By Lynne Parker

At 60 years old, Devon based vicar Maggy Whitehouse is no stranger to being cast as the ‘older lady’ and the curse of the menopausal ‘invisibility cloak’.  Her antidote was to take up stand up comedy because, as she says, ‘it makes a change to speak to more than the four people’ who usually make up her congregation. She went on to make the final of last year’s Funny Women Awards, which I created 14 years ago to prove a point to a misogynistic comedy promoter.

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Vicar Maggy Whitehouse performing at the Funny Women Awards Final 2015

As Jenny Beavan’s appearance also proved at the recent BAFTA and Oscar ceremonies recently, there is an expectation of how a woman should look, particularly an older woman being presented with an award.  My question is: if this had been a 20 year old starlet wearing a leather jacket would it have caused the same kind of fuss?

Despite Jenny Beavan’s chutzpah and my best efforts in the world of comedy, society has certain expectations of women in the public eye when it comes to both appearance and behaviour.  It still raises eyebrows when we are clad in leather or don an ecclesiastical dog collar. ‘Old’ is only palatable when we wear designer labels and scrub up to distract from the laughter lines and silvering hair.

Working as a comedy producer has really opened my eyes to how women are perceived.  It is still considered a novelty to have a funny woman on stage whatever her age despite the huge success of a whole string of hilarious performers from the late great Joan Rivers to today’s box office successes Amy Poehler, Tina Faye, Tracy Ullman and Miranda Hart.

The onset of age gives us permission to ‘play’ with humour as we are less inhibited by appearance and worry less about what people think about us.  After a lifetime of conforming to husbands, partners and children, being old and funny can often be a blessed relief.

My mother is one of my favourite funny women and her say-it-like-it-is take on life, aged 83 having just undergone major surgery for the first time in her life, has proven inspirational and life changing for me.  I have got a whole new perspective on how humour can be empowering when faced with your greatest fears and the very real possibility of death.  We should all listen to what older women have to say.

Sadly not everybody agrees and I was shocked when, invited to speak at a women’s business event,  I was told by a woman in the audience that older women in her organisation were collectively referred to as the ‘grannies’ by their male counterparts.  Not only is this grossly disrespectful of the age and seniority of these women, it also shows a real lack of understanding and contributes to the ‘invisibility’ debate.

Like Maggy, I will also be 60 this year and notice that whilst age has increased my confidence in terms of speaking out and not being embarrassed, it is countered by the fact that society does unwittingly marginalise the older woman.  For example, I find it increasingly difficult to get served at bars and I have noticed that younger men occasionally flinch if I appear to be flirting with them.  I guess I will just have to wait another 20 years and then I can be more twinkly Miss Marple than predatory cougar.

So, how do we avoid the issues around what we look like and focus on the value that older women bring to society?  I want to encourage all women, whatever their age, to have their say and get their voices heard whether that be through politics, public life or comedy.   Humour is common to women in all cultures and getting a laugh out of people is a confidence boost when you doubt yourself.

Men treat being funny as their birth right and are not judged on appearance in the same way that women are, so we do still need quotas to achieve parity.  I trust that with Funny Women I have created a space that nurtures talent and gives women their voice whatever their age.  I am working towards a world where it shouldn’t matter what we wear on stage, what we look like or how old we are and talent wins out.

For what it’s worth, I thought that not only did Jenny Beavan rock the Mad Max ‘bag lady’ look with style, she also had the confidence to wear the same thing twice. As for Maggy, she and I both know that laughter really is the best cosmetic, and a sense of humour is ageless.

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Funny Women Awards – Enter now!

Lynne is the founder of Funny Women and every year the Funny Women Awards search for Britain’s funniest women.  2016 is the 14th such awards with regional finals for the Stage Award and then the grand final in London in September. So if you’re funny or have a really funny friend, there is plenty of time to register – whatever your age. The categories are:

Stage Award – for the best new comedy performers

Comedy Writing Award – for the best comedy script writers

Comedy Shorts Award – for the best comedy 1-3 minute film

Best Show Award – for the best full-length show from female comedians

You can find out all about the awards here. You can nominate on Twitter using #FWAwards2016

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Lynne Parker began her career as a journalist for magazines such as Harper’s & Queen. She set up her first PR consultancy aged 27, and was president of Women in PR from 2001-2003. As a reaction to the sexism of a comedy promoter, who told her that “women aren’t funny”, Lynne created Funny Women in 2002, with the first awards held a year later.   Lynne is also a performance coach and public speaker and has received a number of awards including the NatWest Award for outstanding business success, and was named Women’s Champion by the Achievers Academy for Women. She writes regularly for The Guardian and The Huffington Post, and has also been published in The Independent, among other publications. Lynne is on Twitter @FunnyWomenLynne and Funny Women is @funnywomen

Last Updated on January 26, 2023 by Editorial Staff

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