Friday, October 31, 2008

The real scandal of Ross and Brand

Headlines in all the papers for days at a time ...
Across the board, tabloids and heavyweights are united in condemnation.
Gordon Brown pitches in (how delighted he must be for the distraction from the economy) and David Cameron is in full agreement.

All are in accord - it's a scandal of the highest order.
Who's to blame? they all ask with righteous indignation.
Is it the over-sexed, over paid likely lads themselves?
Or is the real issue about governance and responsibility at the Beeb?

I've read article after think piece after editorial and I've come to one screaming conclusion:

They're all missing the point!

Let's look back at what was actually said in the beginning to unleash this storm of controversy.
R 'n' B left messages on the answerphone of Andrew Sachs claiming B had slept with his granddaughter and that Sachs might kill himself as a result.

Tasteless? Of course it is.
Puerile? Without a shadow of doubt.
Offensive? Well, yes.

Does it make any difference that the granddaughter is 23 year old Georgina Baillie, a dancer known as Voluptua with a band called the Satanic Sluts and that she's admitted to having had a relationship with Brand? In theory, it shouldn't but ...

Excuse me, but while I agree with the tasteless/puerile/offensive definitions of the so-called prank, as far as I can see R 'n' B have done nothing more than act within the current cultural limits of acceptable behaviour on tv and radio.
In fact, compared to many other examples I could cite, this particular offense seems relatively mild.

Check out these shows (which I confess are among my favourites): Have I Got News for You, Never Mind the Buzzcocks, Mock the Week, Graham Norton and many more.
What do they all in common with the R 'n' B approach?
True, Graham Norton does camp bitchy as opposed to macho laddish, but many of the jokes are the same. The targets certainly are.
  • They're all genuinely funny much of the time.
  • All these shows are male-dominated.
  • They all have people considered fair game for a cheap laugh.
Ah! Now we're getting to the point at last ...
So who's in this particular hit list of acceptable laughing stocks?
Amy Winehouse, Kerry Katona, Britney Spears, Jade Goody, Jodie Marsh ...
And what is it that these regular victims have in common that makes it acceptable to belittle, insult and bully them and still be considered funny?

For crying out loud, it's obvious, isn't it?
They're all women.
And they're all working class.
They're all also, to a greater or lesser extent, damaged and on the edge.

And if Amy or Kerry or any of the others die a miserable and tortured early death, will they still be considered appropriate targets?
Will any of these bright but arrogant men, convinced of their own superiority, feel a twinge of shame for the part they have played in the character assassination that will have contributed to the misery of these young women?

If you need convincing that misogyny and classism are firmly on the cultural media agenda, have you heard any of these men spitting incoherent hatred at Loose Women?
Their fury takes a very different form to the smirking superiority Amy and co are subjected to.
The only conclusion I can come to is that Loose Women are witty, warm and articulate (and middle class incidentally).
Oh and they're on air together, making it far harder to isolate and bully them as individuals. How threatening is that???

Ironically, I can think of only one working class woman who's subverted the genre and taken ownership of her trashy image. Her response to any insult is to laugh, yell 'Bring it on' and add to her burgeoning empire.
And so it is that I find myself in the unlikely position of admitting to a sneaking respect for a pneumatic Barbie Doll - Jordan aka Katie Price.

To return to the Ross/Brand debacle.
Bearing in mind all of the above, it's clear they were acting well within the dictates of their genre. Their main crime was chortling their empty-headed jibe at an aged male national treasure instead of directly at a vulnerable young woman.

So Brand may resign, Ross may be suspended and directorial heads at the BBC may roll, but unless someone looks at the wider culture within which these men operate, nothing will change.
Male comedians, many of whom are capable of being genuinely funny and clever, will continue to demean themselves, their victims - and all those of us in their audiences who accept bullying and insulting vulnerable women as entertainment.

Now that's what I call a real scandal.


Sue Guiney said...

Hear! Hear! I completely agree with you. Yes, of course it was stupid, insulting, offensive. But as you said so eloquently, that's not the point! Well argued, Debi, and thanks for saying it.

Brian Clegg said...

As far as making the comments on air, you are absolutely right about there being no difference between this and what happens on Have I Got News For You etc.

Where the Brand/Ross thing went further was to leave offensive messages on someone's answerphone at home, which as well as having a different legal status as an action, I'd suggest does have a greater potential for offence.

It's like the difference between reading a bad review of one of your books and a stranger ringing you up to tell you that your book is rubbish.

Unknown said...

Well flippin said! Thank you Debi for taking the time to articulate exactly what's wrong with the way the whole debacle has been looked at.

I have long harboured a sneaking suspicion that those two were always heading for a fall, and now they've been and gawn and dun it.

Unknown said...

Total agreement - this moveable line of morality is confusing in the extreme.

Debi said...

Cheers, Sue and Babs.

That's a good point, Brian. (And nice to see you here BTW.) The point I was trying to make is that given the prevailing culture of bullying, it was inevitable that someone would go too far.

R 'n' B have done so with their call, but unless we look at how they got to the point where they might consider their actions acceptable, nothing changes.

Debi said...

Oh - you popped in while my back was turned, Minx. (How suitable given the date ...)

Sharon J said...

Another one who agrees. The boundries of what's acceptable are being pushed continuously and are fast reaching a very dangerous place but we're as much to blame for enjoying insulting entertainment. If everybody turned off their sets whenever it happened, things would soon have to change.

Unknown said...

