Carry On films are a British tradition: just silly, harmless postcard humour. As British as eating fish and chips in a stripy deckchair on a freezing beach whilst wearing a knotted hanky on your head. Most people have their personal favourite. Having seen them played back-to-back on a recent Sunday afternoon, I was reminded that mine happens to be Carry On Screaming. I adore Oddbod and his refusal to understand doorways and I fell completely in love with the smouldering (quite literally) Fenella Fielding. But at the same time, viewing these films for the first time in years, I felt the need to question the labelling of some of the franchise’s content as “harmless”. Given the revelations about some of the other stalwarts of 60s and 70s pop culture such as Savile, Travis and Harris, I’m not sure that it is. Last week, the cover of Jilly Cooper’s Riders was controversially altered in order to deem it less “risqué”. In 1985 this had gone unquestioned. Perhaps it was a more innocent time…
Attitudes are changing – we’re not taking potentially offensive material at surface level any more, despite the indignant cries of “It’s just banter!” So what about Carry On? Would those films be okayed by big film corporations today with (and this is the important part) the exact same content that was okayed in their heyday or would they need, like the Riders’ hand, a slight shift?
When I happened upon the Sunday afternoon Carry On fest, Barbara Windsor and co were just starting to wrestle in their school uniforms (complete with stockings and suspenders) at the start of Carry On Camping. There were little white panty crotch shots, and the school trip driver openly lusted after schoolgirls as they got onto his coach. Clearly, the “children” are being played by women much older than school pupils, but the message remains: females in school uniforms are sexy. They are fair game.
Sex is normal, healthy, and fun. Male or female, we should feel happy, open, and honest about it. We should talk about it, and whether you’re someone who chooses to abstain completely, whether you find your partner very early on in life and remain happily monogamous, or whether you enjoy sex with numerous partners but are safe, happy and everyone involved is consenting – fabulous! Enjoy your sexy times! Life is short.
In Carry On Follow That Camel, the heroine is repeatedly coerced into sex with various men who realise how vulnerable she is in her unfamiliar surroundings. She needs something they have, so in return they take from her what they want, sexually. The punchline she delivers each time to indicate the men have tricked her into sex is, “That’s a funny way to…” I wonder if I’m wrong to feel uncomfortable about these scenes being in mainstream film in the same way that I used to feel uncomfortable about The Benny Hill Show when I was little. The difference is that back then I didn’t know why I felt uncomfortable; I was too young. I knew though, that the men wanted to do something to the women that the women didn’t want them to do, or that they didn’t understand. Alternatively, the women are portrayed as not wanting to have sex. They are miserable nags whose sole aim appears to be creating a joyless life for their husbands (who are forced to try and seek it out elsewhere). The message here? Girls in school uniform are well up for it whilst grown women will make your life a sexless hell. At the very least, that’s dodgy territory, surely? Especially given what we now know about crimes against girls and young women being perpetrated by some then huge media stars. The abuse perpetrated by Savile/Harris/Travis and their ilk thrived in the 60s and 70s – the same time that the Carry On and Confessions franchises, and The Benny Hill Show were thriving too. A culture that normalises the sexualisation of schoolchildren within its mainstream films is bound to enable predators: the message is so often, “chase and pressure girls and women until it’s easier for them to submit; they know exactly what they’re doing and they want it really.”
Carry On embodies a lot that is wrong with British attitudes towards sex and sexuality. Sex is normal, healthy, and fun. Male or female, we should feel happy, open, and honest about it. We should talk about it, and whether you’re someone who chooses to abstain completely, whether you find your partner very early on in life and remain happily monogamous, or whether you enjoy sex with numerous partners but are safe, happy and everyone involved is consenting – fabulous! Enjoy your sexy times! Life is short. Carry On and Benny Hill don’t make it look like that. They make women look as though sex is something they put up with: something they have done to them. In The Boat that Rocked (2009) – a British farce about pirate radio, set in 1966 – the attempted rape of Gemma Arterton’s character is portrayed as comedy gold. Richard Herring explores this brilliantly, here. Of course, this film was based, again, in the same era as Carry On and Benny Hill. A time when, apparently, men enjoyed and women endured sex.
