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BBC’s ban on all-male panel shows: a step forward, but we need real equality

It would be foolish not to welcome the ban, writes Jessie Thompson – but would equal air time for women really be so radical?

February 12, 2014
3 min read

mock-the-weekThose who regularly tune into Mock The Week, QI, Have I Got News For You and their ilk will have noticed that the BBC seems to fiercely adhere to a bizarre belief that only white middle-aged men are funny, and women are not allowed out of the house past 8pm. It was therefore a wonderful development to hear the BBC’s director of TV Danny Cohen say this week that there will no longer be any all-male panels on their channels, stating that ‘they are not acceptable’.

However, many have responded to this news with the utterly rational and of course highly evidence-based response that these skewed figures are inevitable: women just aren’t funny. How can they be represented equally on panel shows, they say, when the obvious problem is that there are just a lot more hilarious, charming and smart men to go around?

But the problem is not one of supply and demand. Firstly, if producers have a hard time thinking of talented women to provide with opportunities (unlikely if they don’t live on an island), then it’s surely their duty to go out and find them. The women exist, the open doors don’t. Second, potential panellists such as Caitlin Moran and Libby Purves say that they have turned down the chance to appear on these shows as they find the sense of tokenism insulting and uncomfortable.

Last year, the comprehensive Sex and Power report revealed the shockingly archaic absence of women from public life. One of its recommendations was that media panels should feature equal representation of both genders.

While it would be foolish not to welcome the all-male ban as a step in the right direction, if women are to be plonked on the end as mere ornaments, the absurd notion that women don’t really deserve to be there will only be reinforced. If the presence of female guests becomes a box-ticking exercise, both they and the audience will continue to feel as if their talent is of secondary importance to equalities and opportunities forms.

If we want a more representative culture, we must arrive at a point when it would not be seen as bizarre or applause-worthy to see a panel that consists of four women and two men. Women cannot be something they can’t see, so to swell the ranks of women willing to say yes to these opportunities we need to try something less feeble than tokenism.

It’s telling that the BBC boss cites the individual example of Mary Beard as evidence of progress in this area – many will be aware of the violently misogynistic abuse that Beard received after appearing on Question Time. Perhaps if women begin to be shown as equal human beings on the TV, they might also start being treated as equal human beings elsewhere on the planet.