‘Eppa Ig,’ my daughter said to me.  ‘Eppa Ig, peaze.’  She’d stayed over my sister’s house the night before and been introduced to Peppa Pig.  I found a compilation on YouTube, sat down and wedged on my feminist hat (a black pointy thing, natch).  I have an impressionable naked mind to look out for and must therefore apply my embittered, analytical harpy-eye to whatever Cbeebies or Tinypop is shitting out.

So, Peppa Pig.  Toast on plate, coffee on the highest shelf (toddler).  Let’s see what the patriarch has in store for us today.

I watched an hour of it, gave it a chance.  And well, it’s not the worst.  Offensively middle-class, all the voice actors are white and any children of single parent families might feel a bit left out, but there are a few things to be positive about.  But my biggest gripe?

Mummy Pig doesn’t seem to have a personality.

I watched her closely, silently urging her on while my two-year-old snottily ate her cornflakes, waiting for something to come out; it got to a point where I would have been grateful for a handbag obsession or a fit of hormonal weeping.

On the surface, things look good: she has a job (something she does at home on her PC), she can do DIY better than her husband, she helps run the fire brigade, she doesn’t mind getting her hooves dirty, and she sometimes shares the driving of the car (her husband shares the cooking and housework).  All lovely, superficial women-pleasing tokens.

Was there an earlier episode I hadn’t yet seen called, ‘Where has Mummy’s Personality gone?’ where the Pig family go through the house looking under the bed, in the washing machine and the fridge, Daddy saying, ‘Silly Mummy can’t remember where she put it,’ and Peppa saying, ‘I can’t find it anywhere, Mummy!’ and George saying, ‘Dinosaur, grrr,’ like a fucking genius, and Mummy Pig following behind them in a cloud of Stepford vapidity, saying, ‘Oh, never mind, I’m sure it’ll turn up somewhere – and besides, Daddy Pig has more than enough personality for the both of us!’  And then they all fall on their backs laughing because the world is a cruel, restrictive place and if you don’t laugh you kill yourself.

Mummy Pig smiles 90% of the time and looks mildly concerned for the rest, she has the voice of a placid robot and all she does is state the inanely obvious and sometimes admonish Daddy Pig for being silly.  Her brand is perfection: she is good at everything. Next to the other females in the show – Madam Gazelle, Miss Rabbit, Mrs Hamster, Peppa Pig – Mummy Pig is a solitary branflake in a bowl of crunchy nut cornflakes.

Mothers, eh?

Dull as shit, right?

I immediately went online and googled ‘Mummy Pig feminism personality’ because there is nothing I like better than having my opinions validated by strangers, and mostly what I came across was Mumsnet outrage that, 1) Peppa Pig was such an insufferable little shit and therefore a terrible role model, and 2) Daddy Pig was presented as such a buffoon.  Misandry!  Imagine it was the other way around!  So I did: Daddy Pig as an overly-competent, digestive-bland all-rounder and Mummy Pig constantly fucking everything up and behaving adorably arrogant and getting her comeuppance.  Oh what a silly bitch, but you can’t help but love her!

This of course happening in a parallel universe where female arrogance is acceptable.  Allowable.

Daddy Pig, ultimately, is an adorable arsehole.  Mummy Pig is not allowed to be an arsehole.  And if she was, it would not be adorable.

What I want (and I know it’s a big ask) is for a female character to be an arsehole once in a while and to get away with it.  Allowed to be flawed and for this to be no big deal.  Just once I’d like to be irritated by Mummy Pig’s shitty behaviour instead of by her blandness.

What I’m saying is I want her to be more like Courtney Love.

