imageWe need to look at how humour supports sexism in our society.

In early March, comedian Jenny Collier was booked to perform at a comedy venue in Haslemere, Surrey as part of a multi-comedian show.

That was until she received the following email:

“I’m really sorry but the venue have decided they don’t want too many women on the bill and unfortunately we need to take you out of this one. We hope that this doesn’t cause any inconvenience.”

In fact the main ‘inconvenience’ in the decision was Collier’s gender.

After posting the email on Twitter, Collier received an outpouring of support from other female comedians sharing their experiences of what, it emerges, is an industry-wide problem.

Some have attempted to analyse what exactly it is that people fear about female comedians moving into a traditionally male-dominated industry.

Comedian Ava Vidal pointed out that part of the problem is that there is a general consensus that women comedians will only joke about sex, female genitalia and bodily functions that no one wants to hear about.

She told her own story of being replaced with a male panellist on a high profile comedy show because there were supposedly ‘too many women’ in the series.

“People seem to fear that too many women will spoil a comedy night and yet have no fear that too many men will do the same thing,” she said.

Another part of the problem is the ‘women aren’t funny’ debate which so often raises its ugly head in public discourse, as Dean Barnett wrote in the Guardian.

“Women haven’t exactly been given much opportunity to say anything [in public] in the past, let alone make jokes”, he adds.

However, women being underrepresented in the realm of public humour is just half the problem.

Humour is also used extensively as a mask for everyday sexism.

We have all been there – the chauvinist or sexist comment followed by the dubious disclaimer: ‘Can’t you take a joke?’

This particular brand of sexist humour is cultivated in institutions, friend groups, businesses, schools, on the streets and on the internet: it’s euphemistically called ‘banter’ and it allows all manner of sins to go unchallenged.

Laura Bates, founder of the Everyday Sexism project, said that ‘banter’ is used to veil serious forms of harassment or even assault: “[b]y calling something ‘banter’ perpetrators implicitly suggest that anybody who protests doesn’t have a sense of humour — or just doesn’t get the joke. It is a very clever method of isolating critics.”

Sexism disguised as ‘banter’ appears in the disproportionate sexist heckling of female comedians.

It often predominates in male-dominated offices, or in male-dominated industries, for example, football. Commentator Andy Gray described his sexist comments as a “private bit of banter” after his fall from grace in 2011.

But perhaps most worryingly of all, ‘banter’ is prevalent in schools: recently at my teenaged sister’s school, the launching of a Feminist Society was swiftly followed by a group of boys launching a ‘Misogynist Society’ – leaflets and all.

Nothing whatsoever was done about this by the school, because it was deemed a ‘joke’ and just ‘boys being boys’.

Similarly, a 17 year-old started a Feminist Society at her school in 2013 and received a torrent of online abuse disguised as ‘banter’ from male peers.

The young woman wrote in a Guardian article: “I fear that many boys of my age fundamentally don’t respect women. They want us around for parties, banter and most of all sex.

“But they don’t think of us as intellectual equals, highlighted by accusations of being hysterical and over sensitive when we attempted to discuss serious issues facing women.”

Tellingly, she felt the need to write anonymously to protect herself from further attack.

Humour can be a powerful tool in the fight against sexism, but too often humour performs the role of providing a ‘safe’ arena for public sexism and sexist attitudes.

From preventing women accessing positions of public humour to the use of ‘banter’ to allow blatant sexism and misogyny to go unpunished, we need to assess the role humour plays in hampering progress towards gender equality.

It is important to have a sense of humour in life, but there’s nothing funny about humour being the crutch for sexism.

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