Monday, 10 October 2011

Why Caitlin Moran and Grace Dent are never on panel shows... but should be

A Twitter row kicked off recently between whoever it is that mans (deliberate choice of word) the Mock the Week feed, and a number of people who are sick of the lack of women on TV panel shows.

However, it was interesting to hear Caitlin Moran and Grace Dent picking up the thread on Saturday evening at the Cheltenham Literary Festival. Their hour-long session involved the two very funny women, and a female chairperson, debating around the topic of Twitter and pop culture. The session was fantastically entertaining… and also bizarrely unusual because it was a female-only panel.

During the Q&A, a woman in the audience suggested Moran and Dent should turn this into a TV show as it was so funny, and people would love it. A whoop of agreement went up from the sold-out crowd. And of course, the woman who asked this question was right – this would make brilliant TV. However, both Moran and Dent just laughed wryly, and said they’d never be allowed to talk in such a candid way on TV… because women never are.

This led to Moran saying she turns down appearances on shows such as Have I Got News For You if they ask, because she knows she will be on as the token female guest, that she will rarely be allowed to speak, and when she is allowed to speak – it will be edited out before screening in order to “save her from herself”, with the result that the only clips of her actually shown would be her politely tittering at a man’s jokes. The implication, said Moran, is that women don’t get politics and can’t understand political humour. So she doesn’t bother anymore. Dent agreed.

Jo Brand has also said she won’t go on Mock The Week anymore as she was sick of not being allowed to speak. And Brand’s not the only one to publicly complain about this. Mariella Frostrup, Victoria Wood, Rhona Cameron… these are just a handful of the intelligent and witty women to speak to the press about this problem in the past few years. But still nothing is being done. While women are not being heard on panel shows, the female audiences are turning off in droves – bored to tears by hearing the likes of Stephen Fry, Dara O’Briain and Russell Howard talk YET AGAIN about how pleased with themselves they are.

But back to Saturday, and Dent added that when she writes for some magazines and newspapers, her typically barbed style is generally toned down by the sub-editors, in what she perceives as a well-intentioned effort by the subs to “save me from myself”. Moran agreed that she sometimes experiences the same thing. When Dent wondered aloud if male writers would experience the same level of censorship in their writing, Moran quickly and loudly laughed and said “not a chance”.

But WHY are women so under-represented on TV and radio (let’s save cinema for another time)? Why?! It would be hilarious to see Moran and Dent afforded an hour-long TV show every week, where they could talk in the same articulate, intelligent and hilarious way as they did on Saturday night. If Ricky Gervais, Stephen Merchant and Karl Pilkington can make a career out of podcasts and TV spin-offs of themselves rambling on about nothing in particular, why can’t women do the same? I dare say they’d be just as funny, but a lot less sexist and disablist than some of the unpleasant guff I’ve heard Gervais and Merchant say in their otherwise funny podcasts.

Earlier at Cheltenham, I heard Dent do a reading from her book How To Leave Twitter, and I was thrilled that she chose the section which highlights this very issue – the absence of intelligent women on TV, yet the wealth of identikit programmes with men looking like potatoes in jumpers.

Nobody seems to know what the solution is to making women more visible on panel shows, and allowing women an equal voice on TV and radio. And nobody can tell me why there is such a lack of women being given a voice – and by this, I do not mean women who are there only for what they look like, but women who actually have something interesting, amusing or relevant to say.

Women make up 52% of the population, but you wouldn’t know it by turning on your TV or radio. As a result, I rarely watch any TV these days as it seems so irrelevant to me, and so out of touch with the life that I live.


NB: There are several blogs on this topic that give full details on the stats and history of this issue. Here are links to a few recent ones:


  1. Perhaps we should nag Moran and Dent to start a podcast, since it worked for Gervais, Merchant and Pilkington?

  2. Interesting post. I wrote about the same thing and I don't have an answer either.

    From yours and Sian's post there does seem to be an anecdotal, so far, story about women feeling that they are being censored and choosing to not go on these shows. So they don't go on because they feel that they are not welcome on there. If they do go on, they feel that they are censored so there is no point in going on.

    Are they actually censored? From what I've seen of these shows, I wouldn't doubt it, but that's not to say that it's true.

    Are panel shows even the right choice for them? I don't mean that women should know their place and know not to go on panel shows. Instead, I wonder whether panel shows have a mostly male following. For example, what was the female / male breakdown at the talk by Moran and Dent? Was it 52% / 48%? Since Moran's book is called 'How to be a woman', I doubt it.

    Just some questions about an interesting topic.

  3. I agree, everything is so male centric at the moment it is tiring, I feel the same about it all being irrelevant to me. I will of course keep seeking out those witty intelligent women but it would be nice just to be able to turn the TV on and see them.

  4. Thanks, Joanna. But perhaps panel shows have a mostly male following because the mostly male audience identifies with the mostly male panel, and the fact these shows are endlessly repeated on a channel called Dave.

