TOP GEAR: Sexist Boys’ Club Or Self Parody?

Posted: November 14, 2011 in Media Theory, Research

Top Gear has been widely criticised as misogynistic sarcastic drivel; fronted by arrogant, sexist pigs. When Top Gear returned to the BBC in 2001, the show’s audience demographic was predominantly male. Now, ten years on, 42% of viewers are female; the studio audience is now roughly even in regards to gender split whereas in early series of the programme, the studio audience were predominantly male. What has caused this rise in female viewer demographic? And is Top Gear, a flagship programme of the Beeb a sexist school boy romp through motoring or a cleverly constructed post modernistic programme?

The notion of boys and their toys has always been central to the success of the show; the fast cars and blokeish banter has proved popular over the years. Arguably, the presenters represent and promote ‘typical male values’; these are adhered to and subverted in the programme. The representation of the three presenters as characterised by stereotypically masculine traits is balanced by more individual characteristics with which the audience can associate each presenter. Whether by encouraging audience identification with one or more of the presenters or purely as escapism, Top Gear demonstrates various aspects of the uses and gratifications theory. Top Gear has a ‘use’; to entertain and inform. Hence, it has it’s ‘gratifications’; it’s factual, escapist and funny.

According to Fay Jessop of Dec 2009’s issue of Media Magazine, ‘the three presenters are role models and there is a certain element of aspiration watching three middle aged men ‘cocking about’ in very expensive cars’. For me, this is where problems start to float to the surface. Top Gear, a mainstream mainstay on the BBC, not only has a large female audience demographic, but a large chid audience demographic; children are growing up watching this as kids of yesteryear grew up watching ‘Lovejoy’ on a Sunday night. The misogyny, ‘homophobic’ banter regarding May’s hair and dress sense and the like will all feed into the children’s psyche; they will absorb these foible’s of the show and think ‘it’s alright for Clarkson to say that, so it’s alright for me to say that’. When a younger audience is concerned, certain degrees of control and regulation have to be considered. Period.

Talking of Clarkson, his TV persona is outspoken, forthright and seemingly dominant. As an extension of his alpha male status, he is the first to speak at the beginning of every programme, the camera pans from a high angle shot of the whole studio to Clarkson as he delivers the opening line; he is the leader of the gang embodying classic hegemonic male values of strength, dominance and heterosexuality. When Clarkson appears on popular panel shows QI or Have I Got News For You, his persona is often more muted; suggesting the representation of masculinity and male values in Top Gear are mainly constructed or exaggerated for the format of the show.

Richard embodies many qualities that are conventionally admired; dominance, heterosexuality and courage. James May, or Captain Slow, is the mediator between Hammond and Clarkson. May is represented as methodical, sensible and until recently, homosexual. This is such a stark contrast between his co-presenters and a successful one at that; May’s products outside of Top Gear are abundant; his Toy Stories series is a favourite of mine. This sensible image is promoted and subverted by Top Gear; May himself said ‘he doesn’t fit in with the petrol head gang’. The banter about May’s hair and sexuality is all a construct intended to cause conflict in the narrative of the text.

The show has been accused of misogyny at various points in its long run and it is impossible to think that Clarkson and producer, Wilman, do not know what they are doing when they pen some sequences; even in a post-modern era! With changes to equality laws, the future of Top Gear’s presenting line up is being held up for question. The apparent insistence that all BBC shows should have a representative ration of male and female presenters has given rise to whether the show can carry on under the current format. However, Channel 5’s rival programme Fifth Gear has a female presenter and viewing figures here are considerably lower than its rival.

Saying this, are we as viewers buying into ideas of male postmodern humour here? It might be argued that Top Gear is being so postmodern by turning typically male characteristics into comedy and hence, Top Gear subverts male gender stereotypes. For me, that is what Top Gear; it is a form of comedy. The three presenters are self-parodying themselves; they are playing exaggerated versions of themselves for a laugh and to both conform to and subvert male stereotypes. Clarkson reads scripted jokes and opinions to a live studio audience with the intention of getting a laugh; Top Gear is light comedy entertainment. If you don’t find it funny, turn it off. It is so far away from a factual programme; arguably, it has drawn upon many elements of the factual programmes of yesteryear to create an eclectic new style; a postmodern style. The sexism, the banter; it’s part of the characters the boys are playing. The programme is escapist; this James Bond world of exotic locations and fast cars appeals to men and, in this day and age, women too. Top Gear is an escapist post modern light comedy entertainment show; the vital ingredients being Clarkson, May, Hammond and cars will keep it on the Beeb for a while to come.


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