When you type the phrase, “women comedians” into Google the second suggestion that appears is “women comedians aren’t funny.”Now I’ve no idea how Google works, probably librarian-trained crows, but this does seem like a worryingly common-place opinion. I have had a discussion fairly recently which involved the other person saying, “But women just aren’t funny” which made me concerned that the person I was talking to had never met or spoken to a woman. And the person I was talking to was a woman! Probably still is.
It’s not up to me to decide what’s funny. What people find humorous, while sharing many commonalities, varies wildly and so does what people say and do in an effort to be funny. Farts! This variation is obviously true of women who much like snowflakes, fingerprints or human beings are all individual and unique. Some women will be funnier on average than other women and funnier on average than some men. The funniest woman is likely as funny as the funniest man. I don’t even though how you’d reliably judge “funniest”. What unit would it be measured in? MilliMillicans?
It’s not up to me to defend women. They are perfectly capable of defending themselves. Declaring that women simply lack the ability to be funny is odd though. While there are many theories as to what is humorous, one prevalent idea is that laughter comes with incongruity. This theory states that humour is perceived at the moment of realisation of incongruity between a concept and the real thing in relation to that concept. If this were the case (and it certainly seems to be at least some of the time) if you claim that women can’t be funny then you are claiming that women can’t conceive of ideas and situations not matching. This is an ironically difficult notion to conceive of.
I’m not especially interested in whether the ideas that women aren’t funny or that women aren’t as funny as men are true or not. They’re blatantly not. The Funny Women Awards have just celebrated their 11th year with the 2013 winners being duo Twisted Loaf. The Funny Women Awards unlikely to have years where they can’t award anything due to women being unusually mirthless for a select 365 days. There are multiple examples of very funny women including Sarah Pascoe (@sarapascoe), Sarah Millican (@SarahMillican75), Rachel Parris (@iamrachelparris), and Gabby Hutchinson Crouch (@Scriblit). I have purposefully not made this list extensive as I am sure to miss out some excellent individuals and some idiot is bound to sweep a paw across the list and state that “None of dem are funny” as if it were an objective truism rather than a subjective comedic preference.
I’m more interested in considering the arguments people use to justify this opinion and whether they stand up to scrutiny (they won’t). I’m going to use a vague biopsychosocial approach to do this. Not because I think detractors of female comedy, or as it is sometimes known “comedy” do so but because it’s a reasonably simple way to manage the ideas.
Evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller (when he wasn’t busy tweeting about students being fat) proposed that human characteristics like humour evolved by sexual selection. Sexual selection: good name for a part of evolutionary theory, bad name for a box of confectionary. He argues that humour (which he states has little survival value) emerged as an indicator of other traits that were of survival value, such as intelligence. On this basis if you argue that women aren’t or can’t be funny you would be arguing that either women can’t use humour to show their intelligence (clearly wrong), that they can but they don’t (clearly wrong because of examples) or that if they did men might not appreciate it (ahem). Women are showing intelligence through humour and people are ignoring it or at worse threatened by it? They would have to be pretty small-minded, insecure people. At this stage you can assume I am giving meaningful looks.
Another evolutionary psychology theory takes a break from copying Rudyard Kipling and argues that, like male deer clashing antlers, humour is produced by males competitively to impress potential mates for breeding. Consistent with this theory is research that females indicate a preference for mates who makes them laugh, whereas males prefer a mate who laughs at their humour.
However the data are not entirely consistent with this view. Most studies find male humour appeals most to other men. In purely evolutionary terms, if you are in search of a mate to breed with, attracting a bunch of guffaws and their supposed sexual advances from members of the same gender isn’t the best move. Secondarily this theory in no way explains why women can’t do the same thing. If you’re arguing for a theory, it’s not really enough to state that they just don’t. Any attempts by MRI to catch the ovaries strangling jokes before they leave the body have thus far failed. So we’re left with a theory that tries to make humour the exclusive domain of rutting men, but fails like a pleasant look on Piers Morgan’s face.
Lee Mack on Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs has said fewer women become comedians because they are not so inclined to show-off or be competitive in conversation. Lee Mack stated “I am only quoting other scientific reports on it. When men sit around together and talk they are very competitive… When you get six women in a room together they share a lot more…and it’s a more interactive. “This idea may have links to the evolutionary theories seen previously.
