Is it time for the trans world to take a more nuanced approach when it comes to comedy?
I only ask because, after a week or two of being very busy, I return to various trans forums to find the community in a froth about two allegedly humorous broadcasts. The first, a running joke on Channel 4 panel show “8 out of 10 cats”, in which Sean Lock makes much mileage out of the word “tranny”. Second, an ad for Pot Noodle (inserted below for readers to make their own minds up).
Beware, though: some WILL find it offensive.
How horrid! And yet, as we know only too well, any and every such outburst will be defended with clichés along the lines of “its just a joke”, “just a bit of fun” and, most subtly barbed of all: “don’t you – the person offended – have a sense of humour?”
There, in a nutshell, is the problem. Comedy is regarded by many as outside the ordinary rules of society. Leaning on its roots in various “feasts of misrule” it’s a space where anything goes and nothing is sacrosanct. Therefore, so the logic runs, it is beyond everyday rules. It may give offense: but that is part of its charm.
Comedy is seriously vicious
Comedy is also, outside of rare spaces like the Two Ronnies, who relied on a monumentally impressive amount of pure word play, about aggression. Either inward directed, giving rise to the Laurel and Hardy style of clowning: or outward, which is very much the spirit of the age, and one major reason why so many people find so much so offensive. Because its MEANT to be.
Nah. Its complex. So let’s apply a bit of academic discipline to try to pull this together. Inputs, outputs and action.
Let’s start with input. The bulk of trans “humour” is not, I think, intended to offend or hurt. In that, it is very different from, say, the anti-Jewish Nazi propaganda of the thirties, or anti-gay films from the US of the 50’s and 60’s. Its born of a mixture of distance and ignorance and therefore there is much to be achieved from dialogue as opposed to shouting at the perpetrators.
In some instances, it IS intended to stir: to cause the audience to shift uncomfortably in their seats. But that is not restricted to trans targets. Those who work like that will get far more mileage from edgy paedophile jokes than they do from transition.
I’d even go further: many of the great comedians of the 60’s and 70’s – Kenneth Williams, Frankie Howard for starters – were wrestling with their own issues of sexuality. Only later did we discover that they weren’t actually mocking from the outside – but very much from within.
So, too, the trans comedy circuit: it would not surprise me to find, in ten years or so, that some of those most roundly condemned now were actually working thru gender issues of their own.
Does trans humour “cause” harm? OMG! That’s an enormous – and enormously misplaced – question and one I think is beyond the scope of most of us to answer. In the sense that some violent anti-trans acts can be pinned on single instances of humour, I’d say such is rare, but not unimaginable. Ditto religion (crimes committed against and in the name of). Ditto any other minority group.
But so what? The real question – one we are hard put to answer – is whether a particular line or genre causes an aggregate increase in harm. Because as well as reinforcing bigotry, humour informs and sometimes defuses the strangeness of the other.
An example – and a reason why we need to get beyond simplistic knee-jerk reactions to the t-word, and look more closely at the narrative of humour: a recent panel show involved a comic exchange about transgender. The main comment came from a comedian who talked about trans and clearly distinguished ts and tv in his joke.
Oh sure, I hear you say: big deal. But given that we are but ten years from a view that trans is “just” a monolithic sexual kink, this is progress. And for viewers who will get bugger all info any other way, that is informing.
But this stuff offends. It upsets. Yep. Sure does. I have myself been deeply affected on occasion by some trans stuff. Most recently, it was the “Always” ad, involving a trans woman crying because she could never have a use for pads. Apart from being untrue, that single ad wrapped up inside it so much loss and longing for me, it reduced me to tears.
It was not so much the anti-trans-ery that got to me, as the insensitivity. About as sensitive as screening a woman who’d just lost a child in tears because she’d never get to use a particular brand of nappy…
I protested. P&G apologised.
And that’s about as far as I think we can go. As a community, I think it right and proper for bodies like TMW to explain to the media what offends, what upsets. It is right to underscore the appalling violence against the trans community not BECAUSE humour definitively causes it…but because when your daily experience is one of violence, or threat thereof, a comedian making smart remarks about your presumed sexuality is just one more thing you don’t need.
I certainly don’t want stuff banned – or worse, laws in place to block stuff. As if a government that has only just recognised trans would anyway pass special laws to cater for our feelings. Nah. If such a ban came it would include other minorities. And whilst they’re at it, maybe a law, as per Romania, forbidding the lampooning of government servants (i.e. politicians) cause it hurts THEIR feelings.
I will fight for the trans community. Fiercely. Because I’m a rough fighter when it comes to political stuff and we need rough fighting as well as the smooth. Still, my focus for campaigning, increasingly, is in other areas: child abuse, discrimination against and exploitation of sex workers and violence against women.
Our stuff matters. So does their’s. And they are linked: the same sexism that leads to misogynist jokes is often at the root of transphobia.
Which makes me increasingly puzzled as to why we rail so against tranny jokes (mostly directed against trans women), yet fail to be as quick with the broader misogyny.
The acid point is: for a group that identifies as women, that seems at times to be a strange omission. The tactical point: if we obsess too much about OUR oppression, that doesn’t win allies elsewhere in the women’s movement and beyond.