This week feminists have been foaming at the mouth and getting their claws into the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) claiming that using, amongst others, “rabid” as an example for the use of the word “feminist” is mysoginystic, and that non-gender specific words such as “doctor” and “teacher” should be more commonplace. The implication is that institutions such as the OED are inherently sexist, and are representative of a wider problem throughout society.
The same breed of talking heads spent last Christmas invading our television screens through a cornucopia of clip shows crowing about how sexist sitcoms of the 1970s were, and that now everything is rosy in the garden (tended, no doubt, by a man who doesn’t mind getting his fingernails dirty). So, was television in the past demeaning to women and if so, have things really improved?
Whenever you think of the traditional British sitcom, you probably picture a suburban family, everything prim and proper, semi-detached house, man goes to work, wife looks after the house. You know, the Terry and June model.
The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin had a similar setup. Loosely based on writer David Nobbs’ novel The Death of Reginald Perrin, it was a melancholic, at times surreal sitcom that concerned the titular character (played to perfection by Leonard Rossiter) who had faked his own death (in precisely the same manner as did the then Postmaster General, John Stonehouse). Perrin was overwhelmed by the meaninglessness of his life, the corporate culture he was immersed in at Sunshine Desserts – his gravestone read: “Here lies Reginald Iolanthe Perrin. He didn’t know the names of the trees and the flowers, but he knew the rhubarb crumble sales figures for Schleswig-Holstein” – and his dull, irritatingly boring family life. Central to this was his wife Elizabeth, played by Pauline Collins. She prepared the meals, cleaned the house, and even dutifully handed her husband his briefcase and umbrella every morning before he set off to work, only to always arrive 11 minutes late due to feminist protestors on the line at Hampton Wick, or something. All very traditional, very 1970s, very sexist you might say. But the point of the role of Elizabeth was merely to serve as an extreme contrast to Perrin. This was such a strong, character driven comedy that Perrin’s sense of the absurd, the extraordinary, the unconventional needed Elizabeth to be exactly what viewers would expect – ordinary and conventional – in order to emphasise Perrin’s skewed view of life. It would be fair to observe that the central female character in this particular comedy did indeed conform to a perceived stereotype, that of the stay at home housewife who tended the house and her husband, but that would – perhaps deliberately – miss the point. Elizabeth existed as a foil to allow Perrin’s quirks and foibles to blossom, rather than as a doting spouse.
At around the same time The Good Life was born. It too featured a middle class husband and wife: Jerry Leadbetter (Paul Eddington) had a middle management job, earned well and provided for Margot (Penelope Keith) who looked after him. All very cosy and predictable one might think. But again the wonderful character of Margot, who seemed to have undergone the same sense of humour bypass as today’s not even worthy but definitely dull Guardianistas, cut down any Council official or tradesman with a withering swipe of her tongue: “I am the silent majority!” She wasn’t dowdy or downtrodden – she certainly wore the metaphorical trousers chez Leadbetter – and although she was a housewife, she was a social climber, had aspirations – even if only to be the chair of the Music Society. As with Elizabeth in The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin, Margot’s character served as a contrast, this time to neighbours Tom and Barbara Good (Richard Briers and Felicity Kendal), who saw the funny side of everything and nothing, and who dropped out of their middle class comfort zone in much the same way as Reggie Perrin would go on to do, to become self-sufficient with the appropriate hilarious consequences.
Sitcoms of the 1970s had a huge breadth of female characters, though many were played as gossipy and hen-pecking, a sort of aggressive Cissie and Ada. Lily Briggs (Queenie Watts) in Romany Jones and Yus, My Dear was a forceful woman, always suspicious of the layabout brother-in-law Benny (James Beck) and forever badgering her husband Wally (Arthur Mullard) who would seek to help him out. Another in a similar vein was Mildred Roper played by the delightful Yootha Joyce. Perhaps better known from George and Mildred (starring Brian Murphy as long-suffering husband George), the character first appeared in Man About The House as landlady to two attractive young females (Paula Wilcox and Sally Thomsett) and Richard O’Sullivan. While clearly ruling the roost with a venomous “George!” who she would belittle in front of visitors, she could show a softer side and had an enthusiastic obsession with sex, often dropping less than subtle hints for “an early night”. Of course, had the roles been reversed such behaviour would have had feminist protestors choking on their dildos.
A torrent of drivel on this subject recently came courtesy of Helen Mirren – the pretentious pseudo-royal knicker-wetter who once said of herself “had big tits” – during an interview sympathetically covered by another woman doing it for herself, Yvonne Roberts of The Observer:
“The connection between Helen Mirren, strong, fearless, embracing life with ever greater vigour… and Mary Elizabeth Jennifer Rachel Abergavenny Slocombe, possibly born in the 1920s [and definitely sourced from Wikipedia], once employed as a senior member of staff in the Grace Brothers department store, may not be obvious. However, the historic sitcom character, notoriously single but for the cat referred to routinely as ‘my pussy’, could easily act as chief witness in Mirren’s accusation that the sexism of the 1970s was ‘horrible'”.
“‘It was far from unusual, and gave Jimmy Savile his cover. That decade, after the sexual revolution but before feminism, was perilous for women,’ Mirren said. ‘Men saw that as a sort of “Oh fantastic! We can fuck anything, however we like, whenever we like. They’re up for grabs, boys!”'”
If we are to believe Mirren’s desperate and rather sickening inference that sitcoms such as Are You Being Served? were responsible for the sexual abuse of young children by Savile, then their viewers – millions of them – were complicit. Maybe the officers of Operation Yewtree should trawl Amazon’s order book and arrest anyone perverted enough to have bought any offending box sets (guilty as charged – where’re the handcuffs?)
Mirren’s hypocrisy is also quite staggering. In an interview with GQ magazine in 2008 she pontificated on the subject of rape, something which Savile was alleged to have committed some 31 times: “I don’t think [a woman] can have that man into court under those circumstances. I guess it is one of the subtle parts of the men/women relationship that has to be negotiated and worked out between them. It’s such a tricky area, isn’t it? Especially if there is no violence, if a woman ends up in a man’s bedroom with her clothes off. Look at Mike Tyson – I don’t think he was a rapist.”
Back to The Observer article and Yvonne Roberts: “Mrs Slocombe, played by Mollie Sugden, appeared in the popular BBC sitcom Are You Being Served? It encapsulated the weird whirlpool of changing social attitudes, challenges to male power and female doubts about the value of sexual liberation that failed to deliver independence, freedom from domesticity or a route to female desire.”
“Slocombe, a divorcee with wigs of changing hues, was portrayed as being sex-mad but unthreatening to men because she was over 40, and therefore obviously out of action. Each week, she was ridiculed for her age, appearance, weight and love of her ‘pussy’.” Let’s just quickly make something clear: Roberts, bless her, has obviously never seen the show, for she would have known that at no point throughout it’s thirteen year run was her pussy (or cat) ever referred to by anyone other than Mrs Slocombe herself; it was merely a device for glorious double entendre each week, and very bloody funny they were too.
And on she goes: “On the Buses featured the shortsighted, less than glamorous Olive, who was the butt of all the ‘face like a back of a bus’ jokes. It was an era of dim dolly birds and ‘real’ blokes.”
Now On The Buses is often cited as being the worst protagonist for sexism, with characters Stan (Reg Varney) and Jack (Bob Grant) eyeing up the female Luxton and District conductors, with the occasional lingering camera shot on their breasts or backsides to lustfully illustrate the point. I happen to be a bus driver, and although females aren’t exactly my area of expertise, I do know colleagues past and present behave in this way. In that sense writers Ronalds Wolfe and Chesney have penned an accurately observed sitcom. It is rather disingenuous for Roberts to describe Olive’s character as “less than glamorous” – if that comment had been made by a man he’d have been hung by his testicles. That well-known chauvinistic tome the OED informs us that the word “situation” is derived from the Medieval Latin word “situare” meaning “to place”. All sitcoms are placed in a location and time (the “sit-” bit); On The Buses‘ location was a bus depot, it’s time: the 1970s. Get over it.
The overwhelming majority of sitcoms and their characters are based on the experiences or observations of their writers, sanitised or exaggerated possibly but always with their fair share of caricatures so that the audience can clearly identify the roles of each character and what should be expected of them. It is unlikely that a sitcom billed in the Radio Times as being about accountants struggle to balance the books with not so hilarious consequences would sell the advertising or justify a licence fee in anywhere near the same way as Are You Being Served? or On The Buses did. But these were exactly the kind of programmes John Logie Baird had in mind when he hot-footed it down to the patent office, often ridiculed by critics but enjoyed in their millions.
Female sitcom characters from the 1970s can largely be split into two categories: the understated to allow main characters the freedom to shine, the overstated to caricature identifiable traits. But how were these characters treated by others?
