Deconstructing Peep Show
So, here’s something fun. The other day I got into a conversation on Twitter about overly pretentious essays on comedy.
This seemed like the perfect chance for me to mention the essay I’d written at university on gender roles in the sitcom Peep Show.
As Twitter is one to do, Sam Bain – one of Peep Show’s creators – saw the Tweets and asked if he could read the essay. I obliged and so, thought I would reprint it here.
Warning: there are scenes of incredible pretention; chronic overuse of the word ‘fundamentally’ and some would say an almost flippant approach to describing feminism.
For all of that, I can but apologise. For everything else; enjoy the ludicrous nature of it, after all – it got me a First. What better reason do you need to sack off studying in favour of binge-watching your favourite sitcoms?
Discuss masculinity and the roles of gender in ‘Peep Show’.
‘Peep Show’ is a modern single camera sitcom from Channel 4; it started in 2003 and is currently still being commissioned. It is a modern take on the ‘buddy’ sitcoms such as ‘The Odd Couple’ (1970), ‘The Likely Lads’ (1964) and ‘Men Behaving Badly’ (1992). Its key defining feature is that it is shot entirely from the point of view’s (POV’s) of the characters and that the audience is privy to the inner thoughts of the two main protagonists; Mark and Jeremy.
The programme manages to play with the juxtaposition of what people think and what they say. It is an essential text to look at in regards to masculine representations as it offers new insight into not only how men act and behave but a more brutally honest reflection of the thought processes they make. As Mills (2008) states; ‘…It allows the audience access to Mark and Jeremy’s interior monologues only, thus focusing attention on the difficulties of particular kinds of masculinity’ The programme tackles, albeit comically, subjects such as racism, sexuality and disability from the perspective of somebody in the modern cultural climate. It toys with the difficulty that comes from trying to handle these taboo subjects in an acceptable way in public, and in particular attempts to paint a realistic picture of what it means to be masculine in today’s society.
The role of masculinity has changed dramatically over the past forty years, with men finding it increasingly harder to position themselves in society. This was an after effect of the rise of feminism, as women’s roles found a more dominant place and voice in the world it led to a complete turn around on the archaic idea of men as the providers and the world as a patriarchal society. While this was certainly a step in the right direction for women it left men unsure of their new place in the vastly changing world. If women were now confident and independent enough to be their own person and equal men in all manner of fields, from the work arena and socially to at home where did this leave the men? Even today this is a question that still remains fundamentally unanswered.
Social theorists believe that ‘Masculinity is the sum of men’s characteristic ‘practices’ at work, with their families, in their communities, and in the groups and institutions to which they belong.’ Edley and Wetherell, (1995, p.71) and these are precisely the areas that we view the characters of Peep Show through. We are present to every aspect of their world and the numerous personas that they need to adopt in order to survive in each. ‘Peep Show’ offers an up to date representation of masculinity, which is at once unsure of itself and constantly contradictory. Mark and Jeremy would at first glance seem to embody the binary opposites of masculine depictions. Jeremy the lay about ‘creative’ that begs and borrows his way through life foolishly convincing himself it’s in the name of art – deriving from the growth of 90’s Lad culture, and Mark the sophisticated, intelligent achiever that has his eye on the latest trends – a result of hegemonic masculinity and the more modern concept of the feminine male – a reaction itself from 80’s ‘body culture’. They are as Mills states the ‘puritan and the playboy’, but as the series unfolds we begin to realise that it is never as clear cut as this.
The two constantly flounder between these bench marks of masculinity never quite sure where they fit in, and this fundamentally is what lies at the heart of the modern male’s dilemma. It is not so much a case of what is masculine? but what is the acceptable version of masculinity to purport? So Mark constantly tries to be the ultimate modern man, aware of the needs to be emotionally aware and openly sensitive while being dependable and physically protecting but in fact the audience see how crippled he is by the embarrassment he suffers when these types of subjects rear their head. One major factor resulting in this dilemma is the fact that Mark and Jeremy don’t really like or trust each other. ‘Friends give us a sense of belonging and provide emotional support. People without such relationships are more vulnerable to a variety of problems’ Spangler (1992, p .95).
Spangler goes on to say that ‘most men expressed a fear of appearing homosexual.’ (1992, p.96) This shows that a lack of true friendship results in a vulnerability in individuals which in this case reflects Mark and Jeremy’s failure to possess a comfortable and honest masculinity, however this reluctance to attempt companionship is a by product of the hegemonic masculinity they have been subjected to from previous sources. Afraid to show any form of compassion for one another as previous incarnations of masculinity (the majority of which will have been through television) have deemed this to be unacceptable or at least showing weakness in character. This shows that the masculine roles that have gone before are just as much a cause of the masculine crisis as feminism.
As it stands ‘Peep Show’ represents every aspect of masculine identity without ever fully conforming or adhering to any one specific form. The characters undergo a vast number of attempts to be viewed in different ways. This plays in to the theory of masculinity as performance; ‘masculinity becomes seen as an act rather than an essence. It exists as a set of lines and stage directions which all males have to learn in order to perform.’ Edley and Wetherell, (1995, p.71).
