Miranda Hart’s book Is It Just Me?[i] has been a Christmas 2012 best-seller, and Hart has just announced that she is writing a second volume, Peggy and Me[ii], featuring ‘adventures with her faithful dog Peggy’. Is It Just Me addresses ‘the real coalface of life’ (p.17), with witty analysis of everyday embarrassments and confusions. The narrative closely mirrors the style of Miranda Hart’s hit sitcom, Miranda (BBC 2009 -), which also topped the ratings this Christmas, beating off Downton Abbey, Dr Who and Strictly Come Dancing. [iii]
Miranda Hart’s success on screen is remarkable considering the historical dominance of male comedy stars in sitcoms and the current gender imbalance on panel shows, but her work is also remarkable for its evocation of a different world view. Academics are already beginning to pick up on this, with papers on Miranda at international conferences[iv], and Is It Just Me also merits more analysis. While there is much lively humour here there are also several chapters which address feminist concerns about the beauty industry, body image and the social construction of femininity. Let me just be clear, there is not a chapter which is actually titled ‘The Social Construction of Femininity’ – but the book as a whole does argue convincingly against consumer culture’s account of femininity as thin, passive and neurotic. For example, in the chapter on ‘Beauty’, Hart addresses the concept of ‘taking myself seriously as a woman’, asking what that phrase entails:
Is it a fine lady scientist, a ballsy young anarchist with tights on her head or a feminist intellectual from the 1970s nose-down in Simone de Beauvoir? Or is it what I think my friend meant when she said ‘woman’, which is really ‘aesthetic object’. Clothes horse. Show pony. General beautiful piece of well-groomed stuff that’s lovely to look at? (pp.94-95)
What follows is a hilarious deconstruction of the rigours of feminine grooming, addressing spas, hairdressing salons and the beauty myth. Most tellingly, Hart recounts the advantages for women of not being considered ‘beautiful’ – that it confers an invisibility which actually means we might have time to do something a bit more constructive than all that self-scrutiny and grooming. Grooming itself, with its solipsistic focus on the self-regulating (aka somewhat paranoid) modern individual, is a telling word here; its other high-profile usage is in relation to paedophile abuse.
The complexities of social pressures are not ignored either. In the chapter on ‘Bodies’ Hart addresses the pros and cons of being a tall woman – they are exactly the same, but understood positively and negatively, so that ‘You will never get lost in a crowd’ is both a strength and an embarrassment. This is a pertinent issue, as in the process of becoming a high-profile television star (no pun intended) Hart has had to face a barrage of comments about her size. She does not fit the conventions for a television star – she is not a ‘show pony’. Yet this positive account of women’s lives not just being about appearance has garnered Hart some significant bad press, most notably a piece in The Guardian by Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett which argued that Hart’s paean to being ‘plain’ set up a ‘false dichotomy’: ‘What’s wrong with having brushed hair, clean knickers, a great sex life and an exceptional grasp of mental arithmetic?’[v]. What indeed. Yet it is so rare to read or hear anyone arguing for the other side – that there might actually be some advantages to being of nonconformist personal appearance – that I see Is It Just Me? as a feminist text, not least because it notes the time that personal grooming can entail, both in terms of actual labour and in terms of head-space.
Cosslett’s column unfortunately chimes with more recent press and twitter commentaries which propose that Hart’s comedy is based on self-loathing and misogyny. As Lucy Mangan argues in her response to this backlash against one of our most successful comedians, we should celebrate Miranda Hart’s achievements rather than criticize her for adopting a fairly standard comedic strategy.[vi] It seems doubly important to keep that celebration going when women still have a statistically low presence on television, in stand-up and awards nominations. The 2012 Chortle comedy awards shortlisted only 2 female acts out of a total of 54 nominations.[vii] Comedy offers a particular space to individual women but television comedy series, panel shows and stand-up still seem to be a boys’ club.
[i] Miranda Hart, Is It Just Me?, London: Hodder and Stoughton, 2012.
[iv] There’s a paper on Miranda at this conference: http://www.console-ingpassions.org/ and an article by Frances Gray about the series in the latest issue of Comedy Studies: http://www.intellectbooks.co.uk/journals/view-Article,id=14104/