Using as a template Diedre Beddoe’s influential essay “Images of Welsh Women”, Siobhan Denton looks at the contemporary depiction of Welsh women in film and television.
It is the Welsh identity as being the prime source of humour and comedy for a character which is perhaps most recognisable to even the most casual TV viewer. Often the defining characteristic of these depictions as comedic is a perceived lack of intelligence. Frequently, these supposedly comedic Welsh characters are posited as being utterly idiotic, often to the extent that a viewer may question how they are able to operate in day to day life, and it is this inability to operate that is intended to provide entertainment.
As Samuel Parry writes, ‘comedy perpetuates the myth of the Welsh clown; the Welsh are portrayed as simple, poor, indolent and unable to cope on their own’. These representations are often emphasised through juxtaposing the unintelligent Welsh, with the intelligent, well-spoken English, with Parry highlighting, amongst others, Rhys Ifans’ representation in Notting Hill, in contrast to the presentation of Hugh Grant’s intelligent bookseller. Parry’s critique is largely ungendered, focusing on the depiction of Welsh people in the media as a whole, rather than specifically identifying the representation of women. Deirdre Beddoe’s suggests, in her identification of the five types of Welsh women that, much like Parry’s analysis, ‘English people still regard Welsh people, along with Irish People, as inherently funny’. Beddoe’s critique is, crucially, specifically gendered, and it is this representation of Welsh women in particular that demands analysis and question.
In TV, Welsh women are presented as laughable, rather than being afforded the opportunity to partake in laughter. In this sense then, these women are passive, not active in their comedic abilities. Their ability to create humour encourages the viewers’ complicity in this manifestation. This depiction is rife throughout television, and regularly, when a character is on the periphery of the narrative, their very defining feature is both their Welshness and their perceived stupidity.
This level of intelligence varies, but importantly, rarely rises above the level of any ability to produce critical and analytical thought. Linda (Ruth Jones) in Nighty Night, for example, is not only presented purely for comedic purposes, but this humour is largely linked to her ‘otherness’, and as is regularly the case, this otherness is her Welshness. Her Welshness then is undeniably and directly related to her level of intelligence. Importantly, it is not just a matter of intelligence that is presented for comedic purposes, but rather an entirely bizarre nature. Jones’ Linda allows herself to be controlled and manipulated by protagonist Jill, to the extent that Jill runs almost every facet of Linda’s life. Arriving twenty minutes late to work, Linda readily confesses and apologises for her error. Jill, scolding her misdemeanour, informs Linda that her tardiness will result in only receiving half a day’s pay, a punishment that Linda willingly, and gratefully accepts. Linda not only allows Jill’s treatment but responds with gratitude.
It may seem reductive to refer to Gavin and Stacey again, but given its impact and huge success both in Wales and the rest of the UK, it is necessary to highlight the series when they so willingly indulge in Beddoe’s identified types. While Stacey in Gavin and Stacey is certainly more intelligent than Linda, her representation is hardly cerebral. Her Stacey is demanding, workshy and childlike. Ringing Gavin at work, complaining that she has once again received a rejection letter while hoping to seek gainful employment highlights her lack of qualifications. When she eventually does find job success after returning to Barry, her role is limited. Unlike Gavin, who works in a professional role, Stacey serves teas and ice cream on the beach. Stacey is lazily and simplistically linked to the signifier of Barry Island. Her very defining feature is her professed kinship to her hometown, which is often heralded as evidence of her provincial nature.
Some may point to Nessa (Ruth Jones) as evidence of a Welsh woman who actively partakes in the creation of her comedy, but once again, like Jones’ Linda in Nighty Night, Nessa is continually imbued with a sense of otherness. Her stories, increasingly unrealistic, are intentionally so. It is their very unlikeliness, that is the stem of the humour. Again, the viewers’ complicity is relied upon. It is our disbelief that she, a Welsh woman, worked with Kate Adie or worked with The Who, that is intended to be funny.
Too often, Welsh women, when afforded comedic roles (an allowance that is still rare) are only presented for ridicule. They are rarely allowed to present as witty or engage in discourse that encourages them to demonstrate their desires, wants and interests. Simply, these women are entirely lacking in depth. Certainly, not every depiction can be developed, and thoughtful, but it should be. Particularly when so explicitly linked to a specific national identity.