Brilliant post, Debi and really not much more that I can add. You've hit the nail bang on the head.

riverwillow said...

Briliant post as usual Debbie, but I'm not sure that I completely agree with you in this instance - but then I do work in TV and radio, and have drunk the tea :o) Have blogged about it a little and linked in to your blog, if that's OK? As I think this is something that needs to be debated, but away from the tabloid headlines.

Debi said...

As I said on your blog, Riv, in essence I think we agree but are simply focusing in a different direction.

For those of you who haven't seen, Riv's post is pointing out the real losers in the debacle. Check it out here

Anonymous said...

I agree they are bullies and cowards to, as they never pick on anyone who could actually do them any harm in return. They are extremely funny but the moment they turn to women and sex they become exactly as you say. Plain nasty.

Anonymous said...

Thought provoking post Debi. Thanks. I agree with most of what you say. That is a horrendous, cruel, mind numbing media culture out there. Last week an article in the Independent asked "Why is it cool to be cruel?" I wish I knew. I wish it wasn't.
I'm not sure the attacks are as class based as all that however. Being much less pop culture savvy than you, when I think of mindless media cruelty against women the names that pop into my head are Sarah Ferguson, Anne Widdecombe, Camilla Parker Bowles, even, if Newsnight is to be believed, the queen on last weeks Mock the Week. Fergie was fat, AW and Camilla are not good looking, the queen is old - it was a horrible asttack on her age.
The message, which teenage girls absorb with their coco pops - "If you're female, be thin, be beautiful, be young, otherwise be afraid. We'll destroy you"
It's terrible to see this being perpetuated in 2008. What was feminism FOR?
Joan xx

Zinnia Cyclamen said...

Debi, I think you make some really good points there. The only thing I'd take issue with is that your post leaves the impression that women are the ONLY 'people considered fair game for a cheap laugh'. I watch very little TV, but I have seen quite a few episodes of 'Have I Got News For You' and 'Never Mind The Buzzcocks' over the years, and can remember Ian Hislop and Paul Merton giving a very hard time to Piers Morgan, Boris Johnson and 'the tub of lard' (among other men whose names I can't remember), while on 'Buzzcocks' any boy band member or other young male musician seems to be considered 'fair game' (remember Preston's walk-out?), as do the men in the line-up (when it's men - which it usually is). I love a good feminist analysis but I don't think it's incompatible with remembering that in many situations men can be victims too. And it can be difficult for male victims to make their voices heard. As you say, there have been many other examples of this kind of radio bullying. We don't know how many men have been on the receiving end of prank phone calls or other media japes and have felt compelled to take it as a joke, through the power of the media and macho culture and fear of losing face, but have in fact found it very hurtful and unpleasant.

As an audience member, I have never found 'cringe comedy' funny. I didn't get 'Frasier', couldn't watch 'The Office', and walked out of a Johnny Vegas gig. In the Johnny Vegas example, it was a drunk woman from the audience who was being humiliated. According to my companions, this was part of the deal; anyone who sat near the stage knew they might be hauled up there for cruel piss-taking; and anyway it was OK because she could have said 'no' and stopped at any time. That didn't make it OK for me. But I don't think it would be any better, or funnier, if a female comedian humiliated a man on stage. And in the two TV examples - bearing in mind that I only saw Frasier twice and The Office once - it seemed to me that men were on the receiving end of comic kicking just as much as women. I decided not to see Borat on the basis of a couple of trailers as racism doesn't do it for me either. So I'd like to plead for everyone to reject cringe comedy, to refuse to see bullying and insult as funny, whether the person on the receiving end is male or female, old or young, white or black. It demeans us all.

Debi said...

Mutley, Joan and Zinnia - thanks for your thought-provoking comments.

It's clear that the one thing we all agree on is that it's not cool to be cruel - or at least, it shouldn't be. But will that wider lesson be learned from this episode?

Debi said...

Maybe the message is getting through after all. Check out this article by Charlie Brooker

Zinnia Cyclamen said...

We could do with a few more like Mr Brooker, methinks. (Sorry previous comment was so long - I didn't realise - I think I got a bit carried away!)

Debi said...

Zin - no need for apologies. You're welcome to take as much space here as you need in order to make your coherent arguments and I'm grateful to you for it.

soubriquet said...

My view on the Ross/Brand thing? it was a crash waiting to happen.
Both of them, mouthy, arrogant, aggressive, and with a ridiculous sense of their own preening importance.
What they did was nasty. And illegal, under the telecommunications act, though nobody seemed to think of that.
The persons who should suffer retribution are the two overpaid, overhyped, slime-moulds who chose to be so nasty, and the immediate production persons who decided it was a jolly jape to broadcast.
Not the person several steps removed who was not actively involved in that decision.

As for the sexism, I'd say there are plenty of men who get the nasty treatment too, one prime example being Prince Charles. The Beeb has for years seemed ever more eager to foster the careers of vituperative foul-mouthed ninnies, perhaps aiming for the yob market.

Shame on them.

Debi said...

Hi Soub, great to see you here.

I certainly have moved along in my own thinking from believing the affair is simply a symptom of wider classism and misogyny. As other commenters have articulately argued here, no one is immune.

So it seems the wider issue is the general culture of bullying that is prevalent in the media and within which R 'n' B were operating.

A lot of comedians, some of whom I really like, have argued that it's vital for comedy and social commentary to be 'edgy' and we should accept that sometimes someone will step over that edge.

I like edgy. I like challenging. What I don't accept is that it's somehow radical (or funny) to bully people.