The other day I was disappointed by a sitcom and spiralled into a world of despair about the state of modern feminism.
The sitcom in question is “Out of Her Mind”, it’s on the BBC iPlayer and was written by and stars comedian Sara Pascoe. I like Sara Pascoe, I would go so far as to say I am a a fan – I have admired her turns on various panel shows, enjoyed her stand-up performances and even read her books. These books are quasi-academic looks at the female body (Animal) and sexual desire, relationships and sex work (Sex Power Money). Both are easy to read, enjoyable and offer some interesting perspectives. When I heard that there was a sitcom based loosely on the ideas explored in both these books, I was definitely interested.
I was disappointed. Granted, I’ve only watched the first 2 episodes, but still I was disappointed.
It started a bit weird, nothing wrong with that. Could be interesting, a bit quirky, 4th wall broken, ok, let’s go. Then it got cringy, desperate, a bit too self-serving and overly self-aware. I literally grimaced through 90% of it, and was mostly baffled through the other 10%. Then after 2 episodes I gave up and the disappointment set it.
I was disappointed that it didn’t go far enough to take us to the different, often challenging perspectives that the books did. I was disappointed that it wasn’t quirky enough, it used clichés in a knowing way, yet was still full of clichés. I was disappointed that it didn’t really SAY anything, I was mainly disappointed that it was about women talking about men, and women talking about their weight. Yes, it tried to do it in a different sort of way, but still…
When I was younger and discovering comedy, there was a distinct lack of diversity in the demographics of comedians around – they were white, they were male. But within that very white, very male group there was diversity of styles. Whether they were in sitcoms, doing stand-up or presenting gameshows and playing charming, joke-telling host, we could see the traditional, the classic, the edgy, the surreal, the slapstick, the dry, the storyteller, the one-liner. Billy Connolly, Russ Abbot, The 2 Ronnies, Fry & Laurie, John Cleese, Ben Elton, Benny Hill, Harry Enfield, Mr Bean, I could literally go on and on.
There were a few women comedians. Actually, there were 4 that I remember – French & Saunders did French & Saunders and one of them did Absolutely Fabulous, Victoria Wood had her tv shows and Jo Brand did stand-up. That was our lot. Jo Brand talked about being a woman. She talked about not having a man. She talked about her weight. Fair enough, that’s her thing. She was good at it. She was funny. She was literally peerless.
As I got older and had more power to view beyond the offering of the 4 tv channels I had been limited to growing up at home, I discovered comedians that I liked – Eddie Izzard, Bill Bailey, Dara O’Briain. I liked slightly surreal, meandering, there’s maybe a punchline coming but maybe not and who cares the journey through the story is funny anyway kind of comedy. Not sure if you could call it a sitcom, but The Mighty Boosh was revelatory to me. Still all-male, still all-white.
In the intervening years, the comedy field had become slightly more diverse, but we still had women talking about their weight or their (lack of) men (Sarah Millican, Katy Brand), Black and Asian people talking about being Black or Asian (Gina Yashere, Stephen K Amos, Shazia Mirza). If you were not white or male you’d better just talk about the fact that you are not white or male. That’s all we will allow you to talk about. White, male comedians get the full gamut of topics, styles and modes to chose from. They can do whole sets without mentioning the fact that they are white or male. Or their weight.
There were a few exceptions. Goodness Gracious Me took talking about being Asian to a whole new level, but was as much aimed at an Asian audience as the “mainstream” white British audience and was littered with Asian culture jokes that the rest of us were largely oblivious to. Smack The Pony was a group of women just being generally funny, it was ground breaking but who followed on that ground? Very few. More recently we have had Fleabag, lauded as the next big thing in feminist comedy. It was good, especially the first series, but I found the whole priest storyline of the 2nd series a bit weird and egotistical.
Incidentally, in writing this I did some google searches to recall names, check spellings etc.
If you search for “British comedians”, google helpfully displays a line of names with thumbnail photos along the top of the search results page. You can scroll right to reveal more. I had to scroll right past 15 men before I got to Dawn French and Jo Brand. Then past another 11 men before I got to Victoria Wood. 3 women out of 29. I had to go past 26 of them to find the first non-white person in Lenny Henry.
And sad but true, the suggested questions related to my search for “male British comedians”…
We might want to know who is the best, most popular, most famous? Ok, seems fair enough.
And for “female British comedians”?
We want to know who is the best, ok….and hottest? *massive eye-roll*
I feel like when it comes to other fields, I have almost compiled lists of great women that I want to introduce my daughters to. We have started on music – the eldest can sing along to Blondie and recognise “that girl that comes from Glasgow” (Lauren from Chvrches) and I have an all-female indie/rock-with-a-wee-bit-of-pop playlist that I put on in the car as often as I can get away with. They are discovering great female actors for themselves in the likes of Dr Who. Strides are being made, progress is evident, but somehow it still doesn’t seem enough.
I was disappointed in Out of Her Mind because I had higher hopes for something from Sara Pascoe, and I’m disappointed that now, 30 years after I started watching comedians on tv, the women are still only talking about their weight and their (lack of) men. I am disappointed that we still don’t have a great variety of women comedians able to turn their hand to any given style, without being judged on their looks, or told sorry, we already have one of your gender/colour and there isn’t room for any more. I want to see women being themselves, being surreal, doing puns and one-liners, telling hilarious stories, talking about anything other than being a woman, finding/losing a man or their goddam weight.
Disclaimer No. 1 – I have focussed on the UK, I know it’s a whole different ball game in America and maybe elsewhere but I wanted to talk about the situation at home for this post.
Disclaimer No. 2 – I don’t know all comedy. I don’t have the time to consume much comedy these days, so there will undoubtedly be women who I haven’t heard of who are fab. Please tell me about them!