Transgender and Comedy

A friend of mine posted a cute cartoon on Facebook about how a lot of old shows and movies use someone being ‘tricked’ into finding a Trans person attractive as high comedy, because apparently it is the most humiliating thing that can happen to a guy.

It is always the same old thing… a straight guy meets a Trans person or crossdresser (because apparently we’re the same thing) and doesn’t clock ‘it’. Either their mates notice and then mercilessly tease him for it, or he takes ‘it’ home, finds the meat and two veg and subsequently freaks out.

Or it’s some 20-stone truck driver with 7’oclock stubble and an awful wig trying to act like a delicate little princess. Or just alpha male types putting forward the idea that it is ridiculous for a ‘man’ to want to cut off his dick because, like the Sun for Superman, it is the source of all his power. Sticking Jared Leto in a movie as a Transwoman with AIDS who *SPOILER ALERT* … DIES… to act as the comic relief, and then giving him an Oscar for the biggest sacrifice to dignity since Charlize Theron agreed to look ugly in ‘Monster’, garnered a lot of praise from critics. I wonder if the same critics would be singing such praise if the next time they did a Mandela Biopic they put boot polish on Benedict Cumberbatch’s face and made him do Jazz hands every ten seconds?

Trans jokes CAN be funny. Radio 4 stalwart Jeremy Hardy, with his surrealist wordplay or faux-bigot shtick can come up with some quite amusing jokes involving Trans people and Trans-ness that don’t actually pick on anyone.

e.g. “You don’t want trans-fats, they’re bad for you because they change your gender.”

So what is different between the more traditional ‘Tranny’ joke, and the more surreal style of Mister Hardy. Both are, of course absolute nonsense, which is a good start with humour. The problem is a simple one – Everyone knows that Hardy’s joke is nonsense.

The activities of Transpeople on screen are rarely different between comedy and drama. The only difference seems to be the consequences. The foundation though is that ALL Transpeople are deceptive, duplicitous and perverted and the comedy comes from that preconception. In public consciousness we don’t have a neutral start point. Imagine the old stereotype of black men all being criminals and rapists being the foundation for EVERY portrayal of a black male character, or the idea of all gay characters being promiscuous, AIDS spreading vitriolic queens being the starting point for every homosexual we see on TV or in Film. We’d be back in the 1980s and anyone who doesn’t vote Tory wouldn’t want that, would they!

Alan Carr and Graham Norton for example, despite being highly visible members of the LGBT community are quick to fall back on a ‘Tranny’ joke to elicit a quick laugh from an audience, and with them being part of the same acronym it almost seems to gives them a sense of even greater authority to say these things.

Let us not be humourless. Crossdressing is a massive staple of British performing arts going back to the very beginnings of theatre when women could not perform on stage and men had to take the female roles. This subversion of gender roles in popular culture is arguably part of the reason that Britain is as liberal and open minded at is today.

Some writers and directors can even tell the whole ‘Kissy-Kissy, Gropey-gropey SURPRISE PENIS’ story very well.

Two examples spring to mind: ‘Trainspotting’ and ‘The Crying Game’. Neither of which are actual comedy films, but dramas which rely on a lot of humour to offset the darker themes in each.

In Trainspotting, it is not that Begbie (Robert Carlyle) discovers that that the woman he is getting off with is Transsexual that creates the comedy of the scene, it is the fact that BEGBIE discovers that the woman he is getting off with is Transsexual. The context of the scene of course being that while the Protagonist, Mark Renton (Ewan McGregor) is narrating about how he is embracing this liberal, forward thinking culture with its modern views on the mutability and transcendence of gender, Begbie, the film’s antagonist is shown reacting violently to the situation… not to the woman like he would with anyone else, but with himself, hinting a lot about the source of his pent up homophobic, overly aggressive, alpha-male personality, and he then turns violent on Renton for suggesting that the experience ‘might have been beautiful’. The Transwoman involved is not the butt of the joke, it is Begbie. Not because he got ‘conned’ into anything, but because he is just an arsehole who cannot be anything else.

In the Crying Game, Fergus, played skilfully by Stephen Rhea is very much an Alpha male who doesn’t know that the woman he is attracted to, Dil (Jaye Davidson), is Trans, and while his reaction upon finding out is not the most Trans friendly way of dealing with the situation, any potential deception on Dill’s part is quickly negated by suggesting that she thought he knew. While the film has its comedy moments, they are character based and centred around Dil and Fergus’ awkward flirting and developing relationship both before and after the big reveal, and also with a sarcastic bartender played by Jim Broadbent, and a Tracksuited, Essex boy ‘Tranny’ Chaser played by the fantastic Ralph Brown. There is a great deal of Comedy from the situations that involve Dil’s transness, without it stemming purely from the fact that she is.

The point is that despite the differences in the nature of the scenes. While one is intended for comic effect and the other is the crux of an entire story, neither seek to demean the Trans person involved. Compare, for example, with the brief scene in the 2012 Christmas Special of the Royle Family where Joe is on a date with the already mentioned ’20-stone-truck-driver-in-a-wig’ archetype, being unaware that he is having dinner with a ‘Tranny’ as the rest of the family describe the individual whilst laughing their heads off. A one off joke that serves no purpose but to get the audience to laugh at the ‘freak’.

The real frustration is that, despite the improvements in equality law and gender recognition, the best example of a three-dimensional, rounded, complex trans character in a comedic role was not only in a drama about IRA terrorism, but that it came out 22 YEARS AGO! Trainspotting itself was 18 years ago. Comedy seems very much to have fallen back on the idea that the only thing that can be funny about Trans people, is the fact that we are Trans. Now, I’m not going to start shouting about how every show has to have a Trans person in it to be inclusive, but considering how often Trans people are used for comic effect, the fact that it’s been 22 years since we last had a fair and accurate comedic portrayal is ridiculous. One could argue about Laverne Cox’s character in ‘Orange is the New Black’ but the fact that she is portrayed as a criminal is hardly representative. It’s about time we had another Dil in popular culture, and not just another Jared Leto in a dress.



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