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The Rights of Woman (in Comedy)

It’s difficult to define a feminist, but arguably when the term is mentioned, a stereotypical image of the feminist is conjured up. I’m not completely innocent of this generalisation either, but when I really seriously consider it, I find it difficult to think that any woman on earth is not a feminist in one way or another. There are certain women who will act as activists for the cause, but it doesn’t mean that other women are not behind them in the fight.

After much consideration on the direction this article, I have decided to base it on something somebody (that person will remain nameless) said to me concerning women in comedy. I’ve always had a deep-rooted appreciation for comedy; comedy writing is frequently a starting point for me. From a young age I have been watching stand-up, sitcoms and sketch groups. Every year at Edinburgh Fringe I will see as much stand-up comedy as I can, and although I would never have considered the presence of the female in this art form as sparse, I have been forced to re-consider this very recently.

It all stems from something that certain aforementioned anonymous person said to me.

‘Women aren’t as funny as men, because it’s the man who always has to impress the woman.’

Ironically, this statement, from the mouth of a man, did make me laugh out loud. The statement is one which tackles many issues on many levels. Taken at face-value, the statement is purely offensive.  Secondly, it forces one to consider why this person thinks this, and ultimately it has to come down to the presence of the woman in comedy, doesn’t it? Thirdly, the rooted basis for this statement is undoubtedly connected to a historical connotation of men as the seducers of women and the importance of humour in that process of seduction. Many men will argue (and have, with me at least) that the onus lies with the man to approach the woman, but many forget to consider that perhaps the woman would have approached the man if she was attracted to him. If a woman is attracted to a man, she will make it happen, regardless of the standard of the man’s jokes. If a man is attractive enough, a woman will laugh at the most abysmal jokes. Why do men still think that the burden of seduction lies with them in this day and age? I’m certainly not sitting sombrely in my drawing room (although I do admit I wouldn’t say no to a drawing room), reading books, sewing and taking turns around the room waiting for a man to deem me marriage material and take my father’s money for the pleasure.  It’s purely ridiculous to think that this still happens today. Yet that connotation is still there, and is constantly re-enforced by people in positions of power.

As for the presence of women in comedy, it is plausible to suggest that the reason for this unbalanced ratio of women to men comedians has stemmed from this old fashioned belief that men have a duty to be funny. A handful of names come to mind when considering women in comedy and those can be split again into two separate groups: the women who make base material on their womanhood and the women who are funny in their own right. Comedians like Jenny Eclair, and sometimes even Jo Brand, will always centre a large chunk of material on being a woman, being menopausal, and will usually promote themselves on shows that all men are likely to watch like Loose Women at midday on a weekday. On the other hand, the comedy greats like French and Saunders are women who are extremely talented and funny in their own right, but French will always have her Vicar of Dibley label before anything else as opposed her association with the Comic Strip. Julia Davis is often thought of as Dawn from Gavin and Stacey, but what about Nighty Night, Human Remains and Lizzie and Sarah? On that note, the pilot of Julia Davis’ and Jessica Hynes’ Lizzie and Sarah was received well by the public, but the BBC were accused of losing their nerve when they announced that they would not be commissioning a series.  The pilot was deemed ‘too dark’ for a BBC audience, but when one considers that The League of Gentlemen is not a million miles away from Davis’ and Hynes’ macabre masterpiece, it does begin to raise questions over the true reason behind the decision. Arguably you could say that The League is more of a surrealist comedy and that perhaps the ‘risqué’ plotline to Lizzie and Sarah was too close to a potentially real scenario. Perhaps it’s too scary to consider that two women could kill off their abusive husbands like a demented Thelma and Louise. The pilot’s script was tight and very well performed, so it really was a loss to the comedy scene when this series was pushed to one side making way for atrocious BBC 3 comedy programmes like Coming of Age (eventually axed due to poor viewing figures) and other such failures.

America does marginally better in terms of the presence of female comedians. Fantastically talented women like Kristen Wiig however, although very successful, will never be as widely recognized as Jerry Seinfeld or Louis CK. But who can say that these women are ‘not as funny’? Who decides this? One possibility is that women generally tend to work more subtly within the comedy world. Mindy Kaling, a writer, director, producer and actress, has recently launched the second series of her show The Mindy Project. Although ratings in the US are good, it is certainly not widely recognised back here in the UK, whilst other shows like Glee, How I Met Your Mother and many more are eagerly anticipated. Kaling, who is largely recognized for portraying the character Kelly Kapoor in the US office, was actually one of the original scriptwriters for the US office, the only woman in a staff of eight. That surely speaks for itself. Why don’t we hear more of these women here in the UK?

Whilst women comedy festivals are not necessarily a bad thing, it does create a subtle segregation; you’ll notice I’ve refrained from using the term ‘comedienne’ throughout this article because it carries differentiation connotations. Why are female comedians in a different category to men? Because they can certainly match their comic abilities, without a doubt. Women ARE as funny as men, but perhaps society hasn’t quite caught up with that yet. I urge those of you who remain unconvinced to do some research on specific names mentioned in this article, to actively seek out these hilarious women. Yes there are those who don’t fall into such a category, but there are plenty of male comedians who don’t either. Unfortunately we don’t see a fair promotion of female comic talent, but I do believe that one day we will, and that’s when the women, including myself, will smugly say, ‘We told you so.’

Illustration by Dean Lewis