Wednesday 6 February 2013

That Joke's Not Funny Anymore

These days it seems that you can’t open a newspaper without reading about another actress or TV presenter whining on about sexism in broadcasting. And then there is all that chatter about ‘rape culture’. And have we decided what the difference is between harmless banter and misogynist hate speech yet? Apparently not, if you tune into some of the comedy being broadcast in the UK at the moment.

Now, let me state for the record, I’m not a pearl-clutching, horrified letter to the Radio Times type. I like my comedy challenging, cheeky, shocking and unfettered by Daily Mail notions of taste and decency, thank you very much. However, the other night I saw something that had me questioning my sense of humour.

I had watched the first two episode of BBC3’s new comedy Way To Go with minimal engagement. I liked the central idea; three of life’s losers solve their financial problems by offering an amateur assisted-suicide service. The three lads were familiar characters; the eternally exasperated lad, the sex-obsessed gobby lad and the dumb lad. And they exchanged predictable laddish banter and got into scrapes. Nothing ground-breaking, but diverting enough.

And maybe that was what Bob Kushell, the American writer had in mind when he wrote episode three. Maybe he wanted to make an impact. That was the episode where we encountered the porn actress who told the Exasperated Lad that she had been sexually abused by her father but the reason she made porn was because she liked “getting shafted on camera” before offering him sex about thirty seconds after meeting him. Later she would be called upon to give an old man oral sex and would be casually referred to as a “dick smoker”.

Meanwhile, the Gobby Lad met a Goth girl at the fried chicken shop where she worked. The very first thing he said to her was about how he was imagining her giving him oral sex. Later, she would be referred to as a “skank” as his friends expressed incredulity that he intended to sleep with her. And sleep with her he did, all the while calling her a “bitch”, “skank” and a “dirty little whore”. But that was okay because she liked being insulted during sex.

By the way, the first words of dialogue from Dumb Lad were “Check out her nips”.

At the end of the episode I was shocked and not in a good way. Not in the “I can’t believe they got away with that, hurray for the BBC” way. I was shocked that such casual misogyny was allowed onto the BBC. The treatment of the Goth girl was particularly horrifying. Let’s imagine that initial encounter in the real world. Imagine that someone walks into your place of work and the first thing they say to you is that they are visualizing you performing oral sex on them. That wouldn’t be funny, that would be sexual harassment.

And the thing is, a lot of women don’t have to imagine that scenario, it happens every single day. If you don’t believe me, visit the Everyday Sexism site where women talk about how being sexually propositioned by strangers makes them feel.

Spoiler Alert: They don’t feel turned on or inclined to sleep with those strangers. They feel threatened and humiliated.

The men they talk about aren’t funny; they’re verbally violent and oppressive. And I should imagine that they use phrases like whore, slut and even dick smoker in everyday conversation.

And it’s that sort of language to which I particularly took offence. It is unacceptable for racist and homophobic epithets to be used in everyday conversation these days. And when used in a script they are used to typify a certain character and that is rarely your happy-go-lucky, hapless hero type. And that’s the way it should be.

So, when will we start extending the same courtesy to women? When will it stop being funny to call someone a whore, slut, slag or a bitch? I’ll give you a clue, it already has stopped being funny. I suggested that Bob Kushell may have been going for impact in the offending episode. Well, what I’d like writers to consider is the real world impact of this kind of language. I’d like to think how real women would feel if they were called bitch, skank or whore. How would you feel if you heard that language used in the workplace, playground or in the street. Would you laugh?

I don’t want any language censored or banned; I want us to take responsibility for its use. That language does filter down and is used by people with a lot less sophistication and intelligence than I would credit Bob Kushell and his fellow (all male) writers on Way To Go with. As writers (including myself) are quick to tell anyone who will listen; without us there is no show. There is a just a blank page. Well, that cuts two ways. If the project starts with us, then so does the responsibility. If you are putting that kind of language on the page then you better damn sure you know what you’re doing and you’re prepared to stand by it.

And maybe a big help would be more women on those writing teams. I’m not suggesting any form of positive discrimination. I want writing to be a meritocracy. And considering the considerable critical and ratings successes that female writers have been having recently, we should most certainly be seeing a better ratio of men to women.

A study done by The Writers’ Guild over a six month period in 2011 discovered that only 32% of scripts broadcast on BBC1, BBC2, Radio 3 and 4 were written by women. This seems bizarre to me. After all, who wouldn’t want a Sally Wainwright, Miranda Hart or Heidi Thomas on their writing team? After all, they were the powerhouses behind those rating behemoths Last Tango In Halifax, Miranda and Call The Midwife. Who wouldn’t want multiple and diverse perspectives in their story meetings? Although, as 50% of the population is female, a woman’s POV isn’t exactly “niche”.

To go back to Way To Go, I can’t help wondering if a woman casting an eye over the early drafts of the offending script might have piped up and said something about the language and the truth of the female experience. I know I would have done.