Simple Darwinian Biology

That’s the response that most incredibly ill-informed men give when confronted with the lack of success of female comedians. Not systemic gender inequality, not lack of opportunities, not prejudiced viewers. No. Simple Darwinian biology must be, and has to be the reason. Because women, as they’ll have you know, just aren’t as funny as men.

According to an article published in The Spectator less than a year ago, women make up 15% of the stand-up comedy circuit. That’s a statistic that most fans of stand-up comedy will immediately recognise. If I go along to The Stand on any Red Raw Tuesday (the comedy club’s dedicated night for upcoming comedians), out of seven or eight comedians I’ll probably see one woman, maybe two if I’m lucky. Maybe even none – it’s happened before. Looking through the brochure for the recent Glasgow International Comedy Festival, I was surprised to find more than a few females in a sea of males. But, upon closer inspection, I was disappointed to discover that most of the women were either locals playing to a small crowd (Ashley Storrie, Charlotte MacDonald) or guaranteed big names (Bridget Christie, Susan Calman). No prizes for guessing if the same criteria applied to men or not…

But this is not a criticism of any particular venue, or festival. After all, promoters can’t book female comedians if there’s none to be had. It is, however, a critique of the entire field, and it’s one that has been reiterated again and again. Sexism in stand-up comedy is endemic. Everyone has probably heard of the myth that women aren’t funny. Comedian Ariane Sherine has been quoted talking about how nearly every female comedian she knows, at some point in their careers, has been met with a surprised audience member commenting on how they usually never like female comedians but ‘you made me laugh’.

Christopher Hitchens, the former Vanity Fair contributing editor and celebrated essayist, even wrote a controversial article dedicated to the topic in 2007. Titled ‘Why Women Aren’t Funny’, it was filled with many a perceptive insight into women’s innate lack of comedy. Gems included the fact that the majority of funny female comedians are either ‘hefty or dykey or Jewish, or some combo of the three’ and that ‘for women, reproduction is, if not the only thing, certainly the main thing’. And one of the main reasons why women just aren’t funny? Because, women ‘bless their tender hearts, would prefer that life be fair, and even sweet, rather than the sordid mess it actually is.’

This would seem so ludicrously outdated as not even to be worth quoting if it wasn’t also echoed by scores of sexist commentators across the world. Plunging deep into those horrific denizens of the Internet – also known as comment threads – it’s possible to find all sorts of ridiculous statements about female comedians. With a sliding scale of offensiveness ranging from ‘of course women are funny but there’s something about stand-up that’s very male’ (hmm, might that be because of sexist attitudes barring women from stand-up in the first place?) to ‘feminists aren’t funny because they focus too much on gender and would rather be men’, it’s not hard to see why female comedians are still largely seen as defying the norm. When we still live in a world where women taking up space and talking about female experience is regarded as ‘niche’, is it any wonder that women are discouraged from going into comedy?

This aversion to women making jokes about being women is something I personally find baffling, considering how often I’ve turned up to a comedy club and listened to male comedians making jokes about being men. The double standard would almost be funny if it wasn’t so incredibly damaging. And it makes even less sense when you consider the success of women in TV comedies. I’ve yet to meet anyone who thinks Ruth Jones’ turn as Nessa on Gavin and Stacey was anything less than brilliant, and I might actually end a friendship with anyone who failed to appreciate either Aubrey Plaza or Amy Poehler in Parks and Recreation, both of whom were critically acclaimed for their performances.

But still, despite pervasive and convincing evidence to the contrary, people still persist in thinking that women aren’t funny – or, at the very least, that the comedic efforts of women will always be second best to men. Historically speaking, the roots are pretty clear: in Western society, men have always been taught to be more outspoken and confident, whilst women have traditionally been coached to conceal their opinions and know their place. But it’s about time we moved well past this antiquated view of women’s comedy, and embraced a more gender-blind attitude to jokes.

[Rachel Walker]

Want to check out more female comedians? qmunicate’s recommends: Sara Pascoe, Anna Morris, Elf Lyons, all-female sketch group Birthday Girls, Katherine Ryan, Bridget Christie, Ashley Storrie.

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