Gender-Neutral Awards and the Comedy World

The British Comedy Awards nominations have been announced, as I learned via the intertubes from Neil over at Cook’d and Bomb’d. Neil made the following observation on Twitter:

Why can’t they have separate King or Queen of Comedy categories? Having a combined one then including 1 out of 6 women looks like tokenism.

Which got me thinking.

There are occasional arguments for combining the actor and actress categories in the Academy Awards. It makes sense generally, they’re all doing the exact same job. It’s not–as pretty much any article on this subject is hasty to mention–like a sport where physical differences could put women at a disadvantage.

The problem is always stated to be that the roles for women aren’t typically as substantive as the roles for men–women would be at an automatic disadvantage not because of their capabilities but because of the dearth of different types of roles offer to them. I tend to agree with that with regards to movies in general, but it tends to be less of an issue with Oscar bait-type movies and given the types of roles women have won for in the last few years, I wonder if they wouldn’t stand a chance in a combined category. This year this best actor award went to Jean Dujardin for being successfully funny and charming without speaking at all. The best actress award went to Meryl Streep, who is Hollywood royalty and easily one of the most if not the most skilled actress working today. That one’s kind of a no-brainer.

Starring roles for women have been expanding. And while there is a noticeable trend in the types of roles women win for–historical dramas and biopics, primarily–they are still typically good, meaty roles. It’s frustrating to think that completely fictional movies with strong female characters in prominent roles simply aren’t being made, but we still get performances like Marion Cotillard’s in La Vie en Rose or Helen Mirren in The Queen; roles which are comparable to the performances given by men in similar roles.

In the stand-up comedy world, women also represent a vast array of different types of comedy. But unlike film actresses, they have a tendency to all be lumped into one category: “women comedians.” With regards to acting roles for women, you’d be hard pressed to find someone who’d say Sigourney Weaver in Alien Holly Hunter in The Piano were playing the same type of role. But I’ve heard numerous people compare the musical-comedy duo Garfunkel and Oates to satirist Sarah Silverman on the grounds that both are “cute women who say dirty things.” Down to the amateur level, female comedians have reported being turned away by clubs because they “already have” a woman. It’s really easy to demonstrate to someone that putting women in one category doesn’t make sense using comedians they might have a passing familiarity with, too: show them a clip of Whitney Cummings‘s stand-up and then a clip of Kristen Schaal‘s.

This creates a strange situation to be stuck in with regards to awards. My knee-jerk response to the suggestion that an awards category for comedians be separated on gender lines is to stay neutral–female comedians work very hard to be considers just plain comedians instead of some special type of category and this potentially only stands to reinforce that.

But by this same token, female comedians have significantly less visibility. Those issues faced at the very early stages of a career can lead to struggles getting any kind of recognition as a performer. That, as always, is mixed with the weirdly-still-held belief that most women aren’t funny (as someone points out in the comments of this article, comedian Brian Posehn once observed: “wouldn’t you say most people aren’t funny?”).

So I find I’m a bit at odds with myself regarding this. Having an entire category unto themselves at least provides women comedians with a handy yearly list to present to people who don’t realize that gender doesn’t inherently have anything to do with comedy. But I can’t shake the feeling that a move towards gender neutrality–listing everyone as just a comedian–is a move in the right direction. Does having one out of six comedians up for an award be a woman still have a positive effect even if it does feel like patronizing tokenism? A woman on the stage being considered as good as the men up there with her is after all just that.

It’s difficult to say which would be better or worse for women in comedy at the moment and frustrating that visibility at this point is still so low that both options have a sort of “sure, I’ll take what I can get!” tinge to them. Perhaps it best then to separate such awards for now and save the “should these be one combined award?” debates (as with the Oscars) for when representation is a little more comparable; when “most women aren’t funny” is universally considered as ludicrous an opinion as “most women can’t act.”


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2 Responses to Gender-Neutral Awards and the Comedy World

  1. Al says:

    The music world has a handy way of getting past this problem: having some award categories that are gender specific and some that aren’t. I’m not sure how much that helped but it does mean that women are never completely marginalised.

    It certainly seems like comedy is more of a boys’ club than music at the moment. There have only ever been two female winners in the history of the Edinburgh/Perrier Comedy Award. Pretty shocking when you think that some of Britain’s favourite comedians like Jo Brand, Miranda Hart and Sarah Millican passed through without picking up the award. And Josie Long has been shortlisted the last three years and lost out to inferior competition every time.

    • carogriffin says:

      It’s similar with the Oscars–any non-acting award can go to a person of any gender. The acting awards are the things people really tune in for, though so I wonder to what extent it’s likely to be split along gender lines like that forever just as a sort of ratings-grab.

      I did wonder if it was worth mentioning that this specific award in question is a) a People’s Choice sort of thing b) appears to have only been around for a couple of years and c) has (unless I’m incorrect in thinking it’s only been around for a couple of years) exclusively gone to women thus far (Miranda Hart in 2010 and Sarah Millican in 2011).

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