Monday, 18 November 2013

Why I Hate The Word 'Comedienne'


It’s only a word, it’s only a little thing. But since you can only eat an elephant in small bites (as the saying goes), let’s take things one mouthful at a time.

And one of the little things that gets my goat is the use of the word ‘comedienne’ to describe a woman who makes people laugh. It implies that the originally male word ‘comedian’ is superior, and therefore anything else is a poor substitute. It implies a sense of otherness with a female comedian, a sense of second best, it gives a hint of frailty, and suggests that a woman telling jokes is somehow different to a man telling jokes. Which is balls.

I run an all-female comedy night called What The Frock! Comedy. Not because I want to be mean and exclude all the boy comedians from the fun, but because for so long most of the women comedians have been excluded from the comedy circuit (on average, only 4% of all acts booked on comedy nights in the UK will be female. It’s 2013!).

Because I make this deliberate gender distinction in my booking policy, I inevitably spend a lot of time reading cuttings about my acts that refers to them as ‘comediennes’. Now don’t get me wrong – I am DELIGHTED when anybody writes anything about my events, I am over the frickin’ moon. But, given the opportunity, I do find myself saying to journalists who contact me: “I don’t want to be annoying, and I’m not going to ask to approve the copy… but please call the acts ‘comedians’ and not ‘comediennes’. It’s about what comes out of their gob, not what their gob looks like.” On the whole, they listen.

But last week the word seemed to come up a lot. Maybe that was because What The Frock! put on a big show that generated a lot of press – in print, on radio and on the telly box. Wooh! But in every instance, at some point the acts were called ‘comediennes’. Even by female journalists (journalistas?).

But why? You don’t get the same gender distinction in a lot of other professions. You don’t get male dentists and female dentistas; you don’t get male lawyers and female lawyerettes; you don’t get male accountants and female sumsticians. For one thing, they’re all really ugly words. For another thing, they’re all really stupid words. And for a third thing, they’re all made-up words. Just like ‘comedienne’.

Every single one of the 100+ acts I’ve worked with to date refers to herself as a ‘comedian’. Some make a point of saying they actively distance themselves from the word ‘comedienne’, while others say they don’t like the word but they’d rather somebody wrote something about them than nothing at all.

Which leads me to say that the language used to describe female acts also baffles me sometimes. For instance, we had Lucy Porter on last week, who was variously described in the local press as “sweet voiced”, “a familiar funny maker” and “sweetly demeanored”, while previously Tiffany Stevenson was said to provide “amiable and chatty banter”. All phrases to imply maternal hugs or bland giggles. There’s an interview with Bridget Christie in the current issue of Vogue with the headline “Pretty Funny” (not only would that headline never go with a piece about a male comedian, but it also implies that Bridget’s appearance is somehow relevant, and that it is surprising that she should be amusing. Being a laydee and that).

I know there are bigger things to worry about, but when we are still giving the same job different words depending on the gender of the person doing it, we still need to think about how much further we have to go in the equality battle.

Women typically get short shrift in the comedy industry – thanks to venues that will only book a maximum of one woman a night, panel shows that ignore them altogether, and stadium tours populated almost exclusively by the boys. And don’t get me started on how few female comedians are able to put out comedy DVDs.

And if people keep on calling them ‘comediennes’ rather than ’comedians’, things aren’t going to change any time soon. I’m not for a second implying this is the only problem women face in the comedy industry, far from it. But the nuances implied by a distinctively lesser word, one that is feminine and dainty in its sound and appearance, suggest that a gurl comedian is going to be a disappointment. When, frankly, that’s just poppycock.

Here’s a top ten of my favourite comedians right this minute. What do they all have in common? (Clue – none of them are shit, none of them are dainty):

  • Aisling Bea
  • Amy Poehler
  • Bridget Christie
  • Jayde Adams
  • Jennifer Saunders
  • Katherine Ryan
  • Luisa Omielan
  • Sara Pascoe
  • Tina Fey
  • Vikki Stone

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