Wednesday, 9 January 2013

Misogyny isn't a laughing matter – but Miranda is


Miranda – getting in a pickle again.
It’s been observed more than once that the British love nothing better than to knock anyone who has become successful – and you could be forgiven for wondering if it's even more the case when women are concerned.

Andrew Billen in The Times (by subscription) rather started this particular outbreak by suggesting out that Miranda Hart is guilty, in her TV show, of misogyny.

Now let’s get this straight: this is Miranda Hart, female of the species. Apparently guilty of promoting a hatred of the same.

You’d expect the Murdoch-owned press to actually know what that meant, but it appears not.

Not, of course, that Billen is alone. When Lucy Mangan in the Guardian took the opportunity to rebut his silliness, dozens of online readers flung themselves at the opportunity to reveal their own intellectual credentials by pouring scorn on Hart and anyone who finds her work funny.

“Morons,” was how one person described the latter, with the obvious, unspoken point being: ‘Look at me – look how really hip and clever I am’.

Actually, you’re the one who’s a pompous little snob and, frankly, a bit of a wanker.

You don’t have to like Hart. You don’t have to find her funny. Nobody has to. But then again, that’s not really the point.

Comedy and humour – perhaps almost more than anything else in life – are utterly subjective. What tickles one person will leave another cold.

I remember seeing Victoria Wood live. By the end of the evening, I was in agony from laughing. Yet a woman just nearby hadn’t even managed to smile.

Hyacinth Bucket – you wouldn't want her as a neighbour.
Each to their own.

Quite clearly it’s idiocy to suggest that Hart’s work is misogynistic. On what grounds could that possibly be the case? Because the characters she creates are not all ‘perfect’?

I suspect that a lot of people like her show and her comedic style precisely because of its apparent lack of sophistication and, in the case of Hart herself, because she’s not a super model but yet seems entirely comfortable in her own skin.

And for goodness sake – she creates biscuit blizzards with biscuits and a hairdryer, and farts: a woman with flatulence! It's the unspoken; the stuff we're not supposed to do and certainly not supposed to confess to doing.  

Slapstick it may be, but slapstick is still comedy. Hey ho – it never harmed the likes of Buster Keaton or Laurel & Hardy.

Funnily enough, there was a programme on a few days ago about Stanley Baxter. Now, given that Baxter’s prime was in the 1970s on ITV, I saw none of it – my snobbish mother tried to protect us from anything on that commercial channel.

So almost all of the material on this documentary was new to me. And it barely raised a smirk. Part of that was because a lot of Baxter’s comedy was based on impersonation – he wasn’t bad at it – but that means it’s very time-sensitive.

I did know most of the people he was impersonating, but it felt dated and, while not unfunny, certainly didn’t make me laugh.

Patsy – Ab Fab and absolutely hideous.
I suspect that the same will be said of Rory Bremner in years to come – although personally, I think that Bremner is brilliant. But it’s exactly why Mike Yarwood has faded from view.

That doesn’t mean that Baxter was poor – or those who consider him brilliant are ‘morons’. Just that it didn't tickle my funny bone.

The thing with Hart, though, is that slapstick is a lot more durable – see the aforementioned Keaton, Laurel & Hardy et al.

But setting that aside, one wonders whether Billen thought that Absolutely Fabulous was misogynistic too. After all, the characters in that are far less likeable and sympathetic than those in Miranda.

Then again, some of the best comedy characters are the most dreadful ones – and there have been some fabulously dreadful female comic creations. Patsy in Ab Fab is one such creation.

Would Billen suggest that Roy Clarke was a misogynist for his creation of the utterly awful Hyacinth Bucket in Keeping Up Appearances? Would Patricia Routledge herself be guilty of misogyny for breathing life into Clarke’s words?

Nora Batty – scary, except to Compo.
Mind, Clarke might well be a serial offender: how many harridans did he create in Last of the Summer Wine? It certainly wasn’t limited to the iconic Nora Batty.

And exactly the same can be said of male characters too.

Anyone remember the Brittas Empire? And what about Victor Meldrew in One Foot in the Grave?

And as for suggestions the slapstick is infantile – well, see above; and did anyone bemoan Del Boy in Only Fools and Horses for the moment that he falls through the pub counter?

Of course not – it’s classic comedy. Comedy and slapstick are not synonyms, but they’re hardly alien either.

Personally, I can enjoy and appreciate Family Guy, South Park, The Thick of It – and Miranda. They’re not exclusive.

And even if I couldn’t, that doesn’t make it bad. That would merely be a reflection of a very subjective reaction. Neither a ‘wrong’ reaction nor a ‘right’ one, but a personal one.

I do wonder, though, how much of these sort of complaints are not only a result of pseudo-intellectual snobbery, but also of sexism.

More times than I can remember, I’ve seen posters online – invariably male – saying that they couldn’t think of a genuinely funny woman.

Really? I can think of several. Equally, there are others that I don’t personally find funny. And there are plenty of male comics I’ll laugh my socks off at, plus plenty more that leave me cold.

Why is this apparently so difficult?

My suspicion is that most people judge a lot of comedy on the basis of its relationship to their own lives. So for instance, if a female comic tells gags about periods, it may well fall flat for men in the audience. And the same goes the other way – knob jokes may simply bore women.

Maybe it's also a resistance to the idea of women behaving in a less than 'ladylike' manner. There are plenty of reports that female stand-ups get heckled more than men. Is this an outrage at women daring to forget their 'place'?

But it does seem odd that so many people seem apparently incapable of recognising any of this – particularly ones who think they're clever.

Heaven help us if we want to enforce some form of political correctness on comedy – that everything must be funny for everyone or that everything will have to be meet with the approval of some specially chosen arbiters of laughter.

Although you never know though; there could be a comedy in that …

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