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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1 comment:

  1. I have been known to say in more than one occasion that when it comes to stand up, men are definitely funnier than women but I don't think that necessarily means that this is a rule that should apply in general. I think Rachel makes a very valid point in that the nature of the business means that it is very testosterone-driven as evidenced by shows like Mock The Week. How we change that is a difficult question but I think a good starting point would be for women to do comedy in their own right [a lá Jo Brand] rather than trying to play the game by trying to imitate male styles of comedy or by accepting the stereotypes of ever-so-sweet little funny woman or shouty-and-angry comedian. There’s no shortage of funny women out there and I think it’s a big loss that we fail to see that amongst the large wave of y-chromosome comedians.

    In terms of the use of the word ‘comedienne’ I’ll admit you have a point that it’s very easy to miss sometimes. Just yesterday I heard writer Leah Stewart complaining about the latent sexism in the world of fiction writing (“Just to switch things up for a while, let's call books by women "fiction" and books by men "men's fiction."”) and perhaps a similar issue is at play here. The more we talk about it, the better.

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