These Boyz Kill It

SPOILER WARNING

God I love Flight of the Conchords. Not to the extent the rest of New Zealand’s entertainment industry probably hates them, but I digress. If you’re yet to discover this delightful duo of dunces, let me recommend this clip.

I’ll mention at this stage that Season 2 of this series hasn’t been released in Australia yet, so the episode I’ve seen was essentially stolen. Though I didn’t download it myself, does that make it any better? Anyway, the rest of the episode goes to find Jemaine fall in love with the forbidden (and hilariously ocker) Australian girl he goes home with that night, Keitha. Keitha feigns reciprocity, tricks Jemaine into thinking they are eloping and then uses Jemaine’s absence as an opportunity to ransack the apartment he shares with Brett.

For as long as I can remember, being incompetent has been funny. Noone sympathises wih a winner, and that’s what this show brilliantly capitalises on; the whole first season has viewers edge of seats, phlanges crossed, hoping and praying the band will get a gig. Leaving aside the fact that a deal with HBO is a pretty sweet gig, Brett and Jemaine are giant losers and we love them for it. They’re also very straight, which in itself is of course unproblematic. My issue with this “dopey useless boy” caricature is not that it’s not an astute satire of masculinity, because it is. Rather, the issue is that it robs women in this program of the room for that kind of likability — they’re all relegated to either pathetic (sycophantic super-groupie Meg) or conniving (sex hungry, hostage-taking Keitha).

Where are the strong female characters in this show?

16 Comments

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16 responses to “These Boyz Kill It

  1. Nice to see you blogging, Bark.

    In response:

    It is ‘Entourage’ syndrome all over again – and, interestingly enough, churned out by HBO again – except the presumption is that because Brett and Jermaine are inherently dorky, quirky, and ‘alien’ to America, their attitudes towards women and sexuality should not be taken ‘seriously’ (to further draw parallel to ‘Entourage’, if actually you look at the core group of characters, the majority of them are losers too). Rather, we are supposed to pity Brett and Jermaine because they’re foreign, can’t succeed musically and ‘can’t get laid’; the underdogs, and the ultimate quest underpinning the output of American teen films. And thus, I agree with you – when women come into their lives, in either ‘Conchords’, ‘Entourage’ or many teen flicks, they are exaggerated, caricatured and represented as somehow deficient. There are no strong, ‘normal’ women because to include them would upset the balance of the comedy and the heterosexual dynamic between the men (unless, of course, this becomes a plot point in itself – eg. for one episode, someone gets a girlfriend, but how often does she stay and become characterised?). In the American teen flick, the ‘normal’ woman arrives at the end; often she’s been there all along, but the protagonist(s) hasn’t yet come to their senses. And so we end with a happy heterosexual kiss with a ‘normal’ woman, after lots of crazy encounters and sex-starved Russians, but again, how long do we get to know her as that? The end credits? Perhaps, to subvert the idea that this is only present in American teen films, consider ‘Slumdog Millionaire’: did the representation of the female love interest ever attain any depth? Did she ‘exist’ outside of being a ‘female love interest’? Or was she merely there to serve the lead’s narrative arc; was she peripheral to his story, and his happy ending? 13 Oscars later…

    I would, however, take issue with your assumption that Brett and Jermaine are “also very straight, which in itself is of course unproblematic”. Consider that in light of the dopey, jock-aspiring, lady-killing heterosexual dynamic between the two and my suggestion that inside that, there is no room for a strong female. Their unabashed, and stereotypical, representation of their sexuality – more narrowly, on finding women to have sex with – actively works to marginalise both women as sex objects, as well as unseen members of other communities (any strong gay characters? ANY gay characters, aside from Rhys Darby’s so-camp-but-not-gay caricature? Believe it or not, I have to suspend my opinions and pretend to laugh when stuff like ‘Too Many Dicks’ is played). Imagine if Brett and Jermaine were not so focused on bangin’, or if they were, they weren’t just your average dorks trying to get some? What if women were ‘part’ of their lives; friends, co-workers? Surely it’s also somewhat degrading to heterosexual men to suggest that all these two are about is sex, and to imply that that this a pre-requisite of dominant / functional heterosexuality.

