To many of those who call it home, Britain may currently feel like it’s regressing; the self-destructive old uncle whose stubborn delusion hides a withered back, bearing the rest of the world’s derision and ridicule. In society, on the other hand, we are undeniably a nation of steady, if sluggish, progression in the fight against issues of systemic gender inequality, sexism, and sexual exploitation. Of course, as in any developed society, national television and media content, in particular that which is distributed by outlets who possess the widest viewership nets and thus the highest level of responsibility, provide one of the most useful opportunities to prove this progression.
While sexism, harassment, and sexual misconduct all continue to pervade our culture in both social and professional settings, whether that manifests in jovial conversations with friends around a pub table, or in an inappropriate comment during a corporate board meeting, the national media is where everything is on the record, and everything is vulnerable to scrutiny at any time. In recent decades, this has undoubtedly encouraged a gradual moderation of behaviour and attitudes promoted on-screen and in the media, usually surrounding women. However, while outlets continue to advance their processes of identifying and rooting out the normalisation of sexualisation and misconduct towards female figures in the entertainment industry, are similar behaviours, directed conversely at male subjects (particularly those of the LGBTQ+ community), slipping through the net?
While many independent British media outlets have made efforts in recent decades to highlight their evolving attitudes towards sexism and sexualisation, such as Sky sacking football commentator Andy Gray for derogatory comments regarding a female official in 2011, and The Sun newspaper curtailing its Page 3 model publications in 2015, no broadcasting organisation has borne a higher responsibility in representing national values than the BBC, a pressure that has been intensified over the years by numerous media scandals.
It recently struck me how significantly BBC entertainment has progressed even from my own childhood to early adulthood when stumbling upon a clip from BBC One’s Friday Night with Jonathan Ross, a staple viewing of childhood weekends in with my parents and a relic of the BBC’s edgier side of chat-show comedy. The clip, from an episode that aired in October 2006, shows Sacha Baron Cohen, in character as Borat, enter the studio and pretend to kiss the host’s crotch area as a greeting. Amid feigned surprise, Jonathan’s response to this is to joke: “I’m glad you did that at the beginning. I hope All Saints were watching and taking note.” The clip then cuts to the all-female pop group backstage, who make uncomfortable facial expressions back at the camera.
Watching the clip, I found myself astounded, perhaps naively, by how such a sequence, which today would certainly not make it to air and would instead likely be identified as a form of harassment, survived prime-time television unnoticed with barely an eyebrow raised. Between the initial crashing waves of disbelief, cringe, and an unsettling yet admittedly irrational pang of complicity, however, emerged a reassurance that attitudes towards women in entertainment are moving in the right direction; long-gone are the creepy, sexualising comments that once haunted the BBC, no matter how innocent or salacious their intentions may have been. Nonetheless, important questions must still be raised of these broadcasters. Are these standards universally met? Or, on the contrary, are they only in place to protect certain groups? How, for example, do they hold up in a situation wherein the subject is a homosexual male?
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