Tuesday, 29 June 2010

Are Comediennes A Feminist Issue?

By Rachel Surtees (@RVSurtees)

A couple of weeks ago my fiancé and I took his brother and sister out-law to see one of the many pre-Edinburgh warm ups springing up along the long and winding road from North London to Scotland.

The bill was a fairly typical ex-fringe line up for this time of year: an unknown (man), an up and coming (woman), an established yet unknown (woman), an ex-fringe headliner (man) and a compere (woman). Two men, three women.

I laughed and drank in equal measure for the full 150 minutes, and yet, rather than starting up the normal post-show banter, I left feeling not quite sober and not quite disappointed, just somewhere between the two. Then my partner obliviously twisted the knife and brought the realisation screaming to the fore of consciousness.

Why are men consistently so much funnier than women? And why is my feminist fiancé talking to me about comediennes?

A friend immediately responded to the first question with:

“Joan Rivers is funny. Jo Brand. (sometimes) Victoria Wood. Josie Long. That big woman from bbc2. can't remember her name.

Tell you what is really funny. Clare in The Community (it is written by men though...)”

The thing is, I agree. All of the above are funny, which is because women are as funny, if not funnier, than men…in real life. Yet for some reason, on a stage the Y chromosome always seems to have the edge.

I’ve attempted a few possible explanations, each of which is probably a little bit true but ultimately weak in logic and relevance in 2010:

1) We’re used to seeing male comedians so are conditioned to hearing and seeing comedy delivered in a particular way. Mock the Week is a prime example of this. Until Frankie left, MTW was one of the funniest panel shows that’s been around for a very long time and so built up a core group of regular first class comic guests. And yet, the only regular female representation over the last 3 years has been Lucy-funny-but-oh-so-girly-Porter, and Gina-not funny-but-shouts-a-lot-Yashere.

2) There are still some subjects that though risky for a man, are absolutely taboo for a woman – Sarah Silverman’s brazen ignorance of this might explain her appeal.

3) Just with so many other industries, there is a new golden generation of funny women on their way, they just haven’t quite arrived yet.

4) Comedy’s lifeblood is the continuation and challenge of stereotypes, and so sexism (and every other type of ism), is not only permitted, but actively encouraged. The resulting laddish comedy that the likes of Frank Skinner, Russell Howard, Jonathan Ross etc. etc., built their names on is as unsurprising as it is insurmountable for women. So either the whole culture of comedy has to change – unlikely, or women will have to develop a new parallel culture – still differentiated.

None of the above really explains it though. Perhaps there’s nothing to explain and I’ve simply been hanging out in the wrong venues?

As for the second question, I can’t help but feel that one is a symptom of the other. The fiancé helpfully pointed out that comedienne is simply one of a million words in the dictionary. I, perhaps unhelpfully, shouted back “Yes but why? WHY?”

Unlike other European languages, English isn’t gendered. So then, why do we draw a differentiation within certain professions? More to the point, think about the professions, and occasions in which the feminine usage is common. Anyone remember when we used to talk about authoresses? I do. It was before female authors presented themselves to be on an equal playing field to male writers in terms of skill, wages and reputation. Female actors and comedians by contrast still lag behind their male counterparts in all of these fields. It works both ways of course, that strapping nurse you see in the corner isn’t just a nurse, no no, he’s a male nurse.

Call it cynicism but there seems to me to be an implication of superiority in the differentiation between male comedians and female comediennes… after all, can you think of any other reason why we’d need two different names for one profession?

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Tuesday, 22 June 2010

Dead Wrong - Pro Wrestling's Dirty Little Secret

By John Ellul

Last month, a 56-year-old Floridian man suffered a pre-surgery heart scare when doctors believed they'd discovered an abnormality with his heart.

Nothing too unusual there, you might think, given the winning combination of uber-tanning and tight swimwear that they seem to embrace in that part of the world. For this particular individual, however, there are bigger things to worry about. Professional idiot and occasional wrestler Hulk Hogan was described as "very relieved" to find that, upon closer inspection, nothing was amiss with his EKG - this time.

In truth, sunstroke and a bad wardrobe could turn out to be the least of the Hulkster's worries if he knows what's good for him.