    At least with the show ‘Conchords’ so blatantly plagiarises, the ‘Mighty Boosh’, which also slips into overtly heterosexual territory, there is intelligent play with and critique of gender expectations and assumptions (the androgynous ‘deviant’ Vince always seems to pick up in his ridiculous, ‘feminine’ outfits, whereas ‘masculine’ Howard can’t quite get there). I would argue that this still, however, does not excuse the male-centric focus of the show; but that ‘Conchords’ and ‘Entourage’ are much worse perpetrators.

    And this leads me into my last point – there will always be debate as to what is satire. I don’t think it is satire to take bumbling, nerdy stereotypes from American teen films, make them from New Zealand and put them in New York. I don’t think there is any political questioning, or engagement with theories of masculinity, or any questioning whatsoever. I think it’s lazy, and it’s easy, and it’s even occasionally funny. This is, after all, a comedy; HBO only care if you’re laughing. But it’s also a formula. It’s a tried-and-true formula, easily digested by mainstream culture, associated with representations of heterosexuality which relegate women and ‘others’ to the fringes. It slips by without notice. And the laughs come at a cost.

    • Brad

      I’ve struggled a little with the gender politics of Entourage (though I admit that this struggle is usually ignored due to the show’s awesome entertainment factor) but after watching seasons 1-4 I’m of the opinion that Entourage might only be considered a patriarchal show because Hollywood itself is a patriarchal system. The show’s skanks are there because some women often DO play into the gender roles prescribed by society. I’ve also noticed in the series strong female characters, normal female characters and male objectification. The fairly disgusting gender dynamics of Hollywood and the central male group is the subject of satire, not a viewpoint to be uncritically accepted.

      • bhakthipuvanenthiran

        I’ve never seen Entourage (despite hassling from several quarters). Will have to get onto it!

  2. bhakthipuvanenthiran

    Thanks for commenting Cwis.

    I really can’t help but agree with you on most of this, thus leaving me fairly speechless. Just nodding.

    This whole conversation has got me thinking about sitcoms and the ones that do allow room for complex, interesting female characters. Bizarrely, Scrubs comes to mind — both Elliott and Carla are funny, clever and most importantly fucked up. While Turk and JD share a similar “bromance” to that found in FOTC, I think the difference is that Turk and JD themselves are multi-dimensional.
    Brett and Jermaine are intentionally flat — perhaps offering some insight as to the nature of the other characters.

  3. Captain Nick

    Chris,

    The non-lazy program you describe, one with “political questioning, …engagement with theories of masculinity, or any questioning whatsoever” has one major drawback: it’s no longer a comedy show, but some horrific pastiche of a Benetton advert, churning out coffee-coloured people by the score.

    Comments like “not excusing the male-centric focus” seem to think that there’s a gold and shining Platonic Form of what television show should be, apparently one that slavishly licks the ass of the very worse of arch-PC sensitivity…… ignoring that the spine of comedy for 2000 years has been the tickling of the prejudices of the audience.

    Take Sex and the City. Essentially it’s a cock-of-the week window into the materialistic stupidity of women. Is it funny? For many. Is it sexist – for either its semi-naked himbos or boxtoxed harpies? Who cares! People like to laugh with their prejudices. People love to laugh at the prejudices thrown against themselves.

    Saying things like “it’s also somewhat degrading to heterosexual men to suggest that all these two are about is sex, and to imply that that this a pre-requisite of dominant / functional heterosexuality” makes my sphincter pucker. This isn’t a treatise of the human condition. It’s a few cheap laughs about the horror of realising that your disco dance floor is the equivalent of all bread sticks and no dip.

    This is the classic modern academic rot of reading the detritus of popular culture as if they were collective tea-leaves of humanity. It’s a comedy. Have a laugh. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, and a pipe just a pipe.

    PS. Awesome clip!

