Pop Between Realities, Home in Time for Tea 54 (The League of Gentlemen)

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So, I watched The League of Gentlemen for this post, and my immediate reaction was, essentially, barely coherent rage. At a very specific aspect of the show, for what it’s worth, namely the character of Barbara Dixon. Barbara Dixon is a transgender taxi driver where the entire joke is the grotesquery of her still masculine features and the way in which she describes in uncomfortable medical detail the surgery involved. The joke is in part how Barbara’s face is hidden from us, thus stressing the way she’s horrible and ugly. And it’s awful. It’s absolutely, vilely, offensively, awful. It’s a joke about how trans women aren’t real women and can never be attractive and are just deformed wretches. That’s the whole joke. Aren’t trans people ugly. I guess the punchline is when one of them gets raped and murdered for it?

Yes, this is an issue I’m particularly prickly on. Transphobia raises my hackles with a directness that other forms of offensiveness don’t. So much so that it’s just not a topic I’m eager to deal with on this blog. I could get two thousand words of sputtering outrage out of Barbara Dixon in which I meticulously track all of the horrific stereotypes trotted out by it and draw the direct line from what’s a “joke” in The League of Gentlemen to what gets real people killed for being trans. Because it’s there, and it affects people I love, and everyone involved should be ashamed, and I really doubt they are. But it would barely be about Doctor Who, and more to the point, the level of rage involved is just too exhausting to go through, and I just did the post on The Shadows of Avalon, and, I’m sorry, dear reader, I just don’t have it in me. So let’s instead just accept that I am never going to be able to give a polite and reasoned analysis of the merits of The League of Gentlemen and instead do the autopsy of this joke. In other words, how does a character like Barbara Dixon happen.

She’s hardly the only offensive bit of The League of Gentlemen. The canonical example is Papa Lazarou, a blackface circus clown whose actual skin color appears to be grotesque blackface makeup. He’s certainly a jaw-dropping character for the late nineties, and I’m thoroughly unconvinced he ends up anywhere near the right side of good taste, but there’s at least some defense that people marshall whereby he’s not actually a racist parody of minorities as creepy lecherous others, he’s a parody of racist depictions of minorities. I’m inclined to say that’s perhaps too slender a reed of irony to support the character, and that the central joke of Lazarou is in fact how creepy and horrible he is, not how bracing a parody of historical British depictions of race he is. But no matter, because nothing resembling that defense exists for Barbara Dixon. And there are more than these two examples we could turn to. So first of all, we should take her as a symptom of a larger problem. Given that, let’s look at where that problem comes from.

One theme we’ve been tracking as we slowly move the pieces into place for the big “Doctor Who comes back to television and unexpectedly is a phenomenal hit that becomes the biggest show the BBC has” moment is the steady transition of the role of cult television within the larger cultural ecosystem of television. We’ve already looked at how Buffy the Vampire Slayer marked a breakdown equation of “cult television,” i.e. television aimed at a specific middle class young male demographic that is permitted to have lower ratings in exchange for delivering a rabidly faithful audience with money to spend, with “genre television,” i.e. stuff with aliens, wizards, and/or vampires in it.

This separation, for a time, looked difficult. Simply put, cult television was at least produced and marketed in such a consistent and defined fashion as to seem totalizing and “how things were done,” so to speak. But in practice and hindsight we can see that the window was surprisingly narrow. As we started in on the Wilderness Years we noticed that Star Trek: The Next Generation, launched in 1987, not only didn’t rely on the cult model for its audience, its entire business model relied on the fact that Star Trek was not cult television and did not work that way. This should be instructive. Not ten years before the TV Movie an old and cancelled sci-fi show came back to massive success in a manner diametrically opposed to cult television. And yet when the TV Movie hit the cult paradigm was all that was possible. That the possibilities for genre television closed down so fast made it, in some ways, inevitable that they’d re-open.

But we should try to understand why the cult television model took root so thoroughly. Much of it had to do with the way in which geek culture changed in the nineties, and in turn changed the culture around it. I’ve just written an entire chapter on that for the book on They Might Be Giants’ Flood, but the short form is that in the 1990s, driven largely but not exclusively by the rise of personal computers and the Internet, the nature of what was “geeky” changed. Geek culture stopped being a core of signifiers: Star Trek, Dungeons and Dragons, an interest in math and science, etc - and started being an aesthetic akin to camp - something difficult to define exhaustively, but easy to list examples of.