As the intellectual, the sensitive, the sophisticated or the butch and body conscious each attempt is undermined by the characters inability to fully agree with the accepted role. Mark attempts to appear more health conscious and fit by taking up jogging, this clearly harks back to the narcissistic urge of the body culture, but finds that he is all too aware of being ‘found out’ as not actually being that way. Mills discusses in his essay on Peep Show and the Surveillance Society the principal factor in humour arising from the characters is there inherent awareness of how others perceive them. This while siding with the idea of a society that is constantly being monitored also supports the idea of masculinity crisis. Mark and Jeremy can never fully fit into what a male ‘should be’ because they are too worry about how that looks. They are unsure of it themselves and this only makes it harder because they don’t want to be seen as being unsure. This is one factor that is amplified by the modern style of the sitcom that was previously missing in shows past. Gary and Tony in ‘Men Behaving Badly’ were happy to be the beer swilling louts they were because like most traditional comedy characters they possessed a blissful ignorance. In ‘Peep Show’ Mark and Jeremy purchase too much self awareness to the point of crippling themselves with it. With each new attempt to been seen in a different way they chip away at what true identity they have left leaving them completely unsure of the person they are let alone the person they are trying to be. As Davies and Harre (1990, p.46) suggest ‘An individual emerges through the process of social interaction, not as a relatively fixed end product but as one who is constituted and reconstituted through the various discursive practices in which they participate.’
In many ways the characters of Johnson and Superhans present the ultimate in terms of masculinity for Mark and Jeremy. Both are comfortable and in control of their own perceptions of what masculinity is. Johnson is the sophisticated and successful alpha male, while Superhans is an opinionated and vulgar ‘free spirit’ who constantly seems to have success with women and some minor success in the music business compared to Jeremy. Both Mark and Jeremy are left looking up to these idols of the male form, somehow blinkered to their imperfections, Johnson is a misogynist and dictator at work and Superhans is an avid drug user and pervert. Yet it could be said that these two clear examples of types of masculinity are shown to be wrong or at least not fully formed and that modern masculinity needs to be more than just one element. Johnson and Superhans show weakness in character as a result of their dogmatic ways, Johnson is discovered to be an alcoholic and Superhans is a constant drug abuser driven to pits of depression and paranoia. So maybe with the characters of Mark and Jeremy being unsure of what it means to be masculine they are somehow saving themselves from worse dilemmas of following one believed route.
One major criticism of masculinity in television is that the form is dominated by male opinion that most if not all programming is subject to the ‘male gaze’ this is where programmes view characters and situations from a male orientated perspective. This was true even of programmes with a much higher female demographic; audiences were viewing everything from that of a dominant male so that women were objectified and dominant hedonistic men were viewed either as aspirational figures or as competition. Meehan (1983) concluded that the ‘presentation of women always in relation to men, cheerleaders to the male players, is a male vision, the product of a medium in which male creators have predominated.’
One thing ‘Peep Show’ does is challenge this idea. While it is instantly easy to say that the text only serves to perpetuate this concept, after all we view everything from the male character’s point of views it also allows us to view them from others perspectives. So while we only hear Mark and Jeremy’s thoughts on subjects, when they provide social faux pas we also get a look at the situation from other characters around. So in the case of Toni in series one and two while we know Jeremy views her very much as an object of lust, when we view him from her POV we can instantly identify with her feeling of power and control over this love sick ‘puppet’ which her overt sexuality allows her.
There are a range of female characters on offer in Peep Show from mainstays to one offs and transient characters and they, it could be fair to say, offer more of an impact on the lives of Mark and Jeremy than any of the other male characters. One major narrative of the show is Mark and Jeremy’s attempts to find love, romance and sexual conquests. Mark is constantly jumping to the conclusion that he has found ‘the one’ within minutes of meeting any woman that shows a hint of interest while Jeremy is completely controlled by the suggestion of sexual intercourse even in some cases if he doesn’t reciprocate the attraction as in the case of Sophie’s mother in series four. Sophie too finds herself promoted above Mark in series two, which immediately opens up debate on the link between sex and status. This would seem to place the women in the driving seat which, apart from certain female led sitcoms (‘Absolutely Fabulous’, ‘Pulling’), is very rare in the genre. This could be seen as a refreshing element to the show and is also a clear indicator to the difference in gender roles. The males have yet to find an image and place in society but the females seem to have worked out their roles, successfully juggling their achievements and status’ with their need to still be regarded as attractive and feminine.
So Peep Show does seem to offer an honest and frank representation of masculinity and the different roles of gender in the Naughties. While its principal aim is to subtract humour from the situations encountered by its protagonists, a lot of the humour and the situations themselves arise as a result of the crisis of masculinity and clashing with those, primarily female, who have a firmer grasp on their role. Unlike shows such as ‘The Professionals’ (1977) or ‘Men Behaving Badly’ it does not subscribe to a singular ideal of the male, instead it provides an amalgam of personas and roles, encompassing all manner of perceived masculinity. The crisis of masculinity is not so much an era that males are going through but, in fact, the modern depiction of masculinity itself. All modern men are in crisis; it’s only Mark and Jeremy that let the world in on theirs.
Davies, B. and Harre, R. (1990) ‘Positioning: The discursive production of selves.’ Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour, 20(1): 43-64
Mills, B. (2008) ‘Paranoia, Paranoia, everybody’s coming to get me:’ Peep Show, sitcom and the surveillance society.’ Screen 49 (1), pp. 51-64
Edley, N. and Wetherell, M. (1995) ‘Men in Perspective: Practice, Power and Identity.’ Cornwall: Prentice Hall/Harvester Wheatsheaf
Meehan, D. (1983). Ladies of the Evening: Women characters of prime-time television. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow
Spengler, L. (1992) ‘Buddies and Pals: A History of Male Friendship of Prime Time Television’, in Craig, S. (ed) Men, Masculinity and the Media. California: Sage Publications, pp 95-96
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Armstrong, J and Bain, S. (2008). Peep Show: The Scripts and More. London: Channel 4 books.
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