Stephen Leacock's Last Laugh

I couldn't believe my eyes this morning when I read about the CBC's "disappointment" that the Stephen Leacock Association had announced an all-male shortlist for the 2011 Stephen Leacock Medal for Humour. It expressed its dismay and then went on to name 10 "rich, hilarious" Canadian women writers.

That's quite an about-face for our publicly funded radio and television network, which just two months ago bestowed the 2011 Canada Reads and best book of the decade award on a self-published male novelist, the 8th male writer in its 10 year history. Among calls of sexism in the publishing world, the CBC's Michael Enright looked into sexist practices at major literary publications a few weeks later. Enright's question--why are there so few women with bylines at major literary publications? And there were some funny reasons. But progress is progress, right?

Anyway, I decided to do a little bit of research into the Stephen Leacock Medal for Humour, and once again, I was astounded. In the 63 years that the Stephen Leacock Association has been awarding medals for humour, only five recipients have been women, or one shy of the number of male winners with the surname Ferguson. Hilarious! Unfortunately, the Stephen Leacock Award was fair in the beginning with three women winners in the first eight years. Then the next female winner wasn't until 1979. The winner of the Stephen Leacock medal receives $15,000, while the other short-listed writers receive "a cheque." But it's not really about the money, is it?

The Stephen Leacock Award for Humour still carries a lot of weight in the eyes of the Canadian public, and it can be said that Terry Fallis's 2011 Canada Reads nomination for the Best Laid Plans had a lot to do with his Stephen Leacock Medal in 2008. After all, it was given the label "the funniest," which like "the best" and "most important," are completely subjective terms that nevertheless go a long way in selling books.

But how many women would even submit their book when the last woman winner was in 1996? Or the fact that only five women writers have been shortlisted since 2002? (Sorry, I couldn't find any data farther back than that.) It brings us back to the same line of questioning that Michael Enright raised with his panelists: why are there so few women writers with bylines at major literary publications? The reason the panelists gave was because men tried harder and resubmitted their work after they were rejected. Ergo women are quitters? No, women are smart enough to realize that when they see one woman's name among 10 men with bylines that they're better off putting their energy elsewhere. Ditto for women writers looking at a winner's list with 63 names and seeing only five that belong to women. There you have it: sexism in black and white.

As we have seen, the Stephen Leacock Award can launch a literary career, so in the interest of fairness, shouldn't the Association be looking into its own practices? Or rather shouldn't its sponsors, the Ontario Trillium Foundation, funded by Ontario taxpayers, be pressuring the Stephen Leacock Association to make some much-needed changes. Calls of sexism also reflect poorly on the other sponsors: the TD Financial Group, the City of Orillia, Lakehead University, Osprey Media Group and Sun Media, not to mention Stephen Leacock himself.

Sexism is no laughing matter.

Here's the link to the podcast of Michael Enright's program: | The Sunday Edition | Women in Publishing - MMR Autism Scandal - Phil Ochs Documentary

Related posts
The CBC Investigates Sexism in Publishing
Guerrilla Girls, Humour and Hope
Publishing: What If...?
Publishing: What's "Good" and "Important"  (Stats on the # of books authored by women that are reviewed)
CBC: The Elephant in the Room  (Terry Fallis's book beats Carol Shields in CanadaReads)
Reads from Men



Amy | April 11, 2011 at 4:41 PM

For what it's worth, the CBC posted another post on the Leacock and gender -- and even admit outright that Canada Reads isn't so hot on equality. They don't explain it, but at least they admit it:

Love your blog, by the way.

Heather | April 11, 2011 at 6:30 PM

Thanks for the link, dropping a line and the compliment--much appreciated :) Indeed, I hadn't read that article.

Yes, the CBC may be asking themselves some questions. Good! They know there's a problem. Let's just hope that they get past that stage, and actually try to implement something.

Maybe try some new "innovative" measures, like giving equal exposure to women writers, comics and musicians for starters. The 15 minutes of Canadian content worked towards creating a Canadian music industry. Just think what it could do for women!

Sorry for being facetious. I know that you and most readers agree with me that the cultural industries in Canada are inherently sexist. It may not be an intentional bias, but it's a bias nonetheless.

Yes, the Leacock model does represent a certain kind of humour: it's male humour, and there's nothing quintessentially Canadian about it if it excludes 50% of the population from developing its talent.

Inclusion involves stepping out of our comfort zone, no matter how scary that might be.

Cheers Heather

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