    For clarity, I attended four events on Saturday. One was with Moran alone, about her book - I'd say the audience was 50/50 genderwise. The second was a panel of TV critics, including Dent, that was mostly women. The third was a reading by Dent. And the fourth was the event I mostly refer to above, with Moran and Dent together. Again, the audience was fairly evenly split genderwise, from what I could tell.

  5. How fascinating. I had not realised that women on panel shows were edited that way but in hindsight it does sound about right. I would love to see more funny, intelligent women on telly. But who is in the position to make that happen?

  6. Very insightful piece - I thoroughly agree that women are not nearly as represented as they should be in TV and radio, or more accurately they are not realistically represented as smart, informed individuals with valid opinions.

    If women are candid about anything relating to...well most things really, noses wrinkle in disgust and "How crude" gets muttered. If the same comes from a man's mouth, we're permitted a naughty giggle and a "Boys will be boys" - at the very worst they are chastised for being a little close to the bone.

    I like the idea of an offshore pirate radio station for Grace & Caitlin....they could wear eye patches and everything.

  7. Undoubtedly all these shows are too blokey, but I'm unconvinced about the arguments that suggest women going on as guests are being censored or restricted because of gender. Aren't all the guests kind of locked out in that way?

    In the pecking order the regulars are going to be expecting their stuff to get in -- they're the stars of the show, the ones people tune in for. I've seen plenty of male guests stuck with that laughing at the regulars' jokes role, no doubt also having their best lines left on the cutting room floor.

    Now, why there aren't more women team captains or hosts on these shows is a different matter. That, to me, is where the problem of possible sexism lies...

  8. Lovely post, and blog too... Couldn't agree more. I'm a bloke. Not a blokey bloke, but a bloke all the same, and I've always found women to be funnier, because, er, they are. Pushiness and noise seem to be the main qualifications for the Mock The Week format; it's just unwatchable unless there is a subversive bit of quiet humour provided by Jo Brand, or someone equally subtle. Which is probably why Milton Jones (the most female in style, arguably) looks so tired and bored. Just get into that lovely Only Connect before the men in suits and loud voices ignore our pleas to shut down BBC 4 and find more money to send poor old Stephen Fry to more fancy and irrelevant locations.

  9. Brilliant post and comments too :). I watch all telly with my husband and we both feel the same about this situation. I still love QI even though it usually is mostly male dominated. I can't bear Russell Howard and can't understand why he has his own show. I never watch Mock the Week for the simple reason that it just seems to be a bunch of blokes competing with each other over how funny they can be. Boring.

    We definitely need more women team captains. Only when I see more than one woman on any of these shows at any given time will it feel like the balance is being redressed. Buzzcocks is reasonably representative -- it even had a female presenter for a while. Still would be loads better with a female team captain.

  10. Sad to hear that the guests get more heavily edited than the regulars. I wondered why they seemed so retiring on Have I Got News For You.

    Jo Brand can be a bit predictable but Rhona Cameron is always fun.

    I hadn't linked the two in my mind, but I wonder if the 'healthier' gender mix of Radio 4's News Quiz is a factor in me enjoying it more than other topical panel shows.

    Mock The Week is crude and obvious. My daughters seem to like it, though I suspect it's because they don't make the effort to find anything better.

  11. QI tends to be reasonably good at getting female guests on, and certainly for allowing them the time to speak (see Sarah Millican on last weekend's show, for example), but the best bar far is The News Quiz on Radio 4. It's peculiar the attitude on HIGNFY given that it is a spin off from The News Quiz, which has such a good balance of female guests.

  12. Hi Ben, according to princess toffee's breakdown of women's rep on panel shows, women make up 21% of the show's guests, so not great!

  13. Joining the QI debate - Sarah Millican was fab, but I recall seeing Jo Brand give up attempting to contribute anything, she was so fed up with the laddishness.

    And yes, Sandy Toksvig on The News Quiz is wonderful, but most of the panellists are male. Then look at Just a Minute, I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue . . .

    I just hope this debate doesn't peter out, as women retreat to their own funny enclave. (Or, worse, are give their own panel game on day-time telly, because that's when women are around . . .) Everyone loses when women aren't allowed space for their funny voices.

  14. If women are opting out of the panel shows, could that be a reason why they are under-represented? Also, I don't think that waiting for permission to speak is how these games are played? The male comedians are tough on eachother - why should they be treating women any differently? If the format was less combative, it would be a much less entertaining show.

    If no woman wants to speak up and aggressively take a place for herself in this format, how can we say it's the male comedians fault?

  15. Hi Danielle... it's a catch-22 situation. Women are opting out of panel shows because they feel marginalised. But by creating an environment that feels hostile to women, panel shows are not making women want to participate.

    I am certainly not saying that women should be treated any differently to men.

  16. Another thought...

    Coming from the fashion world, where there is a lot more female representation than male, I'm not sure that equal representation in cultural institutions really is that important. Some media/subjects are more popular with one sex rather than another... maybe this isn't really a problem?

    Great post, and I enjoyed the links too. Thanks MadamJMo!


    I'll leave this right here.

  18. "I am certainly not saying that women should be treated any differently to men." - no, but you're claiming it's the case.