    • Brad

      Hmm… I agree that arch PC commentary is problematic (for example, I think most people think the idea of “positive representations” of minorities is stupid and condescending), but I also have a problem with the “It’s entertainment! Don’t think about it!” perspective. Should we ignore the racial stereotypes of Song of the South because “Hey! It’s a Disney musical!”? Should we ignore the colonialist ideology of Edward Zwick’s oeuvre because “Hey! It’s a Hollywood thriller!”?

      Art only really serves a purpose when the audience takes it seriously. Otherwise, it’s just a bank commodity. I’m not saying we shouldn’t have a sense of humour but we don’t need to turn our brains off when we turn on the television either.

      Peace.

  4. Zora

    Sigh. It’s almost enough to make me feel guilty about loving these two so much. No, hang on, it’s still not.

    I certainly find the absence and marginalisation of women in FOTC distressing, as it seems to be implying that benighted creed that women aren’t funny.

    The way I see it, the Conchords hold being funny as their highest and most noble goal. I support and applaud this. But the fact that there are no women who are regularly featured, funny, AND likable suggests that they don’t think such women exist. Or they couldn’t be bothered to write one. Or it didn’t even occur to them. Which is worse?!

    Women are funny. I, for one, am fucking hilarious.

  5. Catherine Deveny

    Yes, true. Our Zora is quite the wit. So too the cock shopping small ethnic. (Welcome to our country! Your english is very good! Have you tried Vegemite?)

    Comedy has a magnet for insecure men with mummy issues. A lot of this is played out on screen with the lovable dorks snagging the lovely ladies.

    After 20 years hanging about the industry the percentage of narcissistic sex addicts with mummy issues is disproportionate.

    Lets think about the psychological motivation behind comedy, being the brightest object in the room and the pleaser behind every jester.

    And lets keep in mind that mens biggest fear is women killing them and men’s biggest fear is women laughing at them.

    Strong female characters…..30 Rock, Boston Legal, Sarah Silverman Show, Roseanne……Kath and Kim (sort of..)

  6. Bhakthi

    Thanks Zoe, Catherine.

    C-Dev, did you mean women’s biggest fear is men killing them and men’s biggest fear is women laughing at them? This for me somehow ties into something Zoe said yesterday about finding it very comforting to have non-threatening male characters on screen.

    While, as Brad has said, we want to laugh at our prejudices, it’s hard to create three dimensional female characters who we can sympathise with as well as accept the flaws in. This comes back to what both Chris and Zoe were saying about offensively lazy writing.

  7. Brad

    Beaten to the punchline: Germaine Greer does not think men are the funnier sex. But they are better at banter, innuendo and clowning. So what’s holding women back?

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/stage/2009/mar/02/germaine-greer-comedy-women

  8. Bhakthi

    Noice one, Brad! Greer is a brilliant(ly) mad bint, but this article is both constructive and insightful.

    Eat ya heart out, Chris Hitchens http://www.vanityfair.com/culture/features/2007/01/hitchens200701.

  9. Captain Nick

    I read The Boy by the old Greer battleaxe last year, and I actually thought it was rather good. Much better than the look-at-me menstrual-blood-drinking nonsense of The Female Eunuch.

    The essential thesis is that when we’re presented with an image of a sexualised man, say David Beckham in his bulging Y-fronts in the Armani adverts, it’s automatically labeled”homoerotic”, as if anything sexualised is automatically for the consumption of men.

    Which is really pretty astute. Considering she’s a woman.

  10. carolyn

    is that the real c-dev….wawawowwwww

  11. Pingback: Just to get warmed up again « Misogynist/Not Misogynist

  12. kikikikikiki

    I don’t think that it’s important or necessary in the least to have a “strong female character” in this particular show. A strong feamle character wouldn’t even work in this context. After all, it’s not like there is a strong male character – so it would just be mindless tokenism. This is a series about flawed but accessable characters, male and female, not strong ones. Don’t have to have every trope / archetype ever invented in every single piece of work anyone ever does. Sometimes you need to just focus on a few things to do it right, to examine a small piece of humanity, not the whole picture.

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