The concept that men are more likely to do stand-up comedy or just be funny because they are more competitive than women is pervasive. Generally, research into how groups of single and mixed sexes converse agree with what Lee Mack is saying. A sentence I never thought I’d type. But these are just tendencies. Women may be more likely to support each other in conversation, but that doesn’t mean they all do it all the time. They can also be competitive and try to show off. Same goes for men for support and chances are it’s largely context dependent.
These studies investigated conversation and weren’t about being funny and/or a stand-up comedian. Just because a woman is on average more likely not to be competitive in conversation, doesn’t mean she won’t change her style of interaction when “performing” to her friends or performing onstage as a comedian.
Finally and more importantly, competition and showing off doesn’t necessarily equate to funnier. For some reason people who make this argument seem to be focussing on one style of comedy. One-upmanship is fine for some things (human pyramids and so on), but a lot of comedy relies on interaction, support and listening e.g. improvisation, sketch comedy. Stand-up itself doesn’t need to be competitive as such and many a skilled comedian can build a hilarious act through audience interaction and support. Just watch Dara Ó Briain open a show.
Social (and some psychology)
The entertainment industry seems to agree with the idea that women are not or can’t be funny, or at least can’t be as funny as men. One figure tossed around is that only 10% of stand-up comedians are women and it’s relatively rare to see more than one woman on one of the ubiquitous comedy panel shows. I don’t have the data to argue that many more women want to be or are funny and hard-working enough to be successful stand-up comedians and lack or don’t see the opportunity, but given societal and prevalent psychological bias it seems a likely explanation.
It would seem that across an alarming swathe of society, humour and the production of humour is not valued or even recognised in women. If you think women aren’t funny and as a result ignore it when they are then what’s the incentive for women to be funny? Lo and behold you fulfil your own bias. Or you try to. if you hold the ridiculous opinion that women aren’t funny and as proof try to point out a non-existent lack of funny women then by your own logic you only have yourself to blame. Luckily there are women who defy this societal bias to produce excellent comedy.
Research shows humorous items are often remembered more successfully, in a phenomenon known as the humour effect. For example in one study (linked to already in these ramblings) related to providing funny captions, the items judged as funnier were remembered better. The analyses also provided evidence for a humour-based retrieval bias. Individuals of both genders tended to misattribute humorous captions to male writers. This was true both for misremembering captions whose author’s sex the participants knew and for when participants were only guessing the sex of a caption author. So again it’s not that women can’t or aren’t being funny, it’s that due to existing societal bias, when they are you don’t remember or worse, you remember the humour and think it was a man that did it. Again you only have yourself to blame for thinking there are no funny women. “I don’t remember ever doing this!” you might shout. Quite.
The Guff at the Long-Awaited End
Ultimately there appears to be no strong argument that women can’t be funny or aren’t funny or aren’t as funny as men. If you think there are, then you are contributing to the biased social and psychological forces that contrive give that appearance. This isn’t surprising and I’m sorry if any of this has come across as patronising. I don’t think that people who hold that opinion have even though about it that much other than as a subtle impact of prejudice. Then why bother taking-apart the arguments behind women being “not funny” at all? To paraphrase Josh Whedon, “I’ve got a theory, it could be bunnies…”
“You’ll be fine as long as you can avoid going native.” These were the words spoken to me when I said I might be interested in psychiatry. If we were being unkind (and possibly correct) we would say that this statement belies evidence of stigma against mental illness and those who deal with it professionally. It even hints at the idea that mental illness is somehow contagious or catching. Who knows how such an “infection” could be spread. Be careful when sneezing while depressed I suppose their advice might be.
If we were being more forgiving we might decide that this person was merely showing a concerned attitude, highlighting the difficulties inherent in having a mental illness and in being responsible for the health needs of those experiencing it. Either way, this brief conversational snippet can be used to highlight not only the stigma against those with mental illness but the spread of that stigma to those that care for them.
Stigma can be described as a sign of disgrace setting a person apart from others. Erving Goffman, noted sociologist, defined stigma as, “the process by which the actions of others spoils normal identity.” It is common for people with mental illness to feel invisible or that their needs are not being met. They feel people assume they’re “benefits scroungers” and that they should “pull themselves together”. Casual language used to describe mental illness is decidedly negative. He or she is described as going “crazy”, “loony” or “psycho”. I haven’t seen the film, Psycho, but I suspect the emphasis isn’t on hugging. Media portrayals of mental illness reinforce stigma with images of violence with mental ill-health.
