The year is 2017 and at 8pm on Monday 10 April, televisions across the country switch on to the BBC: four men from Oxford face four men from Cambridge in a combative race to prove their superior intelligence. Verbose questions and bellowed answers are punctuated only by sneering quips from a white male Cambridge alumnus. No, it’s not a parliamentary debate, but the final of University Challenge, a stalwart of middle-class British culture since the early 1960s.
In a tumultuous and unpredictable world order with few constants, British television viewers can rely on the enduring presence of the much-loved quiz show, Jeremy Paxman’s smirk, and the masochistic weekly affirmation of our own inferiority to panels of alarmingly intelligent students. University Challenge has outlasted 13 prime ministers, and in the event of a nuclear war its distinctive theme tune will probably still provide the soundtrack as the cockroaches decide what to do with the planet. As well as its largely unchanged branding, format and set, the show has carried with it since its 1960s conception a stark lack of diversity among competitors and teams.
In last night’s final, Wolfson College, Cambridge – captained by cult hero Eric Monkman – took on Balliol College, Oxford. The all-male contest ended a series in which just 22% of competitors were women, a fact that hasn’t gone unnoticed by viewers and campaigners alike. Wolfson College’s own equality and diversity officer Azita Chellappoo has criticised the lack of representation, signalling her support for quotas, saying: “I don’t think all-male teams should be allowed on the show.”
She has a point, given that last night’s final featured two more stuffed animals than it did women – despite the fact that women are more likely to be enrolled in higher education institutions than their male or teddy bear counterparts, and consistently achieve more highly.
When that rare breed of a real-life woman student is spotted among a University Challenge team, her experience is often far from positive. Emma Johnson from Corpus Christi College, Oxford, hit the headlines earlier this year when she was labelled “the sexiest University Challenge contestant ever”, despite the fact that she is almost certainly also one of the cleverest, firing off a string of correct answers on topics hugely divergent from her own discipline of medicine.
Johnson is not the first woman from her college to have received such treatment: in 2009 Gail Trimble caught the attention of social media and was mocked relentlessly, and even invited to pose for “lads” mag Nuts. Last year Sophie Rudd from Warwick University was subjected to vitriolic social media abuse which, as well as disparaging comments about her looks, centred around speculation over whether she was transgender or not.
There are of course male competitors who capture the imaginations of the public on a similar scale, Monkman being a case in point. But the comments directed towards him have largely been born of admiration, focusing on his enthusiasm, intellect and eccentric personality. He has quickly become an architect of his own fame, appearing on primetime television talkshows and becoming the subject of a BBC Radio 4 profile in which his friends and family appeared. To my knowledge, nobody has yet asked to photograph him naked or questioned the authenticity of his genitals, but fandom can be an unpredictable place and I am willing to be corrected.
As Chellappoo suggested in her comments that “the quizzing community can often be quite hostile to women”, the problem isn’t limited to University Challenge. Soprano singer Faryl Smith was recently derided after an appearance on Pointless Celebrities, in which she failed to correctly name the Queen’s husband. A female contestant on The Chase last year also found herself branded “disgraceful”, “heartless” and “selfish” for accepting a cash offer at the expense of her team-mates, presumably playing the game exactly as it was designed to be played. These are your options, ladies: sex object if you’re good; dumb bimbo if you struggle; ruthless witch if you play to win.
University Challenge is, of course, hardly at the pinnacle of gender inequality issues facing women every day. And the show’s problems with representation don’t stop at gender – notably the under-representation of black students and the elitism inherent in questions about classical composers, Greek mythology and Renaissance literature, which see various iterations of Oxbridge colleges dominate year on year.
Quizzing, though, isn’t going anywhere, so a conversation about representation is worthwhile. The BBC has previously said that institutions are responsible for selecting their own teams, effectively laying responsibility at the door of universities (and some do voluntarily put in place quotas), but there is nothing to stop the broadcaster from issuing guidelines or conditions for entry. In the meantime, an acknowledgement of the problem from both parties and a meaningful commitment to tackling it would be a good starter for 10.