Bewitched, Bewildered and Vajazzled
From the middlebrow pleasures of Downton Abbey, I turn now to The Only Way is Essex - another "staged reality" programme, which seems to be Britain's answer to Jersey Shore. Essex, a county to the east of London, has long had a reputation for siring boorish, uneducated, flashy men and stupid, promiscuous, vulgar women. On the few occasions that I've visited Essex, I've found it just like the rest of Britain, with no fewer or more of those sorts of lazy stereotypes than anywhere else in the country. But the caricature sticks, mainly due to the media giving special attention to people from that part of the country who fit the stereotype - inasmuch the same way as the only openly gay men allowed on tv have to be ultra-feminine.
My husband walked in halfway through last night's "Best of The Only Way is Essex" and ended up spluttering in incoherent rage when he realised what vajazzling was (it involves women glueing tiny jewels onto their pubic regions). When I explained it to him, he thought I'd invented it, as a kind of parody of what fashion-conscious young people might do. But it's real alright.
The people in The Only Way is Essex are all very gendered. The Alpha-male is Mark, who describes himself as Mr Essex. Mark is a very cocky 23 year old who embodies the word swagger.
Do my eyes look dead in this?
There is a Beta-male called James, who wants to be Mark, and may be secretly a bit in love with him. Another Beta-male is called Kirk, who also looks like James and Mark.
The girls are even harder to tell apart than the males. Lauren is Mark's on/off girlfriend, while Mark's sister Jessica is a model, though for a long time I thought she was Amy, a beautician and bejazzling "professional". There is one very very camp and skinny gay man called Harry, who is "fab" and "glam". His special skill is that he can do the splits at a moment's notice, and unlike the other characters, he is desexualised, his main role being as cheerleader and shopping companion to the girls, as well as incidentally making the heterosexual men appear more masculine.
Not much of consequence happens. The characters' beauty regimes take up a lot of their time. When they are not getting fresh vajazzles, they get spray-tanned, or have sun-beds ('beds). Sometimes they sit in one of those jazzucis with little flesh-eating fish in them that appear to have suddenly sprung up all over Britain. Beauty regimes occur before modelling auditions, which come prior to visits to nighclubs or exclusive parties, where the characters get even more dressed up and then have furious encounters where they confront each other for sexual indiscretions, real or imagined. Dialogue generally consists of a series of randomly generated cliches, all made famous from shows like Big Brother: "Shat up!", "At the end of the day, right!", "Aw Babe!"... Occasionally, someone will have a "blonde moment", such as identifying an elephant as a rhino, or not knowing where North London is. To describe this state of intellectual desolation as a "moment" is perhaps the show's only under-statement. Such "moments" appear to be several years in length. It would be more accurate to note the rare points where characters are not ignorant, as them having a "normal moment".
Their ignorance aside, I admire these people for their irrepressible confidence. But I do worry for them. A rather cruel aphorism is "Beauty fades, stupid is forever", and I am reminded of Jodie Marsh - another Essex girl, who only a few years ago helped to pave the way for the current crop. After being voted first off Big Brother, having a false feud with Jordan aka Katie Price, releasing an unintentionally hilarious autobiography and blog (a bit like an extended Alan Bennett monologue), Jodie seems to have sunk back into obscurity. The shelf-life of an Essex girl (or boy) is only slightly longer than a bag of frozen peas. Mark and co - stay off those 'beds.