The death rate for professional wrestlers - recently retired ones in particular - is, frankly, shocking; a worrying trend equalled only by the shortage of people who know, or care. And therein lies the essence of my ponder - should we give two hoots about these muscle-bound morons?

In many respects, the reticence of both the British media and the public to get to grips with the trouble befallling the grappling game is to be expected. It's not British, it's not real, and to be honest, it's a bit silly.

That in it itself may render the topic less than newsworthy at first glance, but whether you classify it as sport or entertainment - or neither - it should cause shockwaves. If athletes in any other minor-interest overseas sport started dropping like flies, or the grim reaper started bumping off characters in a cult-status soap opera for no discernible reason, there would rightly be an outcry.

Not so in this lycra clad ghost story.

A conservative estimate puts the number of performers in the wrestling industry to die before the age of 50 since 1990 at nearly 80. Suspect heart attacks and other side-effects of an overreliance on anabolic steroids account for a large percentage of the dead. Another major culprit is the overdoses of painkilling drugs which many rely on to keep up with the punishing rough and tumble..

Deaths "on duty" are rare, but certainly do happen – just ask the fans who watched in horror as Mal "King Kong" Kirk died in the ring after receiving a routine "belly splash" from Big Daddy in Norfolk in 1987. And then there are the suicides...

Without a doubt the most heartbreaking tale in this Dead Wrestlers' Society has to be that of the Von Erich Family - a story in suicide that starts with Jack Adkisson, who wrestled across the United States in the 1950s and 60s under the lazy and exploitative Nazi-sympathiser persona of "Fritz Von Erich".

Never quite hitting the heights as a national star himself, Fritz (as he insist everyone call him) soon transferred his dreams of success to each of his sons, demanding a dedication to a lifetime in the wrestling industry from each of them. It was a psychotic single-mindedness that would have fatal results.

Already a hard and unsympathetic man, Fritz's negative outlook on life took another hit when first son Jack Jr. was accidentally electrocuted and drowned in a puddle at the age of seven.

His desire to create a winning wrestling dynasty initially looked in good hands, and son David Von Erich, proficient, good-looking and wildy popular, was set for greatness. Days before a scheduled world title win which would have catapulted him to international stardom, David was found dead in his hotel room in 1984, victim of a recreational drug overdose.

Without missing a beat, the pressure then shifted to younger brothers Kerry, Mike, and Chris Von Erich. Pushed to return from injury prematurely by his father, Mike suffered toxic shock syndrome, and took an overdose of tranquilisers in 1987. Depressed at his inability to make it as a wrestler, and frustrated with his slight physique, Chris shot himself in 1991, aged just 22. He had, he wrote in his suicide note, "gone to be with David and Michael."

Kerry was the only one to make it to the big leagues of the WWF. Rivalled only by David in his fondness for recreational drugs, Kerry had a long rap list of car crashes, arrests, overdoses, and other close calls. Worried that his latest arrest would result in lengthy imprisonment, Kerry shot himself in the heart in 1993.

Legend has it, when sixth and sole surviving brother Kevin confronted his father about the pain and sorrow he'd inflicted on the family, he was told: "I'm proud of them. You were always too much of a coward to kill yourself."

It would be easy to dismiss these deaths as the product of a harrowing family environment, but the pressures of the crowd clearly weighed too heavily on them and many others. As former WWE champion Robert "Rob Van Dam" Szatkowsky explained in 2009:

"In our world, as big as the news of a wrestler dying can be, we always know it's not going to be the last. Anytime a wrestler dies, we're automatically thinking, 'Okay, who's next?'

And that, in a nutshell, is the life of a wrestler - the life they chose.

Things have improved immeasurably since February 2006 when the company introduced its Talent Wellness Program, a direct reaction to the high-profile drug death of headliner Eddie Guerrero the previous December. Ever since, any violations of the frequent are publicised on WWE's own website, with suspensions and contract terminations for persistent offenders, as well as the option of paid-for rehab.

But it still goes on.

How can you tell? Look out for acne next time you see wresting on TV - especially on the back and shoulder blades. It makes for alarming viewing.

Then again, who cares? No one apparently. Until it happens to a huge, international star, I bet.

Cue, Mr Hogan...

