Academic journal article Journal of Research in Gender Studies

'My Missus ...': An Essay on British Comedy and Gender Discourses

Academic journal article Journal of Research in Gender Studies

'My Missus ...': An Essay on British Comedy and Gender Discourses

Article excerpt

I recently came across an article published by the Department of Television, Radio and Film of the Univeristy of Texas at Austin, Texas, focusing on BBC America's screening of the Benny Hill Show.# The Benny Hill Show, a show staring Benny Hill, the comic sketch actor and one-time UK single charttopper, had been re-edited for re-screening to American audiences, and the aim of such editing was to remove politically incorrect elements that would not be tolerated in today's America as part of a TV schedule - namely racial stereotypes. Perhaps more accurately, racial stereotypes relating to races sufficiently well represented in the mainstream socio-political discourse for their stereotyping to cause alarm. What was left of the show after said incisions, the article argued, was the objectification of women. Interestingly enough it didn't offer any comment on the fact that this is apparently screenable content as part of the British mainstream's contribution to the American slipstream.

Whether or not that might pass for contextualisation, I would like to use this as the launch pad, springboard, or indeed twanged knicker elastic to discuss the ways in which British comedy has responded to - and, if you must, participated in - changes in popular gender discourses since the 1940s.

Comedy reflects what is accepted as a given within the larger discourses of a society at a particular time, and it is indeed in its nature to question such assumptions, at times programmatically, at others implicitly and perhaps coincidentally. In order that the following observations do not simply reflect the advancements in gender equality that have taken place over the last 80 years, I focus solely on comedy written and produced by men, and on some comedy performed by men only. This ignores the questions of women's roles offered since the 80s by French and Saunders and Victoria Wood and the more consciously feminist-branded performances of Jo Brand. It also ignores the provocation in questions of gender and sexuality delivered by Julian Clary and Eddie Izzard. (It was Izzard who offered the observation that he didn't mind homophobies, as long as they kept their homophobia behind closed doors and left him alone.) The intention is to limit the focus to reflect the change in discourses performed by those typically identified as representing hegemony, that is, men performing in the mainstream media and generally presenting themselves as heterosexual males. This includes, then, drag, where it is not used as part of a consistent persona. For the purposes of this discussion, it should be taken as read that British comedy's treatment regarding gender and sexuality have become more complex and indeed more inclusive with the gradual advancement of gay rights - but that is another discussion for another time.

That's who. Now here's what: my discussion is limited to stand up and sketches only. Jokes and sketches operate through the reduction of a character to types; sitcom on the other hand allows for character development, to which I can't do justice in these pages. Some films on the other hand do work with types, particularly if they are strewn with characters, as indeed the most prolific of British comedy films, the Carry On films, are.

The 1940s present an apt starting point - the war effort reintroduced the economic and military necessity of reintroducing the challenge to the common perception of gender roles that had surfaced in the earlier part of the century. Again a limitation: the raciest of the comics then broadcast on the BBC, Max Miller. Commenting directly on women doing 'men's work' during the war, he singles out the act of window cleaning. A woman was "right on top of a ladder, five stories high, cleaning windows. And they say it's unlucky to walk under a ladder ... here, listen ... I took a chance."

Miller specialized in ribald gags in the music hall tradition, operating with innuendo and often not finishing jokes but interrupting them to admonish the audience for its filthy mind just as it constructed the punchline for itself or was prompted to do so by this form of flag. …

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