Robot Wars and Gender: The Judge’s Decision
TW: Discussion of masculinity and “women”
No matter how much evidence you have of racism and sexism, no matter how many documents, communications, encounters, no matter how much research you can refer to, or words you can defer to, words that might carry a history as an insult, what you have is deemed as insufficient. The more you have to show the more eyes seem to roll. My proposition is simple: that the evidence we have of racism and sexism is deemed insufficient because of racism and sexism. – Sara Ahmed
Robot Wars holds a special place in my heart. As a tween, the promise of robotic destruction drew me to BBC2 every Friday, tucked into the legendary terrestrial schedule of The Simpsons, The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, Top of The Pops and, as I got older, South Park and Trigger Happy TV. I’m fairly convinced that this was not an uncommon televisual education. At its peak Robot Wars was drawing 4m viewers per episode; not a monumental figure, but the success of spin-off video games (yes; on my PC and on my Game Boy Advance) and toys suggests that its fanbase was a passionate one. The team of Craig Charles (presenter) Jonathan Pearce (equally bombastic commentator) and Philippa Forester (reporting from “the pits”) was, with the panel of judges, a consistently engaging human face. But that was in the halcyon days of the late Nineties and early Noughties. Isn’t the world of 2016 more cynical, more technologically advanced, more jaded? Will Robot Wars be too childlike for today’s children? And how can the BBC’s commitment to making the show more “female friendly” work? Would it be your standard “bung in some smiling women and tone down the aggression” approach? Would this drain the remake of the original’s exuberance? Would it succumb to the frighteningly powerful imaginary of… political correctness? Head judge Noel Sharkey wasn’t really giving anything away when he said:
And it isn’t just the boys with their toys. There have always been females competing and it has been wonderful to see a large increase in the reboot… Engineering departments in UK universities are pretty desperate to reduce the gender gap as it is still unacceptably large. So come on girls, make me proud.
But he did at least acknowledge that there was an explicit intent underpinning the remake, to avoid being pigeonholed as “Top Gear for kids”. Considering that gender mainstreaming as a normative technocratic impulse – in much popular culture and organization (let alone within the BBC) – receives strident critique from pro-feminists as well as post-feminists, it was with multiple concerns that I started watching again…
Axes, spinning discs and gender roles
The 27yo, pro-feminist (and pro- all that “SJW Bullshit”) me is hopefully different to the 13yo version. 13yo me wasn’t readily articulating the distinct roles occupied by the female and male competitors in my favourite programmes. Most likely I “did not see” gender at all. Of course, retrospectively, the interaction between the promise of a combat-led aggression, and the nuanced expressions of masculinities of the combatants involved, was an intriguing dynamic even then. The “roboteers” were not an especially manly group or, more accurately, performed a brand of masculinity painfully familiar to any teenage non-sportsman. It was there in the boasts (“We’re going to tear them apart!”), the nervous laughter, red cheeks and glances to the floor that regularly accompanied Forrester’s jocular interviews, and the feverish devotion to mechanics. And yet, the “survival of the fittest” mantra of the programme, tech-know-how elevated to the function of physical muscle, allowed for the successful roboteers to present as alpha-male champions – in spite of the aforementioned tension between physical prowess and tech-wizz geekery. In the age of the graphic designer, the programmer, the engineer, this is the one dynamic of Robot Wars that has reached new heights of mainstream resonance.
It’s important to be very clear here: it was a show about men. This isn’t to do the show down: I’m always overwhelmed by the propensity for such an observation (“X is about men”) to evoke cries of political correctness. What is politically correct about this claim? It’s the closest social analysis can come to empiricism, and in the case of Robot Wars and shows of its ilk, it’s the antithesis of controversy. Robot Wars pitted male contestants, with their masculinized creations (“Razor” “Chaos” “Behemoth” “Tornado” etc), against male contestants. Women were the exception, and they proved the rule by the gendered roles they played within the programme: decidedly non-competitive.
This is a phenomenon that endures in the new series. To demonstrate, I want to briefly describe some of the roles the women who do make it on screen have fulfilled.
