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Ulrika Jonsson is right, the new Gladiators is ‘woke’

...and what’s wrong with that? If anything, the show’s reboot proves that ‘updating for a modern audience’ doesn’t mean ripping out the heart of what made it appealing in the first place, but enhancing it

Ryan Coogan
Tuesday 16 January 2024 07:45 GMT
Gladiators trailer

The Nineties are back, baby, and you know what that means: discourse about whether or not the things we enjoyed as kids were “problematic”.

That’s right, as we mine the last decade of the 20th century for every single scrap of nostalgia we can find, so too must we reckon with the question of whether or not our faves should actually be consigned to the dustbin of cancellation. Was Are You Afraid of the Dark fatphobic? Should Kenan & Kel come with a trigger warning? Are Tamagotchis sustainably sourced? Nothing is sacred – everything that was once good is secretly bad.

The latest piece of Nineties ephemera to be put on trial is the Saturday evening gameshow staple Gladiators, which returned to our screens last night in all its muscly, oily, spandexed glory. The reboot received criticism in the run up to its premier from former host Ulrika Jonsson, who suspected the show may have become “woke rubbish” in the intervening years due to the absence of cheerleaders (a staple of the original incarnation).

Maybe Jonsson is right. Maybe the snowflakes of today just couldn’t handle the unbridled Nineties machismo of the original, so the cowards over at the BBC had no choice but to “woke-ify” the once-sacred format of big men hitting slightly smaller men with massive Q-tips. But is that really the worst thing in the world?

In an interview with The DailyTelegraph, Jonsson admits that she was made to feel “uncomfortable” by series director Nigel Lythgoe, who put her in a leotard and tight leggings in the show’s first season. Lythgoe would later be accused of sexual assault by Paula Abdul while working on American Idol and So You Think You Can Dance (claims which Lythgoe denies).

“I was probably a bit of totty in his eyes, so he put me in really slinky clothes”, says Jonsson. “I remember standing there with my boobs up here thinking, this is horrible. Nowadays you’d put your foot down straight away, but it wasn’t the climate. And also, I’d just been given a big show to do, so you don’t want to kick up a fuss.”

I’m still not entirely sure what it means to be “woke”, since the definition seems to change according to the GB News presenter screaming it, but I’m fairly certain that a recurring feature of so-called wokery is discouraging the exact type of sexual exploitation that Jonsson herself experienced. Does she not see the irony of decrying the absence of cheerleaders in one breath, and lamenting her own lack of bodily autonomy in the other. Could it be that there is perhaps a line that could be drawn from one to the other?

I watched last night’s show, and one of the great things about it was its ability to capture the spirit of the original without having to rely on those problematic elements. It was still fun and camp and sort of weird, and it wasn’t like they were making the titular gladiators wrestle in trackies and jumpers – if you were there for the lycra, they had you covered in spades.

If anything, the entire show is a testament to the fact that we can still enjoy those things from our youth, and that “updating them for a modern audience” doesn’t mean ripping out the heart of what made them appealing in the first place. Sure, the cheerleaders are gone, but you know what isn’t gone? Enormous people with ridiculous names. Fury, Steel, Giant, Sleepy, Doc – the gang’s all here!

I’m a big fan of professional wrestling, which like Gladiators, had its heyday in the Nineties and relied on some questionable tropes. Modern WWE is, despite ridding itself of some of the harmful subject matter that defined that era, currently experiencing a huge resurgence while managing to stay in line with modern sensibilities. Its rival promotion AEW is, on the other hand, struggling to connect with fans despite marketing itself as the kind of gritty, bloody, no-holds-barred presentation that characterised the genre during its boom period.

Likewise, the reboot of lauded Nineties sitcom Frasier received a much better reception than expected despite its sensitivity to modern trends, while the Roseanne reboot’s refusal to get with the times saw it universally panned and ultimately cancelled, before later being replaced with a more “woke” follow up in The Conners.

I don’t know what “woke” means anymore, and at this point I refuse to learn. But if all it takes to be “woke” is to avoid upsetting people while keeping the heart and fun of something intact, that seems like a net good to me.

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