I'm with stupid: "awkward über-geek" Dobby flanked by Mark and Jeremy in Peep Show. Photo: Channel 4
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Robert Webb: Peep Show has taught me we need to let women be idiots, too

You hear TV producers sometimes talking about the importance of having “strong female characters”. This is balls, particularly in comedy.

I don’t know about you but I’m a big fan of Peep Show. The ninth and final series of Sam Bain’s and Jesse Armstrong’s award-gobbling sitcom will be filmed next year and I know the experience will be as bitter-sweet as a chocolate liqueur, except less disgusting. It will be as poignant stepping on to the set of the boys’ flat for the last time as it will be watching David Mitchell stoically munching down a fruit salad breakfast so he can treat himself to a cooked one immediately afterwards. Paterson Joseph (Johnson) and I will exchange elaborate apologies for not going to see each other in plays, Matt King (Super Hans) will moan about his costume, Sam and Jesse will be lovely. Long days, knackering and fun. Can’t wait.

But I’ve been thinking about the show for another reason. Lately in these pages, I’ve been preoccupied with matters of gender and masculinity and it occurs to me (probably quite late in the day) that half of my acting career has been built on a show that negotiates these issues every time it opens its mouth. Now, don’t worry, I am not about to offer a feminist critique of a Channel 4 sitcom – that’s why we have GCSE media studies (I got an A!) – but clearly a show that is seen from the point of view of two male characters who exhibit signs of arrested development and whose every contact with women is a disaster waiting to happen might be seen to overlap with notions of “blokiness”, or “laddism”, or, at worst, Dapper Laughs. You’ll understand if, as a father of daughters, I’m quite keen to make a couple of distinctions there.

Do you remember where you were when you first heard that ITV2 was not going to commission a second series of Dapper Laughs: On the Pull? Me neither. If you sneezed at some point in mid-November, you might have missed the whole thing. In summary, Dapper Laughs was a video blogger called Daniel O’Reilly, who got his own show in which he roamed around London being a “proper geezer” with “girth” who told women they were “proper moist” and made jokes about how some women were “gagging for a rape”. Throw in casual homophobia and quips at the expense of homeless people and you get the picture. Complaints were made to Ofcom, Twitter went spare and the show was pulled. O’Reilly turned up on Newsnight to have his jokes read out to him by Emily Maitlis (surely tattooing “cock” on his forehead would have been a kinder punishment?) and that was that.

Except, that isn’t that. Dapper Laughs is gone but his fans are legion and genuinely don’t appear to see what the problem is. Worse, like some of their sweet brethren in the online gaming community for whom a rape threat is a kind of mild rebuke and like the guys in university societies who make up misogynist chants to sing, there’s a pathetic air of persecution. They talk as if threatening women with violence were some kind of free-speech issue. The crowning absurdity is the sorry-assed inadequates of men’s rights activism who point out how the prisons are disproportionately occupied by men and that rates of suicide are disproportionately high among men and decide to blame – wait for it – “feminists”.

No, lads. Feminism is an attack on social practices and habits of thought that keep women and men boxed into gender roles that are harmful. Most of the people in prison are men because men committed most of the crimes: that is at least partly down to the violent expectations of masculinity and “bread-winning” expectations of a patriarchy. Most suicides are male at least partly because the tough-guy requirements of masculinity prohibit sharing our feelings or going to see a therapist. When it comes to comedy in an area such as rape, you need to be pretty clear about where the joke is coming from and who it’s aimed at. O’Reilly claims his character was satirising misogyny and wants to make it clear that he is separate from his character. If that was his intention, he has utterly failed. This was not a satire of masculinity: it was its helpless plaything.

And then, what with this being Britain, there’s class. It should go without saying that there are as many working-class people who hold socially liberal views as there are public-school bigots. Dapper Laughs was not sexist because he was working-class, he was sexist because he was sexist.

As it happens, the two main characters in Peep Show are liberal graduates, written and performed by liberal graduates, but I don’t think it’s especially this that saves the show from “laddishness”. It’s more that Mark and Jeremy don’t belong. They know they ought to be PC; they also think they ought to worship “the gods of Nuts and Zoo”. And they aren’t very good at either.

Then again, there are the female characters. You hear TV producers sometimes talking about the importance of having “strong female characters”. This is balls, particularly in comedy. The female characters in Peep Show are not “strong”: they are idiots. As idiotic as the men. In Men Behaving Badly, a show I enjoyed, Debs and Dorothy were strong, all right, but did they get to be funny? Their function was mainly to walk into a room and go: “Tonyyyyy! Garyyyy! Stop being funnyyyy!”

