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Why have so few women won the Leacock prize for comedy?

The Conversation
05 Aug 2022, 04:38 GMT+10

After winning the Stephen Leacock Medal for Humour in 1996 for Letters from the Country, journalist and humourist Marsha Boulton proudly declared in an interview with the Vancouver Sun: "This means I really am a funny woman and women in Canada are funny people, and we can write humour just as well as men can."

Boulton was right to feel honoured, as she was in exclusive company. And as a woman writing humour, even more so. Only nine women have won since the first medal was awarded in 1947.

On August 3, the Leacock Associates announced the shortlist for the 75th annual award: Three books by established Canadian writers Mark Critch, Dawn Dumont and Rick Mercer.

The organization soon after acknowledged the news that Dumont, who also goes by Dawn Walker and her son Vincent have been missing in Saskatchewan since July 22 and are "extremely concerned" for her safety. The investigation is ongoing and Saskatoon residents are being asked to help in the search.

As judges prepare to announce the winner in September, it's worth asking: why have so few women won the Leacock Medal? And on the rare occasions when they have won, what kind of women's humour has been rewarded?

Why have so few women won the Leacock Medal?

Most of the women who submit their writing for the award have already negotiated structural barriers, like sexism, at elite publishing houses. They've also dealt with a culture that continues to perpetuate the myth that women aren't funny.

The judging process also works against women. There's a lack of criteria, judge anonymity and no discussion among judges - they simply read and rank the texts.

What kind of women's humour has been rewarded?

Though few in number, there have been some great selections of women's humour. But most have reflected a limited sense of what constitutes Canadian humour, especially Canadian women's humour.

Earlier winning books often reinforced conservative stereotypes about women, domesticity and Canadian provincialism.

The first five books to win, which span almost 50 years, are largely autobiographical accounts of women in the home, often in rural settings, with the comedy arising from the contrast between the cultural edge and the center. At the same time however, other Canadian women like Margaret Atwood, Erika Ritter and Carol Shields were writing comedy that didn't conform to this narrow vision.

It is no accident that the most fallow period for female prizewinners corresponded with both the flourishing of second-wave feminism and the subsequent backlash of the 1980s, when anti-feminist humour proliferated.

Among the four most recent female winners, the comedic themes are harder to classify. Some mine, but also challenge, domestic and provincial comedy.

Susan Juby's Republic of Dirt appears to be a typical Canadian provincial story, where the land is a source of both comedy and domestic values. But, in fact Juby's book treats issues like sexual assault, marital breakdown and drug addiction with comic dexterity, while the novel's only loving and functional nuclear family is composed of two women and their adopted children.

Similarly, Dance, Gladys, Dance creates a family of quirky characters who engage in civil protest to preserve a community art space. The protagonist of Molly of the Mall pursues a bachelor's degree at the University of Alberta, while Gone to Pot features a grandmother earning a living in a most unconventional manner by running a grow-op in her basement.

Improving the judging

As English professors and comedy scholars, we offer several suggestions for changing the adjudication of the Leacock Medal.

We would like to see the judging process made transparent, with the judges' identities made public - like the Giller and Governor General's literary awards.

We would also like the judges to consider the structural issues facing women humorists, and widen their sense of what Canadian comedy can be beyond rural, domestic and overwhelmingly white themes.

Several studies have shown that when adjudicators remain unaware of applicants' gender, results are fairer. Have attempts been made to anonymize submissions?

The more complex issue concerns humour as a matter of taste. Given that films are frequently termed "chick flicks" simply for having a female protagonist, and that as recently as 2013, Wikipedia grouped American novels into two different pages, "American novelists" and "American women novelists" - judges should be aware and discuss their own potential biases.

The Stephen Leacock Medal is one of the few prizes for literary humour. It is undeniably important in bringing attention to humour writing, which is unlikely to win any other mainstream literary prize. We need to value the recognition of great Canadian comic writing, and ensure it's judged equitably.

Authors: Sean Zwagerman - Associate Professor, Department of English, Simon Fraser University | Diana Solomon - Associate Professor of English, Simon Fraser University The Conversation

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