When did looking down on others become the national pastime?

February 23, 2012 at 6:01 pm (class, Cross-post, James Bloodworth, Racism, travellers, TV)

By James Bloodworth. Cross-posted from Obliged to Offend

I don’t know about you, but before I tuned into the Channel Four show I had no idea what a big fat gypsy wedding was. I assumed it must be something to do with gypsies and weddings, obviously, but I failed to grasp why such a program would ever make it on to television. Lots of people get married, I reasoned, so why should a gypsy wedding be more deserving of airtime than anything else.

So I did it. I tuned in. And now everything has become a little clearer. Despite the assurances of Channel Four that the program is about combating the negative tabloid portrayal of gypsies, the whole thing stuck to the script more comprehensively than a Daily Mail editorial. Smashing stereotypes? Hardly. More like hammering them home with a sledgehammer and a stick of dynamite.

While I am arguably too young to delve deep into the archives of television history (I am 29), I struggle to recall a time when so much of the weekly schedule was filled with programmes designed to allow us, the public, to look down with disdain on other, more marginal groups; and usually under a pseudo-progressive guise of empathising with those on the receiving end of our spiteful laughter.

I do not wish to single out Channel Four here. They are, after all, only commissioning programs they believe (and correctly, in the case of Big Fat Gypsy Weddings) will be popular. Look elsewhere if you prefer. Turn on the Jeremy Kyle show; watch one of Ricky Gervais’s recent offerings; listen to a Frankie Boyle joke; dig out the Little Britain DVDs. Wherever you look this type of “entertainment” has gradually taken over our television screens, pumping up the self-esteem of the middle classes by giving a sly kick to those clinging on to the lower rungs of the social ladder.

Oh it’s just a joke, I can hear you say. Lighten up. You’re taking things too seriously.

So why the pretence of empathy then? Why not simply make television that unapologetically mocks the poor, the deformed, the degenerate and the non-conformist?
For one thing that would require an admission that under all the politically correct plumage, we are perhaps not the welcoming and tolerant a society we smugly and repeatedly profess to be. There are political implications, too. Is popular support for David Cameron’s welfare reforms really about fair play and “common sense”, or have we become so used to viewing those less fortunate than ourselves as the equivalent of another species that we no longer even care what happens to them? The London riots? “Sheer criminality”; the teenagers on Jeremy Kyle? “Chavs”. Travellers? “Gypos”. Simple, comforting, and most importantly perhaps, a way to feel better about ourselves in an era where fatalism has replaced the idea that a better world is possible.

The thing which seems to provoke the heartiest laughter and the greatest mirth of all, I am gradually discovering, is any attempt by the disenfranchised to emulate those more fortunate than themselves. The mock-celebrity names the council estate Mothers give to their children; the scantily clad gypsy girls copying the provocative dance moves of their favourite pop stars; the transsexuals expressing outwardly what they feel inside; the overweight people trying desperately to look how they’ve been told they are supposed to look. How dare they? we collectively seem to ask. Don’t they know their station?

Laughing in the face of the vulnerable seems to have caught on at about the time we finally lost all control over what happens at the other end of society. The global rich no longer listen to us, so instead we spend our time looking downwards and sneering at easier targets. Perhaps we recognise something of ourselves in the powerless, and giving them a good kicking is a sort of masochistic exercise, not unlike electing politicians such Boris Johnson and David Cameron. Whatever the reason, it seems the television equivalent of the freak show is here to stay.

The riots of August 2011 should have put paid to the idea that we could go on laughing at the underclass forever. It didn’t though; and if you want a picture of the future, you could do worse than imagine a Vicky Pollard-type figure being hurt and humiliated publicly – forever.

3 Comments

  1. Robin Carmody said,

    Tragically true.

    If James wants proof from before his own time (and before mine, really, but I know my history) that things don’t have to be like this, I can recommend a representative selection of Plays for Today and 1980s Channel 4 output. This was all planned – all set up – when Thatcher handed Murdoch the farm.

  2. Laban Tall said,

    “I struggle to recall a time when so much of the weekly schedule was filled with programmes designed to allow us, the public, to look down with disdain on other, more marginal groups”

    I don’t know. There was a time in the 90s when Jon Ronson and Louis Theroux were never off the telly ….

    • representingthemambo said,

      Theroux wasn’t perfect but he wasn’t openly contemptuous of the people he spent time with.

      MBFGW is something else entirely.

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