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Home > Media

A New Dawn

3 January 2004

The Guardian doesn't really deserve its reputation as the newspaper of tree-hugging, sandle-wearing, muesli-eating social workers and leftie teachers. While its letters page sometimes features readers who believe that sex offences are an ineluctable consequence of capitalism, or that the solution to urban traffic congestion is Marxism... because on the whole the Guardian is a sober and sensible paper.

But from time to time, the paper publishes an article that would make the occasional reader assume it was a fantasy wish-list for the Islington chattering classes and champagne socialists who, as the urban myth goes, mistake mushy peas for guacamole.

One such article appeared this week, written by comment section regular Madeleine Bunting. The piece manages to find a rather interesting angle on the Christmas episodes of The Office - namely that the character of Dawn, the receptionist, is a breakthrough in female characterisation in comedy.

In Dawn we finally - and it was about time - have a British comic heroine who is not idiotically silly.

It strikes us a bit of an overstatement to describe Dawn as a "British comic heroine" - when she is, after all, a basically straight character in a comedy. If The Office only had Dawns in it, it would be a dull old programme. Dawn is a foil, not a comic heroine, but sorry - we interrupted Madeleine...

There are Dawns in every office... they're the little girls brought up to please others... their personalities have been pulped by a system of entrenched gender stereotypes.

The really chilling thing about Dawn is that her character would sit as easily in a Jane Austen novel as it does in the 21st Century office, despite 150-odd years of women's education and professional achievement.

There really should be a word for this sort of thing, which is essentially hijacking something and making it fit your own agenda, however much tortuous logic it takes. Oh hang on, there is. It's called being a shit newspaper columnist.

Pre-Dawn, were all female comic characters really 'idiotically silly'? Madeleine lists the examples of Barbara Windsor, Sybil from Fawlty Towers, Bridget Jones, and Patsy and Edina from Ab Fab. But she seems not to notice that the actually funny comic characters (unlike Dawn) tend to be flawed - it's where the humour comes from. That's why Sybil is an annoying harridan. It's why Patsy and Edina are shallow, egotistical drunks. It's also why Del Boy's scheming always leads to his own downfall. It's why David Brent's desire to be 'a chilled out entertainer' in the inappropriate environment of the office leads to his own humiliation.

And there are plenty of female comic characters that aren't idiotically silly: Polly in Fawlty Towers, Barbara in The Good Life, the female characters in Men Behaving Badly, Sally Phillips' brilliant turn in I'm Alan Partridge, etc.

Columnists (particularly in the broadsheets) love making bold statements and reading meanings into things that don't really exist. Did Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant really sit down and say 'Hmm. We must have a character who finally exposes the everyday tyranny of gender roles?' No. But that doesn't stop columnists finding evidence for their own arguments in the most unlikely of places.

Madeleine also notes:

In reality, the Dawns of the world are extremely intelligent.

This is a prime slice of middle class wishful thinking (we think we're justified in assuming that someone called Madeleine Bunting is pretty middle-class). The whole point of Dawn is that she's a realistic, sympathetic (and not very funny) character with unfulfilled ambitions - not an icon for feminism.

It must be great being a columnist, maybe a little like suffering a benign form of schizophrenia. Whereas schizophrenics see terrifying 'coincidences' and meanings in everyday events, columnists see hidden meanings everywhere - and it just so happens that they always support their own views.

Comment on this article: letters@thefridaything.co.uk

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