Sunday, May 11, 2008

Post-Amisian Misogyny in Female Characterisation

I've been watching the sitcom "Peep Show" - it's now on its 5th series but somehow it had passed me by. Back in 1998, whilst studying on my MA, our tutors got one of the students from a previous year, Sam Bain, and his writing partner, Jesse Armstrong to come and talk to us. They were a "comedy duo" in the they finished each other sentences, and were writing together - with quite a clear sense of this as a career path. They had something in development or as a pilot. It was interesting, but a little offcentre given that ours was a novel writing course, but both of our tutors tended to prefer their students "funny". Anyway, that pilot (a Jane Austen spoof, if I remember rightly) may never have got them anywhere, but I'd hear mention of Sam now and then as the years rolled by. Then I read about the new series and there was a big feature with the writers. For despite starring Mitchell and Webb, its Bain and Alexander who write the majority of it. So I've been enjoying watching past "Peep Shows" these last couple of weeks; but its also been a little too much . These are definitely Men Behaving (a little bit) Badly, but its slightly darker, slightly more surreal, certainly more misanthropic. These are males in that great dysfunctional British comedy tradition; yet, with, I guess, a London-centric 21st century view of sex as something that's always on tap. And this is where I've felt a little soiled having watched the shows back-to-back. The female characters in the show, though well-acted and important foils for the dysfunctional males, are all, I realise, sex objects. There's not a single female on the show who is not primarily there as a possible shag for the boring Mark or lazy Jess. Whether its a fifteen year old at a party, the mother of your friend's fiancee, or the girl in the shoe shop, every woman in the series is a potential shag. And yes, I know that its a comedy, and the joke's so often on Mitchell and Webb, but I'm wondering if this is what we've ended up with, a certain post-Amisian misogyny in female characterisation. Compare with the much-derided "2 Pints of Lager and a packet of crisps" where the actresses are generally funny, have a voice, want sex on their terms, have relationships (and children), and aren't on a perpetual stag weekend, and there's something a little queasy about "Peep Show's" relentlessness. It's a little too dark to be generally funny - and though one has to admire the general tone of the show (it pioneered the idea of leaving large bits of the story out, so, for instance Mark and Sophie's relationship we only see in snippets), I'm reminded of meeting the writers all those years ago, and the jokey mateyness, the metropolitan self-confidence, the TV mentality, and feel a little saddened that what is in many ways a sophisticated sitcom has an inbuilt flaw similar to lads down the pub on a friday night; whilst at the same time knowing that in its portrayal of the contemporary male it may be overdone, but it's not entirely untrue. But then again, I never quite understood how Frank Spencer got Betty to marry him in the first place. And yes, I do know its a comedy.

8 comments:

Fitzroy Cyclonic said...

Martin or Kingsley Amis? Just out of interest. (The interest stemming from a feeling that Martin is considerably more misogynistic than his father, who wasn't anywhere near as misogynist as people commonly suppose).

Bournemouth Runner said...

Martin in this case!

Fitzroy Cyclonic said...

Ta. Let you get back to the shifting and twisting and backdrop stealing now.

Paul M. Cray said...

I once (probably about 2002) went to a one day Saturday school on sitcoms at the City Lit and towards the end of the day, the tutor said "I'd like to show a sitcom pilot that we've just done for a Channel 4" and even though it was a rough edit of a not-for-broadcast pilot, I could tell immediately that it was a work of genius (OK, a work of some merit). It was the pilot of "Peep Show", although I can't now remember which of the show's writers it was that gave the course.

Currently ploughing my way through Zachary Leader's "The Life of Kingsley Amis". Was he a misogynist? He certainly treated his wifes pretty badly and generally behaved in a satyric manner. Perhaps it is better to just describe him as a misanthrope.

Bournemouth Runner said...

Don't get me wrong; I liked "Peep Show", I just feel a little queasy about a sitcom where every female character is a potential shag. Maybe that was the Channel 4 "remit", I don't know. And I like both Amises, Martin and Kingsley, but in both cases, when it gets misogynistic or misnathropic it isn't great art; just opportunistic. Nicola Six in London Fields is Lara Croft level characterisation; and as for "Stanley and the Women"...

Fitzroy Cyclonic said...

Crikey, Paul, 'ploughing' is the word. Leader doesn't like to leave anything out, does he? And as for that hilarious bit of GCSE, back-of-a-bus bit of poetry criticism he does, men have been drummed out of parishes for less.

Still, marginally better than that dreadful Eric Jacobs rehash of the Memoirs.

Yes, Stanley and the Women - no excuse really. As for Peep Show where 'every female character is a potential shag' - the seedy male mind laid bare, I'm afraid. We'll deny it of course, but...

Anonymous said...

Amis definitely has a problem getting 'inside' his female characters and the Peep Show massively misses a comic opportunity by making their men so one-dimensional.

They repeat this mistake in the student romp which feels a bit dated.

Still,that said,it still delivers wonderful comedy and how many female comics truly portray men as anything more than dicks with no brains? Hey,we've gone full circle!

Adrian Slatcher said...

I was a little harsh on Peep Show I think. I think it was watching lots of episodes at once, the relentlessness got to me. Having watched it since, well, it is funny, which is what a sitcom should be (and often isn't it.) And the men are clearly the butt of the joke.