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Mummy Pig has her moments, for example when she skis into her own house and another time when she falls into a blackberry bush (‘We should let Mummy Pig be a buffoon too,’ says a conscientious, coffee-breathed scriptwriter, ‘for the feminists.’  ‘Yes,’ responds the producer, ‘but only once per season at the most.’).  Her best ever, most defining moment is when she is at the funfair and one man (well, dog) tells her that women are no good at archery because it requires skill, and she promptly scores a bullseye, and then another man (cow) belittles Daddy Pig at the test your strength machine so Mummy Pig slits her eyes (uh oh, someone’s about to get castrated!) and proceeds to hammer shit out of the machine, winning several large teddy bears and reminding us that she does not, thank you very much, have the limp ineffectual arms of a 19th century laudanum-addicted society belle.

So here’s a little bit of character; Mummy Pig is stubborn and doesn’t like being told she can’t do things.  OK, good.  Arseholesque.  Except it’s a rare moment.  And there’s Daddy Pig, episode after episode, sucking up all the attention like a be-souled Boris Johnson, and yes, sometimes his family make fun of his belly (a fat pig?  Fucking shocker) and they all laugh when he falls out of trees or arrogantly proclaims that he is very good at so-and-so before exhibiting zero competence and making a tit of himself.  The misandry criers have a case – the men in Peppa Pig are often silly and useless and full of unjustified boasting and it is apparently acceptable to fat-shame them, so damn right, if Mummy Pig was portrayed in this way, shit would get ugly.

Although it can also be argued that by setting the males up as flawed and daft and incompetent, it is then giving young boys the impression that they are allowed the freedom to screw things up, to be given more slack, that they don’t have to be perfect at everything because, ya know, they are men and they run the world (fuck off, Beyonce, just fuck off), whereas the Mummy Pigs and Miss Rabbits of this world cannot afford to be terrible at everything.

Is a three-year-old boy watching Peppa Pig going to sense this?  Is it going to squirm insidiously into his tiny developing psyche and affect the way he views male and female roles throughout his life?  Will he notice how crappy Daddy Pig is at basic DIY and deduce that men are just crappy, and maybe that means he is crappy and that makes him sad.

Or is he going to think, ‘Oh good, I’m allowed to be crappy.  Phew.  I was worried there for a minute that I’d have to spend my whole life trying not to be crappy.’

And a little girl watching?  ‘Men are so crappy, I’m going to have to be extra uncrappy when I grow up so that I can do all the things that the crappy men can’t do.  I’d better go to my room and start learning Latin.’

Or, ‘Men are so crappy.  I’m going gay.’

You know what?  A three-year-old will probably just think that Daddy Pig is funny.  Silly and funny.  He falls over aalll the time.

It’s a five minute long cartoon aimed at pre-schoolers.

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‘Yeah, Daddy Pig is funny and I like all the colours and Mummy Pig is lovely and clever just like my mummy.’

But the psyche, the squishy vulnerable subconscious!  Covert, continuous social conditioning!  You just never know.

The Arsehole Test

Female characters not having developed personalities is my bug bear.  They can have a developed shitty personality, fine, so long as they have one.  I can forgive stereotyping, I can just about contain my vitriol at unnecessary objectification if the show excels in other ways (Game of Thrones I’m looking at you), I can kind of ignore a violation of the Bechdel test (it has its limits).  I can get past all these things because, shit, sometimes my feminist hat gets itchy and heavy and I just want to take it off and enjoy a fucking show.  But I can’t forgive dull, two-dimensional female characters used purely as a narrative prop to impede or allow or reward male characters.  I just can’t.  I might very well have my priorities all wrong but it’s the first thing I look for.

You know what?  Don’t even get me started on Judd Apatow.

Now, I’m well aware that a character does not need to be an arsehole in order to have a personality (check out the wonderful Molly in the first season of Fargo for example), but it just so happens to be my focus today.

I hereby bring you The Arsehole Test.

Firstly – is the female character in question allowed to be a bit of an arsehole?  Is she allowed to be as much of an arsehole as the men?  If she is, that’s three points.  If she is subsequently punished for her arseholery that’s minus one point.  If her arseholery is of a stereotypical female nature (bitchy, gossipy, sex-withholding etc), that’s minus one point.

