Earlier, we looked at Taflinger’s descriptions of the kind of character types to be found in the sitcom universe. With this kind of formulaic approach, it is hardly surprising that sit-com should be so heavily reliant upon stereotypes to fill its environments. The images of men and women with which we are presented in sit-com have to be easy to recognize and relate to.
They do, however, raise some key questions about the way in which we are positioned in relation to these types in order to generate laughter.We suggested previously that the humour of sit-com often arises from the undermining of a shared set of ideas about what constitutes ‘normal’. Unsurprisingly, then, gender becomes an obvious arena in which humour can be generated from the contrast between expectations of the audience and the behaviour or attitudes of the characters. For example, male sitcom protagonists are often marked by some clear deviation from the dominant views of the qualities which make up masculinity.
Basil Fawlty in Fawlty Towers, for example, demonstrates masculine drive and ambition, but is constantly thwarted in his attempts to establish control of his hotel, his staff, his guests and his wife by his overemphasis on the superficialities of class distinctions and social niceties. Similarly, Del Boy in Only Fools and Horses suffers because he lacks the professional skills to realize his business plans and because he is handicapped by the brother and grandfather (or uncle in later series) whom he has to look after.In both cases, their comedy flaws derive from a misplaced feminine trait -in Fawlty’s case, the desire for conformity and for acceptance into a class community and in Del Boy’s case, the need to protect and nurture his family. On the other hand, there are plenty of examples of sitcoms whose humour derives from the exaggeration, rather than the undermining, of existing stereotypes.
In this case, we are being asked to examine our own ideological positions in relation to the programmes, acknowledging and finding humour in the extremes of the protagonists’ representations.Classic examples of this kind of approach may be found in Till Death Us Do Part or Rising Damp. Alf Garnett and Rigsby embody a range of social prejudices, particularly linked to gender and race. In both cases, the unacceptable nature of their views is tempered by the characters’ placement in a clearly dysfunctional or abnormal ‘family’ setup and by the cyclical nature of sitcom narratives in which they are unable to make any progressor development through life.
As such, it is made safe to laugh at the characters and their prejudices, recognizing our own normality as an audience. The risk inherent in this approach is that the audience begin to identify with, rather than against the protagonists, a risk exacerbated By Garnett ana Rigsby’s narrative centrality as well as the casting of well-known faces in those roles. Johnny Speight, the writer of Till Death Us Do Part, has lamented in a number of articles that some members of the audience have taken to their hearts a character that he clearly intended as a caricature.The ambiguity of audience’s reaction to this kind of sitcom, coupled with the complex ways in which humour and comedy filter the ideological processes of the text, create the potential for multiple readings.
This has allowed some debate as to the progressive potential of certain sitcoms and their ability to challenge or question established representations, particularly in the field of gender.Debates on the political importance of sitcom have tended to argue that the excessive nature of the representations offered and the subversive power of laughter and comedy allow dominant views to be opened up to examination, so that their basis in so-called ‘common sense’ can be shown to be no more than a construction. Opponents of this view suggest that that the formulaic nature of sitcom form and narrative work against this process, shutting down the potential for undermining dominant views almost as soon as it arises.We will look at two UK sitcoms whose success has been built on exaggerated versions of gender stereotypes.
Tony and Gary, the protagonists of Men Behaving Badly, may not be as ‘monstrous’ as some of their sitcom predecessors, but they are clearly in the tradition of Rigsby and Garnett in their fixed views on gender and their determination not to be shaken from these belief systems.The success of the series during the 1990s was linked to several cultural manifestations which seemed to suggest a renegotiation of the concept of masculinity. The rise of Loaded and other men’s lifestyle magazines, the emergence of Chris Evans and the zoo format on national radio, the rapid growth in the commercialization of football and its acceptance as a respectable middle-class pursuit were all banded together under the ideological umbrella of ‘laddism’.The ‘situation’ of this particular comedy is structured around three sets of relationships – Tony and Gary, who share a flat in a London suburb; Gary and his girlfriend, Dorothy; and Tony’s unrequited infatuation with Debs, who lives in the flat above – and played out over three main locations – Gary’s flat, Debs’ flat and the local pub, The Crown.
(A fourth location, Gary’s office, is often used to introduce sub-narratives and the subsidary characters of George and Anthea, but is rarely visited by the other main characters. )Although there is some sense of narrative development across the various series, with Gary asking Dorothy to move into his flat, proposing and then getting married to her, individual episodes tend to feature fairly basic or rudimentary plots. In the context of the lack of narrative complexity in Men Behaving Badly, interest and humour is generated from the characters and values of the show. The terrain of this sitcom is that of gender.
Gary and Tony are constructed according to widely understood stereotypes of masculinity, although these tend towards negative qualities : immaturity, selfishness, lack of emotional awareness and boorishness.In contrast, the paired female representations focus on more positive, though equally stereotypical ideas. Dorothy and Debs are both sympathetic, understanding and maternal, eternally patient and forgiving of Gary and Tony’s behaviour. In addition to the construction of the characters, Men Behaving Badly looks to gender its entire diegesis.
