How do the ‘Carry On…’ films reflect attitudes towards gender and sexuality?

The Carry On films (1958–1978) are a series of 30 British comedy films. For the purpose of this piece of work, I’m going to ignore the 31st film (1992)  for three reasons: firstly, my box set doesn’t include it, secondly my favourite stars of the franchise, Charles Hawtrey and Kenneth Williams, have died quite tragic deaths by this point, and thirdly, I’ve been told it’s rubbish by my Dad and I’ll take his word for it!

Kenneth Williams & Charles Hawtrey

The term ‘gender’ is a social, cultural and psychological construct which attributes specific traits and behaviours as being either male or female. Almost every Carry On character is a stereotype (a widely held idea of a person), and thus they are ‘a fascinating guide to the society of that period’.[1]  I am going to focus on the Carry On films’ reflection of attitudes towards gender and sexuality, and how these change across three decades.[2]

Gender ideals

As I have already stated, every Carry On character is a stereotype; one might say that they were holding up a ‘cartoonish mirror to the depressed and repressed Britain of the 1960s and 1970s’. Tanya Gold, writing on behalf of The Guardian, describes ‘the typical Carry On hero’ as ‘an everyman who lives a life of misery, unrequited lust and boredom. They are either ugly and lecherous (Sid James), pretty and foolish (Jim Dale), or obviously repressed gay men (Kenneth Williams and Charles Hawtrey).[3] Quite frankly, I don’t see what all these fictitious women evidently see in Sid James either, and his cackle gets under my skin, but that’s not the point. What can these ‘cartoonish’ characters tell us about contemporary ideas about men?

Sid James

In the very first Carry On film, Carry On Sergeant (1958), Mr Strong (Kenneth Connor) is ironically the weakest recruit. In stark contrast, his week disposition is comical. Mr Strong fails after time to step up to the physical challenges the soldiers must undertake – he tries repeatedly to get signed off as sick. This piece of ironic comedy mocks the ‘weak’ Mr Strong, as men of the time sought to project an aura of toughness and independence. Boys growing up in the 50s were taught by their fathers (and popular culture) to ‘be a man’ and never doing anything that anyone could consider feminine; they had to follow rigid norms.[4] The defence of men’s strength is a theme that reappears even more farcically (if that’s even possible) in Carry On Up The Khyber (1968), throughout which men wearing ‘knickers’ (sometimes knitted by their wives/mothers) under their kilts are teased by the enemy, the Kazi (Kenneth Williams), for being weak. Of course, it is none other than Charles Hawtrey’s character who is first discovered to be wearing knickers to keep warm, playing on his effeminacy and perhaps more confidently hinting at his sexuality just one year after Homosexuality was decriminalised in the UK (more on this later).

In order to keep up their perception as tough real men, they had to avoiding crying and vulnerability. Whilst the men in Carry On films aren’t shown to bawl their eyes out, they do depict men’s’ inability to communicate their emotions, particularly when it comes to love. Again, it is Kenneth Connor’s character in Carry on Teacher (1959) who famously points of the obvious before running away, having struggled to confess his attraction: “Miss Wheeler, I’ve got something to tell you… You’ve got a nose on your face.”

Now onto the women. ‘The women belong to three depressing types. They are either stupid and beautiful (Barbara Windsor), bossy and masculine (Hattie Jacques), or ugly and bitter (Joan Sims). Carry On everywoman…is a loveless harpy, atrophied by loneliness and only able to rage’.[1] Whilst there are a variety of different roles that women play in the series, we must ask whether the role is a positive one – which is hard to measure without being anachronistic (judging the past by today’s standards). One could argue that many of the female characters in the films exist solely to allow the male characters to say ‘phwoar’, have their needs seen to, or grumble about when they’re not.[2]

Several of the Carry On films include scenes of women having a low tolerance for alcohol. This is first alluded to in Carry on Constable (1960), where we see a woman be arrested for being drunk and disorderly having had 8 or 9 brandy. The following year, we see Joan Sims drink far too much wine and start spluttering and crashing into anything and everything in the vicinity in Carry On Regardless (1961). Similar is repeated in Carry On Cruising (1962), Bridget (Esma Cannon) and Flo (Dilys Laye) order drink shot after shot of whisky and vodka in the space of about two minutes, comically asking the bartender for ‘two Flo’s dear’, highlighting the immediate effect of their intoxication. This drunk and disorderly depiction of women is particularly interesting, as pubs had a predominantly male clientele up until the 1970s when they started to introduce restaurants and cater for the whole family.

