Bright Club More of a Dim and Ignorant End

I’m starting my blogging about the British Science Association’s Science Communication Conference 2011 at the very end but because of that I want to start with a quick summary of my overall impressions. Firstly, I declare an interest in that I received a bursary to attend, and I am grateful to the BSA for funding my attendance, accommodation and travel expenses. I also need to mention that I’m gay (my reason for mentioning that will become clear).

This was a great conference, aimed at practitioners, and full of ideas for practitioners about how to engage with publics in different ways. The theme of the conference was Online Engagement, and there was a great range of many and varied sessions on different aspects of this issues, which is central to much of the fantastic work being done. There were some fantastic opportunities to network, and I would go so far as to say this was the most friendly conferences I have ever attended.

Indeed, one of the messages which I felt was most reinforced and important was the importance of understanding the audience for your work. For example, if you are engaging with people who are, in the parlance of the Public Attitude to Science Survey 2011 (about which more later), “Distrustful Engagers”, you need to approach communicating with them in different way than if communicating with, say “Late Adopters”.

Nobody felt the need to mention the importance of ensuring your message doesn’t have boundaries which exclude minority groups; this is, I would like to hope, because inclusiveness is such a core part of science communication that it proverbially doesn’t need to be said. However, its worth point out that all of the speakers that I saw were white, and all were middle aged, and although there was a good number of women (yay!), it’s hardly representative of wider society. Perhaps what happened next shouldn’t be a surprise.

The final “session” (I think perhaps “let your hair down at the end” might be a better description!) was a mini Bright Club. Bright Club is a stand up comedy session with “science-based” humour. The session we were in featured three comedians, one compering and two featured, and by general consensus of people in Hall Two was Jolly Funny. Now, I love comedy as much as anyone, and frankly the story of two fifteen year olds making napalm in the basement was hilarious (and I’ll bet the victims of napalm warfare would be prepared to admit it’s hilarious too), and also highly educational. If I ever need to cause fire-based mayhem, I now know the ingredients and will be well-prepared to burn pretty much anything (BTW, is this what is meant by science literacy?).

Unfortunately, I didn’t laugh along with everyone else. The reason was that I felt the compere had raised some barriers: subtle little assumptions that meant I felt slightly alienated. The compere (I couldn’t be bothered to remember his name) started by pointing out there was a seat between two very attractive young ladies, and inviting a man (any man) to fill the space. This itself is just cheap humour, trying to settle an audience but carries unspoken assumptions to which I do not subscribe.

  1. I personally think women should be valued for more than their looks. We were at a conference for science communication professionals. Perhaps a reference to an intellectual attribute might have been more appropriate?
  2. Not all men want to “sit next to women”. By which I mean, when you have sexualised a scenario, pointing out to a room of 100 or so people that you’d prefer to sit next to, say, two cute men feels uncomfortable.
  3. Conversely, not all women want to be sat next to by men; perhaps one or both of them would have preferred an attractive woman to sit there?

Now, this just meant that (as a gay man) I felt invisible. This sort of humour is only for men who like women, obviously. And that type of assumption winds me up.

The coup de grace was delivered by the second female comic, who delivered a routine about the utter hilarity of Picasso shagging his friends wives with the rib-busting hook of calling it “the fourth dimension” (and if that’s not comic gold, I don’t know what is). She wrapped it up by saying “Men, go home and find your fourth dimension. The woman in your life will appreciate it.”

First, the “woman” in my life is 6’7″ tall, has a penis and looks rubbish in a dress. Second, as far as I know women are allowed to initiate sexual contact with people people, so perhaps rather than relying on the convenient (hilarious) stereotype of women being passive and gratefully accepting pleasure from the male, it might be a woman wants to find her fourth dimension. Third, perhaps she wants to explore that with another woman, and not a man?

Normally, I’d just let this go over my head; after all we live in a heteronormative androcentric world in which it’s assumed that everyone is straight and that the archetypal human is male. Assumptions which form part of the everyday tapestry of life for myself and every other gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered person, and for every woman. But this was at the end of a conference in which the desire to reach and engage with as many people as possible was espouse, dissected, rebuilt and promoted, and rightly so.

If Brightclub is intended to be a fun way of engaging with publics to inform them about science, and I can see that it could be a great informal way of bringing vaguely sciencey topics to a broad audience, it’s probably best not assume that everyone in the audience is heterosexual and subscribes to tired, old, inaccurate and ultimately demeaning stereotypes about normative behaviours. Again, this wasn’t intentional, but this failure to realise language can exclude people unintentionally is all too common. Where do gayers and women go for their dose of science humour when a careless word alienates them?

In the morning session, someone said “Identify the people who won’t like what you have to say: they’re not your audience.” The problem is, I am the sort of audience that shouldn’t be hard to reach, and I didn’t like what was said.

[edit: I put the points into the ordered list they were meant to be in and added an excerpt]

[edit 2: corrected Bright Club]


About David Waldock

Open University graduate, health and life science at undergraduate level, science and society at post-graduate. Interested in how the Internet is transforming the ways in which the public(s) engage with science(s). Also interested in "the skeptical movement" as a form of science activism and it's effectiveness in achieving its goals. Interested in the representation of LGB types in science and in the periscience communities. Work for a well known and loved public institution. Views are mine and not necessarily my employers.

