In the last few weeks, the internet has seen a furore erupt over the “comedy” of one man – Daniel O’Reilly, more widely known by his alter-ego/pseudonym, DAPPER LAUGHS. Rising to infamy in the last year or so, primarily thanks to the ever-reducing attention span of the 16-25 year old population, and the publicising powers of the terrifyingly drab “LAD Bible”, O’Reilly’s particular brand of numbskull comedy had long escaped the sort of criticism usually reserved for pop music videos. That is, until a petition popped up over at Cardiff University (my alma mater, no less) asking that O’Reilly not be allowed to perform his live stand-up show on Union property, due to his having made some particularly abhorrent jokes regarding rape. Within days, this petition had amassed some 700 signatories, enough for the Union to pull O’Reilly’s booking. Days later, O’Reilly’s ITV2 show “Dapper Laughs: On The Pull” wherein the Dapper character coaches young men in the art of seduction (please assume that that sentence is dripping with irony), was the next target. An immediate cancellation followed growing public pressure. The final blow came when O’Reilly appeared on Newsnight to be given the sort of grilling that Emily Maitlis presumably usually reserves for war criminals. In the clip (below), O’Reilly argues (with all the spirit of a newborn puppy) that his work had been high-level social commentary all along, he’d just been joking, presumably wanting the viewer to believe he was following in the line of Kubrick (Dr Strangelove), Mel Brooks, and Alan Bennett as a master of satire.
There has been enough said on this topic in the last few weeks to last any reader a lifetime – and there remains more to be said on the nature of censorship, scapegoating of broader societal issues on to one man’s shoulders (no matter how abhorrent his work might be), and the fact that someone much more insidious obviously exists higher up the publishing chain in order to have green-lit O’Reilly’s projects in the first place. However, here, I want to consider the potential dangers of this sort of comedy upon the behaviour of one particular population. It is hard to imagine that the producers of Dapper Laughs: On the Pull envisaged such humour would play well with most of the adult male population – the over-the-top characterisation and reliance on “Vine”-type segments (a video app popular amongst teenagers) scream adolescent marketing. What is particularly dangerous about such targeting is not the desire to sell products, but rather the implicit message such a program is loaded with. It is notably not obvious to the viewer that Dapper Laughs is a character – it took until the above Newsnight appearance for it to become abundantly clear that O’Reilly and Dapper were not one and the same. Having said that, I’m not even entirely sure O’Reilly was aware of the distinction until he was scolded like a petulant school boy. Given this, it seems obvious to suggest that some viewers, particularly young teenage boys, will be susceptible to the belief that this is how adult males should, and indeed do, go about talking to women. Given that we already live in a country where 43% of women aged 18 – 34 report having been sexually harassed in a public space (YouGov Survey commissioned by End Violence Against Women Coalition: http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2012/may/25/four-10-women-sexually-harassed), it seems that O’Reilly and ITV displayed a terrifying lack of foresight during the production of this show. Normalising the behaviours Dapper and his cronies advocate can only lead to these same norms being perpetuated amongst adolescent peer groups.
Importantly, O’Reilly’s ‘satire’ fails where those he presumably admires had done their best work – by transposing his act in to the real world, and forcing women in public spaces to become a part of the performance, he has further ignored pre-existing norms regarding how one ought to behave in the public sphere. Even previous satirical television that includes members of the public – as Sacha Baron-Cohen has successfully done for years – makes it incredibly obvious that the joke is on the character from the get go. Never does the viewer side with Ali G, lauding him as a hero of the people. In O’Reilly’s work however, the punchline is always “this woman has been made to feel uncomfortable by me exerting my power over her”. If O’Reilly himself had become so blurred with the character of Dapper Laughs, are we to believe that adolescent boys are (for the most part) capable of recognising this distinction? Or is it in fact more likely that they will have taken his ideas on board as merely ‘banter’ to be thrown around at their female classmates? There is plenty of work to suggest that the latter is more likely. Through middle childhood and in to adolescence, children are inherently susceptible to the influence of in-group norms, particularly when they belong to a high-status in-group, and are motivated to enact normative behaviours to maintain membership of the group. Again, it is not hard to imagine that the sort of peer group targeted by Dapper Laughs/ITV are the very groups who carry high status/popularity and as such, will not only influence their own members, but perhaps those from lower status groups who aspire to reach the heights of these peers.
Ultimately, there is much work to be done from a top-down and bottom-up perspective with regards to cat-calling and public harassment of women. As I mentioned briefly above, it is more worrying to me that someone, presumably with a degree and many years experience in the field, at ITV, had given O’Reilly’s work the go-ahead in the first place. It is also not enough to enact a ban on one show and expect positive change at the adolescent level discussed here, when so many others perpetuate (albeit in a more subtle manner) the same power relationships that Dapper Laughs On The Pull (can’t wait to stop writing that phrase) did. There is also a vast field of research opportunity here from a developmental intergroup perspective; when are young people most susceptible to the influence of inter-group norms regarding appropriate gender relation behaviours? Can an active intervention do anything in the long-term to change these norms? Given extant research in the field of prejudice and discrimination, it seems unlikely that schools alone will be able to change peer-group norms; rather education must work in conjunction with peer groups to encourage the idea that catcalling and street harassment are unacceptable, regardless of the normative atmosphere in the general public.
See the below links for women speaking on related issues in a much more informed/eloquent manner than I ever could:
17th November 2014