Picture this opening scene from a series currently being shown on Sky.
A furious woman smashes a milk bottle on the doorstep of a small cottage, before storming off in disgust. The camera pauses for a moment to show the front wall of the house. It’s covered with scrawled and abusive graffiti: “Evil parasites.” “House of shame.” “Just die.” “Sad little wankers.” “Cowards.” “We will never forgive you.” “Stinking Judas rats.” “You are cancer.”
This must be the hard-hitting opening shot for a gritty drama, right? Perhaps it’s exploring the treatment of men who crossed the picket lines during the miners’ strike? Or maybe it’s about a community’s reaction to finding out a convicted paedophile has been resettled in their town?
But you’d be wrong. This is a scene from a Sky 1 comedy series about how a village of women treat the only three men from their town who have not gone to fight during WW1. The series is called “Chickens”. I am not making this up. You can watch it online right now.
The show is essentially a series of set pieces in which the three men -- a conscientious objector, a man who is medically unfit to fight and man who is simply afraid – are shamed, laughed at and humiliated by scores of women.
At first I assumed I must have been missing something. Surely, somewhere, there would self-reflection or criticism of the humiliation being milked for laughs? But there wasn’t. The men are the butt of the joke and their weakness and cowardice is the punchline.
In one scene, after a woman demands that Cecil -- who incidentally is the one discharged as medically unfit -- justifies why he hasn’t enlisted, he says: “I really believe in this war and I’m really keen to help.” She replies: “Rubbish, if you were really keen to help you would have killed yourself to raise morale.”
'Most-hated man in the village'
In another, the three men encounter a group of women standing around the village green notice board, posted with three sheets of paper with their names at the top.
One of the men asks enthusiastically: “What’s going on here then?” One of the women replies: “We’re voting to decide who should be the Guy we burn on bonfire night.” “Oh, look how well I’m doing!” says one of the men. Another of the three men cuts in: “Don’t get too excited Burt, they’re essentially voting for the most-hated man in the village.”
Just in case you might be thinking the contempt of the female characters is really about reflecting badly on the women of the time, this is what one of the lead actresses has to say in a behind-the-scenes interview for the series, also available online:
“What’s great is to see a village full of women who are just really getting on with it, just couldn’t give a toss that the men have gone, really, except for basic plumbing issues and the occasional need for someone to shag them,” she trills happily.
The men receive daily hate-mail from the village's women (Image: Sky)
And according to the writers of the series -- the same men who are responsible for The Inbetweeners -- the series is actually intended to celebrate women's roles during WW1.
In an interview with the Guardian, one of the writers said: “Our hope, and the thought behind it, is for it to be a quasi-feminist sit-com. When we originally came up with the idea, there was a worry that it could be a bit misogynistic – this idea of us as the only men left and isn’t it horrible living in England now it’s full of women. But you see, actually, that the women cope very well. It’s the men who don’t.”
“They are three pathetic men in a village full of people who hate them,” agrees another one of the writers. “Hopefully, you’ll end up empathising with them, because their social prospects are impossible, really. People throw things at them in the street.”
We have truly gone through the Looking Glass here into some kind of Orwellian understanding of justice and compassion.
A hidden history
Perhaps you think I’m being po-faced and humourless about a series that’s just meant as a bit of fun. But the ugly and rarely acknowledged truth is that women really did shame men and boys into going to their deaths.
According to historian Nicoletta Gullace, in addition to the relatively well-known white feather movement, one female-led campaign enrolled 20,000 women “to persuade their men to enlist and to scorn those who refused”. The women were said to have encouraged hundreds of thousands of men to sign up. According to Gullace, this was “merely one of a multitude” of such campaigns.
You can also hear what those men went through in their own words. Their stories, recorded before the last of the First World War veterans died, are held on tapes in the archives of the Imperial War Museum in London.
One man recalls walking across a bridge in London when four girls surrounded him and gave him white feathers – the symbols of cowardice given by women to men who were out of uniform.
'The look in his eye has haunted me ever since'
A lifetime after the event, you can still hear the pain in his voice as he says: “I explained to them that I had been in the Army and been discharged and I was only sixteen. Several people had collected around the girls and there was giggling and I felt most uncomfortable... I felt very humiliated. I finished the walk over the bridge and there on the other side was the Thirty-seventh London Territorial Association of the Royal Field Artillery. I walked straight in and re-joined the Army.”
Another man quietly describes the morning his brother, a miner, received a feather in the post. “He opened the letter at the breakfast table and a white feather dropped out, there was nothing else in it than that. Just a white feather. He got up off that table, white faced, and he went out of that house. That was the last time I ever saw him alive.”
Another recalls how his under-age cousin was “blew to pieces” after women's taunts led him to enlist, and how insults drove an over-aged friend to insanity and eventually death. “The look in his eye has haunted me ever since... The cruelty of that white feather business needs exposing.”
This is all but deleted from our collective memory of WW1. Now this comedy series, one of the few occasions when the vicious practice of shaming men for cowardice is remembered at all, chooses to humiliate and mock those men once again. I'm sorry, but I don't find that very funny.
By Dan Bell