The nature of this aesthetic is, I would argue, largely one of excess. Geek culture, in its various forms, is a reaction to the overflow of information. It is fundamentally an aesthetic of excess, not in the sense of going too far, but in the sense of reacting to an overabundance of stimuli and information. This sometimes takes the form of direct revelry in excess - the aesthetic of the collection, for instance, is a clear-cut example of geek culture just wallowing in excess. But the excess can be quieter too, and need not be materialistic excess. The romantic image of the hacker, for instance, as someone endlessly playing within systems and finding neat things to do is not based on material excess (indeed, the most stereotypical hacker is often something of an ascetic, paying little attention to their material living situation in lieu of focusing only on the system) but on a more intellectual excess. Excess is always accepted and tacitly valued - there can be no geeking out without excess - but the excess can also be a source of apprehension, as in the paranoia of The X-Files.

But because the rise of this aesthetic was gradual we went through a intermediate phase in which “geek culture” was recognized as a big thing, but where it was still understood in its narrow “set of signifiers” form instead of in the broader form it was transforming into. This was a fundamentally misleading phase, in that the broadening of geek culture was, in fact, why it was suddenly a much bigger thing. And so its collapse into a different sort of geek culture was in some ways inevitable. This is why the hedonism offered by Russell T Davies was so enticing: because in the modern world we are all geeks, reeling in the face of sensory and cognitive overload.

But while geek culture turned out to be the perfect response to the conditions of the late nineties, it is not as though its rise happened because everybody saw the light and became geeks. Rather it is that many of the core “geek signifiers” were never that far out of mainstream culture to begin with. The highlighting of geek culture in the nineties wasn’t just misleading because it failed to realize that geek culture was larger than the narrow banalities of cult television and its ilk, but because it assumed that geek culture was in a marginal position for any reason beyond historical accident. A broad view would remember that the BBC were pioneers of science fiction in the 1950s and 1960s, and that science fiction was massive in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Yes, it was going through a bit of a fallow period in the late 80s, but it had done that before - the late 60s/early 70s were middling in terms of popular science fiction, with a massive drop in interest following the moon landing. Then it came roaring back in popularity with Star Wars.

In other words, the other thing that the cult model forgot was that the supposed cult was actually far more porous and in the open than expected. And by the late 1990s/early 2000s the cult was beginning to make it into positions of reasonable power within the world of television. What this meant is that there was an awful lot of television that started cropping up in the late nineties that was blatantly written by people who had spent real time in cult television fandom. You had Spaced in 1999, for instance, with Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright, both of whom have done some stuff since. You had The Morning With Richard Not Judy in 1998-99, with Stewart Lee, who, again, has done some stuff since then. You had Queer as Folk in 1999. And you had The League of Gentlemen, which was straightforward sketch comedy, except that it was sketch comedy happening in the midst of scads of horror movie tropes. So, for instance, the first episode features a quiet subplot in which a local couple turns out to occasionally murder strangers and burn their bodies. And to its credit, this is done quite smartly - that plot starts by looking like a dreary recreation of the Cheese Shop sketch from Monty Python: the shop won’t actually sell anything to the hiker who stops in. But then it takes a macabre turn as the shopkeepers turn out to be, you know, homicidal.

It’s not, crucially, sketch comedy about horror movies. Rather, it’s something subtler: a fairly normal sketch comedy show into which the macabre continually intrudes. But the key thing to recognize is that the tone of the series assumes an audience who is familiar with the cult television mindset and approach. Even if there’s no sense that the show is making in-jokey references to specific texts, it’s clearly a show written by people who have stayed up late at night watching bizarre horror movies for people who have done that or something similar. The aesthetic of geek culture underlies everything that The League of Gentlemen does. But this is also what sets it up for its colossally offensive turn vis a vis Barbara Dixon.

