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Language and gender in British comedy: some insights from Mock the Week

Television comedy panel shows are a staple of British television and a major part of the UK’s creative industry. The format usually involves four to six comedians answering questions in teams about current affairs, music, sports, politics, history (although each panel show usually has a specific theme around which the show focuses). Many different types of panel show now exist, including Have I Got News for You, QI, Celebrity Juice, 8 Out of 10 Cats, Shooting Stars and countless other, with many of these aired in countries beyond the UK.

One common theme in panel shows is the almost exclusive reliance on male comedians. Part of this has to do with the fact that comedy has traditionally been the province of men, following the premise that ‘women aren’t funny’ (cf. Lakoff 1975: 56). Indeed, following the invention of the modern entertainment industry, women have been afforded very few opportunities from the 1930s onwards, especially as comedy solo acts. Those women who were involved in comedy, particularly as the momentum of television comedy gathered pace between 1930-1970, were typically represented in a rather narrow fashion, primarily as objects of sexual desire (or lack thereof).

This marginality wasn’t helped by comics such as Bernard Manning, Jim Davidson, and Les Dawson who relied on sexist jokes as part of their comedy routine. Indeed, the influential television show The Comics (which ran between 1971-1979 and then later between 1984-1985) gave these comics national exposure to a wider audience beyond their usual venues of working men’s clubs. This was during a period when “racism and sexism were common elements of prime time television and radio comedy, tabloid cartoons and comic strips” (Littlewood and Pickering 2005: 295).

Naturally, the social acceptance of such sexist discourses during this time meant that it was very difficult for female comics to break into established comedy venues. By the 1980s, though, it was clear that the racist and sexist acts of comics such as Manning and Davidson were losing favour, coming to be viewed as not only offensive, but also lacking any artistic substance or value. The arrival of the Alternative Comedy movement in the mid-80s and early 90s signaled a shift away from one-liner jokes which targeted women and minorities towards a more sophisticated form of comedy. One consequence of this movement was the massive upsurge from the 1990s onwards in the number of female comedians in the UK, including notable luminaries such as Jennifer Saunders, Dawn French, Jo Brand, Jenny Eclair, Victoria Wood and others.

The central position of these comedians in the public eye hinted at sexism in comedy being consigned to the dustbin of history. Unfortunately, though, institutional sexism once again came to the fore (if it ever really went away) in 2009 when British comedian Jo Brand made the claim that female comedians on the panel show Mock the Week struggled to “get a word in edgeways” and that they didn’t “like competing for air time”. Brand’s concern wasn’t so much that male comedians were being sexist though the words that they used, but that they were being sexist through how much they were speaking. This view was broadly echoed by other comedians, including Victoria Wood, Miranda Hart, Sandi Toksvig, and Kate Smurthwaite.

Brand’s comments are representative of what Johnson (1997: 11) termed the “all-purpose male oppressor”, a man who “talks too much, interrupts and generally dominates conversations with women”. This idea builds on work by academics like Dale Spender (1980), who argued in her book Man Made Language that not only is language used by men to dominate women (advocating a framework that has since come to be known as the dominance theory of language and gender, also pioneered in the work of Candace West, Pamela Fishman, Don Zimmerman, and others), but that English shapes the way both men and women see the world. Other linguistic phenomena have also been investigated as part of the dominance approach, including interruptions, overlaps, questions, silences, and topic management (for a fuller discussion of these topics, a number of excellent introductory textbooks on language and gender exist, such as Eckert and McConnell-Ginet 2013).

While it is possible to see Brand’s comments as a substantiation of the dominance theory, this approach has had its critics, particularly for the way it posits a one-to-one relationship between linguistic form and interactional function – feature X means dominance, and if a speaker wants to ‘do’ dominance, then they should use feature X. This overlooks the role of power, interactional role, social context, level of familiarity (see Cameron 2006 for a fuller discussion of conversational relativity). What was more surprising, though, was the lack of any empirical investigation on talk in this context. So although Brand was making a claim that made sense in terms of the dominance framework, there had been no attempt to examine whether female panellists on Mock the Week really were limited in how much they were able to contribute.