In Peep Show, there have been Toni (brittle narcissist), Nancy (manipulative American hippie), Big Suze (oblivious posh sadist), Carla (oversexed thief), Merry (certified lunatic), Dobby (awkward, Cheddar-loving über-geek), Elena (bisexual Ukrainian liar), Zahra (pseudo-intellectual bore), Penny (randy jam-making lost cause), Liz (vindictive Christian) and Cally (BlackBerry-obsessed control freak), to name a few. Characters are not people. They can only have one or two things about them and that goes for Mark and Jeremy, too. But to allow the women to be as flawed as the men is to allow them to be equally funny. And, while we’re at it, equally human. 

Robert Webb is a comedian, actor and writer. Alongside David Mitchell, he is one half of the double act Mitchell and Webb, best known for award-winning sitcom Peep Show.

This article first appeared in the 19 December 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Issue 2014

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Social media tome #Republic questions the wisdom of crowds

Cass R Sunstein explores how insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Cass Sunstein, one of the leading public intellectuals in the United States and a former Obama administration official, has worried and written for more than 15 years about the effects of the internet and digital communications on democracy. This book, his third on the subject, tackles social media.

The heart of his argument lies in the cumulative, collective effect of what individuals do online. Networking, shopping, dating and activism are all transformed by the engine of opportunity that is the internet. But those new links and choices produce a malign side effect: “filter bubbles”, inside which like-minded people shut themselves off from opinions that might challenge their assumptions. Insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Sunstein’s organising principle is the ­difference between consumer and political sovereignty. The former promotes individual choice despite its possible consequences; the latter takes into account the needs of society as a whole. His inspiration is Jane Jacobs, the historian of US cities who celebrated, in poetic language, the benign and enriching effect on democracy of random encounters between citizens on pavements and in parks. How do we now reverse or dilute the polarisation driven by Facebook and Twitter?

The solutions Sunstein proposes for this very difficult problem are oddly tentative: websites stocked with challenging ideas and deliberative debates, voluntary self-regulation and “serendipity buttons”. He rightly stresses transparency: we know far too little about the algorithms that sift news for our attention on the networks. Facebook has talked about trying to show news that is “engaging” and “interesting”, without ever engaging in detailed public discussion of what these words mean. The disclosure requirements for social networks “require consideration”, Sunstein writes, without saying whether Facebook might have to be required legally to explain precisely how it routes news to almost two billion users.

Sunstein’s most interesting arguments are myth-busters. He questions the “wisdom of crowds”, while refraining from pointing out directly that the single strongest argument against this idea is the inequality of opinions. Not all opinions are equally valuable. He warily suggests what only a very few American voices have so far dared to say: that the First Amendment to the constitution, which guarantees a free press, should not be treated – as the courts have recently tended to do – as an equally strong protection for the freedom of all speech.

Sunstein is nostalgic for the media system and regulation of the past. I spent years working for a daily “general-interest” newspaper (the Times) and regret the decline of those outlets as much as he does, yet there is no reversing the technological and economic changes that have undermined them. It might have been a mistake to deregulate television in the United States, and killing the “fairness doctrine” might have had unforeseen effects, but that does not deal with the dilemmas thrown up by WhatsApp or Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter.

Users of these platforms face the problem of managing abundance. Writers such as Sunstein imply that people who lock themselves in filter bubbles are deplorably unable to break out of their informational isolation. But we all now live in bubbles that we design to make sense of the torrent of information flowing through our phones. Better-designed, heterogeneous bubbles include the unexpected and the challenging.

Yet the problem lies deeper than the quality of your bubble. Polarised societies can no longer agree on how to recognise the truth. Filter bubbles play a part, but so do a preference for emotion over reason, attacks on scientific fact from religion, decades of public emphasis on self-fulfilment, and a belief that political elites are stagnant and corrupt. Like many journalists, Sunstein treats the problem of a malfunctioning communications system as a supply-side matter: the information being generated and distributed ought to be better.

In the case of fake news, that is indisputable. But there is also a demand-side problem, one that hinges on the motives of those consuming information. If, inside their bubbles, people are not curious about alternative opinions, are indifferent to critical thinking and prefer stoking their dislike – of, say, Hillary Clinton – will they have even the slightest interest in venturing outside their comfort zone? Do we have a right to ignore the views of others, or an obligation to square up to them? Millions of Americans believe that one of the most important guarantees in their constitution is the right to be left alone – and that includes being left alone by the New York Times.

Sunstein does not venture far into this territory. He only hints that if we worry about what people know, we must also worry about what kinds of societies we build. Globalisation has reshaped communities, dismantling some and building others online, but the net effect has been to reduce deliberation and increase a tendency to press the “Like” button, or loathe opponents you can’t see or hear. The ability to debate civilly and well may depend on complex social chemistry and many ingredients – elite expertise, education, critical thinking, culture, law – but we need to be thinking about the best recipes. 

George Brock is the author of “Out of Print: Newspapers, Journalism and the Business of News in the Digital Age” (Kogan Page)

#Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media
Cass R Sunstein
Princeton University Press, 328pp, £24.95​

George Brock is a former managing editor of The Times who is now head of journalism at City University in London.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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