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Tuesday, 15 June 2010

The Beautiful Game

By Euclides Montes (@gatulino)

I found myself in a peculiar position recently. As you might already be aware, there is some sort of football competition going on at the moment and being one of the many loony football fans around the world, I could barely contain my excitement. Having been born in a country whose World Cup experience is painfully risible, my allegiance has squarely been with the English team for the last decade or so, yet I found myself defending my position as an England supporter recently in conversation amongst a group of British-born fans. Peculiar indeed, in my opinion.

Of course there are the obvious – and to an extent reasonable - arguments of ‘why bother?’. With the English team it’s usually a matter of ‘we came, we saw, we stuttered, we went home with our tail between our legs’. The echoes of ’66 still ringing as loud and heavy as the vuvuzuelas in South Africa. We all know that we’re probably going to face Portugal or Germany at some point, and that Lampard will take that pivotal penalty kick and … well, I can even see The Sun headline already ‘HE BENT IT LIKE BECKHAM’. But surely that’s no reason to stop supporting our team. After all, being a glutton for pain and disappointment is an essential requirement for football fans everywhere, especially if you are an [insert your own team here] supporter. And besides, this could be our year after all!

Add to that the fact that some of our players will never make it into any of our Christmas card list and that the modern state of the sport mean that some of those disliked players still command ridiculous sums week in, week out and you can understand why some people have chosen to forsake the national team and support teams from other countries. As I said above, understandable.

However, one criticism I have seen gathering pace recently is that of football – and the World Cup at that – being a prejudiced enterprise in almost every sense and just by supporting it I should almost feel ashamed of myself. I am a very woolly liberal, I’ll be the first to admit but this argument really grates. I know that the sport is not perfect in any shape or form. Corruption, overpaid stars, a tacit allowance of homophobia, racism and sexism, Sepp Blatter. These are evils that continue to plague football to this day. However, the advances the sport has made to clean itself from these problems have been vast and commendable and to dismiss offhand the pinnacle of what is possibly the most universal sport of the 21st century through a very loaded and hackneyed viewpoint is surely not helpful and even prejudiced in itself.

I understand many people’s discomfort to cheer for England. Some of our symbols have been appropriated by racists and extremists and I have no doubt groups like the EDL are having their birthday and Christmas all come at once - especially with so many lies spreading like wildfire. But surely to shy away from reclaiming our team, our symbols, our right to feel proud of our nation without the tinge of jingoism, in short to cower away is not be helpful. It would instead give those who hold these extremist views an open field to claim ‘supporting the English team’ as well and that surely is a worse state of affairs? Unquestionably everyone can see that supporting doesn’t equate thuggery in any sense?

Besides, beyond all those arguments, football will always be in its most basic form a beautiful spectacle but it is a spectacle that can bring people together and it always has done so successfully. It is flawed and it has issues that need resolving but surely to dismiss it offhand is not beneficial in any way whatsoever? Hmm…

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Tuesday, 8 June 2010

The Tipping Point

By Candice Carboo-Ofulue

The other day, I'm having coffee with a friend at our usual spot in a small town in Mexico when we stumble upon the subject of "tipping". Well, not exactly, my friend is a part-time waitress and I used to work at the same establishment, so the conversation was almost predictable. Anyway, my friend was relaying a funny story about a group of people she had served. To cut a long, hilarious story short and boring: five people walk into the restaurant; order smoothies, appetizers, main courses, and deserts; use the bathroom; compliment the restaurant and its service; ask about things to do and places to go; scrape their collective leftovers onto one plate to take-away and then leave.

But forget to tip.

I say forget because everybody knows that tipping is a universal custom, especially in restaurants. In fact, so common is this practice of leaving a small, monetary symbol of one's gratitude, that if all cultures were reduced to their common denominators, the only things left would be corruption, misogyny and tipping.

But it was my reaction to the tip story that has caused me to ponder. It went something like this: "What! Those bastards. I can't believe they didn't tip. How dare they? I hope they're all killed by flesh eating termites in a slow, unimaginable death."

Genuinely offended. But why?

I'm certain that some explanation can be found in the context: In Mexico, as in the US, the tip is integrated into an employee's contract, so that it subsidies a person's wage. To put it plainly: it's near impossible to survive off wages alone: so tips are one's "bread and butter". But this has nothing to do with the customer, and I'm not so obnoxious to think that the customer should be reproached for Mexico's flawed industrial relations.