It’s tempting to see female participation as both utterly necessary to reify the implicitly threatened masculinities on show, and to project a more progressive image. I’ve given into this temptation: the new series has a clearly defined set of roles available to its competitors, with a line going right down the middle according to the perceived gender of the contestant. I say “perceived” because one of the great roboteers from the show’s first run, George Francis, is now most often discussed as somewhere in-between male and female, and all because (as far as I can make out) he had a high-pitched voice. No amount of tech-know-how can make up for a funny voice, guys, and in a show which relies pretty heavily on gender performance (and binary), Francis’ demeanour and performance is almost as prominent a made observation as the success of his robotic contraptions.
Anyway, here’s my take on the twin roles available to female competitors. It is based entirely on one viewing of the new series, often slumped at my desk after a day selling jewelry to the great British public. The evidence is presented as a series of anecdotal observations, because I can’t face re-watching the whole thing. Got a lot on atm.
The Counsellor (see also: “the girlfriend”; “the aesthetic co-ordinator”)
Noel Sharkey was correct in his claim that there were more women involved in the new series. Unfortunately – for I can just tell that his desire for “more” is really hiding a deeper desire to break apart the constraints that gendered roles have placed on the women who have historically featured in Robot Wars – these women fall pretty much squarely into one of two roles. “One of two” is something to remember, repeat, challenge. Go for it.
The first of these is what I call The Counsellor, named in homage to the bizarre Ridley Scott movie of the same name, which included a scene wherein Cameron Diaz humps a sportscar. It was so much more than just a scene, but that’s for another ramble. The Counsellor is a role fulfilled by a younger woman. Many of the young women who feature on the new series of Robot Wars are only ever implied to be partners of a male driver or team leader; sex, even its most abstract or hetero-confirming sense, is left out of the Robot Wars MO. The closest that the series comes to rocking this boat is when we’re introduced to a team, one man and one woman, who met on an “online Robot Wars forum”. The mind boggles – and then quivers with recognition that this kind of thing happens on forums all the time.
These younger women are invisible partners, but visibly involved in the “team” that manages their robot. Even in its invisibility though, the secret truth – that these women are desired, desirable and so sexualized actors – means that they hold a particular capital, almost mystical within the sealed world of the pits. Their duties? Invariably they are introduced to the viewer as being the emotional valve of the team; the person who keeps tempers in check, who makes sure everyone is getting along. This subtextual role as a sexual agent reaches a peak when we are introduced to one woman as an “aesthetic coordinator”; her duty to maintain the beauty of the agent of chaos: spike-killer; destroyer; kaboom – whatever it was called. Allow me to reiterate that I loved the remake, but this one made me chortle. The counsellors are here, literally and metaphorically, to provide a level of gloss and civility to proceedings. Again, not an inherently demeaning role (Far Side Virtual, the vaporwave album par excellence, maintains its reputation in my eyes as a work of glittering importance for its devotion to aesthetic coordination) but in the context of “gender mainstreaming and progress” which couches the new series, it makes for a humorously ham-fisted attempt at diversifying the faces of the show.
The Sandwich Maker (see also: “the wife”; “the mother”)
The older relative of The Counsellor, the Sandwich Maker is a familiar trope across British popular culture (and I’m sure elsewhere). A maternal figure who provides emotional labour of the sort The Counsellor does, the key distinction here is the removal of any sexualized element – again, a dynamic which will not surprise anyone who has observed the roles commonly associated with women over forty.
With regards to serving the pro-women agenda of the new series, The Sandwich Maker evokes a sigh – who could bemoan the mother, or wife, of a contestant her moment in the televisual sun? There’s a twin tension occurring here, however. Firstly, the presence of these older women with no real influence on the creation or application of the robot is catnip to those who would very much enjoy bemoaning their presence. “What do they even do?” “She’s not there on merit” and, inevitably, “This is proof of political correctness”. There are, of course, a million reasons why these women warrant a place in front of the cameras; just because emotional labour doesn’t come across particularly easily in thirty-second segments detailing the RPM of a spinning disc, doesn’t mean that those sandwiches didn’t help in construction of the blade. On the other hand, when the roles available to women are solely to counsel or to make sandwiches (speaking a lil’ allegorically here) then there surely comes a point where the accusation of political correctness has an unintended truth. In the pursuit of gender mainstreaming, the editors have substitute numbers for substantive roles. Women are present, but they are so obviously delimited by their gender.
“We would love more women roboteers, but they didn’t raise their hands” would be the most consistent response to this. Well, quite. But until whatever factors that maintain this derisory list of potential roles for women is articulated by the show (take your pick from gendered pedagogic practice, sexism in further education, rigid norms of femininity on prime time TV…) the argument that women collectively/homogenously desire to fulfil these roles and these roles only – ergo, this gendered [im]balance is “natural” – will continue to hold real purchase in the popular imagination, popular culture and its viewership.
It is apt then that the most subversive actor in the new series of Robot Wars, or at least looking at it as an exercise in gendered understandings, is a child. I can’t remember her name, or the name of the robot, but she was introduced as the controller of the robot’s weapon. Considering she was under 15 (children under 15 blur into an ageless void for me… she was definitely a child though) this was a reasonably empowered platform to be granted. If I remember correctly, this was the same child who had influenced the glittery, pink decoration of the robot’s axe. Regardless, when being interviewed, this child rebuffed her father’s attempts to grant her this platform, because it was a fraudulent claim. With the irritation that the lie warranted, she responded along the lines of “Well, actually, Dad says I can only push this button when he tells me to. So it’s his fault.” Bravo! More than a female, oil-splattered boilersuit-wearing 45yo roboteer, this child brought light to the weird double-think behind gender mainstreaming in a show like Robot Wars.
It has ended up going without saying that there are more roles available to male competitors: after all, there are a helluva lot more of them, and someone has to construct and run the damn things. This greater diversity doesn’t interest me quite so much, if only because there has been no push towards expanding the options for male competitors. The day that a male couple, or a transgendered man, or a man who wants his axe to be glittery, occupies a role on Robot Wars, I think we’ll have an interesting conversation. Until then, let’s quickly note the most common ways that men-folk inhabit the Robot Wars world.
There’s The Joker/Boaster (see also: “the young man”) best epitomised by eventual series winners Apollo. Young, besuited men who are out to “entertain”, their engineering kudos wasn’t as pronounced as many of their competitors, but this expense was mitigated by branching into a masculinity that was evident in the first seven series (oh I remember Nemesis fondly) but remains a difficult act to pull off. To be genuinely humorous requires accepting the limitations and slightly ludicrous tenor of the show itself, and yet remain respectable in the arena itself. They did so gallantly.
The Tech-Head’s (see also: “the younger man”; “the older man”) are the bread and butter of Robot Wars. The men, young or old, who can exist with or without a Counsellor or Sandwich Maker (bonus rugged masculinity point for going solo; plus I’m-getting-laid points for having a Counsellor; bonus sandwiches with a Sandwich-Maker). Series runners-up Carbide were a decent example of this. They had a cocksure swagger, boosted with getting-laid points, which meant that while on the one hand they didn’t qualify as tech-heads extraordinaire (girls detract from tech-know-how, because ultimately they aren’t actual robots) they did avoid the, however harsh, “basement dweller” pitfall. Top job.
Finally there’s The Father/Son (see also: “the boss”; “the servant”) combo, such as the TR2 team (replete with arguably the most dynamic Sandwich-Maker in the series). These combos are invariably most exciting when the two male leads either get on exceptionally well (it can be authentically touching) or when the authority-bearing, the conflict between a child-like desperation to attach all possible importance on the event, the fatherly devotion to his child’s happiness versus his own ego, becomes a simmering tension worthy of The Archers. Within this combination, one can detect the impulse of a tech-head, or an entertainer. As such, this is a fluid constellation from which can be birthed all manner of future stars: just another example of the transformative potential for male competitors.
Indeed racism and sexism work by disregarding evidence or by rendering evidence unreliable or suspicious – often by rendering those who have direct experience of racism and sexism unreliable and suspicious. This disregarding – which is at once a form of regarding – has a central role in maintaining an order of things. Simply put: that evidence of something is deemed insufficient is a mechanism for reproducing something. – Sara Ahmed
I don’t think I’m making any leftfield claims or bizarre observations here. What started as a thought experiment (“I should jot some notes about gender while watching Robot Wars stoned! lolz”) turned into a writing experiment. I could hear heckles of “looking for problems” and “professionally outraged feminists!” while I was doodling. This in itself forced me to force myself to type something up. As Ahmed points out, when the evidence of something is fobbed off as insufficient so regularly, so unblinkingly, it’s a mechanism for reproduction. Sociology 101, that damn Mickey Mouse discipline. So, I wrote it down – that’s all.