The division of male and female leisure spheres is, however, suggested in Carry On Nurse (1959) when a nurse questions what the orderly could do for the patient (Wilfrid Hyde-White) that she can’t, suggesting that there are some things women don’t (and shouldn’t) have any involvement in – in this case gambling. This attitude appears to be fairly typical of the time as Holiday Camp (1947) shows Mrs Huggett asking her husband, Joe, if he would teach her instead. Joe scoffs at the idea, stating that he ‘wouldn’t know where to start’. This statement seems ridiculous to us as a modern audience, particularly as he obviously does know how to teach someone how to play snooker, having just offered his services to his son. However, because he declares snooker to be ‘a man’s game’, it’s clear he doesn’t believe his wife possesses the capabilities to learn as his son would.[3] The fact that cab drivers in Carry On Cabby (1963) are concerned about swearing in front of women, further emphasises the distance between the perceived male and female spheres. This also features in Carry On Regardless (1961) when Kenneth Williams’ character refuses to translate presumably rude words in front of a lady, despite her being the one to say them in the first place!

Whilst the men were comically criticised for being week (as previously discussed), the women of the Carry On franchise have frequently been depicted as weak in order to make the men look strong and heroic in typical ‘damsel in distress’ fashion. We first see this play out in Carry On Cabby (1963) when Peg (Hattie Jacques) and her co-worker/friend are going to be mugged. Sid James’ and the rest of the men team up to save the day, trapping the car of the villains. Whilst cliché, I have to admit that I rather liked the car chase – and this is probably one of my favourite films of the series. This ‘damsel in distress’ is taken to quite the extreme three years later in Carry on Screaming (1966) when Doctor Watt (Kenneth Williams) and his sister Valeria (Fenella Fielding) kidnap women and transform them into mannequins (literally objectifying them!). Albert (Jim Dale) then spends the whole film trying to find his girlfriend (and convincing the detectives that this mannequin is her). By the end of the decade however, women are depicted as having a big more fight – quite literally – in Carry on Camping (1969). Doctor Kenneth Soaper (Kenneth Williams) raises concern that the girls at his school ‘might find [camping] a trifle spartan, them being such refined girls’ – cut to Barbara Windsor fighting with another girl in the common room; this may be indicative of women’s increasing independence and thus their changing role within society (to be discussed further in ‘occupation’ and ‘sexuality’.

Mannequin from Carry On Screaming (1966)

Occupation

As I have already discussed in my undergraduate essay, ‘How do British films made during the Second World War reflect contemporary attitudes to gender?’, women, in the absence of men, had been introduced to previously male dominated spheres – primarily the workplace. This new concept of female productivity stirred concerns in men, that women, having tasted in dependence, would be hungry for more, thus there would be continued gender dislocation post-war.[1] Many films created in the immediate post-war period aimed to reassure men that women would resume their stereotypical feminine roles, just as they had done after the previous war. These tensions are something I think that the Carry On films, though the first was produced a decade after the Second World War, still reflect.

Firstly, we see Mr Strong (Kenneth Connor) protest at being seen by a female doctor (Hattie Jacques) whilst he is doing his National Service, he immediately runs out of the consultation room screaming “I want to change my Doctor.” This is the only occasion that we see a female doctor across the entire series, with women typically playing the role of nurse/matron in this environment, as would be the norm at this time. Modern films, such as Meet the Parents (2000) have tackled the reverse of this stereotype, as Gaylord Focker (Ben Stiller) is looked down on by his father-in-law to be (Robert De Niro) for being a nurse as nursing was still considered to be a woman’s job at the turn of the millennium – men should be doctors or surgeons. Strong’s protest continues, until she finally gives in and takes him to see the ‘real experts’ who, surprise surprise, are all male doctors. This suggestion of women’s inferiority to men, and general incompetence features across all Carry On films that have the hospital as their setting – and beyond. In Carry On Nurse (1959) for example, Nurse Dawson is presented as being quite possibly the most clumsiest person alive, crashing into everything and generally wreaking havoc. Even one of the patients’ wife is incapable of filling in a simple form asking for her husband’s name.

