Laughing matters?

Attitudes towards trans people betray the wider failures of "alternative" comedy.

Growing up in the Nineties with plenty of "alternative" humour on television, including Chris Morris, Lee and Herring and The Friday Night Armistice, I was told that predictability is the enemy of laughter. The narrative behind their growing popularity ran that the Bad Old Comedy (stand-ups like Bernard Manning and Jim Davidson, and sitcoms such as Love Thy Neighbour) used cheap stereotypes to pick on easy targets, especially ethnic minorities, women and gay men, before rightly being sidelined by a new wave, more adventurous in form and content.

As it transpired - and as Stewart Lee has expertly depicted via a range of television and stand-up shows, and Suzanne Moore recently documented - the Nineties represented the mid-point between the old guard's overthrow and the rise of comics who similarly exploited populist prejudices to become the new orthodoxy. Unlike their predecessors, they may justify their acts by claiming irony or opposition to their straw man conception of political correctness but in practice, their apparent stretching of liberal boundaries is sometimes barely distinguishable from the retrograde bullying of the Seventies, even if the butts of their jokes are slightly different.

Britain's trans community is increasingly concerned with how media representation affects our lives, and frustrated at how regularly comedians reduce our bodies and social challenges to objects of derision. Whilst being far from the only minority group in this position, it's especially damaging as the number of "out" trans people remains relatively small, and so for many people, the clichés in Little Britain or Littlejohn cartoons (for example) go unquestioned, and continue to be used against any trans person who dares to be visible.

As an openly trans woman in a (still) frequently transphobic society, I deal with a certain amount of street harassment. The most stressful encounters nearly always start with being laughed at, sometimes with aspects of my dress or demeanour singled out. This usually comes when I am alone, from a group of people, or a passing car (an act of cowardice just one rung above calling someone a cunt via the internet). Violence, threatened or realised, is rarely their first weapon, but I know that if I object to the taunts, or incidents where my basic existence serves as a comic foil, then I can expect them to assert their power with more aggression than passivity. If I or anyone else reasons with them - it's just "banter".

Often, the insults are generic, and I cannot identify their main cultural influence. However, if some slack-jawed wazzock hollers "I'm a lady!" at me, I know exactly where it came from. At times, it felt that Little Britain (deconstructed here by Johann Hari) and its successor Come Fly With Me served as an index of those which contemporary comedy deems legitimate to ridicule, its "rubbish transvestites" appealing to as low a denominator as its attacks on the white working class or isolated gay men striving to define their identities.

The trend epitomised by Lucas and Walliams's hit series has not been discontinued. Christine Burns and Paris Lees both discussed Russell Howard's recent Good News sketch, made in response to reports of a Thai airline allowing trans women (who struggle to find safe employment elsewhere) to work as cabin crew, which relied upon depictions of trans people that could have been lifted from the Daily Mail. Clearly, some viewers find these images funny - that is their right - and not all trans people find this particularly skit offensive, but it raises questions about when and how it is fair for performers to use stereotypes, and the extent of their responsibility to interrogate their origins rather than merely reiterating them.

When we complain about such comedy, the accusation that we are humourless is often used as a counter, as it was against feminist critiques in the pre-alternative days. The truth that this allegation (which has itself become something of a cliché) ignores, or serves to mask, is that gifted comedians can and often do empower marginalised groups. During my teens, Eddie Izzard's laudable wit in discussing his transvestism, and particularly in exploding the media trope of the psychotic cross-dresser, proved immensely useful, helping me relax about my gender difference and setting favourable terms for me to disclose it to friends.

Despite Izzard's breakthrough, the dialogue remained notably one-sided - until recently. As trans issues gradually become more mainstream, a wave of distinctive, intelligent stand-ups are offering humorous perspectives on them, even if they are not (yet) darlings of the ubiquitous panel shows. This new generation includes transvestite Andrew O'Neill, transsexual women Claire Parker and Bethany Black, and trans man Jason Elvis Barker, all providing fresh takes on trans living and numerous other subjects, undermining the myth that we talk about little besides our own genders.