As a little girl, I felt embarrassed and ashamed when Benny Hill was doing his thing – like I shouldn’t have been watching. The same with Carry On. Was that what it was going to be like when I grew up? Would whatever it was those men wanted to do to those ladies be something men would have to coax from me? And would they laugh at me like they do in those films, and plan it all conspiratorially so I wouldn’t have any control?
Perhaps I’m overreacting. After all, by no means are things perfect now. People will argue that our five year olds twerk and thrust because they’ve seen Miley and Rihanna doing it, and how could we forget Kim’s oily arse “breaking the internet”? But these women appear to be in positions of power – at least, they look like they are to those they may be influencing. The business side of the entertainment industry may be very different in reality, but these women do not look as though they are running in fear from a man who wants to touch them à la Benny Hill chase scenes. These women are owning their sexuality; they have full control. BUT, as we’ve seen in the reactions to Miley’s brilliantly unapologetic ownership of her sexuality, women who are honest about enjoying sex (or, god forbid, seeking it out) are seen as predatory and disgracefully promiscuous. Women have to walk a fine line to ensure we strike the balance just right. It’s all too easy to be judged as a frigid prude or a filthy slut. The precious middle ground isn’t easy to find.
Meanwhile, a British newspaper comments section informs us: “It is a terrible idea to teach sex education to children aged five. Giving sex lessons to innocent children destroys their childhood.” UK teenage pregnancy rates are five times higher than those in Holland and yet the UK persists with its oxymoronic “cheeky banter/protect the innocent” arguments.
Over the past year, we’ve seen students fined during freshers’ week for chanting in the street about digging up a female corpse to have sex with. Jessica Ennis Hill was sent tweets hoping she’d be raped by Ched Evans – the convicted rapist she was urging his football team not to take back. Schoolgirls were driven to stage a protest after being told their crop tops were too distracting for boys, and one head teacher banned girls from wearing skirts as they made male staff feel awkward. I’ve realised how tired I am of not commenting on or tweeting about so many of these types of issues because I’m scared of the potential responses. I’m tired of objecting to certain attitudes and behaviour and having eyes rolled at me with an accompanying wry smile and “it’s just banter” comments. These attitudes don’t appear from nowhere. The seeds of misogyny are sewn by seemingly innocuous yet unavoidably pervasive and subliminal means. British culture can tend to treat sex as something dirty and naughty: something that should be hidden, and yet experts seem to agree that the healthiest approach to matters relating to sex and sexuality is open, frank, honest discussion.
The UK has the highest teenage pregnancy rate in Western Europe, despite having some excellent Sex and Relationships Education in schools. Teenagers want to do things that they are not supposed to do. They want to be a part of the stuff that is “naughty” and “wrong” – which is how sex is presented in these films. So is the “nudge nudge wink wink” culture we’re so reluctant to relinquish contributing to our high teenage pregnancy rates? Certainly, in this article from the Independent, an Amsterdam headteacher, Siebe Heutzepeter, talks about the “squeamish” attitudes towards sex in the UK compared to other parts of Europe. Tellingly, Dutch sex education writer, Sanderjin van der Doef, says: “Here sex is a normal daily part of life, like shopping or football. In England it is a joke or a nudge.” Meanwhile, a British newspaper comments section informs us: “It is a terrible idea to teach sex education to children aged five. Giving sex lessons to innocent children destroys their childhood.” UK teenage pregnancy rates are five times higher than those in Holland and yet the UK persists with its oxymoronic “cheeky banter/protect the innocent” arguments.
Maybe, just maybe, it’s time to be far more open and real about sex and sexuality. Arm kids with condoms, teach them that it’s fine to enjoy sex and to want to have lots of it as long as it’s safe and consenting. Explain with frank honesty that porn sex isn’t real; help them understand that sex is great no matter your orientation, and most importantly, ensure they understand that no one is more entitled or powerful than anyone else in a sexual relationship.
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