Box Seat

The lads are not alright: Why are male adolescents turned into cultural whipping boys?

In his latest column, Ed Cumming looks back at the cultural impact of ‘The Inbetweeners’, a show that never took teenage boyhood seriously, and explores why Liam Williams’s new show is such a refreshing change.

Friday 17 September 2021 10:36 BST
The lads: James Buckley, Blake Harrison, Joe Thomas and Simon Bird in ‘The Inbetweeners Movie’, 2011
The lads: James Buckley, Blake Harrison, Joe Thomas and Simon Bird in ‘The Inbetweeners Movie’, 2011 (Bwark Prods/Kobal/Shutterstock)

The Inbetweeners cast a long shadow on depictions of young British men on TV. It captured all the humiliation of male adolescence, its many different forms and shades. The underdeveloped senses of humour, which relied on scatology and your mum. The shapeless, unfocused lust. The physical embarrassment of your arms and legs and head being out of proportion. The clothes, the powerlessness. The horrendous contrast to women of the same age, who already seemed to know everything, how to dress, how to carry themselves, how to act day to day in preparation for eventual life. That sense of finding yourself in the world but not ready for it, sheltered by the gang of lads in the same boat as you. It was obviously very funny and found an enormous audience, which is why James Buckley, who played Jay, can make hundreds of thousands of pounds swearing at stags on Cameo.

What The Inbetweeners didn’t do was take male adolescence seriously. There’s little sense, even in Simon Bird’s old-before-his-time briefcase w****** Will Mackenzie, that these young idiots will grow up to be men, or that the decisions they’re making might have some bearing on the rest of their lives. But the idiot teenage boys grow up to become adults. Young men are invariably depicted as morons or perverts or both.

All of which is why Liam Williams’s Ladhood, which returned on Sunday for a second series, makes such a refreshing change. Based on his own experiences growing up in Leeds, Ladhood bears superficial similarities with TheInbetweeners. Four lads roam around trying to make fun for themselves while working out how to be in the world. Its stroke of genius is to have the adult Liam acting as a narrator on his youthful actions, interjecting and breaking the fourth wall. A present-day Liam storyline alternates with the historical sections. In the first episode of the new series, the boys get their GCSE results, while in the present Liam goes on a first date. The Game by Neil Strauss is in the air, so the boys are full of the joys of “negging”. When young Liam’s initial advances in a nightclub are rebuffed, he resorts to groping. “You piece of s***,” says Old Liam to his former self.

While he can retrospectively judge his teenage incarnation with all the wisdom of a right-on adult liberal millennial, he has a harder time applying those standards to himself in the present. Adult Liam behaves appallingly on the date, promising the world by night and then reneging on it the morning after. Williams is a soulful, thoughtful stand-up, as well as hilarious. The dual timeframe device lets him have his teenage boy antics while also making a very real point: the standards of behaviour adolescent boys internalise have ramifications for their adult lives. The toxic teen is the father of the toxic man.

I hope lots of people watch Ladhood, because whether we like it or not, the lads still matter. You don’t need to see the footage of England fans at the Euros, or read any number of pieces about masculinity in crisis, to realise that we are still standing on the shoulders of lads. Most of one half of the population spent their formative years roaming in groups of other young men, teaching each other how to behave. If the only image of yourself you see on TV is in The Inbetweeners, you could be forgiven for thinking you might as well live up to the stereotype. There’s no shortage of programmes exploring what happens when the lads grow up, from the Likely Lads to Men Behaving Badly. But intelligent depictions of male adolescence are thin on the ground. The characters in People Just Do Nothing are older, with jobs and children, but they fulfil some of the same criteria. Their ambition rubs up against their hopelessness: it’s funny, but it’s mournful, too. They don’t know how to grow up.

Younger men – young white working and lower-middle-class men in particular – are not sexy subject matter for TV producers. They’re the demographic time forgot. It’s not necessarily a deliberate policy – young men are inherently very funny. It’s not easy to paint them as potential victims, or even as vaguely sympathetic, when they are such obedient whipping boys, always on hand for an easy punchline, masturbating into their socks, trying to buy weed and being turfed out of nightclubs. So it's all the more admirable that Williams has had a go.

The handful of exceptions only prove the rule. Connell from Normal People showed that it’s fine to be a teenage boy, provided you are a handsome sensitive jock with the soul of a poet. Otis from Sex Education shows that you can become a well rounded young man, attuned to the world around you, while getting into scrapes and fulfilling your teenage urges. Then again, he’s being raised by Gillian Anderson. You’d grow out of the adolescent jokes too, if she was your mum.

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