Acting Up: Gender and Television Comedy: A Conference Report

Rosie White
Printable version Friday 10 February 2012 Last updated at 13:08

Day Symposium: Acting Up: Gender and Television Comedy, Northumbria University, Saturday 14th January 2012

Television comedy is a diverse field and this day conference at Northumbria University sought to examine how comedy programmes represent gender in all its forms.   In the last forty years examination of the many facets of television and comedy has become an established field, yet to date there is little academic work that closely examines the performance of gendered identities in comedy television.  Work by Kathleen Rowe in the United States and Frances Gray in Britain in the early 1990s remain key to debates about women and television comedy, and we were lucky enough to have Frances Gray as a plenary speaker for this event.    Frances began the day with a paper that examined the links between television comedy and reality television, arguing that reality television formats, such as mockumentary, have infected the sitcom, most notably through the success of shows like The Office.  Examining reality television as a format that employs humour as a means of control, Frances proposed that women are often stereotyped in this genre of comedy television as irrational or ignorant, citing Jade Goody’s career on Big Brother as a prescient example of this.

The first panel session of the day addressed the 1970s American sitcom Maude as an example of feminist television (Nicole Kypker, Liverpool John Moores), the ‘tween’ sitcom and the career of Miley Cyrus as Hannah Montana (Melanie Kennedy, UEA), and male-to-female cross-dressing in Monty Python and Kids in the Hall (Adam Whybray, Exeter).  As this list demonstrates, the papers examined a diverse range of material but were drawn together by academics working on television as a form and medium that both undermines and conforms to the dominant ideologies of western consumer culture in which this industry plays such a significant part.

After lunch the delegates reconvened for a discussion of Goth subcultures and the historical figure of the dandy in The Mighty Boosh. Catherine Spooner from Lancaster University proposed that Noel Fielding’s performance as Vince Noir represents a number of alternative British masculinities, examining how Fielding’s fashion sense and range of reference has the potential to open up a space beyond hegemonic masculinity.  Lisa Holden’s subsequent paper examined How to Look Good Naked as an instance of the grotesque, putting the body on show but also exploiting negative accounts of aging femininity.  The last paper, presented by Liudmila Voronova of Södertörns högskola, Stockholm, gave an insight into the wider European television context, examining two Russian satirical panel shows as exemplars of gendered programming – Projectorparishilton which has an all-male panel and Devchata which has an all-female panel. 

The final session of the day examined masculinities in a range of sitcoms.  Lauren Jade Thompson from Warwick University deconstructed the masculine performance of Neil Patrick Harris as Barney in the American series How I Met Your Mother, with close attention to the importance of Barney’s three-piece suit – citing Barney’s silk pyjama version of the suit, and his Broadway musical number singing its praises.  Tom May from Newcastle investigated eccentric masculinities in two British sitcoms; Shelley from the 1970s and How Do You Want Me from the 1980s.  Bruce Bennett from Lancaster University closed the day with an examination of the Scottish sitcoms Gary’s War and Gary: Tank Commander, which offer a satiric account of contemporary soldiers’ lives at the front and back at base.  The series employs a range of formats including YouTube-style videos, reportage and realist drama and the discussion focussed on how these comedic accounts sit beside more familiar, ‘serious’ dramas about the ‘war on terror’.

Throughout the day there was lively and generous debate about the papers and the issues they raised; there is still much work to be done on gender and television studies.  This symposium demonstrated that television comedy remains a slippery genre ranging across formats, inspiring avid viewing and complex analyses.


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