Last night I went along to the launch of the BBC Comedy Caroline Aherne Bursary, a new initiative promising to award £5k and a development opportunity to a ‘Funny Northern Woman’ in memory of the legendary comic. The bursary was launched at the BBC’s offices in MediaCity Salford and was preceded by a ‘Women in Comedy panel’ where several women from across the industry discussed their careers in comedy and tips for new entrants.
Having been researching the UK comedy industry since 2013 I was particularly interested to see how this new initiative was presented to an audience (made up of the ticketed public as part of the Salford Sitcom Showcase events). I should note that none of my criticisms are directed at the panel members themselves, all of whom were talented women with a lot of experience to offer. However, several stark issues were brought home for me both during the panel discussion and the subsequent hasty ‘launch’ of the bursary.
- An all white panel. In 2017 this is not acceptable. It is especially relevant to consider when the issue under discussion is about diversifying comedy with ‘new voices’. A panel of 5 cis-gendered white women (and confusingly, considering the subject matter, only one northern voice) does not send out a message of inclusion, it simply perpetuates a situation of privilege. This was compounded by the fact that when all the panel members were asked about their comedy heroes all comics referenced were also white (as were the performers featured on video clips played at the event). What I found astonishing was knowing that the Women in Comedy Festival, an organisation without any core funding which is staffed by volunteers (whom I have been working alongside since 2014), regularly consider this issue and adapts to find ways to be more inclusive across all aspects of diversity. I have witnessed and been involved in these honest and difficult conversations about our responsibility to be inclusive (something the festival’s director Hazel O’Keefe is incredibly passionate about) and for a huge organisation like the BBC to not have considered this is frankly unbelievable. You cannot just replace white men with white women – that is not inclusive and it is certainly not any kind of feminism I recognise. (More a post-feminist denial of the need to collectively challenge structures that continue to exclude and marginalise?)
- Complexity of language. The first comment made by the host was that often the panel members (herself included) get invited along to ‘women in’ panels and that often they make the point that they are just ‘people in’ a particular field. This was confusing as the chair was from the BBC, who I’d imagine had control of the name of the event…. so maybe simply give the panel another name rather than starting off on this awkward note? The first question after this statement was ‘which women inspired you to go into comedy?’ – if gender really is irrelevant (I’m not saying it is, but this seemed the position of the chair) then why kick off with a gendered question? This was further complicated by the chair using the term ‘ladies and gentlemen’ and a panel member’s repeated use of the word ‘comedienne’. You cannot make a statement erasing the need to discuss the ways in which systems ‘other’ people (along gendered, racial, classist or ability lines) whilst simultaneously using language that reinforces and maintains difference.
- Will this change anything? The timing of this event, in the week after high profile revelations about the BBC’s pay gap across racial, gender and class lines, meant that structural considerations were fresh in my mind when listening to the speakers. Although, of course we must bear in mind that these inequalities exist across all broadcast organisations, and not just those required to publish the data publicly. A question I was left with after the panel was ‘How does this initiative fit with the BBC’s overall strategy to be more inclusive in its comedy output?’. As with the 2014 ‘no more all-male panel shows’ announcement it felt very much like this initiative needed to be connected up to a wider strategy about what happens behind the cameras too. Don’t get me wrong, it is great that a new Northern female voice will be given an opportunity to be heard, but at the same time we have to ask ourselves will this person just be dragged into a faulty system? A system that continues to discriminate along gendered and racial lines? Will this bursary be used to tick a box without making any real tangible change that will impact many more women than just the winner? The bursary was hastily mentioned at the end of the panel with the key advice seeming to be ‘look on the website for how to apply’ and there was no opportunity to publicly ask questions after the bursary was announced.
I didn’t feel as if I could articulate a (non-confrontational) question during the Q&A (which consisted of three comments disguised as questions about pitching to/ approaching commissioners….which is kind of understandable in a way considering the event was supposed to be about launching the bursary). These are just my initial thoughts and I think and feel many other things about this event too – I will find a way to articulate the complexity of this experience and the initiative within my research. My concern is that small one-off initiatives and awards from large organisations are used to distract from much more complex and challenging structural issues which need addressing.