Family members of those with mental illness are affected with so called “courtesy stigma” or stigma-by-association. But when thinking about courtesy here, think less about opening doors for others and more about unnecessary guilt. Many relatives feel it necessary to hide the mental health problems of their nearest and dearest. In one study of 156 parents and spouses of people experiencing a first-admission to hospital for mental health problems, 50% reported making efforts to conceal their relative’s illness from others.1
Secrecy can act as an obstacle to presentation and to the treatment of mental illness at all stages. As such when social resources are mobilised, people with mental health issues and their families may be removed from potential support. It follows that poorer outcomes are likely.
Depending on the illness and its severity, the help and support provided by friends and family can be of great importance when it comes to successfully treating mental health problems. But families must remember there’s only so much they can do and that their own lives are important. Families must realise they are not to blame, that it is ok if they feel stress when a loved one has a mental illness. As such stigma by association must be reduced to aid this process. The Royal College of Psychiatrists and Rethink Mental Illness has some great resources for aiding families of those with mental illness with this in mind. So does Mind of course.
Logically an increase in the accuracy of information available would be an ideal way to reduce courtesy stigma. If it was widely known that stereotypes such as that of the “violent mental patient” or the “neglectful parent of a mentally ill child” were false then it would seem stigma could be reduced. However research on reducing mental illness stigma, highlights the importance of what information is used.
In one study participants who were told that mental illness had a genetic basis were more likely to assume that people with mental illness were dangerous compared to individuals told that mental illness was explained by social factors. Additionally those told mental illness had a genetic basis were more likely to stigmatise the families of those with mental illness.2. If we are going to use an information-based approach to reduce mental illness stigma we are going to have to be very careful about what information is used.
Ultimately then we can see that while it is obvious that those with mental illness need support and would benefit enormously from stigma reduction, the same can be said of family and friends who will be providing the majority of this support. The familial and social networks of individuals with mental illness are the backbone of their support and we mustn’t let stigma create an invertebrate system of isolation for these caring individuals.
1. Phelan, J. C., Bromet, E. J. & Link, B. G. (1998) Psychiatric illness and family stigma. Schizophrenia Bulletin, 24, pp115–126.
2. Read. J. & Harré. N. The role of biological and genetic causal beliefs in the stigmatisation of “mental patients”. Journal of Mental Health. 2001. 10 (2), pp 223-235.
It’s time to deface music! At the time of writing it was that time of year again. The musically talented and untalented alike had swum upstream (been selected in advance by producers) to spawn (sing a bit on television while people frown/smile at them).
Every Saturday night, millions of televisions blurted the selection of noises, shapes and primary colours that compose Cowell’s Cavalcade of Corporate Crooner Culling into the living rooms of the UK. The name of the particular programme has been changed for many reasons, i.e. x number of factors. During the initial stages of this singing and pointing competition the less-talented among the hopeful masses will be accused of a great many misdeeds. A simple internet search reveals contestants being referred to as dim, attention-seeking nutters, delusional, circus freaks, mad-as-a-box-of-frogs and violently breaking down.
The more astute among you may have noticed that these are intended to be derogatory terms belittling people for not using their vocal cords properly while some music is playing. Additionally these derogatory terms almost universally refer to mental illness in some fashion.
During the 2012 Paralympics, Channel 4 is showing a programme hosted by comedian Adam Hills. (The Last Leg with Adam Hills. It’s a pun, please don’t be wrong-footed. That was another pun (a much worse one). One section of this programme involves Adam discussing with Alex Brooker what you can and cannot say about the Paralympics: a frank discussion about the taboos inevitably involved when discussing disability.
Primarily their advice revolves around the content of speech. “Just don’t be horrible” – a seemingly simple piece of advice that needs to be tattooed backwards across the heads of whoever is writing THOSE comments on YouTube.
Hills and Brooker state that you probably will say the wrong thing and not to panic if you do. An example of such a wrong thing is given (source mercifully not provided): “In the Paralympic equestrian events, is it the horse or the rider who is disabled?”
