Dara Ó Briain’s token woman


Dara Ó Briain says the ban on all male panel shows by the BBC’s director of TV, Danny Cohen will result in Holly Walsh, Katherine Parkinson et al being seen as token women. More accurately, Holly Walsh et al will actually be revealed as the token woman, because on Ó Briain’s show, they always have been.

Find a Mock the Week line-up that has two female guests in one show and this conversation wouldn’t be happening.

Why Ó Briain is so upset about this isn’t particularly clear either. If we’re still only going to get one ‘token’ female comedian on the Mock the Week line up, then nothing’s going to have changed except, potentially, the audience’s perception. Or, to put it another way, Ó Briain is worried that the audience will see through the BBC, the show itself and Ó Briain’s already spurious and cynical approach to the issue.

One saving grace is that comedians no longer have to rely on telly exposure to make a career. We have podcasts, YouTube, festivals and more. The glass ceiling on Mock the Week is fast becoming more of a glass box full of toys, in the corner, out of sight, in a room where there are a million other things to keep people occupied.

The problem is, that TV is still the mainstream and that box is pretty big. This ban by the BBC on all-male comedy shows may not have a big impact on Mock the Week and their token woman, but it’s frustrating to hear Ó Briain try and shoot it out of the water already. Why isn’t he supporting equality in his profession?

You could say that there are more male performers than female, but not to the extent that Mock the Week purports it to be with its 1 in 7 approach. Audiences no longer want to see an all male show, take a look at this article on The Stage that talks about Bridget Christie’s comedy award win at Edinburgh, and other successful female-led shows. But on TV, they don’t have the choice.

To increase the female presence of Mock the Week would only represent the real world outside of TV comedy.

To choose an example, look at the End of the Road festival line up. I write for the programme, which last year that involved writing the majority of the comedy section. The line up is put together by the wildly dedicated comedian Sarah Bennetto who doesn’t find it difficult to produce a much more representative line up. From Robin Ince, to Tiffany Stevenson, from Mark Watson to Felicity Ward. All of the acts killed it this year. All of them. The audience was no bigger for male acts, no smaller for female acts. In terms of overall audience, the location of the comedy stage at this festival was moved a number of years ago to accommodate more, into a sprawling wooded area that has seen a year-on-year increase of spectators, braving the slippery slope that leads down into the clearing and the festival’s comedy stage.

Whether a ban on all male panel shows is the answer to provide a more representative medium in comedy is, of course, up for debate – but Ó Briain’s claim that we should perhaps focus on computer coding equality first is ridiculous. It’s not a relative argument. Do we tackle equality in one area before moving on to the next? No, because then the inequality becomes institutionalised within professions that ‘aren’t that bad’, making it harder to crack in the long run.

Only 11% of computer coders might be female but based on one in seven of the acts of Mock the Week (which isn’t even every week), that puts the show at about 15%.

According to this article on David Cameron’s cabinet reshuffle in October 2013, only 4 out of 27 were women. Or about 15% (though Cameron claimed it was about 24% in a recent Prime Minister’s Questions).

Make of that what you will – we don’t need to drive that point any further because what I’m saying here is, everyone needs to do their part to make the world more equal and representative between genders. A ban by the BBC on all male panel shows may result in the woman being seen as token, but if Ó Briain took more responsibility for his profession and supported the move, taking it further, he could help to create a much more equal Mock the Week. Two, three, or more female comedians on the show would be far from token, and much more representative of the actual comedy ‘circuit’.

Trying to deflect responsibility by saying “but it’s worse over there” is a cop out, irresponsible, and in this case, barely true.

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