Thursday, 27 January 2011

"The Irony Made Even More Irony-y" - A Close Reading of Giles Coren on the Sky Sexism Row

Once again, Twitter has led me to read a contentious article from the Daily Mail that would probably never have entered my consciousness had it been written a couple of years ago.

This time it's by Giles Coren, a man largely famous for being the son of Alan Coren. This close familial relationship to someone famous for being good at satire, along with his friendship with the likes of the erudite and generally liberal seeming Sue Perkins, leads me hopefully in the direction that he's being ironic, or at the very least got bored and decided to write something deliberately controversial.

The premise of the piece is that it's OK for women to be sexist about men, but not the other way around - a double standard that does exist to a certain extent within the media and indeed life in general. However, his first piece of evidence is the continuing success of Loose Women vs. the sacking of Andy Gray for saying that women don't know the offside rule. I appreciate this is topical, but as arguments go it's a bit weak.

I don't know anyone in the world who likes Loose Women, male or female, alive or dead. According to the show's Wikipedia entry, everyone from Jan Moir to Karl Pilkington (and of course The Guardian) have spoken out against it. It's pointless drivel, much like all other daytime TV.

But lets explore that very point for a moment. Loose Women is only on during the day and is targeted, in a very calculated manner, at stay-at-home mums who want something trashy they don't have to think about whilst they have a break for lunch. The vast majority of people never have to see the thing. Football, on the other hand, tends to get a prime time slot on the tellybox, on account of being the country's national sport. When a big match is on, normal programming is shifted about to accommodate it. Doctor Who and Charlie Brooker would never be moved back a week in favour of Colleen Nolan carping on about her sex life, but the beautiful game is another matter.

Is there not an argument to be made, then, that football coverage ought to be accessible to everyone in the nation, irrespective of gender? Is it not potentially more important for pundits to watch what they say in front of millions, than for Kate Garroway to curb her outrageous man-hating (isn't it annoying when they leave the loo seat up girls? Not really Kate, no. Unless you don't have hands, I guess) in front of an audience of half asleep new parents, and students too hungover to move after Jeremy Kyle?

As I say, part of me hopes that this article was written to stir people up a bit, but certain passages did make me wonder if he's just an idiot. Frinstance, the part where he said:

"Here’s another of Jo Brand’s (excellent) gags. ‘What’s the way to a man’s heart? Straight through the chest with a kitchen knife!’ Again, not unfunny. But predicated on the idea that killing men is hilarious. Whereas killing women, as we all know, is a very serious affair and not to be joked about."

It seems clear that this joke is not at all predicated on the idea that killing men is hilarious, but is in fact a classic example of what Lee and Herring described in their 'lazy comedy slags' bit as "MY EXPECTATIONS WERE CONFOUNDED, AND FROM THENCE THE HUMOUR AROSE."

Jo Brand takes a well-known saying, the way to a man's heart is through his stomach (therefore you should cook him yummy food and he will never stray), and inverts it for comic effect. Technically, Coren is right in commenting that if a man tried to do the same joke it wouldn't work in the same way. This is because there's no proverb precedent - the set up in reverse, from a male point of view, would be something of a non sequitur. However, in the hands of Sean Lock or Jimmy Carr, both of whom do ironic sexism quite well, it might actually work OK. Oxford-educated Giles Coren, the son of a FAMOUS HUMORIST, must get that. Mustn't he?

"It’s not just Brand," he continues, "it’s all women." Is he exaggerating for comic effect, or bemoaning genuine male experience? If this were printed anywhere other than the Mail, I'd assume the former, but context plants a seed of doubt...

He goes on to explain that women's neverending sexist jokes ("‘What do you call the useless flap of skin attached to a penis?’ they joke. ‘A man!’") are only OK because our mothers teach us to deride men from birth. Apparently my own mother, who has never taught me any such thing, is a revolutionary. I can't remember any point when she's told me that men are only after one thing, or tried to score points against my dad because she went through childbirth and he didn't. I would hazard a guess that this is because both of my parents are interesting people in their own right, rather than ridiculous gender caricatures of the type perpetuated by Daily Mail journalists and Loose Women presenters. Coren presumably saw something very different in the way his anesthetist mother brought up his poker champion sister.

"There is no question that women today have it all," he trundles on, "and it just isn’t fair that they are allowed to be so vile about us.

"I suppose, in a way, British men are like white people were in Nineties South Africa or young Germans after the Second World War."

Really, though? Sexism has gone so far the other way that it's like some kind of socially acceptable apartheid? Again, in any other context - a gig at The Stand, for example, or a Frankie Boyle style comment on a panel show - I'd automatically consider this exaggeration for effect; or a slightly crude example of shock comedy. But what of the target audience of the paper, generally perceived as people who lean to the right (and outraged Twitter users)? Even if it is a masterstroke of ironic genius, surely the bulk of the readers won't get it?

A few points for those who read the article straight, and perhaps even agree:

Andy Gray should not have been sacked purely on the basis of one worn out old joke made to a colleague when he thought his mic was off. But I don't think that was the reason he was sacked, it was a symptom. For a bit more information, see here.

Loose Women should not get away with how they treat male guests on their show. They tend to be crass and intimidating in order to appeal to the lowest common denominator, severely underestimating the intelligence of the average female viewer and willfully alienating the male viewer. Further to this, deliberately making your interviewee uncomfortable on the grounds of his gender is stupid, and I resent the implication that their approach is indicative of how all women perceive and talk about men. It isn't.

If Jo Brand should be taken to task for anything, it's not sexism, but the point many of her jokes are lazy and not very funny. Which happens with male comedians too.

The idea that "women have it all these days" should not mean that men are somehow losing out, which seems to be the implication of Coren's argument. Double standards in the workplace go both ways, in the media more than any other industry, so surely men and women ought to work as a team to dismantle this rather than fighting each other over who is better?

It is worth reading and debating articles of this kind, rather than dismissing them out of hand because they appear in a paper whose political views are traditionally opposed to mine. Whilst I could go through life reading only the Graun and going "oh yes, I totally agree," occasionally getting riled up by the odd typo or the latest ridiculous thing our PM has come out with, that would get boring very fast. And actually, it's quite interesting to know what other people think, or what other people think their target audience probably think.

Even if they're wrong.

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