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27 June 2011

Laughing matters?

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

By Juliet Jacques

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.

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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.

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