Where we see vulnerability, Frankie Boyle sees a target

Frankie Boyle passes off his jokes about rape and "retards" as satire, but it is just vile with a smile, says Nicky Clark.

What has Frankie Boyle got that Jim Davidson hasn’t? Celebrity friends on Twitter, for a start. These sons of Glaswegians both like to think of themselves as edgy, opposed to political correctness and telling it like it is. If "funny for money" is a spectrum then Jim stays to the right and Frankie stays to the left, but they are in step.
 
They both have armies of devoted fans ready to pay for the privilege of the comedy of cruelty. They talk about free speech, but I see it as having a higher purpose than ridiculing a glamour model’s children, or making jokes about "special needs". 

Whereas Davidson is overt, obvious and blatant in his bigotry, Boyle, like the teacher he wanted to be, is educating us lesser souls that he knows best and we really need to listen. Call it satire, but to me, it’s just vile with a smile.
 


The BBC has hosted both of these “comics” and brought their humour to a wider audience. However, that relationship has waned and died in both cases. Boyle wrote a letter detailing how it wasn’t his fault and made a beeline for taboo-busting Channel 4. His new sketch show got several complaints for “jokes” which demonstrate both his favourite topic and some people’s tolerance for cruelty.

In a few short punchy sentences, Frankie realised his talent lay in belittling and dehumanising a blind autistic child, but he packaged this up as a comment about Katie Price's celebrity and called it satire. I’m not sure that’s exactly what people immediately think of when they hear the word satire. I think of iconoclasts, destroyers of pomposity, the pretension of politics laid bare.
 
Suggesting that an innocent child needs to be prevented from fucking his own mother isn’t exactly an exhaustive deconstruction of our celebrity culture. And suggesting that his mother and step-father were fighting over his custody in a divorce because neither wanted him due to his disability, doesn’t exactly address the issue of a media obsessed with reality TV shows, or the dumbing down of a ratings driven medium. But as I say, we all have our own interpretation of satire.



Ultimately, however it’s dressed up, the truth is that where we see vulnerability, Frankie sees a target. He likes the word “retard” which I’m sure he would like us to believe is a statement referencing linguistic oppression. I think he just likes to mock the “weak”.
 
If he feels oppressed by others asking him not to use it, how does he think it feels to be a learning disabled person having abuse screamed at them in the street? It’s pretty oppressive to be too scared to leave your home, because people who find “Fun Boy” Frankie and his arsenal of barbed comments “hilarious” tend to copy their heroes. School is tough enough when you have a disability. Bullies must bless the day when their scriptwriter got his own show.
 

Gemma Hayter, the woman with learning disabilities ask to drink urine and beaten to death in 2010, could tell Frankie a thing or two about hatred and oppression. I doubt it would make him cry like the documentary on Palestine which brought him to tears. Having clearly learned from the old style bigots, Frankie lets his left-leaning, caring side show so that the obviousness of his bullying gets diluted enough so as to be overlooked in favour of the “good stuff”. Gemma was learning disabled and she found some friends who liked a laugh. They liked it so much that they laughed and laughed as they tortured her to death and then dumped her naked body by a railway line. 

Perhaps they didn’t call her “retard” as they tortured her. But it's likely that they did, because hate crimes, as with all bullying, often begin with a “joke” and verbal abuse. It’s unlikely Gemma would have got any of the “jokes” that preceded her murder. She wasn’t cynical or aware enough of her own vulnerability to know the difference between being a friend and being a toy to be played with and then thrown away. To her family, she was a person who mattered not a punchline to a joke. Certainly not “just a retard”. 

I suppose the difference is in the detail as you exchange tweets with other celebrities, then tweet rape “jokes” followed by info on rape survivor fundraisers. Smart clever, ironic, satirical even. Bizarrely, the same stars who appear on Comic Relief to tearfully tell us about projects which help disabled children recover from bullying in school seem willing to effectively hold your coat; giving you the credibility to get TV shows commissioned where you can verbally punch disabled people in the face.

Funny ha ha.

The point is, Frankie, when I see your face, all I see is man who knows better, laughing all the way to the bank. All I think of are children, who become adults, who get beaten to death because celebrities like you normalise stigmatising attitudes through bigoted jokes.

Your way is to follow the path of "never apologise, never explain" and certainly don’t change - because just like Jim Davison, you know there’s enormous amounts of money to be made from misery.

I suppose that’s not your problem though, is it? You just make the mess. You can’t be expected to clean it up.
 

Or, as the original title of Tramadol Nights put it: Deal with this, retards.