Going into the 60s and 70s, we see both genders express their views on women working. In Carry On Regardless (1961), we see women disdainfully try to enter the working world, complaining that “It is a man’s world” and that “there just aren’t any interesting jobs for women”. This highlights women’s newfound desire for independence but reminds us that there was still a very prevalent gender divide – there were some jobs that men did not want women doing, just as there were some jobs that men did not want to do themselves. The women end up being paid for trying on ladies’ undergarments to help a man decide what to buy for his wife, which just emphasises the fact that the male gaze dominates in the Carry On films, where women are frequently seen as ‘sex objects’ rather than productive, independent women.

Cooking, just like nursing, was considered to be a woman’s job – be that in an industrial kitchen, or at home. Therefore, having newly married Mary Sage (Shirley Eaton) struggle to make chips for those doing their National Service in Carry On Sargent (1958) – to me – is quite the criticism as they go against the ideal. This unspoken criticism of women failing at, well, being women, features again in Carry On At Your Convenience (1971) when housewife Beattie Plummer (Hattie Jacques) fails to attend to her husband (Sid James) on his return from work. He repeatedly asks “How about something for tea” only for her to report she has already eaten. Mr Plummer is then gobsmacked that she did not immediately cook something up for him, suggesting that he either cannot, or will not cook for himself. Likewise, he does not clean the table that Beattie has forgotten about, but merely folds the tablecloth up and dumps it all out of his way. So even in the 1970s, we have the image of the doting (or otherwise) housewife against the hardworking man. Eventually, Beattie does take up work at the toilet factory – if only to set Mr Plummer’s wandering eye straight…

For perhaps the first ¾ of the film, Carry On Cabby (1963) is actually quite empowering for women. Peg (Hattie Jacques) declares she wants to go to work, not wanting to sit at home moping around all day waiting for her husband (Sid James) to come home. Her husband of course, doesn’t like this idea, stating he has “never heard anything more ridiculous in [his] life.” Nevertheless, Peg sets up her own taxi company to rival her husbands – and they are quite the success to the point where the male taxi drivers complain about them “taking a man’s job and upsetting the work environment” because “we’d have to watch our language” in the café. This reinforces men’s protectiveness over their masculinity as women’s independence grows. Whilst Peg’s business is undeniably successful (though only because the male clients want a ride from her young and attractive employees over middle-aged men), it comes at the deliberate expense of her husband’s business to ‘prove him wrong’. Peg therefore, is portrayed as sneaky and malicious, which to me, rather degrades her achievements. By the end of the film, as I have already mentioned, the status quo is reversed as Peg becomes a ‘damsel in distress’. This is a perfect example of film acknowledging women’s desire for independence, whilst also reassuring men that they are still strong and that women still rely on them to survive – be that literally or economically.


[1] https://rachelisinthewrongera.com/2020/04/28/how-do-british-films-made-during-the-second-world-war-reflect-contemporary-attitudes-to-gender/


[1] https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2008/apr/17/gender.filmnews

[2]  https://h2g2.com/edited_entry/A87949507

[3] https://rachelisinthewrongera.com/2020/04/14/how-was-womens-leisure-depicted-on-screen-in-the-first-half-of-the-twentieth-century/


[1] https://www.telegraph.co.uk/films/2018/09/17/should-carry-films-consigned-history/

[2] https://h2g2.com/edited_entry/A87949507

[3] https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2008/apr/17/gender.filmnews

[4] https://the-artifice.com/masculinity-gender-roles-tv-1950s/

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