Great Sketches #16: “Sort Yourself Out” from That Mitchell and Webb Look

I’ve been planning to cover this one for some time, but current events have forced my hand. Gillette’s surprisingly moving recent ad decrying toxic masculinity and calling for men to be better has raised discussions about the role of major corporations in messages of social justice. It’s also caused a bunch of immature trolls to go off on how DARE they be asked to care about other people and don’t take my guns or my trucks and wah wah wah etc. An obvious counterpoint to any men offended by the idea of an ad telling them what their gender should do is that, um, women kinda have to put up with that all the time. And while the Gillette ad is trying to tie itself to a notion off masculinity, its tone is much less condemning than the litany of ads specifically designed to make women feel like shit and force them to buy stuff they don’t need.

That Mitchell and Webb Look, centered around the British comedy duo and UK Mac and PC David Mitchell and Robert Webb. Along with their success in Peep Show, the Look was a pretty sizable hit and you may have run into several of their sketches on YouTube, some of which may show up on this blog later. The bit I want to talk about dates from Series 3, Episode 2, originally aired in 2009, and while it’s been called several incorrect names, it’s so short that you can get the gist of it very quickly. It’s hard to think of a better way to demonstrate the double standards in modern advertising in a hurry.

The sketch begins with frequent Look star Sarah Hadland playing an unnamed woman in a blank commercial void complaining about pains in her stomach, which David Mitchell’s perfectly snide narrator describes as “gut agony”. She’s also apparently got several other physical problems, including “tension head” and “the beginnings of lady mustache” (it’s interesting to note how quickly the voice goes from responding to her statements to flat-out telling her the problems she has to have, much to her shock). Just when you’re starting to wonder what this could be a commercial for, Mitchell sums up the litany of things wrong with not just this woman but women in general: “You’re leaking, aging, hairy, overweight, and everything hurts…and your children’s clothes are filthy.”

That’s already a pretty big laugh, and the sketch pays it off by revealing that this isn’t an ad for one product but a ludicrously huge assortment of items (advertised as “The Lot”) including sanitary pads, bleach, and a bunch that don’t make any sense, my favorite being “Apricot Deforestation Strips”. With mounting contempt in his voice, the narrator chides all women for being so atrocious, ending by saying “for God’s sake, sort yourself out.” In case you were wondering what the price to be for being female is, it’s exactly £279.99, or $362.67 modern USD. And of course, buying all that nonsense brings no relief, as poor Hadland collapses under the weight of her shopping bag, claiming that she’s finally “free to live her life” while being more encumbered than ever before.

Immediately after that we see the counterpoint, and it’s the segment that makes clear what writers Jason Hazeley and Joel Morris were really getting at. Instead of the antiseptic white space we were just in, we’re now in a super cool blue-tinged bathroom. As rock music wails on the soundtrack, Robert Webb’s happy go lucky dude opens the mirror to find a pint of beer in the cabinet. Mitchell’s tone of voice is now completely different, imploring all men to “shave and get drunk, because you’re already brilliant”, followed by Webb getting groped by a sexy disembodied hand. I can’t find the specific ad this last part is parodying but it’s not hard to find shaving commercials that use this or similar tropes about aftershave or cologne making you prime sexual real estate, whether it’s Afta, Brut, or dear god Hai Karate.

Interestingly, real-world shaving ads that trade on male fragility seem to come in two flavors: either “this will make you sexy” or “this will make you more manly”. The two or not always the same. Consider this hilarious 80’s Chaz commercial starring Tom Selleck, in which the right scent turns you into a freewheeling gentleman cowboy with a sweet car and a sweeter mustache. Or this even crazier one with Charles Bronson, in which the very act of grooming involves a Western gunfight for some reason. Even the much beloved Old Spice ads of recent years, which were parodies of this kind of thing, still traded on the idea of making the presumed female viewer’s male partner smell like not a lady (to be fair, Old Spice would also later devolve into bizarre hallucinations involving Terry Crews, launching off into their own weird, arguably less sexist dimension).

The entire bit makes it clear who the real target is, and yet I feel like many of the YouTube denizens simply see it as an “all sides” ribbing. Both of these segments are aimed at how different the stakes are for the traditional gender binary: they are part of one single sketch, not two sketches that make up an “everyone is terrible” South Park-ish message. Although I might not be the best person to judge, I do think this is an (albeit mild) example of punching up. If it doesn’t punish the male participants, that’s because the medium it’s referencing doesn’t either, and it’s meant as a function of the parody at work.

When I finally watched the recent Gillette ad, after I’d already seen all the commentary about it, I was struck by how media literate it is. It references so many different ways men use their privilege to harass and excuse bad behavior. In a much more modest way, this sketch is doing the same thing, using the animations and visual cues we’re all familiar with to try and point out things it would be more comfortable for men to leave hidden.

I’m going to leave us with this excellent quote from Ryan Knight. Let’s hope that he’s right and that the future shows a more inclusive and compassionate way for men to be “the best they an get”.

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