In our recent project (Lawson and Lutzky 2016), my co-author Dr Ursula Lutzky (Vienna Business School) and I used sociolinguistic and corpus linguistic techniques to conduct an analysis of language use in one season of the panel show Mock the Week. By looking at the number of turns and words produced by male and female panellists, we were able to see whether male panellists contributed more often than the female panellists (we also looked at interruptions, but I don’t have space here to talk about that). Perhaps unsurprisingly, the results showed that male panellists were granted considerably more speaking time – of the 2324 turns on the show, male panellists had 2199 turns (95%), while female panellists had only 125 turns (5%). Similarly, the majority of words were produced by male panellists (54,058), with the female panelists contributing only 2295 words (or 4% of the total word count). Permanent panellists (that is panellists on every episode, all of whom were male) and the host (Dara O’Briain) skew this somewhat, with most of them having very high turn and word counts overall (there is, however, individual variation within each episode). Generally speaking, though, male permanent panellists had the most turns and word counts, followed by male guest panellists, with female guest panellists tending to have the lowest number of words overall (although not always the lowest number of turns overall).

So what does this all mean? By looking at a season of Mock the Week where female panellists were relatively well represented (some seasons have no female representation at all), our expectation was that this would offer a more balanced perspective of linguistic practice on the show. For example, with six panellists (one female, five males), it would be reasonable to assume that the number of contributions would be roughly proportional. However, our results demonstrate that female guest panellists contribute far less than male panellists, and well below what might be expected given the overall number of female panellists across the entire season, or even within a single episode. There could be two reasons for this: the first is that female panellists do not contribute as much as male panellists; the second, potentially more worrying explanation, is that women do contribute as much, but their contributions are not included in the final televised version. One of the implications of this is that editors and directors are (un)consciously adopting a schema of norms where men are viewed as being funnier than women, potentially colouring the decision to edit in favour of men (without access to the pre-recorded version of the show, however, it is impossible to substantiate this). In some respects, Brand’s comments appear to be justified by the linguistic analysis we conducted (although not so much when we looked at interruptions and how these were distributed across panellists). Female panellists tend not to be given the same conversational opportunities as male panellists, for whatever the reason may be.

Brand’s comments about comedians on Mock the Week ended up being framed in terms of the position of women in the comedy industry more generally and the steps that should be taken to address such inequalities of representation and participation. One of the most high-profile interventions in this regard was the announcement by Danny Cohen (the then Director of Television at the BBC) in February 2014 that the BBC would commit to ending all-male line-ups on comedy panel shows. This decision meant that future recordings of shows like Mock the Week would have at least one female participant. While the BBC is certainly to be commended for attempting to tackle the low rate of female representation in comedy, our results suggest that simply increasing the number of female panellists fails to address the deeper issues at play. As such, we offer some tentative ways forward in addressing the relative unease that female panellists in particular have voiced with regard to appearing on shows like Mock the Week.

For example, production companies, directors, editors, script writers, and others could examine the kind of interactional styles encouraged in the context of comedy panel shows and offer guidance to both male and female as well as permanent and guest panellists in relation to floor and topic management. This may relate to the fast-paced interactional norm and the competition for air time, which may be perceived as aggressive when viewed within a mainstream conversational context but may fulfil other functions within the confines of a comedy panel show. Alternatively, more attention could be paid to whether guest panellists are edited out and investigating what kind of systems could be put in place to alleviate this. If organisations like the BBC are truly committed to improving the visibility of female comedians, then additional measures need to be considered, since token efforts in increasing the number of female panellists will only serve to mask the underlying problem.

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Cameron, D. (2006). On Language and Sexual Politics. Oxon: Routledge.

Eckert, P. and McConnell-Ginet, S. (2013). Language and Gender (2nd edition). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Johnson, S. (1997). “Theorizing language and masculinity: a feminist perspective.” In Sally Johnson and Ulrike Meinhof (eds.), Language and Masculinity. 8–26. Blackwell, Oxford.

Lakoff, R. (1975). Language and Women’s Place. New York: Harper & Row.

Lawson, R. and Lutzky, U. (2016). “Not getting a word in edgeways?: Language, gender, and identity in a British comedy panel show.” Discourse, Context and Media, 13: 143–153.

Littlewood, J. and Pickering, M. (2005). “Gender, ethnicity and political correctness in comedy.” In Stephen Wagg (ed.), Because I Tell a Joke or Two: Comedy, Politics and Social Difference, 289-309. Oxon: Routledge.

Spender, D. (1980). Man Made Language. London: Pandora Press.

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