The point is not to control what you should and shouldn’t say but rather to create an environment where people at least think about what they’re saying before being horrible or downright offensive.
Despite the first paragraph of this blog being about mental illness, I’m not trying to conflate being disabled with being mentally ill. Rather we should note that while people increasingly take care about the language they use to describe the disabled, the same luxury is often not afforded to those with mental illness.
You would correctly frown (I don’t know how you’d incorrectly frown, possibly a problem with your corrugator muscle) about someone with a stubbed toe saying “I’m a little bit crippled”. But you wouldn’t pay the slightest attention to someone tidying their desk saying “I’m a little bit obsessive compulsive.”
I can almost hear the cries of political correctness gone mad. Except if political correctness really had gone mad, we wouldn’t be allowed to use the phrase, political correctness gone mad. Possibly you’d be forced to say political correctness had become a little bit obsessive compulsive.
The casual use of language stigmatising mental illness is exceedingly common. Stigma can be described as a sign of disgrace setting a person apart from others. Erving Goffman, defined stigma as, “the process by which the actions of others spoil normal identity.” For those with mental illness the stigma experienced can result in a lack of funding for services, difficulty gaining employment, a mortgage or holiday insurance. Ultimately, feelings of stigma cause people to delay seeking help or even deny they have symptoms in the first place.
Casual language used to describe mental illness is decidedly negative. He or she is described as going mad, mental or psycho. Media portrayals reinforce this with images of violence and homicide associated with mental ill health. It was rare to see a discussion concerning the recent shootings in Aurora, Denver, without comments about the shooter’s mental health status.
Even children’s television seems to have gotten in on the act. One study in the British Journal of Psychiatry found that out of a sample of one week of children’s television, 59 out of 128 programmes contained one or more references to mental illness. Terms like “crazy”, “mad” and “losing your mind” were commonly used to denote losing control. Six characters were identified as being consistently portrayed as mentally ill. These characters were almost totally devoid of positive characteristics. I’m not sure if one of these was SpongeBob Squarepants. Why would a porifera even need trousers? Some sort of body dysmorphia ?
The sign “You don’t have to be crazy to work here but it helps” has become so common that it’s a cliché. People describing themselves as “a bit mad” usually mean that they’ve worn a sparkly hat at some point. Terms like mentalist, psycho, bonkers, insane and barking are thrown around like loose pennies in a conversational washing machine. Look at Terry, the mentalist. He’s bonkers. He’s so drunk he’s gone outside to punch the thunder for annoying the moon. Mad!
An argument could be made that these terms, while technically describing mental illness are not being used to specifically refer to mental illness. Rather they are referring to behaviour which they consider a little out of the ordinary. We can refer to this argument as Gervais’s Gambit. The problem is that if this language is making people with mental illness feel stigmatised, ashamed and isolated then the amount of thought behind it as it is used casually is largely irrelevant.
If you are so attached to using a word you don’t want to put any thought behind it before you use it that’s fine. I am more than happy for you to take your dictionary on a romantic weekend away if you promise to use your technical definitions in private without hurting anyone. “But nobody I know has complained about me using this language.” Well no, perhaps the people you know with mental illness are too worried you’ll call them crazy and laugh at their inability to sing.
And you will know somebody with mental illness. With estimates of one in four (most likely higher) people being affected it would defy statistics if you didn’t. And only Benjamin Disraeli is allowed to defy statistics. Ultimately people are not going to stop using these terms stigmatising mental illness. It could be argued that at least one comment I’ve made during this article does just that. They are as entrenched in language as the saying of “lol” is instead of actually laughing. As a side note, shouldn’t people who say lol instead of laughing, write it as lolol to describe laughing?
Like the thought that should go into that distracting parody of text speak, it would be enough that people thought about what they are trying to express and whom they will hurt. Especially as it’s likely to be someone close to them. You can still make your jokes and use the words, but consider whether another word might do and who you may hurt beforehand. Perhaps then we can move towards a frank and honest dialogue about mental illness and away from the disgrace and stigma.
The Royal College of Psychiatrists along with mental health charities Mind and Rethink Mental Illness have produced a video explaining more about mental illness discrimination and how you can support the proposed mental health (discrimination) bill.
That and some consideration before you describe your busy weekend as mental, would go some way to reduce mental illness stigma. I don’t think I’m crazy to think that would be a good thing.