I've recently become addicted to the British panel show, Would I Lie To You? It's a wonderfully hysterical show, featuring David Mitchell, one of my favourite British comedians, and it has been known to make me laugh until I can't breathe multiple times in an episode. I've been working my way backwards through the seasons over the past few weeks, and yesterday, something very strange happened in the episode I watched. Two women were taking part on the show.
I did a double take. "There are a lot of women in this episode!" I thought, before realizing how utterly ridiculous that thought was. Would I Lie To You? features seven people: the presenter, two team captains, and four celebrity guests who change each week. This "lot of women" made up half of the guests (which should surely seem normal), and less than a third of the people on screen at the time. Yet it seemed like a surprisingly huge female presence to me, because, after watching so many episodes in such a short space of time, my brain had learnt the format to expect: 3 male guests and 1 woman.
Out of 38 episodes, only 9 featured 2 female contestants, one on each team (that's 23%). To be fair, only one episode of Would I Lie To You? has featured no female contestants at all. Every other episode has at least made the effort to show some female presence, but its more of a token Smurfette principle effort rather than an attempt to give women equal space with men on screen. And Would I Lie To You? is one of the panel shows that is most friendly to female contestants.
Jo Brand wrote a piece for the Guardian about female comedians' reluctance to appear on British panel shows, due to the way that they're pushed out of the conversation and are often mocked, patronized and dismissed. She listed QI as one of the most female-friendly shows, and even this show (which I must admit I adore) is short of women. Comedians often make a repeat appearance on the show, but in 8 seasons, only 5 women appeared more than once, compared to 34 men. Although that show finally seems to be including 1 woman on every panel of 3 guests, it still has a long way to go, although it does have the age-old reasoning that "there just aren't many female comedians" to back up its choice of guests.
Would I Lie To You? isn't so lucky. The guests are occasionally comedians, but they are also actors, TV presenters, models, singers, stars on shows like Strictly Come Dancing and X Factor, and even writers and news readers. Are they really saying that they can't find enough women in these fields to fill up a panel show?
And the pervasiveness of this lack of women is coming out in my own brain, even as I write. When I calculated that 2 women only appeared in 23% of shows, I paused. "That doesn't seem so bad," I thought. "I'm overreacting." Women are outnumbered 6 to 1 in 77% of the shows. In the blessed other 23%, they are only outnumbered just under 3 to 1. And yet women, 50% of the population, are so rare in British panel shows that when I calculated this, it seemed, for a moment, acceptable. Indisputably fine.
Even though the show has a more open and friendly format than cut throat competitive shows like Mock the Week (which I must admit is one panel show I don't like), perhaps Jo Brand's point about women being mocked, marginalized and made to look dumb hold for this show as well. The show's comedy succeeds, in part, by mocking people's personas by presenting ridiculous lies about them that yet might be true, but things go too far whenever the presenter reads sexist comment after sexist comment from his autocue between sections. Even the women who are present often face cruel comments: in the episode I watched, Tara Palmer Tomkinson was called a "spoilt bitch" by her team captain and received a comment for the presenter that it was surprising she "once ate a whole pudding."
I love watching this show. It's hilarious. But when a show like this is one of the most women-friendly panel shows on British television, it concerns me. I don't expect producers to shoehorn an equal number of men and women into every show they make. But (as far as I know), no British panel show is presented by a woman. No team captains on these games are women. And women never outnumber men as the number of guests, while being outnumbered, or entirely absent, themselves most weeks. The only exception? An episode of QI.
The topic? "Gender."