By Rianna Gargiulo
Returning home from University for Christmas this year was a noticeably different affair than usual. I was already somewhat poorer, I had more coursework to complete, and I spent the majority of my holiday not enjoying being back but at home reading copious amounts of material, both for my course and just in general. Pair this with the classic Carry On films shown back to back throughout the Christmas period, and there were bound to be some altercations.
For starters, I will throw it out there, I don’t even think Carry On films are funny. Regardless of whether or not I am taking this from a feminist perspective they’re not even any good. I’m all up for the odd bit of scathing comedy if it is actually funny and perhaps a caricature vision of real character traits, but the depiction of women in Carry On films is not funny because of its resonance with real life, but is merely a pathetic reduction of women to fickle, sexual objects. When I had the displeasure of catching a bit of Carry On Loving one afternoon (yeah, don’t even get me started about why this shit is allowed to be on in the afternoon), after a day of reading about rape in India and the same day an article seeking to redefine feminism was published and had really got me thinking, I was utterly appalled by the twenty or so minutes that I watched.
The plot of this film is essentially that half of the women are models, the other half are advertised in a dating agency, and so all of the female characters are employed by men, and for the amusement and entertainment of men. Sid James’s lecherous-as-always character runs the agency and therefore has the opportunity to scavenge from the leftovers of the girls who aren’t chosen for dates. My ultimate favourite part has to be, however, the storyline of ‘Jenny’ (played by Imogen Hassall), who turns up at the agency looking dowdy (it is inferred that she is unattractive), quiet and reserved; her date is angry, the date it seems was ‘disastrous’. And then, as if by magic, Jenny moves in with a group of models who give her a makeover and voila she is now beautiful, attractive and miraculously no longer shy or reserved (I hadn’t realised until now that personality traits changed depending on whether or not you were wearing a push-up bra but there you go! Still learning!) Her former disastrous date, Terry, bumps into her in the agency, doesn’t recognise her and they hit it off immediately, despite being completely incompatible before. But, of course, women’s personalities are in fact malleable, which obviously explains why they didn’t get along then but do now. This puts perfectly into a stunning cinematic epiphany the idea that, of course, men will only like you if you get your tits out and wear a tonne of make-up. And more so, that this is the only way to gain any sort of personality as a woman; indeed, the only type of personality a woman can have is either as a sexualised plaything or their innately boring and drab lack thereof. Indeed, both of which are characterised by a quiet acquiescence and willingness, and a disappearance of choice and agency from the equation completely.
Believe me, those twenty minutes were more than enough and so shocking to me that I’m still thinking about it two months later, and subsequently have felt so compelled to write this. When I confronted my mum about the connotations in the film, her response “yeah it was just like that then, it’s funny” did nothing but fuel my anger. About a week prior to this, on re-watching The Little Mermaid for the first time since childhood and expressing similar concerns, I had been told the same thing by a friend that “yeah it was like that then”. This argument seems to me like a pretty lame acceptance of gender roles, and my main concern is to do with the audience of these films in particular. As we all know too well, despite the rise in feminist discourse, academic study of gender and socialisation, (arguably) improvements in gender equality in economic terms and otherwise, the problems women have always faced are still prominent issues in today’s developed societies, not to mention the host of new problems which twenty-first century challenges have brought about. Saying, “yeah it was like that then” and proceeding to let impressionable young children watch Carry On films or even any Disney film involving princesses being rescued and all the other patriarchal bullshit that they propagate, is not only lazy but incredibly dangerous, I’d even go as far to say reckless.
About two years ago, I read a truly eye-opening study by Karin Martin about becoming gendered through learning and education, and I can’t help but draw comparisons here. In short, Martin’s research finds that as early as preschool the similar behaviours of boys and girls are awarded differential responses by their teachers. For example, during the study 73% of the times that a teacher had told a child to be quiet had been aimed at girls, and only 26% was aimed at boys. Furthermore, the research had shown that boys were generally much louder than girls anyway, but this behaviour was actually encouraged by teachers. She also comments that the teachers are not aware of their actions and would probably be shocked themselves to see the findings compiled in this way. Overall, the article suggested that girlish tendencies to be reserved and polite are not at all natural or inborn, but are purely learned behaviours. Where these are encouraged by teachers and parents, little girls learn to walk, talk and behave reservedly; these restrictions on physical movement greatly impact on psychological attitudes and prevent women from becoming as confident and strident as men are gendered to be. The article even pointed out the ways in which girls’ clothing, such as tights, dresses and skirts are uncomfortable and force girls to sit and stand in a certain, gendered way. In light of this already shocking discovery, is it not then incredibly irresponsible to impose these assumptions about gender roles in a child’s entertainment, in addition to their familial and educational learning? The socialisation process will inevitably be difficult to change in some areas, however, using film, literature and television to promote gender equality seems to me like the easiest way to encourage both male and female children to value the worth of women in society and form neutral judgments about gender in later life.
There are times when I sit in seminars and look around at the girls in the room, legs crossed neatly under the table and think back to this study. I think back to this when I struggle to make my own contributions in this arena, when my mouth is tightly shut with immaculately applied red lipstick, whilst the men in the room dominate the debate. I also think back to this when I am treated as a sexual object by men or face crises of confidence in terms of my own abilities, my appearance, what is destined for me and what is expected of me as a woman. I sometimes wonder whether mine and other women’s exposure to nonsense like Carry On films are in some way to blame for feelings such as these. Equally, I would argue that both men and women’s responses to gender are not helped by films such as these. My all-time favourite author, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, once said at a TED Talk entitled “We Should All Be Feminists” that women are taught to aspire to marriage, that of all of our life choices, marriage is the most important. Girls are taught to compete with one another, not for jobs, but for the attention of men. If this is already acknowledged as a phenomenon that we need to tackle, why do we continue to promote patriarchal and derogatory gender stereotypes in order to preserve the canon of British film? Furthermore, an individual’s understanding of gender is not necessarily a fixed one; the issues I have outlined in this essay are not only of importance to children and young adults but men and women of all ages. The opinions I elicited from my mum when speaking to her about feminism over Christmas were both exasperating and heart-breaking for me. The fact that she still feels as if she is living in a world where gender equality is impossible, and even unnecessary (please don’t even get me started, we fell out for a long time over this one), strikes me as relevant to the kinds of antiquated genres of film, television, music and literature that she is still clinging to.
I mean, if you really love Carry On films then go ahead and watch them, I’m not trying to stop you. But perhaps be a little cautious about the effect that watching them it might have on your sons and daughters in their future lives; both in how they see themselves as men and women, and in the respect they show the women they encounter in the future. We needn’t carry on with anything if we don’t want to. Carrying on with gender inequality in particular is not something we should accept because “it’s just like that”; in the same way we shouldn’t fail to critique something we don’t agree with just because “it was like that then”. Conventions are not permanent fixtures of the future; our generation has the power to carry on in whichever way we please. For me, I’m not sure there’s much that I’ll carry on; there are plenty of changes that need to be made and I think now I’m ready for the overhaul. Who’s with me?
Read more in, ‘Becoming a Gendered Body: Practices of Preschools’, American Sociological
Review by Karin A. Martin.
Rianna is a final year Politics student at the University of Sussex, campaign
volunteer for Time to Change, fan of cats and wine, the real-life Mark Corrigan. Find her on twitter at @RG_Bhajee