Fighting, beers and the queered – Class, hyper-masculinity and reality TV
Faye Davies / Birmingham City University
In recent years British TV has seen a growth in shows that have displayed a particular type of masculinity. Shows such as ‘Deadliest Men’, ‘Toughest Pubs in Britain’ and aspects of ‘My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding’ have displayed hyper-masculinity and have strong links to class and social status, arguably more so than the notion of masculinity that we see in the wider mainstream media. The resultant interaction between the male and female participants in such shows also highlights some problematic stereotypes of working class culture in the UK.
These shows embrace exaggerated representations of masculinity, constructing a narrow consideration of what it means to be male in certain social circles. A useful example of this can be found in ‘Danny Dyer’s Deadliest Men’ where ‘cheeky cockney’ actor Danny Dyer spends time with masculine subjects to gain an insight into their violent and aggressive lives.
The discursive repertoires used to construct meaning during these shows are focused around the ‘dark’, aggressive and seemingly out of control nature of the subject’s hyper-masculinity. We see links to various televisual constructions that are outside our usual experience of reality shows and more in line with our experience of fictional crime shows and films: guns, war, killing, violent fights and crime.
It’s particularly pertinent that ‘gangster’ actor Dyer is our conduit between the fictional and factual and the boundaries between these two genres are blurred, encouraging audience readings that potentially see these subjects as some sort of ‘other’. Dyer continually constructs these subjects as dangerous and potentially deadly, and as something that the general public should fear, seeming on edge and worried. In this episode Dyer claims he ‘should be wary’ and ‘not get too comfortable’ around his war veteran subject Mo Teague.
The show also tends to focus on subjects from working class or lower class backgrounds. The mise-en-scene often consists of backstreet pubs, traveller sites or events that are full of men and highlighted as a hyper-masculine and often aggressive space. This in itself highlights notions of class and makes an inextricable link between hyper-masculine traits and social stratification; these men assert their position through violence and reputation. Dyer and the crew often literally extricate themselves from the culture due to their fears and worry about being subject to aggression. The framing of the out of control group only serves to reiterate concerns in society about working and lower class cultures that has dominated the British media over recent years. This is evident in Dyer’s focus on Irish Traveller Paddy Doherty, who is also featured in popular Channel 4 series, ‘My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding.’
Interestingly in the above clip we also get some insight into the representation of women in lower class and working class culture. Doherty’s wife is referred to merely as ‘woman’ on a number of occasions with her role clearly distinctive in a domestic sense. The focus and discourse in such shows is clearly patriarchal. Doherty’s wife is allowed to have a brief opinion but this is inconsequential. Even when dealing with what could be considered as a feminine discourse around family and death, Doherty’s wife isn’t given much airtime. It seems that in this particular genre women have to be in a subsumed role, or find a more masculine and potentially queered way of expressing themselves.
One such example of this can be found in ‘Toughest Pubs in Britain 3’ – which explores Britain’s pub culture and again the focus is on the working and lower class environment.
The women in this show are vastly different from Doherty’s wife, and seem to have more airtime and some ability to speak within the culture portrayed. But in order to do so these women perform a very different and potentially queered sense of gender than ‘the feminine’. They are labelled as ‘ugly’. Their otherness is reiterated by the backing track of People Are Strange, which introduces women to us through shots that highlight their large bodies in complete opposition to the visual repertoires we usually encounter when viewing women on television.
We are offered an example of ‘Big June’ – who on first viewing appears as polite but is quickly asserted as strange and unpredictable; queered. The only way for her to gain attention and fend off abusive comments is to have episodes of performing the hyper-masculine in her interactions with other pub regulars, potentially queering her identity. We also hear the commentary of the pub landlord regarding an incident where June exposed herself; her femininity is further denigrated and is subject to his ridicule. It seems that again, women in this class culture are subject to, and defined by the commentary of men even when gaining power through queered behaviour. Even men who feel more ‘feminine’ such as the cross dressing karaoke singer are only accepted through queering their identity and such behaviour being ridiculed and labelled as ‘worrying’.
These examples of gender and class representation raise a number of issues. There seems to be a distinct theme of ‘otherness’ throughout these shows. In terms of masculine representations they posit that hyper-masculinity is something to be feared in contemporary society. It is a position that is highlighted as something that is the ‘other’ from the representations of middle class masculinity we see surrounding us in mainstream culture. The examples given above are thought of as dangerous, potentially deadly and something to fear.
Within this culture women are subject to this hyper-masculinity and can only be active participants under certain conditions and through particular gender or queered performance. What is also clear is that any potentially queer identities are portrayed as something to be uncomfortable with. They are stereotyped as ‘odd’ and concern participants, but serve to reiterate that hyper-masculine actions that adhere to the stereotype of patriarchal power are dominant within the televisual working and lower class culture.
1. Danny Dyer’s Deadliest Man
Please feel free to comment.
I find the argument pertinent and interesting. While I agree with the argument of the television shows representing masculinity as violent and the femininity as objectified, I I believe that the specific portrayals also serve to characterize masculinity. For example, masculinity is argued as “‘dark’, aggressive and seemingly out of control nature of the subject’s hyper-masculinity.” Instead of viewing this as representing exact reality, I understand it to represent the particular person who displays this masculinity. While the occurrences of hyper-masculinity might be understood as widespread, it is widespread only because portrayals of accounts of violence are shown on television and acquire an air of dominance. For example, when one hears about a plan crash (however infrequent these types of accidents may happen), many people become fearful of flying. The portrayal often makes viewers believe that these instances occur more often than in actuality. Furthermore, I believe that the representation of masculinity mocks the subject who displays hyper-masculinity. The description of “‘dark’, aggressive and seemingly out of control nature of the subject’s hyper-masculinity,” proves that it is out of the ordinary and should be viewed as such. If viewers are able to understand the ridiculousness of the shows and portrayals, then they are able to understand that the portrayals of masculinity don’t reflect an overt masculinity, but rather reflect a facet of masculinity which is shown on British television (and which has undergone immense editing). Therefore, the television shows should not be viewed as representing reality, but rather as a construction by the particular television network in order to gain viewership and profit. Of course, particular mise-en-scene stands out such as pubs, alcohol and large men (this alone leads one to assume a hyper-masculinity), but the mise-en-scene and imagery is heightened with post-production soundtrack, voice-over, acting, etc. Television represents a fraction of reality. In fact, television creates a new reality. Reality is perceived only when the viewer acknowledges that it is reality. Therefore, the problem resides within the viewers’ viewing practices. The viewer interprets television shows and I believe that when one watches television, one has the responsibility of critical viewership (question what is shown).
I believe it must be noted that a major part of the appeal of the selected shows is to observe the other. More specifically to observe the poor and uncultured. ‘Toughest Pubs in Britain 3’ opens be narrating to viewers that these are pubs that most people would never want to go to filled with people no one would want to meet. Therefore hyper-masculinity is entertaining but certainly portrayed in a negative light. In fact, June, a woman in ‘Toughest Pubs in Britain 3’ often “clocks” people herself. I believe that the people viewing these shows, without having any knowledge in the structure of the television industry will view these shows as witnessing the inter-workings of a lower class rather than as a rule book on gender interaction in society.
This idea of women being domesticated and the ‘darkness’ of hyper-masculinity is nothing new in the media. It seems to be popular form of entertainment amongst men to watch other men of larger muscle mass take control of situations. We see examples of these traits in the most popular shows of wrestling and boxing. However, could it be that these men are really afraid of society, so they bulk up in order to protect themselves against society’s cruel judgments?
I believe this article highlights an interesting phenomenon within society, the fact that the “otherness” of these seemingly masculine men comes out. This leads the working class type to be categorized as that which is not normal, something which can contribute to the ‘spectacle’ nature of television. I also believe people’s obsession with “Deadliest Men” and “Toughest Pubs in Britain” and the intense masculinity and working backgrounds can be contributed to the fact that many people do not have this working class background as portrayed in the show, thus they are intrigued by it, which can also be compared to shows such as “Jersey Shore,” as well as numerous other reality TV shows. All in all, it exemplifies the unique nature of TV to expose mass audiences to worlds and lives that are very separate from our own.
As a TV show for entertainment, The Toughest Pub in Britain presents an interesting topic to the audience. Since pub culture are so deeply rooted in Britain, and violence is often associated with pubs, sorting out the toughest pub does have its point to produce the show. However, bias and mistrepresentation do appear on the show because the show only picks out one pub in at a time in different towns of the country. While the show focus on the violence that takes places in these pub, it is not hard for the audience to forget the word “toughest” in the show’s name. Although it is good that the show reveal some interesting life of a certain group of people in the pub culture, besides just some ghter and thrills, there can also be side effect that comes along with the show. As the topic are appealing to a lot of audience, the image of the show may also generate certain stereotype on working class males, or maybe the people in the cities that the show visits. After seeing the show, the audience may think not only that “oh, this guys is so tough and dangerous,” but also “oh, people in this town are so tough and dangerous.” If shows like this gets popular, it is easy for audience to gain a general feeling people in certain class and town have the same features as these toughest men and women. Although most people claim that they can be rational when they watch these kind of shows, ideas of stereotypes and prejudice of other people may have formed before people notice it.
I find this argument very interesting and, unfortunately, quite true. However, I do wonder if the same message of “otherness” is felt by working-class viewers. As I have never watched the show and am unable to access the video clips, I am not sure exactly how these men are portrayed, but I am quite sure that the middle- and upper-class audience would have different understandings from the working-class. Many studies have been conducted that show that class stratification result in different ideals and different societal norms. Therefore, for the working-class, the hyper-masculinity represented on show may result in characterizing masculinity and affirming entrenched gender roles and ideology. Also, because they can more or less relate to the men portrayed on the show, I do not think they would feel a sense of “otherness” because they see men like this in their everyday lives.
I personally have never seen the television show, but from what I have gathered here is that this show seems to fit rightfully so within the current repertoire for reality television. The hyper-masculinity involved in deadliest men seems to be in line with the Spike channels Deadliest Warrior. Outside the similarities within their titles often times within the show the bronze and might associated with the fighting techniques are attributed directly from the historic warrior’s “efficiency to kill.” The modern day competitors that are featured on the show often talk down to one another in a competitive nature, as to compare their killing abilities to intimidate or boost their own ego. The violence is what seems above all else with in the genre of reality television to be keeping the show ratings escalated. The series The Jersey Shore for instance gain most of its acclaim after videos of Nicole Elizabeth “Snooki” Polizzi went viral on the web.
With the growing acceptance of homosexuality and queered identities has come a backlash of hyper-masculinity. This is a trend in the United States as well, even in light of President Obama’s recent “coming out” in support of gay marriage. What the rise in hyper-masulinity signals is a sense of uncomfort with queerness. Hyper-masuline texts attempt to paint masculinity as something that involves drinking at pubs, working out to be brawny, and other cursory aspects of personality. The emphasis of hyper-masculinity in television texts promotes the belief that queerness is odd and “out of place,” and this trend may in fact continue as a backlash to the growing social acceptance of homosexuality.
The argument made in this article seems to be one that I have seen over and over again with regard to the domestication of women and the need for men to over compensate with “hyper-masculinity.” Television has always been the place to express both of these ideals. Women have been domesticated through a variety of sitcoms since television began and men using “hyper-masculinity” in programs such as UFC fighting or wrestling had become very popular-especially recently. Another point the article made was that the genres between fictional and factual have become entangled. This could potentially mean that all of the hyper-masculinity seen on television could be due to the reality stars “acting” for the cameras to provide entertainment for the audience. These show may also portray lower or working class backgrounds, yet this could be to attract this type of audience as well; viewers are attracted to what they are familiar with and seeing this on television provides comfort to them.
I agree with many of the arguments posited within this article and find them quite interesting. One is particular being the way that women and men are constantly portrayed on television. Women are regularly being connected tot he cult of domesticiy while men are continually portrayed as implanting their “hyper-masculinity” in order to over compensate. As the author explains, “Doherty’s wife is referred to merely as ‘woman’ on a number of occasions with her role clearly distinctive in a domestic sense” and men “focused around the ‘dark’, aggressive and seemingly out of control nature.” These roles that men and women exhibit on television can be remnants of what is actually going on in the world. Women have finally reached a point of equality with men, but many of the television shows fail to exemplify this truth and choose simply not to. In terms of hyper-masculinity, I feel that it is in response to the openness that homosexuality has achieved in recent times.
I find this post very interesting and somewhat familiar. I think through different contexts, Britain’s portrayal of the dangers of hyper-masculinity and America’s images of it can be seen to have some similarities. The way American society conveys a link between working class and lower class backgrounds is mostly reflected upon minorities and how the socioeconomic status of African Americans or Italians leads them to be violent and to prove themselves within their community or neighborhood. One has see this in many films and television shows, but most recently we can see it within younger communities such as on shows like the Jersey Shore that depicts both men and women as violent and dangerous. I feel as though that it has become a newer trend for women to behave in this manner and present themselves as strong. This coincides with the “otherness” of women that is shown in Britain’s pub shows. One thing I find odd is how not only has feminism not been accepted within these British contexts but acceptance for queerness has not been established either. Where for my surroundings, it is not strange to see a man dressed up as a woman (or vice versa) these masculine men find it strange and associate them as “other” too. One thing is for certain, as much as we like to think that we have progressed within the depiction and treatment of gender roles, we are no where close to where we need to be – and one needs to especially think of how it is outside of their community.
After reading the post, I was not only astonishing to learn how masculinity is perpetuated on show, but ways in which women are gendered. Perhaps it is quite alarming that overt male agression is highlightened and therefore subliminally encouraged within their society because of the significant influence television has on culture. The show reaffirms a gendered social hierarchy where men are the more dominant and socially relevant characters and women, if not being seen objectively and are opinionated, are considered flawed and are categorized as “queer”. In other words, if they are not submisive then they are gay which discourages the female audience from being outspoken individuals. This show, if continued, will cause a social regression for the social status of women.
It is important to assess why the show would offer this depiction of genders not just from an ideological standpoint. It is first of all worth considering the objective of the program, and the means it has of achieving this. All of these shows are on low budget, non-mainstream channels, the majority of which primarily air rerun content, aimed at young men. By showing these kinds of programs, they are most likely seeking to offer low cost excitement to their audience, and by shooting on location at pubs across England, they can create this kind of thing very cheaply. The show offers a constant background threat of violence to entice the viewer to keep watching, just in case something happens. It is also debatable the extent to which the program has control over its message; undoubtedly a producer works with the editors to select material used, but ultimately this shows are at least trying to be documentaries, and the camera crew captures what they encounter. Perhaps it is ultimately more worrying that the message drawn from this show comes not just from the actions of its creators, intentionally constructing a gendered view of society, but also from the very actions of members of society themselves.
Thank you for your very interesting article. While I do agree with several other commenters that this is an old issue, I find your last paragraphs particularly interesting. There is a clear statement that hyper-masculinity is frightening, queer identities are disconcerting, and women are forced to participate “through particular gender or queered performance” to be noticed. All of this functions in opposition to normalized images of masculinity. I must ask, then, what representation of “middle class masculinity…in mainstream culture” is being referred to? Is there one representation? Also, is this confined to British culture, or does it reach American culture as well? The program ‘Toughest Pubs in Britain 3’ has reflections in American reality television. There is also the issue of representation of middle class masculinity within these specific programs. To my understanding, the film crew and actor seem to represent this demographic, mostly through their fear “about being subject to aggression”. This does not match my personal experience of masculinity in media. I have instead seen a lack of acknowledgement of fear’s existence. As for aggression, that certainly exists for the ideology of the middle class man (at least, what I have had experience with). However, instead of pub brawls, the aggression is clean and, in many cases, technological; this exists from television programs such as ‘Dexter’ to ‘Bones’ to ‘How I Met Your Mother’. For me, the issue appears to exist less in the aggression associated with hyper-masculinity and more in the issue of class.
It’s quite interesting that I came across this article. I just finished writing a paper on the caparison of feminism ideologies, in modern day “teen” television shows. Though your article is must better written and got to be supported with actual videos, we came across a lot of the same conceptual ideas. It’s odd and kind of funny when you actually open your eyes to television’s content. Even though our modern culture really tries to prove that we don’t hold onto sexism or stereotypes, these issues are way too prevalent in the media. I was wondering if you think this will change at all? I know glee has been noted for really pushing these boundaries but do you think more shows will try to do this…. or will it just not have enough viewers?
Thanks for your comments everyone! There has been some really useful discussion here.
I think that it’s pertinent that these representations are becoming more prevalent. This is potentially due to the budget issue, but is also part of a wider pattern in relation to working class culture, especially in UK shows. I think this is due to a number of reasons, changes in culture have perhaps made it more difficult to assert masculinity through such hyper-masculine behaviour and so it has to become more overt. As stated by a number of comments – homosexuality is also more visible and I have little doubt this is also an issue for such hyper-masculine identities to assert themselves as in opposition.
In terms of middle-class masculinity – I think we see this across a number of forms of media. I was going to include this in the discussion but was a little short of space! As a really brief for instance, if you think of ‘role models’ in the UK like David Beckham, we see a man who sometimes is portrayed in rather a queered and metrosexual way, who is often constructed as family oriented and has ‘rescued’ and developed himself into a calm yet masculine being.
This is quite different from what we see in these clips. Middle class masculinity can be strong but also appears to be calm, focused and controlled in opposition to working class culture – which is crass, violent and uncontrolled across a variety of representations (from Jeremy Kyle to the fictional Shameless).
I think the issue here isn’t just about gender, but also about class – no doubt about that. However much we think we are stepping away from stereotypes they gain strength in the media. They are quick to communicate in budget television especially, and ultimately, they make middle class audiences feel much better about who and where they are….there’s some research in that!