No. I just hate it when people don't tip. I think it's rude. I can't explain why I'm so militant about this. I enjoy telling people that the tip is a defiant symbol of direct transaction, in a world riddled with credit cards and third parties. Voluntarily disregarding that many people tip using their credit card, of course. That the tip is a valuable way of rewarding someone's service. It's a polite acknowledgment. A redistribution of wealth. An end to inequality. A solution to climate change.

Or maybe I just tip because it makes me feel good...or less bad.

However paradoxical, I have a value system around tipping. And that's my ponder: Why do we tip? Where does this value system come from?

It seems that everybody has a moral framework around tipping. Some of us feel obliged to tip and some of us refuse to tip. Some of us only tip only when the service was good. While others guiltily slip out without tipping, as the waitress attends other tables. And there are also the percentiles: how often have you heard someone say that they tip 20% if the service was good and 10% if it wasn’t? Where do those percentages even come from? And of course there are the national stereotypes: Americans are good tippers, Italians never tip? I've even heard it said that some countries find tipping offensive.Not Cuba, apparently!

Tipping, for whatever reason, is incorporated into cultures, explained in travel guides, fussed over after dinner and ranted about between friends during coffee. We're all versed on the subject of tipping!

So tell me: What kind of tipper are you?

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Tuesday, 1 June 2010

I Said Atheist Not Anarchist…

By Rachel Surtees (@RVSurtees)

… or irrational being…or angry individual… or rebel… or antagonist… simply, but proudly atheist.

Not long ago I was speaking to someone who runs a Christian spiritual group that I’d heard of previously and thought sounded fairly interesting. I opened the conversation by saying: “I’m an atheist and realise that your organisation is Christian but I’m really interested and wonder if I would be welcome at one of your sessions?”

In case you’re wondering, there was nothing disingenuous about the request. At the risk of sounding like the racist who wheels his black mate Bert out as a stock defence, some of my closest friends are religious. More than that, I love religion. I think it’s one of the most powerful forms of social grouping. It gives people a framework through which to live and love. I of course see and fear its corruptible side, but if we’re honest, religion is only corruptible because humans are.

The response that I got was a ten minute spiel about how this form of spiritual Christianity was so empowering, open and awakening and then an abrupt halt, a pointed look and the following: “to be honest though Rachel, I wouldn’t bother with these labels like atheist, or atheism, they’re unnecessary and limiting. I would just allow yourself to be open. You don’t need labels.”

Open?? Labels?? Limiting?? If asking to join your teaching sessions isn’t open then pray tell, what is? AND, and, atheism is no more of a label than “Christian spirituality”, it’s a belief system, a way of viewing and understanding the world. And I’ve got to tell you, the world I see is beautiful. Evolution and Humanism is beautiful – even when it’s ugly.

Oh the fury, the shock, the fury.

I could be wrong, because I didn’t ask and it has been known, but I assume if I had said: “I’m Jewish, and I know that your organisation is Christian but I’m really interested in it and I wonder if I would be welcome…” I’d wager the -10.47 in my bank account that the answer would have been, “yes absolutely, we’re a really open group who focus on….”

I tell this story not because it’s the exception, but because it was the straw that broke this Rationalist’s back. So tell me, why is atheism such a dirty word? Whatever angle I approach this from, I genuinely don’t get it. Yet so pervasive appears to be the view that I’m starting to think that perhaps I’m missing something.

Alpha is free to advertise its courses on billboards nationwide. By contrast the British Humanist Association causes national outcry because of the sheer audacity of running its own advertising campaign, which is in turn slammed as being pious and preachy.

I would never dare, nor desire, to disrespect someone so deeply as to flippantly declare their belief system as an unnecessary label. It almost seems as though people take it as a challenge to their own views. Or perhaps that atheism is just a casual decision, as though we couldn’t decide between Allah or Buddha so opted for neither.

In case there’s any doubt, that’s not how it happened. I love being part of a Humanist community, I relish being challenged by others at atheist events (think church service without the robes or incense). Angry blog post aside, I have no desire to preach, or attempt to convert anyone to Rational Thought. I’m just tired of the ease with which people dismiss atheism, and so my beliefs, without considering any of the history or knowledge from which this beautiful movement that celebrates humanism arose. Am I wrong?

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