Brave New Year, Brave New You
Ever heard the one about…why women can’t tell jokes? Well, we can, and do quite a good job of it too, but don’t always take the obvious cosh on the head approach that men do. Women definitely go about it differently as I’ve had nearly 10 years first hand experience of observing.
Culture is a direct reflection of what is going on in society, and female comedy now gets far more media exposure than it used to with fantastic breakthrough acts like Miranda Hart and Sarah Millican winning awards and my own company, Funny Women, celebrating its 10th year in business. This opens up the possibilities for women from all walks of life to be braver about using their innate sense of humour both in their public and private lives.
I’m not suggested that we wisecrack away around the boardroom or the conference circuit, but we need to be more confident about entertaining people, even in a professional environment. We are no longer obligated to ‘put up and shut up’ and, as women have increasingly become more powerful in public life. It is our right to be more open and natural in our presentation style.
I have just seen ‘The Iron Lady’ distinguished by an amazing performance from Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher. Due attention was given in the film to the training that Mrs Thatcher received in the quest to be elected as the first British female prime minister, which was, of course, administered by men. This was then reflected in her deepened voice and her desexualized appearance. Thank goodness female politicians are now more casual and relaxed in their presentation style and appearance, often trumping their male counterparts in the empathy and practicality stakes who are still bound by old standards of formality and male banter.
The main barrier to women using humour when they speak in public is lack of confidence. Too often I hear, ‘Oh I could never do stand-up’ or ‘I’m not funny’. There is a biological reason for this. Humour is a natural part of the male armoury and has its roots in sexual behaviour. An ugly man can laugh a woman into bed, but it doesn’t usually work the other way round! In the animal kingdom the male encourages the female to throw her head back in an act of submission during mating rituals, revealing her neck, one of the most vulnerable parts of the body. When a man makes a woman laugh he is unleashing basic animal instinct. So yes, all those male executive are just trying to get into your knickers with their terrible jokes!
Our female behaviour also changes around men, and vice versa. It’s all part of the great game of sexual politics and men continue to believe they have the upper hand when it comes to boardroom hierarchy – I’ve been told several versions of the same story about how the only woman at the boardroom table being asked the make the coffee!
It’s great to take a look at yourself through the eyes of other women, even if it’s not as positive as you would like it to be. As well as all the pressure we get from men, women do a great job of intimidating each other and are not always as supportive as we would expect in a business environment. This is because it has taken us much longer to reach the famous glass ceiling and some women are not prepared to share the spoils of breaking through with other women.
This is, in part, why women are still under represented in the comedy industry. Those women who have been enjoying the limelight for the last 25 years are not as willing to share it with a posse of pretty young newcomers as we expect them to be! Plus promoters, even experienced female promoters, thrive on the sex appeal of funny men preferring still to put them on the stage than giving a rooky woman a chance.
Once you’ve got past that, and worked with female comics, there is much to be engendered in terms of power and performance from those who do succeed. Stand up is one of the most revealing and fundamental forms of entertainment because you are presenting an enhanced version of your true self on stage. By learning about some of the techniques that stand up comedians use to develop their stage presence and material, in a supportive environment without the distractions or competition of male colleagues, you can really move the boundaries.
I believe that everybody has got a story to tell and that we all possess the ability to be funny. Kids and animals are ceaselessly funny because they lack inhibition but we pick up bad habits through social and cultural conditioning. Where men and women work together there is a natural hierarchy and the man who tells the jokes is often a ‘good bloke’ or seen as a bit of a mate by his colleagues. A woman on the other is seen as ‘aggressive’ or even a bit strange if she tries to get a laugh!
The truth is that women don’t always tell set piece jokes so much as funny stories; it’s the hunter gatherer legacy. Women were left around the campfire and used their storytelling skills to pass away the hours while the men were off enjoying the thrill of the hunt, no doubt sharing a few one-liners along the way!
Well, things have now moved on from the Thatcher years of ‘women in trousers’ and we are finally free to tackle the challenges of public life in our own unique way. From Jordan exuding sexuality all over the popular media, to the buttoned up professionalism of Angela Merkel and the serene power of Aung San Suu Kyi, we’ve come a long way, whether or not you like the techniques. But we’ve all got something to say for ourselves, so be brave this year and learn to stand up to stand out.
Lynne Parker is the founder and chief executive of Funny Women which runs regular Stand Up to Stand Out workshops in London and offers bespoke training to female business executives. For more information call 020 948 4444 or email firstname.lastname@example.org Check out Workshops, Challenges and Bespoke Events at www.funnywomen.com.
The Funny Women 10th Anniversary Charity Challenge takes place at the Grange St Paul’s Hotel, City of London on Thursday 8th March, International Women’s Day. 10 business women perform stand up for the first time in their lives in support of 10 charities, and supported by 10 women’s networks. The show is hosted by television presenter Kate Garraway.