Till Death Us Do Part, the Johnny Speight masterpiece, satirised – amongst many bigoted traits – that of the selfish, mysoginystic, Victorian-esque head of the household brilliantly, constantly claiming that the patently ridiculous and unreasonable “stands to reason”. Probably the best example was featured in series four when they were about to embark on a holiday to Bournemouth. Here’s a couple of minutes of dialogue where Alf (Warren Mitchell) is sat reading the paper, wife Else (Dandy Nichols) is ironing a pair of his long johns and complains about how dirty they are while daughter Rita (Una Stubbs) and her husband Mike (Anthony Booth) looked on:
Alf: “Innit marvellous. You can’t have a proper discussion with her without it getting personal. I mean you would think that civilised people – you’d think that we’d be able to talk without picking holes in each other. That’s your bloody women’s lib for you, that is. No, I mean in the old days women got married, for better or worse and bloody grateful they was not to be left on the shelf. I mean when I married her (pointing to Else) she was lucky to get me, and she knew it, and she was bloody thankful (Else looks gobsmacked). Don’t stand there with your bloody mouth open – (points to the television) – it’s that thing I blame it on, that bloody telly there, that’s the cause. Before that came into the house that bloody telly she knew nothing. She was ignorant, she was, and better for it. That’s what’s unsettled her that bloody telly, sitting in front of that all day, stuffing her head full of nonsense.”
Rita: “If men like you had their way they’d have women as lackeys, slaves to wait on men hand and foot. Clean the house, make the beds, cook their meals, wash their shirts.”
Alf: “What do you expect them to do? Sit around all day doing nothing? That is a women’s work, to look after their man and keep his house and do for him.”
Else: (disgusted) “Do for him.”
Alf: “That’s what they married for in the first place isn’t it?”
Rita: “Unpaid skivvy.”
Alf: “What are you talking about unpaid? She gets her housekeeping doesn’t she?”
Rita: “Not every woman was born to be a drudge.”
Alf: “Everybody has got to do a job of work and it just so happens that a woman’s work is in the home.”
Rita: “And not very woman wants to be a slave to some bloody man.”
Alf: “It’s not always a question of what they want, my dear, you see. I mean women are different to men. It’s your nature isn’t it? God, he made them different.”
Rita: “Not different. No, not different.”
Alf: “No amount of arguing is going to turn a cabbage into a steak, is it? He – God put women here just for man didn’t he?”
Alf: “It’s in your bible, your Garden of Eden. All he done there, see, is made Adam, see, and then realised in his infinite wisdom that man couldn’t be expected to run the Garden of Eden all on his own so he – God, that is – took a rib and made Eve so she could clean for him and wash up, look after Adam’s house for him. So you see, if it hadn’t have been for man and man’s need for home help, woman wouldn’t’ve been born in the first place.”
It was about at the point where Alf started going all religious (though really it should have been a long, long time before) that anyone with the tiniest vestige of common sense should have realised that Speight was satirising, through Alf, those who hold such views in a similar way as he’d done many times before with race. Speight was doing spoof television thirty years before the likes of Brass Eye, and it could be argued that his targets were exactly the same – the wilfully ignorant or just plain stupid: the mysoginyst, looking for an easy laugh or the rabid feminist (I looked it up), aching to be offended – and he was able to satisfy these two diametrically opposing extremes of his audience by pitching his character smack bang in the middle. Indeed, like Chris Morris (“Cake is a made up drug”), Speight left enough clues (“She was ignorant, she was, and better for it. That’s what’s unsettled her that bloody telly, sitting in front of that all day, stuffing her head full of nonsense”), but those who pleasure themselves by taking Alf’s rants as red for whatever reason are likely to be found wielding a clenched fist and sticking it wherever makes them ejaculate.
Contrary to popular belief, sitcoms of the seventies were not responsible for perpetuating sexism throughout society, but were merely a caricatured reflection of it. Writers developed scripts and ideas according to what people knew and wanted, rather than alienate them. As Dr Samuel Johnson put it: “The two most engaging powers of an author are to make new things familiar and familiar things new.” So what of television nowadays – will women ever be satisfied?
Sexism is a label lazily applied to that which is inoffensive and familiar to those who lived in times depicted by the sitcom, but new to those who didn’t, such as The Observer’s Yvonne Roberts and far too many others. Last week The Independent reported on a study of 500 hours of television, conducted by the Communication Research Group and commissioned by Channel 4, relating to diversity and sexism in particular. When terms like “diversity”, “The Independent” and “Channel 4” appear in the same sentence it is usually wise to have copious amounts of salt to hand, or in Helen Mirren’s case, cocaine. The survey found that sexism “occurred most frequently in comedy” and that women are “five times more likely to suffer sexism on-screen than men.
