Written by Catie Wilkins


Panel show eugenics

For women in entertainment, everything hangs in the balance all of the time. Nowhere more so than on panel shows, as Catie Wilkins explains.

Illustration by Louise Boulter

Back in 2011, Annie Mumolo and Kristen Wiig’s film Bridesmaids earned $286m worldwide, outstripping all of Judd Apatow’s other films and every R-rated female comedy in history.

Cut to last year: the biggest grossing film of 2013 was Hunger Games: Catching Fire. This is the first time a film with a female lead has been the biggest grossing film of the year since The Exorcist in the 1970s. (Aliens, Miss Congeniality, Pretty Woman, Kill Bill did well, but they weren’t the biggest grossing films of the year.) Interestingly for the 2013 list, the third biggest grossing film of the year was Disney’s female-led Frozen. Gravity staring Sandra Bullock was at number 6.

Maybe things really are starting to change. Perhaps the cultural tide is turning, and it’s going to be accepted that women are people, people who make up more than half the population, and need to be catered to, to see themselves represented in films and TV – because when they are and it’s done well, it makes loads of money, and because that’s actually what the people want.

These are the US domestic box office figures, but that’s where the money is. Surely the UK will follow suit once it realises letting chicks do proper stuff is a successful business model.

The USA may currently be ahead of us at championing female comic talent, producing Tina Fey, Amy Poeler and Kristen Wiig, Sarah Silverman and Mindy Kaling (to name a few), but the UK is definitely catching up. With the success of Miranda Hart and Sarah Millican and the 62% rise in female standup shows at the Edinburgh Festival in 2014, surely we’re about to have our own oestrogen renaissance?
Then I turned on the TV and watched a panel show, where six men between the ages of 20 and 50 took it in turns to make tired sexual innuendos at the token female pop star on the show. And I couldn’t help but think: WTF? Followed by: Seriously? And: Now? Surely we don’t still have to put up with this BS? It seems kind of dated, doesn’t it?

Maybe panel shows are like fast food: cheap to make, dodgy ingredients, and makes you feel a bit sick afterwards. Yet it seems we’re going to keep craving them, even with Jamie Oliver’s help.
A healthy, low-cost alternative isn’t forthcoming. We all say we want a really tasty organic burger and a really good, well-written, well-made sitcom instead, but who can afford to buy or make it? It’s too risky a venture.

Big fast food outlets are still operating for two main reasons: (1) They’re really popular, and (2) The failure of mass culture to admit that the world has changed. Obesity has risen massively since the advent of fast food in the 1970s and the environment is being seriously negatively impacted by cow farts and deforestation, yet fast food prevails.

Still popular panel shows seem to be refusing to admit that the world has changed: they don’t want to show women being funny or having rights, or indeed having any characteristics beyond fuckable or annoying.

To be fair, since the announcement that it’s had a positive discrimination ‘woman quota’ thrust upon it, Mock The Week has one woman – who has to be a comedian – on every show.

Not wanting to look a gift-horse in the mouth, this is in many ways a huge step forward. Especially specifying she has to be a comedian. And we should be grateful. But HOW DEPRESSING IS THAT? That we should be rapturously happy for this small concession?

Mock The Week is now our absent Dad with a new court order, reluctantly allowing us to come and visit at the weekends, as long as we don’t mess up the place too much or interfere with his bachelor lifestyle.

And I really don’t mean to have a go at MTW. He’s our laddy Dad who loves football and shouting. It’s hard for him. Why isn’t our supposedly more, salubrious, middle-class Dad, Would I Lie To You, letting us visit? Where is 8 Out Of 10 Cats on this issue? Nothing to add QI? I thought you knew everything.

Why doesn’t Would I Lie To You book half women? Seeing as it widens the pool to TV chefs, pop stars, presenters, journalists, any kind of TV personality anyway, it doesn’t even have the fake excuse of ‘there aren’t enough female comedians.’

It might have been nice if our MTW Dad had invited us round without mentioning the court order. Just started booking women without drawing attention to the policy. It’s slightly harder to be taken seriously in an already unfriendly environment when it looks like you’re not even there on merit. But you know what, at least he stepped up, even if hauled up by the collar.

Judging by the MTW I watched the other week that had Sara Pascoe, Josh Widdicombe and James Acaster on it, the show is going brilliantly. Genuinely original and hilarious observational comedy, highlighted how great the show can be. MTW had, in that episode, struck a great balance.
The truth is booking anyone new on a panel show is a risk. Man or woman, it takes a while to be good enough to handle the pressurised situation of a TV record. Loads of people are rubbish at it the first time they try. But the rubbish men aren’t seen as proving their whole gender inept, so are given more chances to try again.

There is a solution to this problem too: train us. There are plenty of run-throughs of panel shows. Why not have more, where you deliberately book more women to give them a chance to practice and hone their skills in a non-televised environment.

Before MTW’s positive discrimination policy, its viewing figures had been slipping for a while. I feel like it’s important to flag that up now, just so that in case of cancellation, the ‘deliberate’ inclusion of women can’t be blamed. I would hate the phrase ‘women killed MTW’ to be another thing to hit women with, or ban them from UK TV.

The film Bridesmaids was under a lot of pressure to deliver and luckily it did. Before it came out, there was a lot of hype about how it was going to break new ground. Not only did it smash box office figures, but it got an overwhelmingly positive critical response, with the New York Times calling it, ‘unexpectedly funny.’

Bridesmaids had to be good if any other women-driven comedies had any hope of being produced. As Roxane Gay says in her book Bad Feminist: ‘This is the state of affairs for women in entertainment – everything hangs in the balance all the time.’

Comedy is now so full of fantastic women that their omission from UK TV is starting to look both suspicious and nefarious. There’s really no excuse not to book them. I think things are changing for the better, but people with the power could make this happen quicker. If you’re not part of the solution you’re part of the problem.

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Written by Catie Wilkins

Catie Wilkins is a writer, comedian and children’s author who likes jokes and stories.