can do puppetry with male ones, or put glasses on them.
Whatever the underpinnings of its origins, the idea that women aren’t funny has become one entrenched by social factors. Women haven’t exactly been given much opportunity to say anything in the past, let alone make jokes. When so many people still believe a woman’s place is in the home when a comedian’s place is anywhere but, an aversion or bias against women performing comedy (in any context) is probably inevitable.
One theory is that people organise their knowledge using cognitive schemas, which are frameworks of information that help you analyse and organise new knowledge. Anyone who grows and develops in our society is quite likely to end up with a schema that says “comedy = a thing men do”, and as such will exclude/dismiss any information that challenges that, rather than alter their way of thinking. This may explain why many women also object to other women doing comedy (a common occurrence), or why there are apparently fewer female comics in general. Our schemas are suspected to underpin the maintenance of prejudices and stereotypes. So when people with such a schema in place see a woman doing comedy, they invariably find some way to reject it.
This is why you get clichés like “women comedians only talk about women things”. Quite why talking about things that half the population can relate to is a bad idea for a comedian remains to be determined, but this can usually be translated as “women comedians talk about things from the perspective of a woman”. There’s a good reason for that, can you guess what it is?
There’s also the criticism of “women comedians are just angry shouty feminists/lesbians”. Not sure if this is a regular claim or just one I happen to have heard a lot, but it’s really underscored by the fact that male comics are all right-wingers with a calm, Zen-like detachment.
But you can argue it all you want; there will be some people who will never accept that women can be funny and will happily point this out on any blogpost that claims otherwise. Still, it’s their opinion and they’re entitled to it. It’s incredibly limiting though, like insisting “foreign people can’t cook”; you may believe that, but you’re cutting yourself off from so much.
This will all still be true the next time this argument comes around, like the relentless mindless zombie of a stereotype it really is.
Still, boobs eh? What are they all about?
Dean Burnett isn’t a woman but is a stand-up comic with psychology qualifications, so is sort of able to comment on this kind of thing. He is on Twitter, @garwboyThis article was written by Dean Burnett, for theguardian.com on Tuesday 11th February 2014 07.38 Europe/London
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image: © Alan Turkus