Is ‘Mock the Week’ Really Sexist?

by | Jan 31, 2012 | All, Reviews

Nadine Dorries last night complained about Mock the Week being part of a ‘sexist’ BBC agenda. But, with the example of Mock The Week, could she be right?

Chortle, reporting on this today, have done the maths. It doesn’t look good. 

Chortle has analysed the line-ups over all ten series of Mock The Week, going back to 2005, and found that fewer than ten per cent of the panellists have been women. Taking host Dara O’Briain into account as well, just 8.3 per cent of people appearing on the show are women.”

Dorries is, however, a little late to the Twitterstorm as this debate’s been raging there for quite some time. In fact, last year, as far back as September, several bloggers and Tweeters were debating this very subject with whoever is behind @Mocktheweek, sometimes into the small hours of the night, and @Daraobriain himself.

But this debate even goes back as far as 2009 when, in an interview with the Telegraph (more on them later), O’Briain, responding to Victoria Wood’s comments about comedy panel shows being testosterone-fuelled hives of elitist menfolk, said:

 “There is a very small representation of women stand-ups on Mock the Week,” says the 37-year-old Irish comic. “But that’s because women just don’t do stand-up. A few do it, and a few ****ing good ones do it. But there’s a 90 per cent, 10 per cent split the entire way down the industry, from the Edinburgh Festival to the open mic level. Every [panel] show I’ve done we’ve torn our hair out trying to find female comics and there is no industry more hungry for women to be involved. But there just aren’t that many female stand-ups.”

Sexism is a funny thing

I was at a comedy/science/music event just last night and noted just one female comic/scientist/academic on stage. The news that Nadine Dorries was up in arms about an old Mock the Week episode got me thinking about this problem. What is it with female comics? Where are they all?

Sexism across professions

So, there are a few things to consider. Is the comedy circuit any different to the general population? Look at other professions and you’ll generally find that there’s a problem with institutional sexism in the majority of high-level/high-profile jobs. Let’s look at one profession: lawyers. One blog, put female senior partners at 29% (in 2006), from a pool of 40% women yet, as Susan Calman, a lawyer-turned-comic puts it, the UK Supreme Court has just one woman.

Let’s not even get into the clergy. 

Are women funny? 
Awards, however they’re awarded, are of course not a good indicator of real success in comedy – many winners of comedy awards may provoke hilarity to you but leave me cold. But let’s have a look at the last 20 years of Edinburgh Comedy/Perrier/Foster’s Comedy Awards for best newcomer (instituted 1992, which is handy).

But that’s not easy either. It looks to be that sexism is really quite rife in the world of comedy. Both the 2002 and 2009 awards have been criticised for “lazy”, “myopic” and “insulting” choices and for being English-centric, choosing mainly white, English males. But let’s look anyway…

L-R Josie Long (2006), Sarah Millican (2008), Roisin Conaty (2010)

We had to wait a whole 12 years in the best newcomer category for a woman, Josie Long, to win 2006’s award. The trend jumped a year into 2008 – Sarah Millican and again in 2010 – Roisin Conaty. Will the trend continue in 2012?

So, are women just not funny? Perhaps a look at DVD sales could help more than awards? After all, don’t people vote with their wallets?

Looking at this week’s ‘special interest’ DVD sales (to the 4th Feb 2012), only one female comic’s DVD appears in the top 40 (Sarah Millican). Considering the article I’ve just unearthed from November 2011, she’s lucky to chart so high, as it looks like women aren’t really in common parlance when it comes to even recommending DVDs for Christmas stocking fillers. Of the Top 20 DVDs recommended by The Telegraph’s Dominic Cavendish, not one was a female comic’s offering. Looks like Millican’s 2008 win hasn’t done her too many favours.

So, with the information we have, it’s difficult one to prove or disprove whether it’s sexism or whether women are really just not funny, but taking the amount of women IN comedy into account won’t tell you the whole picture. What of the comedy population? I’m guessing it’s probably not as equally split as the general population, but this is likely due to a self-fulfilling prophecy – people think women aren’t as funny as men therefore fewer women get into comedy. Mock the Week is generally replete with male guests, the same funnymen churned over and over ad nauseum. In fact, we don’t get too many new guests from either sex popping up all that often either.

The dearth of women in comedy is something that Jo Brand has spoken about before – in fact in reaction to Victoria Wood’s comments surrounding panel shows, saying:

One practical problem is that there are far more male comics than women. When I started on the circuit there were about 200 male standups and about 20 female – roughly one woman for every two and a half panel shows.”

So is it the BBC or Mock the Week who is sexist? I’d argue neither – it’s part of the self-fulfilling prophecy rearing its hilarious head, meaning that bookers, promoters and event organisers seem to be giving the audience what it thinks it wants: testosterone, dick jokes and willy-waving. 

But it’s not just Nadine Dorries who’s concerned about the diversity in panel shows and news/current affairs programming. A report, primarily about age representation commissioned by the BBC and released today by the Creative Diversity Network, states: 

“[…] some panel shows were also criticised for rarely having women represented or only having ‘token women’ on their programmes. Comedy shows, such as QI or Mock the Week, as well as current affairs programmes such as Question Time were implicated in this.”

Many have suggested that Mock the Week should be providing more opportunities for up-and-coming women. I couldn’t agree more.





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