A show with a female arsehole who is being an arsehole in a specifically female way and is consequently punished for it is left with one point.  Why even let it have one point?  Because, firstly, plenty of the time male characters are also punished for being arseholes (Daddy Pig has more egg on his face than a narcoleptic omelette chef); blame our culture, blame human nature, blame the Bible, whatever.  Schadenfreude is like fricking champagne to us.   Knocking chips off people’s shoulders makes us come in our pants (Mmm, chips and justice).

Secondly, if there is a ban on ever portraying women as bitchy, gossipy etc then realism is at risk of being compromised.  Some women are bitches, yes, they do in fact exist, a female bitch, quick, take a picture, they’re so rare, wow, look at how it devours its prey, such sharp fingernails, oh I love its hair.  So let’s not get puritanical.  If there are to be no female shrews on our screens then it’s only fair that there are no pervy men or ruthless men.  If there are no hens then there can be no hen-pecked husbands.  Take away a materialistic whore and there can be no tiny-dicked abusive bastards for us to hate.

And we will not be denied this small pleasure.  It’s all we have.

Of course, this test can also be expanded upon by adding other criteria: passes the Bechdel test?  One point.  Woman keeps her tits in her bra?  One point.  Woman is of average attractiveness or is overweight?  One point.  Woman doesn’t hate sex?  One point.  Woman is seen eating?  One point.  And how about inclusivity?  Are there people of colour or gays or trans or non-able-bodied folk in the show or film?  One point each, ten if their roles aren’t purely functional or tokenistic, twenty if they don’t die or go to prison.

You could turn it into a drinking game.  Just don’t watch Precious or you’ll end up in hospital.

Strong Female Characters Blah Blah Blah

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There is this very blinkered yet prevalent view of what comprises a strong female character in TV and films (Ripley, Sarah Conner and Mulan are A-level media studies faves).  Here’s a woman with a gun – powerful.  Here’s a woman doing Kung Fu – subversive.  This little lady here swears a lot and will punch you if necessary – ooh lala, my quotient for three dimensions has been beautifully filled!

Round of applause, strong women.

Now please, put down that gun before you break a nail.

Apart from the fact that these sort of characters are almost always objectified (If I close my eyes and listen to Agent Starling heavy-breathe around this dark room I can almost imagine she’s being penetrated – deelish), and aside from the fact that these women are becoming strong because they are stepping into the man’s realm (fighter, protector), cinematically dragging up, you could say, aside from all that, this view of what makes a strong character is very fucking narrow.  It is useful (and for the record, I still think Starling, Ripley and Conner are strong characters, helped along admittedly by strong actresses) but unfortunately it leads to people who have a basic, half-arsed knowledge of film theory thinking that Charlie’s Angels was feministy as fuck because the women could, like, kick people and ride motorbikes and stuff.

It’s a cheap shortcut and it’s misleading.  We look at the woman’s muscles and in doing so we don’t notice that she doesn’t have a sense of humour or any opinions, or we see Mummy Pig’s fire helmet and screwdriver and we don’t see what she doesn’t have.

Enough arsehole in her for one thing.

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The Women On the Bus Like to Chatter

Now here’s where it gets problematic.  We’d better not have Mummy Pig going all womb-crazy or flashing her octo-bra at a job interview or gossiping like a fishwife (as opposed to a pigwife) over the garden fence, because that’s all negative stereotyping.  We’d better not show her exhibiting any weakness because that is the worst.  She should probably have a job and drive a car, because feminism.  I’m glad she has a job (albeit a nameless and seemingly pointless one that the children have no respect for as evidenced by their constant interrupting), and I can almost feel the pains the producers have gone to to create a perfectly inoffensive female – I can smell the boardroom markers – but it’s just not enough.

