Gendering is weird. The more we learn about how artificial gender is as a construct, the more we will hopefully realize how arbitrary assigning certain characteristics is. It’s bad enough in people but plenty of inanimate objects are given “male” or “female” designations for no real reason (other than to reinforce norms and sell shit, of course). This ranges from the dreaded pink aisle to body wash in containers shaped like liquor bottles to an infamous British candy bar that literally marketed itself as being “not for girls”, all contributing to associations that are at worst toxic and at best just plain baffling.
Why am I talking about all this? Because today’s sketch is a wonderfully acerbic morsel that gives a middle finger to the nexus of feminity, sexuality, and sugary sweets. It’s from Smack The Pony, a British show from the early 2000’s I chiefly know through individual bits. The troupe consisted of a trio of British comedians (Doon Mackichian, Fiona Allen, and Sally Phillips) and while it doesn’t seem to have crossed over the pond the way other imports have, it’s at least been influential in its home country and has a bit of a cult following. A lot of StP’s work focuses on blackouts, sight gags, and broad characters, but they can also pack dense amounts of social commentary into a quick bit, as they do in this little exchange.
The setting is a blue-tinged restaurant (much of the show was set in a mysterious washed out world of harsh lighting so maybe it’s just the aesthetic of the times), and waitress Bernie (Doon Mackichan) is getting chewed out for not selling enough dessert. The problem, it seems, is that she doesn’t know how to work the customers, which requires something the manager (Fiona Allen) calls “the dessert face”. What is the dessert face? It’s a variation on what many working women and Hamilton fans will likely be familiar with: talk less, smile more. Or rather, say what we want you to say and how we want you to say it. Otherwise, the manager frets, “they’ll go straight to coffee”.
This is all in the familiar format of a teacher/student sketch, where a stooge in authority tries to teach another character something only to have their efforts go wrong, except here the subject being taught is femininity itself, conflated with the pudding trolley as something both sexualized and trivial. The restaurant wants the waitress to use her femininity to sell something based on established norms and doesn’t have time for any other interpretations. No dessert face, no job.
If it sounds heady in theory, this is all plenty funny in practice, as Doon tries out increasingly ridiculous ways to say “would you like a little dessert” over and over until her voice sounds like some sort of drunken waterfowl having a stroke.
Not to be outdone, Bernie’s boss tries three tactics to get her to improve. First, she brings in Matilda (Sally Phillips), another waitress who can do the face perfectly and has sold three whole desserts this way but is overwhelmed by existential despair (“see, the thing is, like, dessert is a fun course, you’ve got to have fun with it, otherwise where are we all? It’s all meaningless…”). When that doesn’t work, the manager tries to get Bernie in the right mindset by prompting her to say “I’m wearing pink pants” (meaning underwear) in a sexy voice. Eventually the boss decides to just outright threaten to fire her for insubordination (“are you some kind of anarchist?”). It all leads to disaster as the doomed waitress decides to shamble out with the cakes and pies and make a complete mockery of everything her manager has tried to teach her.
The first time I watched this sketch I wasn’t sure if the joke was that Doon’s character literally couldn’t do the dessert face or if she was deliberately sabotaging it as a way to buck the system. I now think it starts as the former and pretty clearly becomes the latter, which almost makes this a kind of punk statement about the need to upend sexist stereotypes, long before “fuck the patriarchy” was a social media rallying cry.
What’s also interesting is how this avoids the concerns that the 30 Rock “sexy baby” discussion or Lake Bell’s In a World… brought up, namely the idea that women shouldn’t ever categorically be allowed to be stereotypically girly if they want to be. From what I understand, the issue isn’t the behavior so much as the control. A waitress in Bernie’s position doesn’t get a chance to choose how she presents herself, unless she decides to burn it all to the ground. Which might be cathartic but could come at the cost of your job, your reputation, and your livelihood.
That’s probably enough mansplaining for me. As a straight white cis man from a very privileged background, I’m not going to pretend like I’ve gone through an ounce of what Bernie goes through here. All I’ll say is if you believe that comedy can help encourage empathy then maybe this is one way to help draw awareness to a real problem.
One last confession: the irony of it all is that this sketch actually does make me want a little dessert. Or should that be deshurrrrrrrt…?