The politics of identity: Gender, TV and the internet

This week in my time machine I have been mostly travelling to 1973. Oh no, hang on, that’s just Sky Sports. Phew, because in 1973 I looked like this:

If I have to turn back the clock, I’d rather go back to 1998 and start again from there.

 Anyway, the mystery that is Andy Gray. Frankly it’s a mystery why a man with so few talents that are so well hidden; who has seen better days and was pug ugly even back then, and who has all the personally redeeming features of a UKIP member, feels qualified to comment on the looks and abilities of an attractive, intelligent young woman who was doing a damn fine job and who understands the off-side rule to boot. Any more sackings like that and who knows I might regain my faith in human nature. OK, let’s not go that far, but don’t let the door hit your arse on the way out, Andy, love. Normally I would be kinder to someone standing up to the Murdoch empire but I have no time for someone whose first thought about a new team member isn’t ‘Can she do the job?’ but ‘Is she eye candy?’ Oh, and if you really want someone to attach a microphone to your dick, I recommend that they use a bulldog clip.

 It’s been a week when I have pondered things about identity and sex difference. I can create an entire identity on here and put pictures of myself up but for all any of you know I might be a 58 year-old male software engineer living in Crawley who’s never been near a horse or a bike but who has a talent for trawling the internet and making shit up. Actually that’s not quite true, excuse me whilst I wave to my mum <Waves>. On the internet I can be whoever I want to be, or at least whoever I can convince other internet users that I am. Real life is trickier. My primary identity, the feature of which I’m most aware in my daily life is that I am a woman, closely followed by the fact that I’m a redhead. Obviously I’m not thinking about these things all the time, but when builders start singing O Solé Mio to me and calling me a spicy meatball, I tend to be acutely aware of the genders of everyone involved in the interaction.

 Channel 4 has a new show, a sort of spoof current affairs programme, called 10 O’ Clock Live. It features 3 men and a lady. Charlie Brooker—funny writer, TV presenter. David Mitchell—comic actor, does panel shows. Jimmy Carr—does stand up, irritates me to the point of violence. And Lauren Laverne. Token blonde woman. Why this uneven mix of the genders? This has been discussed on Christina Martin’s blog and I can understand the choice of Laverne who is intelligent and funny. But why not a female comic in the place of Carr? Well actually you could replace Carr with a pot plant and not reduce the comic effect but that wouldn’t realign the gender imbalance very effectively. This line up seems to bring home one point—men are funny, women are blonde. So are men funnier than women?

 Well no, obviously. Both genders are quite capable of being funny, just as they are both capable of being so dull that I start trying to see if I’ve got split ends in my hair and wonder if I can sort of hack them out one by one, using only nail scissors. But what of the accusation that men make jokes about life in general, whilst female comedians can only joke about being women. It’s all makeup and periods and how your first boyfriend had, oh hi mum, didn’t see you there.

Personally, if I realise that the line up for HIGNFY is an all male one I no longer bother watching. I get tired of the back-slapping, self-satisfied, 30-minute smugfest that is the  general result. I see the humour as male but I think we’ve become so used to seeing life in general from a male perspective that we no longer realise that it is a male perspective. The problem is that the baseline from which we judge humour is gendered, but that gender has become invisible because it is so predominant we see it as normal. We see men on TV, men are funny, so we reason that that’s what it is to be funny. So when a woman makes a joke we see it as different from this norm and different in a way that is gendered. Female humour is often, though not always, rather more self-deprecating. We move through the world in a slightly different way. Female humour is often about not feeling cocksure, what with not actually having a cock.

To give you a more detailed example—Rhod Gilbert trying to buy a duvet.  I find this quite funny, up to a point. The delivery makes it funny, even if he is using that peculiar comedy genre known as ‘Perhaps if I just shout a lot they’ll laugh’. But the content is more dubious. Essentially he’s just being rude to a female shop assistant who is trying to do her job, including seeming to think it’s funny to punch someone. Yes, I know he made it up and it’s funny, right. Not really, no. It’s just violent. Second, it’s only really funny if you are so spectacularly stupid that you can’t work out that a duvet needs to be thicker in winter than in summer what with it being a bit colder at that time of year. Frankly I don’t think you need to be a domestic goddess or lacking in Y chromosomes to work that one out. But make no doubt about it, that Gilbert sketch is about a man being unable to cope within what is traditionally a female sphere. It’s comedy about being a bloke and is as male as any of Jo Brand’s 1980s comedy was female.

