As a feminist, I have a complicated relationship with the 90s sitcom Men Behaving Badly. Now, I really enjoy Men Behaving Badly – it makes me laugh very hard. But if you watched it as a teenage girl, like I did, it offers you a limited set of options. You can be Deborah, the “hot one”, who doesn’t really do very much beyond being fancied by someone who will hit on you every day. Or you can be Dorothy, the “boring one”, who is repeatedly put in the position of having to spoil everyone’s fun – simply because you’re the cleverest and it falls on you to save everyone else from their idiocy.
When I saw Jo Brand on Friday’s Have I Got News For You, I thought about Dorothy. Brand is a comedic powerhouse. She is one of the funniest and most talented people on television – for my money, much more so than the other panellists that she was sharing a screen with. Yet, it fell to her to use her cleverness to tell everyone off, because they were being unforgivably stupid. They were all men.
She had to tell off Ian Hislop for saying that some of the sexual harassment in Westminster was “not high level, compared to Putin or Trump”, pointing out: “Actually, women, if you’re constantly being harassed, even in a small way, that builds up and that wears you down.” Then she had to correct Quentin Letts for his description of broadcaster Julia Hartley-Brewer. “She’s a woman, Quentin,” Brand reprimanded. “She’s not a girl.”
Do we think Brand enjoyed being put in the position of sexism monitor for the evening? Did she feel positively about being put in a situation that many of us might remember from school, when “good” girls were forced to sit among a group of “naughty” boys, in order to set an example? (It happened to me – and being selected as someone else’s punishment does nothing for one’s self-esteem.) In 2012, Caitlin Moran said that she regularly turned down offers to appear on panel shows. "I think that's a boys' game that works for boys,” she reasoned. “It's not like they built it to screw women over; it's just that boys built it so they made it to work for boys. If I go on there as a token woman, it's not going to work for me.”
The problem is multi-layered. There are more men than women working behind the scenes on panel shows as producers, researchers and directors. In a male-dominated industry, there are fewer voices pointing out that women are not being represented, and that this overwhelming reliance on male panellists is a little odd. Then, when women are asked, they’re thinking of all of the times when they’ve watched the only woman on a panel show have a miserable time – and it doesn’t make them think, “Yes, that’s for me!”
Deborah Frances-White, host of Global Pillage and The Guilty Feminist, explained that the “tokenism” of the situation also puts an unrealistic amount of pressure on the courageous women who do pitch up on panel shows: “A lot of the time, what people don’t realise they are watching is five men in their local pub – they are regulars, they look like everyone else and they are made to feel welcome – and one woman on a job interview. Because she knows that not only will [the audience] decide whether she is good enough to be allowed back on this show and other panel shows, but they will be judging whether all women are funny.”
It’s outrageous that it’s 2017 and we don’t have the same spaces and opportunities to be funny as men do
Two of the panel shows I love the most, QI and 8 Out Of 10 Cats Does Countdown, regularly feature female panelists, team captains and hosts. If I catch a repeat, the programmes that feel the most dated aren’t necessarily the oldest episodes – but they’re the ones that feature no women, or only have one. Making a male-dominated panel show in 2017 seems more backward than forcing your guests to arrive at the studio by penny-farthing. Progress begets progress and, conversely, line-ups like the one Jo Brand had to deal with on Friday will keep TV comedy stuck in the past.
As Brand pointed out, we’re dealing with a global epidemic of sexism – and it doesn’t matter how big or small it is, we have to navigate it every day and it wears us down. It’s exhausting being the one who has to constantly point it out, when all you really want to do is just get on with being funny.
In 2017, no one could begin to logically argue that women aren't funny. However, it’s outrageous that it’s 2017 and we don’t have the same spaces and opportunities to be funny as men do. And when four men think it’s OK make jokes about sexual harassment on primetime TV, it shouldn’t fall to us to point out that there is no funny side.