8 responses to “Bright Club More of a Dim and Ignorant End”

  1. Simon says :

    Please don’t tarnish all gay people (like me) with your same lack if humour. The intelligent members of the auduence – gay and straight – will easily have recognised the comedians’ style of humour as one that ultimately exaggerates and lampoons typical gender stereotypes, demeaning the matcho male culture, rather than championing it. Bright Club was informed, sharp, funny and should be applauded for featuring and headling female comedians.

    • davidwaldock says :

      I find your comment amusing. Thanks for your thoughts!

      • Beverley Gibbs - My Name Not a Pseudonym says :

        “The intelligent members of the audience…”. Actually I dont think I’ll bother with the rest of my post.

        Oh BTW Simon – are you the Simon who organises Bright Club?

    • Judith says :

      Oh dear, two gay men with opposing views on the obviously entirely objective subject of alienation.

      However shall we find out who is right?

      And yes, let’s do applaud the club for featuring WOMEN. Heaven knows they’d only be stuck at home with the washing up otherwise…. how utterly condescending.

  2. Funky Mango says :

    It’s always hard to find the humour in lazy assumptions. It’s a shame that such a good opportunity was wasted.

  3. Neasan says :

    I made comments about David’s post on Twitter (a little passive aggressively) and feel commenting here is better/easier.

    David says he felt un-included in the joke(s). Firstly there were 2 “non-inclusive” jokes out of 3 comedians, which is less than 1 an act. OK now if these were out and out abusive/discriminatory jokes that statistic would be irrelevant as 1 such joke would be 1 too many at the event but they were not.

    Lets look at each. David says “the compere had … (made) … subtle little assumptions by pointing out there was a seat between two very attractive young ladies, and inviting a man (any man) to fill the space.” Now your assumption is that gay men do not want to sit beside pretty ladies, do they not? Are ladies like kryptonite to gay men now? If he had pushed the routine and forced a male member of the standing audience to sit in the seat and had made any real allusions to the fact that sitting there would be the first step in that gentleman “getting lucky” with one of the two ladies I would have some sympathy with your view. I also recall he did make positive remarks that the 2 ladies would be intelligent as they were attending the conference but I could be mistaken. This part of his routine was VERY short, he did not linger on the the joke or string it out but moved on.

    The second joke (~20mins later?) “Men, go home and find your fourth dimension. The woman in your life will appreciate it.” is a joke at the expense of the stereotype of modern heterosexual more interested in gadgets and instant gratification then paying attention to their ladies. It was not a joke using the “stereotype of women being passive and gratefully accepting pleasure from the male” you heard it like that. Also it was in the context that Picasso’s “friend” was not helping his wife as would be expected of a husband.

    I personally feel that your comments sound like coming from someone who is fighting an injustice and looks for even a hint of this injustice everywhere. I do agree that the LBGT community is not well represented in society and is still considered fringe/abnormal but I do not think the SciComm community is one where a view like that prevails (I maybe I am being optimistic).

    “Jokes” at the expense of that community (or any community) which seek to denigrate or demean the community are not to be tolerated. However I think that the jokes you have highlighted (again 2 out of ~45 mins) do not fall into that category.

    I don’t expect my arguments to sway David, offence and humour are a very personal thing and he feels slighted. I just want to put the other side across as best I can (in a comment on a blogpost on the Internet) to have it with his initial argument/complaint.

    Also I to be fair I preferred Zoe Self’s routine.

    • davidwaldock says :

      Thanks for your comment Neasan.

      My assumption was that a gay man would be quite happy sitting next to two attractive/intelligent/geeky/sciencey/fabulous/other diverse variation, but that this would be either because there was an empty chair and they wanted to sit down, or because they’re quite happy sitting next to them, but not *because* they’re attractive/etc… women. In short, that they were women, attractive or otherwise, was irrelevant to the fact that there was a chair on which someone could sit.

      As for “looking for injustice”, I personally think that’s an awareness issue. I used to work in outreach with young lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered and questioning young people, and I’m aware that the constant assumption of heterosexuality can make establishing a gay identity both challenging (in the sense that constructing the identity in the absence of role models is difficult) and exhausting (because it’s an ongoing process); this is “heteronormativity”. As a point in fact, TV commercials rarely acknowledge the existence of non-heterosexual couples. It may come as a shock, but gay couples also drive cars, have bank accounts and wear clothes.

      With regards to the way women are portrayed, I am often appalled at the way women are portrayed in adverts. One which recently caught my eye was for a hair colouring product in which the woman was given VIP tickets to a concert or club and her immediate thought was that her hair need colouring. I mean, seriously, this is inaccurate, demeaning and insulting.

      And I have a policy of challenging those assumptions, wherever they occur. I don’t believe the SciComm community is immune to this, not because science communicators go out there with anything other than good intent (I’d stress again, I don’t believe this was intentional), but because it’s very easy not to be aware of how our language and actions can inadvertently exclude people. It’s only when we’re aware of those invisible assumptions, and work to mitigate them, that we can be truly inclusive.

      And I agree it was a small slice of an otherwise tasty humour pie. The problem is, if I find a bit of gristle in a pie which has gotten in there accidentally, I am inclined to not eat the rest of the pie.

      (PS. I didn’t use the term of “offence” or “slighted” in my post…)

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