26 July 2018
By John Watson
The dog that doesn’t bark; that feeling of déjà vu. Most of us have moments when we suffer a jar to the senses without quite knowing why. That happened to me as I was watching the introduction to an edition of the game show Countdown by the comedian Catherine Ryan. It was a special performance to celebrate 100 years of female suffrage and all the participants were women. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course. Why shouldn’t they have an all female edition if they want one, and it is certainly an anniversary worth celebrating.
On such an occasion, one would expect some ribaldry at the expense of the male sex and Ms Ryan did not disappoint on this score. Again, quite right too. Hopefully jokes about the sexes are still permitted despite the current obsession with correctness and it would be a poorer world where comedians had to suppress any jokes with sexual content. So what was it exactly that made the hairs stand up on the back of my neck, which made me reach for the remote in the hope of finding a third rate American soap to watch instead, and which turned my whisky to bile in my mouth? It was a joke.
The joke itself wasn’t really funny. In fact, despite rewinding to it, I have forgotten what it was about. I remember the punch line though, because it used the phrase “wearing your balls like earrings”. That is not a particularly pleasant turn of phrase and could be regarded by some as offensive. After all, one would not expect to hear a similar reference to a woman’s sexual organs on television. But years of listening to recitals of Eskimo Nell in my teens has left me fairly well inoculated against being shocked by crude language. No, it wasn’t the language employed by Ms Ryan which had jarred on my subconscious.
In fact it wasn’t really what Ms Ryan said at all. After all, she is a well-known comedian and, because being funny is an edgy and difficult job, she is entitled to a good deal of licence under traditions which go back to the Middle Ages. Anyone in that business will stray over the boundaries of political correctness from time to time and it is quite understandable and acceptable that they should do so. Perhaps the programme producers should have edited it more carefully but for one reason or another they did not do so. Anyway, my beef is not with them.
What jarred me was not the way the way in which a sexist joke was made, but rather the way it was met with a sort of “locker room laughter” from the audience and the contestants. By that I mean the type of laughter which has traditionally followed unfunny but sexist jokes about women in unpleasant all-male drinking groups, the sort of “laddish” jokes which are increasingly regarded as distasteful but are often followed by the words “oh come on, it was only a joke” if anyone protests.
There are those who think that the current wave of political correctness has gone too far and that a lot of what would now be regarded as sexism should just be shrugged off and ignored. That is probably right and the subtle rules, which in some quarters divide what is acceptable from what is not, certainly bear very heavily on the socially awkward. But that sort of intolerance is the price of social change. If you don’t go too far for a period you will never change anything, so eggs have to be unfairly broken in the interim. There have certainly been a few unfortunate casualties but that is something which must be born if we are to move society on to a more respectful relationship between the sexes.
If sacrifices are being made, what do we hope to gain from the pain? A social revolution following which snide sexual sneering will no longer be thought funny or acceptable? A world where the denigration of the opposite sex will no longer attract laughter? Unless we are striving for that, the sacrificing of men like Sir Timothy Hunt, whose career was destroyed because of a fairly innocuous quip about women, and the other unfortunate victims of the harridanary, will be pointless as well as unfair. But here we had a group of well-educated women, brought together to celebrate an important anniversary – just the sort of group who you would think would be quick to condemn “locker room jokes” – laughing and sniggering at precisely that sort of humour. Were they really Essex lads in disguise?
At the end of George Orwell’s Animal Farm the pigs begin to walk on two legs and it becomes gradually more difficult to distinguish them from the humans who they should despise. Something rather similar seemed to have happened at the all female edition of Countdown.