In the Wales Arts Review, Siobhan Denton is revisiting the idea of Welsh female stereotypes identified by the historian Deirdre Beddoe thirty years ago. Nigel Jarrett takes issue with Denton’s assertion in her first essay that the public portrayal of the proverbial Welsh ‘Mam’ is still entrenched, and that little has changed in our perception
Not the least worrying feature of an off-the-cuff cultural essay is the reliance of its pontifications on a slender empirical base. In revisiting Professor Deidre Beddoe’s examination of the proverbial ‘Welsh Mam’, Siobhan Denton adduces just a single example to show how the character is portrayed in contemporary Welsh media, whatever that is (or they are). Nor does Denton appear to employ the word ‘stereotyping’ in its proper nomenclature: a ‘stereotype’, in its pejorative meaning, the one she clearly intends, is the lazy and repeated insistence on a concept that no longer fits the facts, if it ever did. Her one example, the matriarch Gwen in the TV series Gavin & Stacey, is thus a paradox, for, as anyone familiar with family life in the South Wales industrial heartlands will know, there are still Gwens aplenty. More examples might have strengthened her argument – or subverted it. She does mention Ruth Jones’s Stella, but Stella is not the unmitigated Mam represented by Gwen.
In identifying so-called ‘stereotypes’, it is easy to confuse what is for what one would like it to be, or not to be. The writers of Gavin and Stacey did not perhaps create a typical Welsh ‘Mam’ because they had no other conception of what a Welsh ‘Mam’ is – working single mother with child looked after by its grandparents and living in Llandeilo; married mother with children who go to a nursery in Bettws-y-Coed, and all the permutations of those – but probably called on personal experience. That Gavin & Stacey won plaudits for the witty accuracy of its scenarios and those who peopled them simply makes Denton’s example limp. Her view that TV audiences might receive from the programme a hackneyed image of Welsh family life takes no account of what they might believe about London life as exemplified by Gavin’s family. Also, anyone might think that the ‘Welsh Mam’ was something different from housebound ‘mams’ all over the world. They call them ‘mums’ in England, but it’s the same person. Gavin’s mother is just different from Stacey’s, that’s all. Denton also says these ‘stereotypes’ are ‘just as prescient’ today. Prescient? Language is often the first casualty in the culture wars. Representation of Welsh people in the ‘media’, she says, is wholly reliant on place and stereotyping as a cultural signifier. Well, aren’t all cultural signifiers so dependent?
The cast of Gavin & Stacey
The temporal context of Beddoe’s thirty-year-old classification is second-wave feminism, each wave dealing with a different set of gender issues, though by the late 1980s, the domestic ones were giving way to others. Few of the critiques dealt with matriarchy as empowerment. The domestic role of women in a one-wage household was always seen as unfair, imprisonment, a denial of the assertion of reproductive rights, or in some similar way an imposed position that obstructed a woman’s freedom to choose. I came from a family in which both my grandfathers were coalminers. Compared to the matriarchy of my grandmothers, the imprisonment of their husbands in a Satanic pit was a fate to be deplored, and deplore it they did, supporting their menfolk on the street when it came to industrial conflict. It was an attitude that survived to the time the British coalfield was decimated and shut down for good, but whether it reflected a misplaced sense of domestic unity or the insistence on a peculiarly ‘female’ role is debatable. These were domestic arrangements entered into beyond any consideration of an alternative, though some miners, or their representatives, had enlightened attitudes to education; not that they envisaged such enlightenment extending to gender role reversal except, perhaps, in some far-off future. (As for viewing miners as uncorrupted and noble sons of toil, enmity and violence below ground was not unknown among a workforce which may have had neither the imagination nor the sense of adventure to seek other work. Without a vocation or a sense of one’s social worth, one cannot claim special consideration.) To the woman’s drudgery of keeping a house and family going, add the relentless and dreary toil of a miner at the coal face. Of course, this Welsh example does not vindicate any perceived injustices in families where the man wins the bread, calls the tunes, and monitors the rules, and the woman stays at home doing the cleaning, shopping and cooking. (In offering everyone omelettes, Gwen is more eccentric than typical.) But it does suggest circumstances in which both could claim to be in the same storm-tossed boat.
The trouble with Denton’s extrapolation of Beddoe is that (a) it doesn’t read as though it’s true and (b) if it were true, the depiction of the Gwens everywhere, particularly in the ‘Welsh media’, would be indicative not of a refusal to acknowledge that things have changed but a realisation that they haven’t. It’s the reality that is regrettable, not the tendency of writers and others to picture it. The words ‘shoot’, ‘message’ and ‘messenger’ come to mind. Thus, Denton’s description of Nessa, the Gavin and Stacey character who becomes a surrogate for Gwen when Stacey leaves home (presumably to be another matriarch but more likely a feisty divorcée) is a perceptive appreciation of a subtly drawn relationship. It happens. Whether or not it should happen is not down to unsympathetic and indolent limners of society, but to viewers (like Denton) who see that something is not as it should be. To admit that other viewers don’t see it that way is condescending. There’s sufficient ‘Mam’ portrayal in Welsh TV to reflect its continuing, possibly over-emphatic, presence; and there’s more than enough observation elsewhere to suggest that writers and commentators are aware of a much more diverse society in which women-as-mothers (it would be insulting to say ‘quite rightly’) are fighting their corners, and not conforming to type. Denton would like matriarchs to have an interest in ‘hobbies’ and ‘activities’ beyond looking after their families. Perhaps they do; but maybe not the ones Denton has in mind and not ones that would play any part in the kind of drama Gavin and Stacey is. If they were, it would be a far different, and less interesting, sit-com. And then again it’s a comedy; the kind of female figure we are discussing here is, by definition, never risible. Comedies under which are subsumed unfortunate cultural shibboleths are always difficult. But to place G&S on a par with the racism and misogyny, casual and overt, of a Bernard Manning, would be to get things out of proportion. Denton would like us to pity Gwen, a comic character. It’s just that she confuses what makes Gwen a figure of fun with qualities that obscure a deeper malaise. And they, she would argue, quite rightly, are not to be laughed at. Culture studies are at root scientific, and science requires evidence. There’s not much of it here, so it’s possible that Gwen the stereotype as Denton sees her is simply conforming to reductive persona by accident. But to suggest that she no longer exists would be a mistake. More ‘type’ than ‘stereotype’, perhaps.
Siobhan Denton’s article on the Wales Arts Review website: