Amazon, Female representation is not an unfair thing to ask for

Source: OML/Business Standard

Last week, Amazon made a huge announcement: 14 stand-up comedians would have their own hour-long special streamed on Prime Video globally to over 60 million subscribers. Nothing this large has been done in the history of Indian stand-up comedy.

All the comics that they signed on have a lot in common. They have all had a career that launched them from obscurity to a fame where their shows can book out a reasonably sized auditorium with hundreds of seats. Their new-found fame is a function of the rise of stand-up comedy in India, which has grown immeasurably in the last decade. One more thing they share in common — they’re all men.

14–0

Stand-up comedy, and comedy in general, is fiercely male-dominated. That’s the way it has been for most of recent memory. The factors that shape the comedy scene around the world make it very difficult for a woman to even be inclined to break into the scene. As a result, the number that even try, let alone those that succeed, are quite small.

I’ll not go into the reasons that make men more common in stand-up. My issue is with how Amazon chose 14 men and zero women for the first stand-up comedy lineup from India that will be streamed globally to millions of people. Regardless of the wide gender disparity in Indian stand-up, 14:0 is a shameful ratio. Fewer women being in the scene does not justify zero representation in a group that clearly has room for them.

Representation isn’t reservation

One of the most prominent themes in discussions about this lineup is how having a few women on it would amount to a “quota”, like the kind granted to lower-caste college applicants in Indian colleges. This does injustice to the issue of representation. One of my stand-up comedian friends made this comparison to me the day after the lineup was announced.

Representation is not, now or ever, an issue of having a percentage of something compulsorily reserved for a gender. That’s not the solution that’s being demanded, and it should certainly not be painted that way. Diversity is the issue; diversity is an important thing to have in any profession or art, and diversity in gender can only broaden the perspectives and themes that stand-up comedy draws on.

But why should Amazon pick comedians that have less merit?

This is also a prominent response that is compelling at first glance. But it is important to remember here that a) merit is a function of factors other than ability, and b) success in stand-up comedy depends on much more than just merit. The fact remains that it is much easier for men to break into stand-up comedy’s ranks and gain a following than it is for women.

Keeping this in view, encouraging female stand-up comedians, even if they are slightly less popular or “meritworthy”, whatever that means, is not an unfair ask. In fact, it is incredibly important for women considering comedy as a career to see examples of peers who have made it. Even one special featuring a female comedian can inspire an amateur to move past the three minutes of material she started out with. It’s disappointing that Amazon has not taken advantage of that opportunity to inspire.

Launching the already-launched

With the amount of money that Amazon is haemorrhaging in India, on their Prime Video service alone, it is not a shock that Amazon went with a slate of comedians who are, for the most part, established. Just a couple years ago, many of these comedians were nobody. A few days ago, one of them accused a woman of being sexist for pointing out that there was not a single female comedian standing in that lineup with him.

This attitude is worrying — pointing out that there is a huge gender disparity in something is not needless reverse sexism. It’s a legitimate grievance.

Amazon is helping establish rising male comedy stars, but has left out women completely. Including women would have made sense for Amazon too — diversity goes a long way in getting people to watch your content. It helps the stand-up ecosystem by recognizing everyone in it, not just those who are privileged enough to be considered worthier. It also keeps the catalogue from being a goddamn sausage fest.

Final notes

Did Amazon approach some of the more famous female stand-up comedians? I don’t know. I sent in requests for comment to some of the most popular ones, and only Vasu Primlani responded — Amazon did not talk to her about doing a special for them.

On a personal note, I know of at least three relatively popular female stand-up comedians who I find funnier than half the men that Amazon went with. As such, I don’t buy the argument that these 14 people are “better” than any female comics who could have stood in for some of them.

Reminder: the gender ratio here is 14:0. Let that sink in. At best, it’s unhealthy. At worst, it is a dangerous form of sexism that doesn’t even give peripheral consideration to female representation. For all of Amazon’s global efforts to promote gender equality in its workforce, it’s sad to not find that inclusive spirit percolate down to the people they selected to represent Indian comedy to the world.

Will it ever be normal to be a stand-up comedian who happens to be female in India? Will it ever not be notable? This lineup doesn’t make me too hopeful, to say the least.

I am a media student based in Pune. I’m on Twitter at @AroonDeep.