Ultimately, the Eighties' more inventive voices - Kevin McAleer, Ted Chippington and Simon Munnery amongst them - proved the most resistant to mainstream assimilation. In part, this was because they rose above reactionary rants about "political correctness gone mad" that characterised some of their lazier contemporaries, who have forgotten for too long that the right to free speech works best when balanced with the responsibility to use any position of privilege fairly. Now, 30 years after the alternative revolution broke into clubs and onto screens, audiences look from Love Thy Neighbour to Little Britain, Mind Your Language to Mock the Week, and cannot always tell which is which.

Juliet Jacques is a freelance journalist and writer who covers gender, sexuality, literature, film, art and football. Her writing can be found on her blog at and she can be contacted on Twitter @julietjacques.

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There are risks as well as opportunities ahead for George Osborne

The Chancellor is in a tight spot, but expect his political wiles to be on full display, says Spencer Thompson.

The most significant fiscal event of this parliament will take place in late November, when the Chancellor presents the spending review setting out his plans for funding government departments over the next four years. This week, across Whitehall and up and down the country, ministers, lobbyists, advocacy groups and town halls are busily finalising their pitches ahead of Friday’s deadline for submissions to the review

It is difficult to overstate the challenge faced by the Chancellor. Under his current spending forecast and planned protections for the NHS, schools, defence and international aid spending, other areas of government will need to be cut by 16.4 per cent in real terms between 2015/16 and 2019/20. Focusing on services spending outside of protected areas, the cumulative cut will reach 26.5 per cent. Despite this, the Chancellor nonetheless has significant room for manoeuvre.

Firstly, under plans unveiled at the budget, the government intends to expand capital investment significantly in both 2018-19 and 2019-20. Over the last parliament capital spending was cut by around a quarter, but between now and 2019-20 it will grow by almost 20 per cent. How this growth in spending should be distributed across departments and between investment projects should be at the heart of the spending review.

In a paper published on Monday, we highlighted three urgent priorities for any additional capital spending: re-balancing transport investment away from London and the greater South East towards the North of England, a £2bn per year boost in public spending on housebuilding, and £1bn of extra investment per year in energy efficiency improvements for fuel-poor households.

Secondly, despite the tough fiscal environment, the Chancellor has the scope to fund a range of areas of policy in dire need of extra resources. These include social care, where rising costs at a time of falling resources are set to generate a severe funding squeeze for local government, 16-19 education, where many 6th-form and FE colleges are at risk of great financial difficulty, and funding a guaranteed paid job for young people in long-term unemployment. Our paper suggests a range of options for how to put these and other areas of policy on a sustainable funding footing.

There is a political angle to this as well. The Conservatives are keen to be seen as a party representing all working people, as shown by the "blue-collar Conservatism" agenda. In addition, the spending review offers the Conservative party the opportunity to return to ‘Compassionate Conservatism’ as a going concern.  If they are truly serious about being seen in this light, this should be reflected in a social investment agenda pursued through the spending review that promotes employment and secures a future for public services outside the NHS and schools.

This will come at a cost, however. In our paper, we show how the Chancellor could fund our package of proposed policies without increasing the pain on other areas of government, while remaining consistent with the government’s fiscal rules that require him to reach a surplus on overall government borrowing by 2019-20. We do not agree that the Government needs to reach a surplus in that year. But given this target wont be scrapped ahead of the spending review, we suggest that he should target a slightly lower surplus in 2019/20 of £7bn, with the deficit the year before being £2bn higher. In addition, we propose several revenue-raising measures in line with recent government tax policy that together would unlock an additional £5bn of resource for government departments.

Make no mistake, this will be a tough settlement for government departments and for public services. But the Chancellor does have a range of options open as he plans the upcoming spending review. Expect his reputation as a highly political Chancellor to be on full display.

Spencer Thompson is economic analyst at IPPR