That’s the joke I imagine cracking in an editorial team meeting of my local newspaper. There I go, trying to be funny – no – satirical even. How very dare I, what with me being a woman and all.
You see, I’m beginning to wonder what the agenda of my local newspaper is, particularly after it published an extraordinary (not in a good way) full-page opinion piece by Tom Ogg on 22nd June 2019 (yes, that’s 2019, not 1919) in which he picks apart ITVs decision to introduce positive discrimination to stop all-male comedy writing teams.
Now this isn’t going to be a discourse on the rights or wrongs of positive discrimination. This is an analysis of why the paper has chosen to publish this piece, what I perceive to be unpalatable about it, and what the effect of putting this opinion so prominently in to the public domain is to women in Jersey and beyond.
The basic theme of Tom’s article is that straight white men, having built Western civilisation, sacrificed their lives in wars – and written hilarious comedy shows – are being oppressed by a decision to positively introduce more women in to one particular area (comedy) of one particular industry (media).
Now, I don’t mind Tom having a different opinion to me. That’s what makes the world tick, each to their own. But what I take issue with is the fact that this has been published by my local newspaper without the balance of the other side of the coin being considered.
The language Tom uses is authoritative and, in my opinion, entitled. He speaks with apparent certainty when he states, ‘the fundamental problem with ITV’s ruling is that…’ and, ‘if I were female, I think I would be…’ and, ‘anyone with any sense can see that…’
It is language that asserts superiority. He clearly feels empowered to tell the readership what the problem is, why ITV have got it wrong, how women should be grateful for what men have achieved and what women should, in fact, be feeling about all this.
To give a flavour of the tone of the article, he suggests that men are inherently funnier than women, or that ‘women just don’t have the same fundamental need to be funny that men do.’ He goes further and offers advice on how a woman can snag a man (because that is, of course, our raison d’etre): ‘although it is very appealing if a woman can make a man laugh (my own wife is very funny indeed), it simply isn’t anything like as essential.’ Congratulations Tom, you must be so proud, having found one of the few funny women in the world and then managing to laugh her down the aisle. But guess what? I don’t find anything in this article or its publication amusing.
Let’s look at the points that are made and why I find the piece objectionable:
- Straight white men built Western civilisation ‘including almost all of the architecture, home comforts and technology contained therein’. Yep, Tom, you’ve got me there. Whilst us women were just playing around with knitting and kittens, there you all were, building civilization. Because, of course, us women had nothing at all to do with it, did we? Or…might it be the case that our contribution has been airbrushed out of history?
- If ITVs recent decision had been applied several decades ago, we wouldn’t have Monty Python, Porridge, Steptoe and Son etc. He’s stopped short of mentioning Alf Garnett, Dad’s Army and Benny Hill, I note. I can’t speak for others (you see, I have a level of self-awareness), but I’m not a fan of those comedies. They’re not, in my book, ‘classics’. And I suspect that’s because they were written by men, for men. Perhaps ITV has realised this, and is now seeking to produce TV that appeals to the rest of the population too? You see, what’s funny to the Tom’s of this world, isn’t necessarily funny to the Barbara’s (see what I did there?!). And so why is it so abhorrent for a national TV company to want to actively take steps to ensure it caters for all of its viewers? I imagine it’ll be a one-way ticket to the liquidator if it doesn’t. Local paper, take note.
- He asserts, ‘the fundamental problem with ITVs ruling is that – like all diversity quotas – it discriminates.’ The absolutely authority with which Tom states this surprises me. There is no consideration of the background to the decision. No reasoning of the pros and cons for the move. Nope, just a blanket, ‘I’m being discriminated against here’. But, unlike me and other women, he is being given a platform to complain about it. Where is my opportunity to challenge the every day unfairness that women face?
- It was the sentence, ‘if I was female, I think I would be even more insulted by…’ that really got to me (and perhaps that was the writer’s intention). Not only is he given an outlet to freely share his views, he is allowed to think for us women, to suggest how we ought to be feeling about this topic. Can you imagine a situation where I was allowed to write a whole-page about a topic that directly affected men, and set out how I think men should feel about that topic? No, me neither. I wouldn’t have the temerity to assume I am in any way qualified to assume how a man feels. This broad-brush ‘men know best’ narrative is unhelpful and serves to overlook and/or invalidate women’s actual opinions. Want to know how a woman feels about something? Here’s an idea: ask her.
- He says, ‘why can’t comedians and comedy writers simply be hired on the basis of whether or not they are funny?’ Indeed, the same might be said for the selection of local papers’ opinion writers… But on whose opinion of ‘funny’ should such hiring be made? What this fails to address is the privileged background men such as Tom come from. Not necessarily monetarily (although statistically, he’s likely to be paid more than his female counterpart) and I know nothing about his personal life and so that’s not what I’m getting at, but by simple dint of the fact of him being: white, straight, male. That alone will likely have opened doors for him, got him the platform that he finds himself on. As I’ve said, there are scant few strong female voices in this paper. Might that be because those that commission these articles are themselves, white, straight and male? Might it be because our Island is largely governed by white, straight males in political, business and judicial life? Might it be because it is so incredibly difficult for a woman (let alone a middle-aged or older woman) to have her authentic voice heard and properly considered? It’s not just a question of whether someone is funny or not. It’s a question of who has the power, who is the audience, and what does the audience really want – more of the same, or something different?
- Apparently, there are less women in comedy than men because women ‘don’t have the same fundamental need to be funny than men do.’ Wow, Tom, that broad brush you’re sweeping with is getting bigger by the paragraph! Thank goodness I don’t have to laugh a man into bed, I can rest on my feminine wiles (there I go again, being all sarcastic instead of funny. I imagine that’s SO unattractive). To publish a piece which suggests that women aren’t successful in comedy not because of discrimination, but because they aren’t inherently funny, is an odd business decision by the paper. It’s like saying, ‘there aren’t many female partners of law firms because they’re just not very good at law.’ That’s a weird, and depressing view, if it truly is a genuine one, and a fast-track to alienating a large proportion of your readership.
- And finally, the piece de resistance, ‘I know these sorts of basic observations founded in everyday reality aren’t very fashionable these days, but it’s just how it is.’ Well, that’s okay then. I’ll pipe down and go back to the washing because, well, that’s just how it is. Except it’s not, is it? Nothing is or should be ‘just how it is’, everything is capable of growth, development and change – even the local press. The propagation of such narratives allows these outdated views to linger.
So why has this article been published? What was the business and social rationale for it? Is there a desire to become the Channel Islands’ Daily Mail? Is Tom angling for Piers Morgan’s crown? Is it deliberately playing to an audience of which I am not part?
I don’t know. But in an island where a wife still has to ask her husband to discuss her own tax affairs, where the judiciary is a long line of white men drawn from a narrow range of schools, where the leading positions in government and politics are populated with few women, I guess I shouldn’t be all that surprised. However, much of the rest of the world (or that Western civilisation that Tom’s so keen on) is changing. Laws are being brought in to redress the balance. Women are using their voices to call out discrimination and unfairness. Businesses – even locally – are actively engaging in diversity and inclusion programmes.
Women are not a minority, and yet with articles like this we are still being made to feel apologetic for demanding change and fairness.
If this article was published as ‘click bait’ then, yes, I’ve taken the bait. Silly me. But if women don’t start challenging this outdated, biased narrative, where will we be? And, local paper, if you don’t start listening to women, giving them an equal voice and stopping this unbalanced journalism, you might just find that your readership deserts you. Maybe think about taking a leaf out of ITVs book and begin to look towards a bright, inclusive future. Because…women.