What can The Young Ones teach us about Thatcherism pt 6: Women and sexism

The ‘alternative comedy’ scene of the early 1980s was supposed have rejected the sexist (and racist) comedy of the 1960s and 1970s, but there remained many antagonisms between male and female comedians within the scene. Similar to other arenas of progressive and left-wing politics, feminism was praised in the abstract, but women within the ‘alternative comedy’ circuit were often marginalised and became the focus of derision. The chapter ‘Fallen Wimmin’ in Mark Steel’s book It’s Not a Runner Bean shows how fractious the relationship between men and women, both espousing ‘progressive’ politics, was within this scene during the 1980s.

What was occurring in the comedy world was also occurring across British society. By the 1980s, the women’s liberation movement of the 1960s and 1970s had reached an impasse and splintered off into many different guises. Some forms of feminism in the 1980s was derided by otherwise progressive or radical men (and women) as ‘middle class’, ‘bourgeois’ or ‘identity politics’, and thus feminism was, in many instances, ignored as a side issue. While the conservative side of politics under Thatcher dismissed feminism as ‘nonsense’, for many involved in the left and the labour movements, feminism was a ‘distraction’.

These attitudes towards women by traditionally progressive/radical men are also evident in The Young Ones.  This can be seen in some of the scenes within the show and the (limited number of) character played by women on the show.

The lip-service paid to feminism by ‘progressive’ men can be seen in a few scenes where Rik, the student lefty ‘right on’ stereotype, tries to emphasise his anti-sexist credentials in front of the group. One of these moments can be seen in the episode ‘Bambi’ (at 1.04) where Rik, Vyvyan and Mike are discussing why a woman named Mary (and nicknamed ‘Yellow Pages’) doesn’t go to parties. When Vyvyan describes her as ‘the one with the enormous tits’, Rik tells him off for ‘being so sexist’. On the surface this seems fair enough, but Rik’s calling out of Vyvyan for sexist remarks is undermined by the facetiousness of the following exchange:

RIK: They’re called breasts, and everybody has them.

VYVYAN: Well, I don’t.

RIK: Yes, and nor did Adolf Hitler!

Vyvyan then describes her as ‘Ol’ Yellow Pages’, and Rik, in his usual sanctimonious ‘right on’ manner, says ‘I believe some of the more politically unsound members of the University call her that.’ But after Vyvyan explains to Mike how Mary got her nickname, Rik relishes in gossiping about Mary, sniveling, ‘Anyway, Mary decided not to go to the party, for the obvious reason.’ In this scene, Rik admonishes Vyvyan for his use of sexist language, but indulges in gossip about a woman’s sexual activities.

In the episode ‘Time’, Rik pretends that he slept with a woman who he finds in his bed the following morning. Even though he brags about this non-existent conquest, saying to Neil ‘have you got a spare couple of days?’, when Vyvyan and Neil question how he managed this, he tries to balance his male bravado with his superficial non-sexist attitude. This is shown in the following exchange:

NEIL: You mean, you, like, scored with a chick?

RIK: Well, of course, I wouldn’t put it in such sexist terms, Neil, but yes.

MIKE: Now, wait a minute, Rik. I’m the one who gets the girls around here. There could be a copyright problem.

VYVYAN: [sits on the chair] But I don’t understand. How? Was she unconscious?

RIK: What, Vyvyan? Do I detect a little spark of jealousy?

VYVYAN: Ha! I’m not jealous. I find the idea of spending a night with you completely revolting!

RIK: You know perfectly well what I mean. Just because I was the most wanted and attractive guy at the party last night…

NEIL: What do you mean, Rik? You passed out after half a glass of cider.

RIK: Did I? Well, that’s a bit anarchic! Anyway, it just goes to show you, Neil. Even when I’m unconscious, I can pick up the birds. I mean, forge meaningful relationships with birds…chicks…tarts…women. Women!

We can see Rik trying to hold it together and it is really with the last lines of the exchange that it is shown that his anti-sexist attitudes are merely a façade, reverting back to traditional sexist language of the young male under pressure.

The episode ‘Time’ further shows that even for ‘progressive’ men, sexual conquest was seen as a testament of their masculinity. After the women, named Helen Mucus, reveals that Rik didn’t sleep with her, Vyvyan describes Rik as a ‘girly virgin’ and proceeds to violently berate Rik for this. (Throughout the series, the term ‘girly’ is used as an insult)

The episode ‘Nasty’ also features another scene where sexual conquest is seen as the defining quality of manliness (at 31.00). Fearing being bitten by a vampire, Vyvyan announces that vampires only attack virgins and that if anyone got bitten, then they’d know they were a ‘sissy virgin’. Each of the group, even when facing death, try to maintain their manly façade by declaring that they aren’t a virgin. Mike, who pretends to be a ‘ladies’ man’ throughout the series, is shown to be scared as the rest of them about their virginity being revealed, but actually confronts it saying ‘OK, guys! There’s only one way out! We’ve all got to lose our virginity!’

Mike’s manufactured ‘conquests’ also show how males have traditionally used sexual exploits to prove their masculinity and define themselves. Mike calls himself ‘the face that forced the abortion issue’ and sees all women as potential ‘conquests’ – the women from the council overseeing the demolition of their house, Cinderella, the murdering Helen Mucus, Neil’s mother. But as revealed in ‘Oil’, with the tape recorded woman and the bras he throws around the room, Mike’s exploits are faked.

For the most part, women are alien to the male world that the group occupy. This is obvious in ‘Time’ when the presence of a strange woman in their house causes the four students to act manically and try to impress the woman in their own strange ways. But another example of the foreignness of women to the group can be seen in the episode ‘Interesting’ when Rik goes through a party guest’s handbag and thinks that a tampon is a toy mouse, which he proceeds to dip in the woman’s drink.

Although famous women comedians and actresses, such as Jennifer Saunders, Dawn French, Helen Atkinson-Wood and Emma Thompson, all appear in The Young Ones, the roles they play within the show are very small. The Young Ones is a male-oriented show and this reflects how even the ‘alternative comedy’ scene was dominated by male voices.

Furthermore the left’s attitude towards women has been a much discussed issue over the last six months and The Young Ones shows that even in environments where progressive politics are the norm, women can still be seen as sexual objects and a man’s sexual conquests are a bragging point.


5 responses to “What can The Young Ones teach us about Thatcherism pt 6: Women and sexism”

  1. Great post! What struck me about it was the extent to which assertions of machismo & bragging are used by the men in The Young Ones to try to mask their insecurities and fears. Women are the butt of it, but in such scenarios both men & women lose out because of it.

    I’ve also begun to think about women in the 80s, albeit very tenatively and largely about one woman in particular – Sarah Ferguson (Duchess of York). If you’re interested, see here http://womenshistorynetwork.org/blog/

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