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Little Britain Touches Up Uncle Sam

By Mark Simpson (Guardian, 20 October, 2008)

‘What other culture could have produced someone like Ernest Hemingway,’ waspish bisexual American exile Gore Vidal once asked of America’s favourite so-butch-he’s-camp writer, ‘and not seen the joke?’. The answer, was, of course, that only a culture that couldn’t see the joke could produce a Hemingway.

I don’t know whether Matt Lucas and David Walliams read Vidal or Hemingway, but in Little Britain USA, the recently launched HBO spin-off of their hit UK TV comedy sketch series (which is also airing on BBC1), they seem to be posing that question again – though this time the answer has some bearing on the likelihood of Stateside success of their show. In Little Britain USA ‘Our Boys’ (as a cheer-leading UK media seem to have tagged the camp duo) have put their probing finger on one of the most ticklish fault-lines of US culture: how ‘gay’ big butch God-fearing America can seem – and how comically in denial of this Americans can be.

There certainly seems to be a bit of Hemingway, who loved his guns, in the moustachioed cop (played by Walliams) who gets a visible hard-on while demonstrating his impressive collection of weapons to his fellow officers. But it’s in the steroid-scary shape of the towel-snapping ‘Gym Buddies’, Tom and Mark, who like to take long showers together after pumping iron, and graphically re-enacting what they did to the ‘pussy’ they pulled last night – with each other’s huge latex bubble-butts and tiny penises – that the so-butch-it’s-camp not-so-hidden secret of American culture is graphically outed by Little Britain USA.

Along with pathological denial. In last week’s episode, when an alarmed bystander glances nervously at them humping naked in the locker room they retort: ‘Whaddyou lookin at? Are you A FAG??’  Walliams, who is so camp he’s almost butch (a ladies’ man off-screen he has been described repeatedly by the UK press as ‘the ultimate metrosexual’), seems especially proud of the Gym Buddies sketch – describing it as ‘possibly the most outrageous we’ve ever done’. Certainly it’s drawn most fire from critics in the US, who have given the series very mixed reviews.

Lucas and Walliam’s gleefully amoral queer sensibility – they’re basically drag queens on a revenge trip, especially when they dress up as men – was always going to be difficult for America to swallow. But touching Uncle Sam up in the locker room may well make it a lot harder… er, I mean, more difficult. America, even that part of it that watches HBO, may not want to get that joke. Especially when made by a couple of faggy Brits. And by the way, while we over here might think American butchness tres gay – e.g. the locker-room and volley-ball scenes in Top Gun – all Europeans look ‘faggy’ to Americans, especially us Brits. The sketch featuring Walliams as a flaming Brit Prime Minister trying to get into the straight black US President’s pants probably won’t offend as much as Walliams hopes since most Americans thought Tony Blair was gay anyway.

Rather sweetly, compared to the UK, America is a country where masculinity and machismo is still sacred – despite having done more than any other country to make it obsolete by inventing men’s shopping magazines. In the US of A, it seems, anything masculine can’t be gay and vice versa. Hence Hummersexual Tom and Mark. Hence ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’. And hence all that fuss the US made over that mediocre gay cowboy movie Brokeback Mountain which, when it arrived in the UK, promptly bored everyone senseless.

America’s love of the masculine body, is gloriously ‘gay’ – or, more accurately, homoerotic.  But alas, until now Uncle Sam has been terribly ashamed of his natural, red-blooded and blatantly bloody obvious bi-responsiveness.

Only America, God Bless, could have produced UFC, a hugely popular pay-per-view ‘full-contact-sport’ that involves two young muscled men in shorts trying to get each other’s legs around their ears (Tom and Mark probably watch it together – in their UFC shorts). Only America could produce a best-selling men’s workout magazine like Men’s Health, put men’s pumped tits and abs on the cover every month and strenuously maintain the pretence that none of its readers are gay or bisexual – or even metrosexual. Only America could produce a film like last year’s ‘300′, essentially a toga-themed Chippendale flick for teen boys – but because it was made for American teen boys its denial was even more preposterous than its pectorals: the baddie had to be a big black club queen in a spangly Speedo.

Mind you, ‘300′ had at least one virtue, albeit unintentional: it was rather funnier than Little Britain USA. Perhaps the biggest problem Walliams and Lucas face in ramming their sensibility down Uncle Sam’s throat isn’t America’s gay denial or gagging reluctance to see the camp joke, but simply the fact that, on the basis of the first couple of shows, their American ‘outing’just isn’t very funny.

Either side of the pond.

7 thoughts on “Little Britain Touches Up Uncle Sam”

  1. “I bet arctic_jay was some jock who had it easy in high school but was outed by the whole “macho is gay” trope and was the one who really picked on weaklings.”

    Your skill at e-profiling needs work I’m afraid. I was aloof and occasionally studious in hs. I certainly wasn’t a jock or picked on weaklings.

    “Funny arctic_jay you want to defend the American culture in the week that it came to the end of it’s self.”

    You could say I was defending America in the sense that I made the case that we’re more self-aware than we’re given credit for, but that’s hardly an overall defense.

  2. I wanted to respond to your response, but your blog was on the fritz. If you still care:

    “I’ll freely admit that I can’t quite decide whether this is a bad or a good thing, and that this infects much of my own work.”

    I guess I fail to see how it’s a good thing, as the “drag queens on a revenge trip” are simply taking the weapons of their antagonism and reversing them. That kind of subversion may be a popular element in the classic underdog story, but it’s also hypocritical. It’s the ages old technique of using the anxiety surrounding masculinity in order to control male behavior, only the goal posts have moved. The new masculinity is now evidenced by an outwardly cool and lassez-faire attitude toward gender expression, but gender-based stereotypes are still relied upon. The muscleheads in the Little Britain skit are queer, not because they engage in homoerotic behavior, but because their neurotic, theatrical machismo is hysterical (in the comedic sense, but more importantly, in the “has a uterus” sense). The actors who play them, however, are above all that superstitious gender ceremony and therefore the real normal guys. I guess that’s the weakness in Matt Lucas’s performance: it was hysterical in a way that wasn’t acting. You get a sense that he actually wishes he had that body, taking “the lady doth protest too much” to new levels of submergence.

    One question for the revenge-queens: what do you think is the cause of homophobia? If all these macho guys really have erotic feelings for one another and being masculine and male affords one power in this world, why would they maintain a code of social conduct that prevents them so much pleasure and agency?

  3. Yeah, it is a disappointing sketch. It comes off as patronizing, imho. All evidence to the contrary, we Americans *do* get the joke. For every Hemingway, we produce a Fitzgerald.

    Then the Hemingways metaphorically or literally destroy the Fitzgeralds (and the Dos Passos-es), after which they metaphorically or literally destroy themselves.

    And that’s the thing. When you actually live here, the joke isn’t very funny.

    (I really enjoy your thinking, by the way.)

  4. I bet arctic_jay was some jock who had it easy in high school but was outed by the whole “macho is gay” trope and was the one who really picked on weaklings .As for the American culture being so region-based and variegated in character is that outsiders can always find so much more to take the piss out of.. or hold in contempt. Funny arctic_jay you want to defend the American culture in the week that it came to the end of it’s self.

  5. I actually agree with much of your eloquent comment, particularly what you say about the bitter tone of the locker room skit, which is one of the reasons why it isn’t very funny and partly why I described Walliams and Lucas as ‘drag queens on a revenge trip, especially when they’re dressed as men’. And you’re quite right to scold me for my patronising across-the-pond generalisations, but then that’s probably what the pond is for.

    As for America still holding masculinity sacred – I should probably have said something like ‘the image of masculinity’. I suppose most things are relative, even machismo, and compared to the UK, where Little Britain and its gleeful-spiteful drag-queen revenging is even more popular than The Office, or in fact any other comedy show this decade and has become a fully-fledged cultural phenomenon, the US, or large swathes of it, does appear to be ‘behind’ the UK in that particular regard. I’ll freely admit that I can’t quite decide whether this is a bad or a good thing, and that this infects much of my own work.

    Thanks for the heads up about Clowes and Blanchard.

    As for adding gay panic to homosocial fun: I’d venture there’s quite a bit of evidence it’s already there. Particularly in a film like 300.

  6. I guess one of the advantages of American culture being so region-based and variegated in character is that outsiders can always find clear-cut evidence to support whatever preconception they have of it. But the proposition you’re making-and the one the Little Britain USA skit is assuming will garner shocked laughs-isn’t true. The whole “macho is gay” trope has already been so overdone in our culture that not only did the skit seem painfully labored and cliche, but oddly archetypal, like I was watching something from the early nineties. If you can find them, read “On Sports” by Daniel Clowes, or “Trucker Fags in Denial” by Jim Goad if you want to see this trope analyzed with competence.

    Another thing that struck me was how bitter and disdainful the tone of the skit was. It’s probably also cliche to say this, but it really does seem that people who reverse the “that’s so gay” taunt really were picked on weaklings who still can’t get over the fact that there might be some jock who had it easy in high school that might still be having it easy in adulthood so why don’t we just add a little gay panic to their homosocial fun?

    As for America still holding masculinity sacred-sorry, I just had to laugh at that one. Every week there’s there’s numerous new television specials, articles, and high-profile books deconstructing masculinity from a negative and usually feminist-base perspective. America now responds to masculinity the way your typical queen does, with wariness, mockery, and lurid fascination. The attraction to masculinity nowadays is due to its present anti-establiment status. It’s not seen as sacred, it’s seen as naughty. Teenaged boys flocked to 300 for the same reason they flock to rap: rebellious escapism.

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