I’ll set Mark Gatiss’s co-Gentlemen, Jeremy Dyson, Steve Pemberton, and Reece Shearsmith, aside for the moment. I’m not tracking their careers, and I’m honestly unaware of the extent to which this criticism tars them, although it’s notable that Dixon is voiced by Pemberton, and so one assumes is not Gatiss’s character specifically. But I think there’s a fairly clear-cut line to be drawn from the elements of The League of Gentlemen that owe a debt to cult television to why there’s a horrifically offensive bit of mockery of trans people in it. And it’s a line that explains, I think, many of the problems I’m going to express with Mark Gatiss in general over the remainder of this blog.

The crux of the problem is one of nostalgia. The fun of The League of Gentlemen, and I can at least see how it would be fun, even if I failed to have any, is that the show occasionally feels like various trashy yet glorious movies of the 1970s, which is to say, things that Mark Gatiss got on video in his late teens in the 1980s, or enjoyed watching as a child. And to The League of Gentlemen’s credit, it does nostalgia well by understanding that the tone of the thing being remembered is more important than the details. The bit about murdering the hiker, for instance, is apparently a reference to The Wicker Man, specifically in terms of how there’s a police officer investigating the missing hiker who also gets killed. This makes sense - there is a similarity there. But what’s interesting is that The League of Gentlemen doesn’t do any explicit references to The Wicker Man. It just uses a vaguely similar plot and larks about with the general tone of creepy local folk who kill outsiders. Which works well, because far more people remember the general feel of The Wicker Man than would remember most of the specific details. And in this regard there’s a wising up compared to the “kisses to the past” nonsense of the TV Movie, for instance.

The problem with nostalgia is that it’s terribly uncritical. It’s an unironic and unreconstructed love of the past. And it’s a fundamental aspect of geek culture, the staggering breadth of history, and, in the current moment, medial history being one of the most basic excesses that one engages with. Of course geek culture is going to be full of nostalgia. But Mark Gatiss runs into a problem here, which is that he’s consistently unwilling to be in the least bit critical about his nostalgia.

And so we get a situation like Barbara Dixon. On the one hand, she fits into a tradition of cross-dressing comedy in British comedy that is difficult to criticize in the general case. In most regards she’s no different from any number of characters Fry and Laurie, Monty Python, and dozens of other comedy acts have done, and she’s just another facet of the pantomime dame. Except that Gatiss and company have tied her to a real identity, namely that of trans women, and so instead of having broad comedy about gender conventions and their upturning we have a bunch of staggeringly, awfully vicious swipes at real people of the sort that are routinely used as justifications for their violent murder. And the same logic seems to animate Papa Lazarou - he’s a bunch of horror tropes thrown together to be funny with no real thought over the fact that they’re at best borderline racist.

Which is fundamentally strange. All evidence is that Mark Gatiss is a well-balanced center-left sort. He’s a competent writer - I’ve yet to see anything by him that’s extraordinarily good, but he can structure a plot. I know that sounds like damning with faint praise, but it’s really not: getting a plot to hang together is hard, Gatiss can do it reliably, and for that he’s reliably employed. He’s not vocally political, but the quotes I can find suggest that he’s a center-left sort. Maybe he wouldn’t be specifically sympathetic to the trans issue, but, you know, pull up the list of Gatiss’s problem moments up to present and one imagines he’d be, in the abstract, sympathetic to at least one of them. And yet he keeps making this mistake.

In both cases the problem is that nobody seems to have thought about the possibility that a bit of mass cultural froth could have political implications. Because it’s nostalgia. Nostalgia demands we treat the past as apolitical so that we can simply love it. It aspires to be apolitical art, which is impossible to start, and then to be apolitical art about history, which is doubly impossible. And while nostalgia is inescapable for geek culture, there are options: ways to be self-aware and smart about it. Queer as Folk is fundamentally a piece of nostalgia about the Manchester gay club scene, but it’s not blind to the implications. Nor was The Grand, Russell T Davies’s stab at period drama. But Mark Gatiss’s work fails to be self-aware about the implications of nostalgia. It just blindly apes things Mark Gatiss liked in the past. And the results, all too often, are catastrophic.

Comments

Matt Michael 4 years ago

I think the only point I'd make in defence of Barbara is that everyone in LoG is an equally grotesque parody, and she is at least one of the sympathetic (ie not murderous or cruel) characters. I think therefore she only stands out if you have a particular sensitivity on the issue.

For example, Herr Lipp is a grotesque parody homosexual (who's also a pederast and a murderer). I find it hard to get too concerned about it though, given he hardly stands out as the most vile or obscene character.