Or rather, it’s too much.  Daddy Pig doesn’t have to be super at everything, so why does Mummy?  Daddy is allowed his weaknesses, why not Mummy?  Portraying all women as successful is just adding to the fallacy that sexism is long gone and it provides fuel for the Men’s Rights dickheads and the rest of the feminisn’ts.  It’s a cheap trick and it’s not just female characters who get represented in this way.  Casting a black woman as the Supreme Justice or putting a chainsaw in a woman’s hands does not take away years of oppression, even if the intentions are good.  It’s a lie and it’s insulting.

It might seem like the producers of Peppa Pig can’t win for losing.  We gave her a job and made her a DIY badass and still there’s some feminist bitching about it!  Really, what more can we do?

Easy.  Turn that prize pig into a prize arsehole.

You managed it with Mrs Hamster.  She’s an arsehole.  She hosted a best pet prize contest for her class and decided to award 1st prize to her own pet.  What. A. Cunt.

Of course, the problem is, once you take away the offensive traditional female characteristics (bitchiness, frivolity etc) then you are left only with the shitty male characteristics (arrogance, power-hunger, violence etc), and if you portray a woman as arrogant that is code for bitch, and if you portray a woman as power-hungry that is code for bitch and if you portray a woman as violent, that is code for psychotic bitch.  And if you are only having the female character possess negative male traits then that is just stupid and you’re going to end up with so much eggshell embedded in your foot-skin that you’ll have to start crawling everywhere on your belly.

It is the fact that universal personality traits have been gender-coded that we’re in this mess now, and it doesn’t help that these traits are perceived and treated differently according to sex.  For example, compare a money-hungry whore with an entrepreneurial man who fucks a lot of women. Same diff. But one of them is OK and one is not.

We live in a world where men are from Mars and women are from Venus, and sure, stereotypes sometimes have some truth in them, and yes, our differing hormone levels can cause some differing behaviour (though not as much as people like to think, I reckon), but still, the fact that a man is not allowed to cry and a woman is not allowed to slut around without judgement (both very healthy and necessary functions, especially together) comes from societal influences and it stinks.  Not being allowed to transcend such boundaries is damaging to both sexes, as feminists have been shrilly nagging us about for years.

Keep your genitals on your side of the fence.

Love Your Female Arseholes

It’s not enough that TV producers/creators/writers allow their female characters to be arseholes (nothing is ever enough for us, remember that).  What we really need is a collective shift in how we see women characters, you know, as an audience.  Because when I say female arseholes are punished, I don’t just mean narratively.  They are punished by the viewers too.  Hannah Horvath of Girls is apparently the most hated character on TV.  Granted, she’s awful.  But so is Larry David, David Brent, Donald Draper, Walter White etc.  These men are terrible, but we view them as either loveable wankers (the first two) or deeply-flawed anti-villains who we root for regardless (the last two).  Skyler White is hated more than Walter White.  Who is a murdering, scheming, megalomaniac bastard (Ana Gunn, the actress who plays Skyler, gets hatemail and death threats for shitsake).  Betty Draper is hated more than Don Draper.  Who is a philandering, arrogant mess.  Sure, Skyler and Betty are flawed women.  But do they really deserve to be hated more than their husbands?

Do any of these characters deserved to be hated?  I mean, shiiit, save your hatred for the politicians.

So let’s look at Hannah Horhath with fresh eyes.  Let’s look at her with the same eyeballs that once followed Larry David’s egocentric mishaps.  So she’s selfish and narcissistic and manipulative and nightmarish and annoying, like Larry David.  She is also hilarious, human and very interesting, also like Larry David (see my links at the bottom of the page for more articles about this phenomenon).

An interesting female character.  That is a win.  How could that not be a win?

Stop with the hate, people.  Love your female arseholes, celebrate them, allow them to thrive.  Open up your heart to the female arseholes arseholing around on your television screens. Pause the show and stroke their faces.  Cherish them.

Top Tips

So here are some tips to any would-be writers who are concerned about making their women characters arseholey enough without falling into the usual pitfalls.

  • Look into the mirror and meet your own eye. Hold it.  Ask yourself, out loud, if you believe women are more boring and well-behaved than men.  If the answer is yes, write a bro-mance instead.
  • Make sure there are loads of female characters in your script. The more there are, the more you can get away with.  Look at Game of Thrones.  Yes, we have Cersei Lanaster (evil, power-hungry and manipulative), Melisandre the red woman (the Yoko of the show), Lysa Tully (weak and deluded), Selyse Baratheon (weak and deluded), early Sanza Stark (a naive idiot with princess ideation) and Marjorie Tyrell (sly and manipulative).  This all looks bad, doesn’t it?  So many terrible females perpetuating terrible stereotypes!  Except balancing this out we have Katelyn Stark, Brienne of Tarth, Arya Stark, Lady Oleena of House Tyrell, late Sanza Stark (girl comes into her own), Yara Greyjoy, Osha, Ygritte, Lady Meera, and lastly, dare I forget, Daenerys Stormborn of House Targaryen, First of her Name, the Unburnt, Queen of the Andals and First Men, Khaleesi of the Great Grass Sea, Breaker of Chains  and Mother of Dragons.  A glorious hodge podge of female characters, ranging from protective mother to kickarse swordsmith and lots in between, only three out of ten getting their tits out and all, yes all, armed with an arsenal of arseholery.  This is how you do it.
  • To simplify things, have every single character, male or female, be an arsehole, as seen in It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Girls, Fresh Meat, Pulling and Veep (and any reality show).
  • Just write out a script as normal and then flip all the genders.
  • Watch every Judd Apatow film and do the opposite (his latest Netflix series, Love, is actually OK female character-wise, so I guess the boy is learning).
  • Figure out ways to get the viewer on your she-arsehole’s side.  Try humour (Absolutely Fabulous, Roseanne) or having the lady in question address the camera (as seen in Fleabag).  Have her show some vulnerability (by which I don’t mean weakness – Donald Draper shows vulnerability).

Adding flaws to a female character isn’t some magical ingredient that will ensure top-notch characterisation.  In the wrong hands it’s just another cheap, cynical shortcut, a trick.  It’s just swapping a machine gun for a drink problem or a personality disorder.  But it is a part of the ideal, overall package (for me a large part), because it gives the finger to the idea that women are allowed to be certain things and behave in certain ways (notice how many times I’ve used the word ‘allowed’ in this post?), and also because it ensures realistic, relatable characters.

Are we not all arseholes, each and every one of us, in some way?

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Yes!

The Biggest Arsehole of All

So for the sake of fairness, here’s where Peppa Pig is winning:

Daddy does ballet.  He puts on a beret when he wants to paint.   He likes the theatre (admittedly all of this is geared toward making allowances for class).  He takes no offence at his wife’s subtly passive-aggressive emasculating asides.  You can really imagine him, in his wild university days, blowing a Mr Bull or Mr Panda after one too many cocktails and being totally cool about it afterwards.

And then there’s Miss Rabbit – childless and career-orientated, holding down the following jobs: shopkeeper/owner of at least eight different venues; dental nurse, nurse, helicopter rescue pilot, firefighter, bus driver, train driver, hot air balloon pilot, librarian . . .  the list goes on and on.  How does she do it?!

And then there’s Madam Gazelle.  She used to be in all female rock band called the Flying Gazelles.  She is basically Kathleen Hanna.

And finally, and best of all, there is Peppa herself:

She is rude, petulant, attention-seeking, jealous, mean, stroppy and narcissistic.

The biggest arsehole of all, God bless her.

PEPPA

 

Relevant Links

A blog about why everyone hates Hannah Horvath

Another blog about why everyone hates Hannah Horvath

An article about the problem with ‘strong’ female characters

Another article about the problem with ‘strong’ female characters

And another one

And another fucking one

Oh my God, I’m spoiling you

A blog about Judd Apatow’s female characters

Another blog about Judd Apatow’s female characters

 

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