I think men probably do not realise the extent to which as a woman, you are almost always aware of your gender, and how often you have to disguise your looks. Of course I’m generalising here—this disguise is something women tend to do more often than men, but it’s not an absolute rule. But how many men can say that they have deliberately dressed to make themselves less attractive because they know that they will be judged on their attractiveness rather than their ability? I know that I have done this—big baggy jumpers, loose trousers, flat shoes, make sure people cannot see what you look like as a woman because then they might judge you as a person rather than as a female. I know that many other women of my acquaintance have done this. And how many men find themselves thinking, on a warm spring day as they unzip a jacket, ‘I’ll just wait a minute until I’m past this building site, don’t want to set them off’.

Of course on the internet, I do not have this problem. I can go into chatrooms and log on as the amorphous Captain Codswallop or the Brigadier Ballsache and either not state my sex, or claim that I am male. A female friend of mine does this although she had to stop going in one chat room because a heterosexual woman fell in love with her and started stalking her. On the internet you can only really judge me on my words. I can put forward opinions that are not my own, under an assumed name, and if they don’t work out, I just never go in that chat room again. I can be Ballsache one day and Codswallop the next. Heck, if I were a little more clever with my browser I could log on as both and have a conversation with myself. I can be what and who I want.

 I’m intrigued, when I post under a gender-neutral name, how often it is assumed that I am male. I don’t think this is sexism—I’ve known men who post on the internet be mistaken for being female. But when I take those tests to see if your thought patterns are more in line with typical female brains or with typical male brains I get told that I have a male brain. (I’ve often wondered whose it is and if perhaps I should give it back). Not only is it male, it’s extreme male. It’s so male that ‘normal’ men and women have more in common with each other than either of them have with me, apparently, which might explain quite a lot. Or nothing at all.

And yet in real life I get decidedly ratty if someone mistakes me for a man. Generally this only happens when I’m on my bike and travelling at speed since anyone actually looking and not in need of an optician wouldn’t make that mistake. I find it disheartening to say the least that anyone slim, fit and going fast on a bike is assumed to male plus the fact that, sorry guys, I find it rather insulting to be viewed as male in appearance. In this respect the athlete Caster Semenya is far more level-headed than I am, as she recently spoke out on Newsnight about the row over her gender, declaring that it didn’t really bother her. In July 2009 Semenya knocked more than seven seconds off her 800m personal best at the African Junior Championships setting a national record and the fastest time for women’s 800m that year. Accusations followed that she wasn’t quite female because of course a woman who’s good at something must be partly male.

My own sport—horse riding—is one of the few in which men and women compete on equal terms. Of course when I use this as an example of a sport in which women can beat men I get told it’s not really a sport. This is somewhat confusing. OK, it’s not confusing, it’s a clear example of how people will twist pretty much anything if it means they get to retain their prejudice. It is annoying though. For the record, that most pretty of equine sports, dressage, which looks like a lot of running around in circles, is military in origin, so it’s about as stereotypically male as you can get. You need an obedient horse if you are going into battle. It helps if you have one obedient enough to leap on command and scatter foot soldiers, or who will rear up and give your blows the force of a horse’s weight as well as your own. Eventing is also military in origin. The cross-country phase of advanced eventing is so dangerous it could be ranked as an extreme sport.

Perhaps one of the things that made me fall in love with horse riding so much is that when I am on a horse, I don’t have to worry that I will be judged for how I look or whether the jumper I am wearing is suitably baggy. I can’t be intimidated by what anyone says when I’m on the back of a 500kg animal. The Andy Grays of this world, who can make workplaces in particular and life in general so unpleasant and intimidating, melt into nothing when I am around horses. It’s one of the reasons they make the world seem right, when there’s often so much evidence that it is wrong.

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1 Comment

Filed under Current affairs

One response to “The politics of identity: Gender, TV and the internet

  1. Lesley Thompson

    Rhod Gilbert a comedian? That’s a joke in itself. I watched the YouTube extract and was amazed at the audience reaction to his 150 decibel rant. If that’s what passes for comedy in the UK, I’m glad I don’t live there.
    I am glad, however, that I am a woman, despite the disadvantages raised in Helen’s blog.

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