Sandi Toksvig has claimed that women are “marginalised” on comedy panels, but sexism is just one fault of an old, creaky system trying to sustain itself
It seems somehow apt to begin this article about sexism on television panel shows with the kind of joke you might hear on one, so here goes:
What’s got ten legs and five dicks? No, not your mum’s favourite spider. That has eight legs. And three dicks! The answer I’m looking for is… television panel shows!
This week, Sandi Toksvig, host of QI, told the Radio Times that women are “marginalised” on television panel shows, made to feel “stupid”, and that “in the edit [they] are often seen just laughing at the boys and not saying anything at all even though I know for a fact in the recording they were clever.”
Believe it or not, inviting women on TV, making them feel stupid, and then editing them out constitutes progress. On a typical night in the first half of this decade, the cast of Mock The Week, a revolving door of five white men whose firmest erections seemed long behind them, were about as representative of the British public as Jacob Rees-Mogg.
In 2016, Stuart Lowe, of the Open Data Institute in Leeds released results from the most comprehensive analysis of comedy panel shows ever undertaken. They revealed that of 4700 individual episodes since 1967, 1488 consisted solely of men. Only one – a January 2012 episode of BBC Radio 4’s Heresy, fronted by Victoria Coren Mitchell – comprised women only. At the time of the study’s publication, women made up just 31 per cent of panel show hosts and guests.
While the data points to slow but steady improvement since 1989, Toksvig’s observations suggest that efforts to have more women appear on television panel shows reek of tokenism. This comes only days after she revealed she is paid 40 per cent of the fee given to her predecessor on QI, Stephen Fry.
Sexism is ingrained in both panel show format and production, probably because, in one way or another, it always has been. The first panel shows were adapted from parlour games, popular among the patriarchal upper classes in the 19th Century.
They were games for the most part invented and played by men, with names only the upper classes could say without getting embarrassed, like ‘The Minister’s Cat’ and ‘Are You There Moriarty?’ The fact that I could name one now, ‘Pin Down and Kiss Jeremy’, and feel confident you don’t know for sure whether it’s real or not, tells you everything you need to know.
Parlour games lived on in the dorms of public schools and theatrical clubs of posh universities until the mid 20th Century, where again they were mostly played and fetishised by men (Germaine Greer didn’t become the first female full member of Cambridge University’s Footlights Club until 1963). These same men went on to shape entertainment broadcasting, then in its infancy, in their own image. And it stuck.
Five men playing a game and trying to outdo one another with wit became part of the televisual language. A televisual language again invented by men for men. A televisual language that is now stale and archaic.
Are panel show writers rooms and production offices full of men conspiring to sustain their sweat-balled reality by excluding women? No. They don’t need to. The old, creaky system is designed to do that for them. And the system will always flex to protect and sustain itself. So, yes, it’ll invite women on to placate critics, but then it’ll mostly edit them out. And this doesn’t just explain why the addition of a woman panellist might be tokenistic. It also explains why panel shows are shit.
Listen to the way men on panel shows talk, that strange register you hear, a smug mixture of scripted wit and faux-dumbness you never get in real life. If a friend spoke to you the way men speak on panel shows, you’d ask them if everything is alright at home. Close your eyes, shut out the sound of fancy buzzers, and it’s as it was in the parlours, a bunch of fusty old white men spinning competitive bon mots. It’s almost impossible to comprehend how, in the age of Netflix and the iPhone and pay-per-view sport, this constitutes entertainment. But it does.
We’re so wedded to it that any deviation is considered (albeit by pricks) at best gimmicky, or at worst a dangerous revolutionary act. While it’s not a comedy show, the BBC’s decision to have its new lunchtime discussion show Politics Live feature an all-female panel earlier this month was one they had to defend. Not from me though. I enjoyed guest Amber Rudd’s opening gambit, “what’s got ten legs and five vaginas…”
If the way Victorians passed their Saturday evenings remains of such great cultural value, ITV should replace The X Factor with a show where Davina McCall forces orphans up chimneys. Are you listening to me, commissioners? How about ‘Murdering Prostitutes In London’s East End With Martin Clunes?’ There, you can have that one for free.
Inviting women on a panel to then marginalise them won’t cure these shows of their sexism problem. You can only do that the same way you stop them being shit. And that’s to do away with them altogether.