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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Harry Styles: What can three blank Instagram posts tell us about music promotion?

Do the One Direction star’s latest posts tell us about the future of music promotion in the social media age - or take us back to a bygone era?

Yesterday, Harry Styles posted three identical, captionless blank images to Instagram. He offered no explanation on any other social network, and left no clue via location serves or tagged accounts as to what the pictures might mean. There was nothing about any of the individual images that suggested they might have significance beyond their surface existence.

And, predictably, they brought in over a million likes – and thousands of Styles fans decoding them with the forensic dedication of the cast of Silent Witness.

Of course, the Instagrams are deliberately provocative in their vagueness. They reminded me of Robert Rauschenberg’s three-panelled White Painting (1951), or Robert Ryman’s Untitled, three square blank canvases that hang in the Pompidou Centre. The composer John Cage claimed that the significance of Rauschenberg’s White Paintings lay in their status as receptive surfaces that respond to the world around them. The significance of Styles’s Instagrams arguably, too, only gain cultural relevance as his audience engages with them.

So what did fans make of the cryptic posts? Some posited a modelling career announcement would follow, others theorised that it was a nod to a Taylor Swift song “Blank Space”, and that the former couple would soon confirm they were back together. Still more thought this suggested an oncoming solo album launch.

You can understand why a solo album launch would be on the tip of most fans’ tongues. Instagram has become a popular platform for the cryptic musical announcement — In April, Beyoncé teased Lemonade’s world premiere with a short Instagram video – keeping her face, and the significance behind the title Lemonade, hidden.

Creating a void is often seen as the ultimate way to tease fans and whet appetites. In June last year, The 1975 temporarily deleted their Instagram, a key platform in building the band’s grungy, black and white brand, in the lead up to the announcement of their second album, which involved a shift in aesthetic to pastel pinks and bright neons.

The Weekend wiped his, too, just last week – ahead of the release of his new single “Starboy”. Blank Instagrams are popular across the network. Jaden Smith has posted hundreds of them, seemingly with no wider philosophical point behind them, though he did tweet in April last year, “Instagram Is A BlackHole Of Time And Energy.”

The motive behind Harry’s blank posts perhaps seems somewhat anticlimactic – an interview with magazine Another Man, and three covers, with three different hairstyles, to go along with it. But presumably the interview coincides with the promotion of something new – hopefully, something other than his new film Dunkirk and the latest update on his beloved tresses. In fact, those blank Instagrams could lead to a surprisingly traditional form of celebrity announcement – one that surfaces to the world via the print press.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.