Locations, behaviour, emotions are all coded in terms of gender and humour is generated through the incompatibility of the masculine and feminine systems in evidence.One episode from series 5, The Good Pub Guide’, The 3 areas of textual analysis are: Part 1 opens with a scene of Gary and Dorothy in bed. In case we are in any doubt about the stereotypes on offer, their difference is implied immediately through their choice of reading matter; Gary flicks through The Sun, (finding a story on the invention of adjustable prosthetic breasts by Brazilian plastic surgeons, he comments “I’d say you can’t go far wrong with hugely inflated”) while Dorothy studies The Independent.The bedroom is obviously Gary’s and tells us plenty about his version of masculinity.
The mise-en-scene is reminiscent of the unfussy decor of male teenagers, with pinups and posters of British beers stuck above the bed. In a gesture that is equally territorial and inconsiderate, Gary loudly breaks wind several times because “…
it’s what blokes do”. The pair’s ensuing argument draws out the battle-lines of gender to which the programme will rigidly adhere: “Dorothy: You’re always rummaging around in your underpants.You’re always staring at women’s breasts. You sit on the tube with your legs wide open as if you’re exhibiting some new species of giant plum.
You think that road rage is a brilliant idea. You go to football matches so you can shout out ‘You’re a wanker’ to that little umpire bloke…
You think women are constantly fascinated by ironing. You’re always going ‘Wah-hah-hey’. Gary: Well, what about you women? You think the most important thing in the universe is chocolate. You put on a skirt the size of four teabags and then you complain ‘cos blokes look at you.
You’re always saying things like ‘Look at those lovely curtains’… You’re always complaining that we can’t find your clitorises, but you know as much about our tackle as you know about wiring a plug.
You blame us when you have a period, you blame us when you don’t… ” Part 2 At the end of the episode, Dorothy attempts to teach Gary a lesson by assuming his behaviour in The Crown.
When she meets him for a drink, she unsubtly adjusts her breasts, sexually harasses the landlord (“Nice todger.Bet you can’t get many of those in a biscuit tin”), and belches and farts ostentatiously. This show of masculine characteristics from a woman is too much for the male characters to handle. She is immediately barred from the ‘male’ environment of the pub, although she achieves a small degree of success: Gary is barred along.
However as he drinks with Tony in the customary coda on the sofa it is clear that the situation is not permanent. He has not changed his attitudes or his behaviour and he will return to The Crown in the next episode.The restoration of the sitcom equilibrium ensures that the gender tensions remain in place to continue to create humour in the rest of the series. Part 3 Any attempt by male characters to adopt feminine characteristics is equally doomed.
One regular source of humour is Tony’s attempts to win Debs over by reconstructing himself as a ‘new man’. In The Good Pub Guide’, this involves Tony faking an interest in astrology to impress his neighbour. Astrology is coded as a feminine pursuit, through its association with Debs and through its emphasis on the importance of emotional and relationship issues.Dorothy points out that Debs has turned to astrology as an emotional ‘crutch’ because she has recently lost her job.
However, Tony is happy to exploit the situation precisely because Debs is “vulnerable at the moment”. Through Tony, the programme is able to ridicule the pretensions of astrology as a source of guidance through life. Debs asks whether he would like a coffee; Tony replies “No, I brought some lager. It’s alright though, I checked the coordinates and Saturn is in conjunction with Pisces, so its okay to get pissed.
Moreover, the sitcom is able to indicate once again how easily ‘feminine’ modes of thought and behaviour are exploited by ‘masculine’ pragmatism. Tony has made up his natal chart to impress Debs: ” I was born under a wandering star, with the sun shining in my face . this suggests I was destined to have congress with a Sagittarian lady. ” Tony is asked to leave, but we know that he will return in the next episode in order to try once more to win Debs over.
Many sitcom protagonists are driven by the frustration of being trapped within a particular set of unchanging circumstances, familial or organisational.Gary and Tony, on the other hand, seem to be frustrated because of change, as they desperately cling to a lifestyle and a set of values which they enjoy but which appear to be slipping away from them. Individual episodes often introduce a threat to their stability – mostly the result of Dorothy or Debs’ demands – and then allow the threat to be neutralized by the male characters’ intransigence or lack of understanding. In The Good Pub Guide’, Dorothy’s attempts to change Gary’s attitudes are mirrored by the refurbishment of The Crown.
Both elements represent an unwelcome challenge to Gary’s lifestyle. Of course, the closure of the episode assures us that these challenges have been unsuccessful. The Crown looks exactly the same as it has always done, as new landlord Ken based the refurbishment around a photo he believed to be from the 1920s; in fact it is a faded snap of Gary and Tony in the pub, with pickled eggs on their head. In addition, Dorothy and Debs are nowhere to be seen in the final sequence as Gary and Tony share a couple of cans of Stella together and celebrate the pleasures of living for the moment.