Nicky Clark tweets: @mrsnickyclark 

Who's laughing? Photo: Getty Images
Getty
Show Hide image

The struggles of Huma Abedin

On the behind-the-scenes story of Hillary Clinton’s closest aide.

In a dreary campaign, it was a moment that shone: Hillary Clinton, on the road to the caucus in Iowa, stopping at a Mexican fast-food restaurant to eat and somehow passing unrecognised. Americans of all political persuasions gleefully speculated over what her order – a chicken burrito bowl with guacamole – revealed about her frame of mind, while supporters gloated that the grainy security-camera footage seemed to show Clinton with her wallet out, paying for her own lunch. Here was not the former first lady, senator and secretary of state, known to people all over the world. This was someone’s unassuming grandmother, getting some food with her colleagues.

It might be unheard of for Clinton to go unrecognised but, for the woman next to her at the till, blending into the background is part of the job. Huma Abedin, often referred to as Clinton’s “shadow” by the US media, is now the vice-chair of her presidential campaign. She was Clinton’s deputy chief of staff at the state department and has been a personal aide since the late 1990s.

Abedin first met Clinton in 1996 when she was 19 and an intern at the White House, assigned to the first lady’s office. She was born in Michigan in 1976 to an Indian father and a Pakistani mother. When Abedin was two, they moved from the US to Saudi Arabia. She returned when she was 18 to study at George Washington University in Washington, DC. Her father was an Islamic scholar who specialised in interfaith reconciliation – he died when she was 17 – and her mother is a professor of sociology.

While the role of “political body woman” may once have been a kind of modern maid, there to provide a close physical presence and to juggle the luggage and logistics, this is no longer the case. During almost 20 years at Clinton’s side, Abedin has advised her boss on everything from how to set up a fax machine – “Just pick up the phone and hang it up. And leave it hung up” – to policy on the Middle East. When thousands of Clinton’s emails were made public (because she had used a private, rather than a government, server for official communication), we glimpsed just how close they are. In an email from 2009, Clinton tells her aide: “Just knock on the door to the bedroom if it’s closed.”

Abedin shares something else with Clinton, outside of their professional ties. They are both political wives who have weathered their husbands’ scandals. In what felt like a Lewinsky affair for the digital age, in 2011, Abedin’s congressman husband, Anthony Weiner, resigned from office after it emerged that he had shared pictures of his genitals with strangers on social media. A second similar scandal then destroyed his attempt to be elected mayor of New York in 2013. In an ironic twist, it was Bill Clinton who officiated at Abedin’s and Weiner’s wedding in 2010. At the time, Hillary is reported to have said: “I have one daughter. But if I had a second daughter, it would [be] Huma.” Like her boss, Abedin stood by her husband and now Weiner is a house husband, caring for their four-year-old son, Jordan, while his wife is on the road.

Ellie Foreman-Peck

A documentary filmed during Weiner’s abortive mayoral campaign has just been released in the US. Weiner shows Abedin at her husband’s side, curtailing his more chaotic tendencies, always flawless with her red lipstick in place. Speaking to the New York Observer in 2007, three years before their marriage, Weiner said of his future wife: “This notion that Senator Clinton is a cool customer – I mean, I don’t dispute it, but the coolest customer in that whole operation is Huma . . . In fact, I think there’s some dispute as to whether Huma’s actually human.” In the film, watching her preternatural calm under extraordinary pressure, you can see what he means.

In recent months, Abedin’s role has changed. She is still to be found at Clinton’s side – as the burrito photo showed – but she is gradually taking a more visible role in the organisation overall, as they pivot away from the primaries to focus on the national race. She meets with potential donors and endorsers on Clinton’s behalf and sets strategy. When a running mate is chosen, you can be sure that Abedin will have had her say on who it is. There’s a grim symmetry to the way politics looks in the US now: on one side, the Republican candidate Donald Trump is calling for a ban on Muslims entering the country; on the other, the presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton relies ever more on her long-time Muslim-American staffer.

Years before Trump, notable Republicans were trying to make unpleasant capital out of Abedin’s background. In 2012, Tea Party supporters alleged that she was linked to the Muslim Brotherhood and its attempt to gain access “to top Obama officials”. In her rare interviews, Abedin has spoken of how hurtful these baseless statements were to her family – her mother still lives in Saudi Arabia. Later, the senator and former Republican presidential candidate John McCain spoke up for her, saying that Abedin represented “what is best about America”.

Whether senior figures in his party would do the same now remains to be seen.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad