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

Photo: Getty
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Out with the old: how new species are evolving faster than ever

A future geologist will look back to the present day as a time of diversification, as well as extinction.

Human population growth, increased consumption, hunting, habitat destruction, pollution, invasive species and now climate change are turning the biological world on its head. The consequence is that species are becoming extinct, perhaps faster than at any time since the dinosaurs died out 66 million years ago. This is an inconvenient truth.

But there are also convenient truths. Britain has gained about 2,000 new species over the past two millennia, because our predecessors converted forests into managed woodlands, orchards, meadows, wheat fields, roadsides, hedgerows, ponds and ditches, as well as gardens and urban sprawl, each providing new opportunities.

Then we started to transport species deliberately. We have the Romans to thank for brown hares and the Normans for rabbits. In the 20th century, ring-necked parakeets escaped from captivity and now adorn London’s parks and gardens.

Climate warming is bringing yet more new species to our shores, including little egrets and tree bumblebees, both of which have colonised Britain in recent years and then spread so far north that I can see them at home in Yorkshire. Convenient truth No 1 is that more species have arrived than have died out: most American states, most islands in the Pacific and most countries in Europe, including Britain, support more species today than they did centuries ago.

Evolution has also gone into overdrive. Just as some species are thriving on a human-dominated planet, the same is true of genes. Some genes are surviving better than others. Brown argus butterflies in my meadow have evolved a change in diet (their caterpillars now eat dove’s-foot cranesbill plants, which are common in human-disturbed landscapes), enabling them to take advantage of a warming climate and spread northwards.

Evolution is a second convenient truth. Many species are surviving better than we might have expected because they are becoming adapted to the human-altered world – although this is not such good news when diseases evolve immunity to medicines or crop pests become resistant to insecticides.

A third convenient truth is that new species are coming into existence. The hybrid Italian sparrow was born one spring day when a male Spanish sparrow (the “original” Mediterranean species) hitched up with a female house sparrow (which had spread from Asia into newly created farmland). The descendants of this happy union live on, purloining dropped grains and scraps from the farms and towns of the Italian peninsula. Some of those grains are wheat, which is also a hybrid species that originated as crosses between wild grasses in the Middle East.

This is not the only process by which new species are arising. On a much longer time scale, all of the species that we have released on thousands of islands across the world’s oceans and transported to new continents will start to become more distinct in their new homes, eventually separating into entirely new creatures. The current rate at which new species are forming may well be the highest ever. A future geologist will look back to the present day as a time of great diversification on Earth, as well as a time of extinction.

The processes of ecological and evolutionary change that brought all of Earth’s existing biological diversity into being – including ourselves – is continuing to generate new diversity in today’s human-altered world. Unless we sterilise our planet in some unimagined way, this will continue. In my book Inheritors of the Earth, I criss-cross the world to survey the growth in biological diversity (as well as to chart some of the losses) that has taken place in the human epoch and argue that this growth fundamentally alters our relationship with nature.

We need to walk a tightrope between saving “old nature” (some of which might be useful) and facilitating what will enable the biological world to adjust to its changed state. Humans are integral to Earth’s “new nature”, and we should not presume that the old was better than the new.

“Inheritors of the Earth: How Nature Is Thriving in an Age of Extinction” by Chris D Thomas is published by Allen Lane

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder