25 Sep 2014

Feminism in Funny Places - Red Dwarf

As a child of the 80s and 90s, I was a big Red Dwarf fan. It was funny, it was silly, it was sci-fi without being boring or technical, it introduced the term 'smeg' into the national consciousness, and it made it difficult to leave a room without shouting "Smoke me a kipper, skipper - I'll be back for breakfast". When asked to choose my favourite episode, I usually say that's a toss-up between 'Queeg', 'Backwards' and 'Parallel Universe', but if absolutely forced to choose, I'd go for the latter.

Why? Because as well as being the usual jamboree of hilarity (significantly added to by the context-less inclusion of the 'Tongue Tied' video and song, which I still know off by heart), 'Parallel Universe' is simply one of the most feminist episodes of a TV show I have ever seen. Yep, you heard me right. Not just for a sci-fi show, not just for a male-written show, not just for a show that had a majority male cast and sometimes only men on screen for the entire episode. This episode just knocks it out of the park on every count when it comes to making some of the funniest, truest and most feminist observations when it comes to gender politics.

Fantastic Feminist Moment #1
Before socially inept, repressed hologram Rimmer, easygoing unreconstructed lad Lister and hyper-sexual, preening poseur Cat are transported to a parallel universe where they meet their female equivalents, there is a conversation that every human being, especially those of the heterosexual male variety, needs to hear. Lister despairs of Rimmer's terrible chat-up lines ("You could not pull a rotten tooth out of a dead horse's head with that") and attempts to pick up women through hypnosis, berating him with "You're a sad weasel of a man, you know that Rimmer?"
"No, I'm just ill at ease with the opposite sex," is Rimmer's excuse.
and Lister responds "That's because you see them as some alien species that need to be conquered with trickery. They're not. They're people."

Wow. Just - wow. Stop and think about those words for a second. Think about how they factor into every slimy stereotype of women as these irrational, flighty, somewhat stupid creatures that have to be 'caught', 'wooed', 'conquered'. Think of every rapey bit of 'Pick-Up Artist' advice that views women as targets and sex as a weapon. Think of every harmful piece of advice put out there by books, magazines, blogs and internet trolls that encourage men to do anything except talk to women like human beings, listen to them and respect them. And then throw them  all on the bonfire and listen instead to Dave Lister.

Fantastic Feminist Moment #2
Once the crew have met their equivalents (apart from Cat, who is to be devastated by the news that his opposite is not a cat, or even female), the men find out what a 'female-oriented society' actually entails.

Rimmer is soon made to feel like a prude when he objects to "semi-naked blokes draping themselves over sports cars" and is met with "What's wrong with that? You're not one of those boring masculinists, are you?". When he admits that seeing images of well-endowed men in states of some undress "makes one feel quite...inadequate", female Rimmer's reply is the patronising and sexist putdown that every woman has heard at some point or another "I wouldn't worry about that, my pretty," as she slaps his arse. No explanation necessary.

Fantastic Feminist Moment #3
When the crew go to the disco, pompous 'Arlene' starts coming on to 'Arnold' in an aggressive manner that every woman who has had her sexual boundaries disregarded will find all too depressingly familiar. Arnold is accused of sending out "signs" by "wearing such tight trousers", which apparently means he's "begging for it." Despite his protestations, Arlene leans into him, growling  "C'mon, give us a snog - I promise I won't try to take off your underpants!". Arnold is finally forced into gasping, "Sorry, I'm just not that sort of...boy." Arlene promptly labels him "frigid" and snarls to her mate "If you want to keep your beer cool, stick it between his legs."

Although the moment is played for comedy because it's deliberately inverting the stereotype that men always want sex and women are always the ones expected to be gatekeepers and refuse it, there are also some disturbing truths in it. How many women have had a man promise to not push past a certain boundary, only for him to later do exactly that? How many women have been accused of "leading a man on" "asking for it" and "sending out signals" for the supposed crimes of dressing a certain way, accepting a drink from a man, smiling at a man, even talking to a man? How many women have been labelled "frigid" "uptight" or "prick-tease" for daring to refuse sex? And is there a even woman out there who hasn't found herself grouped into either the whore or virgin category according to how she chooses to express her sexuality, because basically if you're female, whether you want to fuck or you don't, you will end up punished for it regardless?

The sketch is funny because it's true. But it's also sad and scary because it's true.

Fantastic Feminist Moment #4

The interaction between the two Listers is more promising but still involves a fair amount of operating at cross purposes. Dave Lister complains that his female equivalent "thinks of men the exact same way [we] think of women...it's disgusting". He's unimpressed by her hard-drinking, ladette persona, saying "She tried to impress me by drinking 6 pints of lager and belching the whole of Yankee Doodle Dandy". When Rimmer points out "That's your party piece, isn't it?", Lister backtracks "Yeah, but when I do it, it's really stylish, man..."

Meanwhile, female Lister and Rimmer discuss their potential for "copping off", with Arlene asserting that "there'll be TWO pairs of boots under the bed tonight - WALLOP! Eh?!" even though Deb points out "He doesn't look too interested to me. He looks more, sort of, petrified." Arlene's response is "Oh, he just doesn't want me to think he's the 'ship's bike.' But I'm getting the signs". This, you see, is a world where men wearing sock suspenders is considered outrageous sexual provocation to female predators...

I also can't give enough love to the moment where male Rimmer escapes from his female equivalent, saying to Lister "Tell her I've got a headache or something." I always nearly exploded with mirth/joy at the sheer accuracy of it all when Rimmer adds that "She's gone to get some sexy videos. She seems to think that seeing two men together might turn me on."

Fantastic Feminist Moment #5

The next morning, both Listers wake up in the same bed together, completely hungover and unable to remember what happened between them the night before. As they slowly begin to recall, the two Rimmers walk in, full of judgment, and female Rimmer calls male Lister a "cheap little tart", smirking "I hope you get pregnant." Lister snorts at the ridiculousness of this ("It's women who get pregnant!" "Since when?!" "Since always! Me mother was a woman!") before it dawns on him that in a parallel universe it's men who get pregnant.

He promptly blames female Lister - "How could you do this to me? Take advantage of me, fertilise me?" - and bemoans that he would've taken precautions had he not been drunk. Female Lister shrugs, "Look, I assumed you'd taken care of that side of things. It's the man's responsibility. It's the man who gets pregnant, it's the man who has to suffer the agony of childbirth...". Every woman who has ever given birth, had a pregnancy scare, worried about obtaining an abortion or had to alter her body or life in some way in order to practice birth control (so that'd be most of us, then), smiles a knowing smile as Lister gets a taste of his own medicine for calling his sex partner "Miss Yo-Yo knickers."

Compared to a comedy that's almost as old as I am (this episode premiered in 1988), I can't think of any modern pop culture artefact that comes close to making such a accurate and funny comment on sexual double standards. It saddens me that, despite some improvements, the issues remain broadly the same and just as troubling 26 years later. However, it's heartening to know that people were able to see sexist BS for what it was then, and still can now. Plus, Parallel Universe is also bloody hilarious. So much so that I just might have to watch it again - listen out for me singing Tongue Tied as I go...


Jeanne said...

I have never heard of this show before, but now I want to watch it. Thanks for the lead on the three best episodes.

Jules said...

Yes, yes, YES!!! I have always loved that great line at the beginning of the episode,'...they're not, they're people'! I just love the fact that David Lister, last human alive (probably), vindaloo aficionado, Rasta Billy Skank enthusiast,tone-deaf guitar player, whose clothes are covered in custard and curry stains, who can belch the whole of 'Yankee Doodle Dandy', crew member 169 ('bottom of the pile') - comes out with THAT immortal line. He has to explain the bleedin' obvious to Rimmer, naturally. In two sentances, he succinctly blows away all the Men-are-from-Mars-and-Women-are-from-Venus bullshit. Women are - gasp! - human beings!

Grant and Naylor should be cited in Feminist Theory for this episode, or even this line alone. They should be bloody well proud.