The buzz word now appears to be “objectification”; examples included a game-show presenter who told a contestant: “Darling, don’t you look beautiful? They’re all at home thinking ‘she’s a bit of all right’. You look gorgeous!” whilst simultaneously citing another instance of objectification where “victim” Aidan Turner was showing his “rippling muscles” while scything in Poldark. However, it seemed that those who voted in the National Television Awards weren’t in the least bit offended, choosing the scene as their televisual moment of the past year.
Back to that survey now and Oona King, failed politician (defeated as a Labour MP by George Galloway and losing the London Mayoral nomination to Ken Livingstone) and now Head of Diversity at Channel 4 (if the name doesn’t ring any bells hit Google then “images” and see if you can work out for yourself how Oona was the successful candidate), said: “Sexist objectification of male actors in dramas, witnessed by the trend for leading men to flaunt their torsos in topless scenes, was a new factor. There is a growing amount of sexual objectification of men but you’ve got to remember the context in which that takes place. When a man does a scene like that it doesn’t put him in a box they can’t get out of. You find often that when a woman comes across like that then she is labelled – ‘she’s got her kit off, she’s that type of woman’. So overall the increasing objectification we have, partly because of our celebrity culture, impacts women worse than men.”
Smells a bit fishy. For example Colin Firth, probably best known for playing Mr Darcy in Pride and Prejudice, is often the go-to name when women, usually of a certain age, talk about attractive male television personalities, though the personality bit is generally ignored. However, for me having owned a small bus company back in the day, Firth will only ever be remembered for playing the title role in Donovan Quick, where his character, obsessed with the unscrupulous practices of a national bus company who’d taken off the bus service to his brother’s day centre, starts his own. Yet The Guardian, who interviewed Firth back in 2000 prior to the launch of the made-for-TV film, cooed: “[He] did a lot of acting with his eyes, burning with passion and unfulfilled sexual desire.” Pigeon holes, eh?
The study concluded that the “blatant sexism”, found in shows from the 1970s has been replaced by a “low-level” sexism which continues to thrive on-screen. Here’s more Oona: “Television is still awash with low-level sexism and it’s so ingrained we don’t really notice or remark upon it.” She then remarks upon it: “We are trapped a little bit in the mindset where black people were in the 1960s. In the 1970s, The Black and White Minstrel Show was OK. We hope that at Channel 4 today, low-level, everyday sexism is as bad as low level racism and we wouldn’t go along with that.”
So it seems we now measure sexism in the same way we used to measure a stiff breeze. Ironically, those who complain about the pigeon-holing of characters according to gender are doing exactly that with the offence they’ve supposedly committed. No doubt there’ll soon come a time when Tomasz Schafernaker, famed for his own nifty finger work, will be stood in front of an enormous Radio Times wearing nothing but a pair of tight white Calvin Kleins with beads of sweat running down his torso under the warm studio lights, – just give me a minute – pointing to Newsnight with a turkey baster and issuing a “Level 4 Sexism Warning” because Emily Maitlis is going to be “perched seductively” on the corner of a desk.
Sitcoms paint a picture of the life of the times in which they’re set, and times do indeed change. The role of women generally and how their work/life balance and roles and responsibilities have shifted in particular is admirably dealt with by characters such as Nicola Murray in The Thick Of It and Ellen Best in Bluestone 42, but who still contain a truth about women from which they cannot escape: that of being less capable of controlling their emotions. But as attitudes have changed so too has the threshold for what is considered offensive, though sadly at a far greater pace. Nowadays it takes only the merest glimpse of a woman doing some ironing for it to be deemed “typical”, whereas the same whingers would argue that a woman in, say, in a senior management position was box-ticking rather than progressive and so, conveniently, comedies such as Southern’s Take A Letter Mr Jones – from the writers of On The Buses – where Rula Lenska played a “high-powered female executive” with John Inman as “a computer and a wife”, never seem to feature in lefty rags and list shows.
As Helen Mirren showed, hypocrisy reigns supreme in the strange world of the wantonly offended. Box-ticking seems permissible when the right boxes aren’t being ticked, as women not only want to artificially create more positions for women based on quota rather than talent, but expect comedy characters go above and beyond that which would realistically portray believable situations, in an idealistic feat of social engineering last seen in The Worm That Turned, the 1980 Two Ronnies‘ serial. Except even that was apparently sexist.
Perhaps it would be better for these people to focus on the “com”, and accept that the “sit” was of its time. Either that, or just be quiet and get the washing-up done.