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Jim Hope 1 year, 2 months ago

Herr Lipp is truly disgusting - and very real. I know many weirdos like him.

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Spacewarp 4 years ago

Blimey! I can honestly say I've never seen the League of Gentlemen approached from that viewpoint before. I can see that you are offended by several of the stereotypes, in particular Barbara and Papa Lazarou, and I think I can possibly explain why nobody in the UK sees it that way. Yes if we were presented with a TV programme featuring a blacked-up individual with stereotypical criminal tendencies, or a transgender female who retained obvious male characteristics for little more than comic relief, we would be offended. But we're not with the League. Why?

Well I've seen the show live on stage, and it features not only the grotesque Papa Laz, but Herr Lipp as well, who attempted to seduce a member of the audience with a "creepy homosexual" raw sausage routine. And nobody was offended. The audience roared at every joke. And I think this is because it's basically a Punch and Judy show, and nobody gets offended about Punch & Judy, which after all, is basically about a man who beats up and kills his wife and child and a policeman. The League features every kind of character that it's incorrect to lampoon - "dykey" lesbians (Pauline), gays, dwarves, lascivious foreigners (Pop), and the educationally subnormal (Mickey) - but because it's Punch and Judy it works. I can only guess that the UK audience has been conditioned by decades of BBC comedy to automatically see it as such, but if you're not watching it that way then yes, it's horrendous.

It reminds me of your dislike of Hilda Ogden from Coronation Street, and we pointed out that she was actually a prime example of a Grotesque. Well every single character in The League is a Grotesque. The whole show is a Grotesque. And you can't get offended by a Grotesque any more than you can get offended by Mr Punch beating the shit out of his wife.

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Spacewarp 4 years ago

Oh and I would say that Gatiss is probably more behind the '70s horror influence than the grotesquery. If you get a chance to see The League's spiritual successor "Psychoville" you will find a surfeit of the same offensive characters (serial murdering mothers with physical and mentally-challenged sons, a black character continually referred to as "tea-leaf" which is Cockney slang for Thief, and a permanently-greasepainted clown with an artificial hand). But Psychoville was written by Pemberton and Sheersmith, Gatiss was not involved (save in an acting cameo in one episode).

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Spacewarp 4 years ago

Like a lot of the League characters Herr Lipp is quite a bit more complex than the simplistic parody he appears to be. He is particularly well-written in the "Christmas Special" where he comes across as very sympathetic and almost self-redeeming. Other characters played by Pemberton show similar depth - Pauline and Tubbs for example - and I suspect they may be written by him.

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Sean Daugherty 4 years ago

The League of Gentlemen is one of those shows I've only been peripherally aware of. Everything I've heard has told me that it's quite good, but I honestly can't say I was even aware of the premise, beyond a rather nebulous identification of it as sketch comedy.

What you describe here sounds, on the surface, like it'd be right up my alley. "A fairly normal sketch comedy show into which the macabre continually intrudes" could have been tailor made to my sensibilities. Which makes the whole Barbara Dixon (and Papa Lazarou) thing so upsetting. I have trouble crediting the "it's a grotesquerie" defense, simply because it doesn't actually address the problem. That these characters were intended as parodies seems quite likely (even obvious, given the creators involved), but that's rather beside the point: they are touching upon real issues that affect real people. The fact that the audience isn't offended because it's presented as parody doesn't feel like a defense to me. If anything, it feels like a big part of the problem.

But, as I said, I've not actually watched the show, so your mileage may vary. Based on this, though, I'm no longer sure I want to....

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Tom Watts 4 years ago

If we were speaking of "Victory of the Daleks", I couldn't raise a word in its defence, for the reasons you give above regarding nostalgia. Quite.

But not for the first time I sense just a basic lack of critical sympathy with the horror and exploitation genres. Few if any of the films Gatiss has featured in his (politically aware) horror documentaries could be described as "trashy but glorious", even if, as a fan of the some of the same movies as MG, I could be sure which films that description could ever apply to. And the movies he may have seen "on video" in the 80s, predominantly I suspect European films, are very unlike, but perhaps confrontational in the spirit of, LOG. And perhaps this comes down to the value one puts on aggression, transgression and irresponsibility in creative work. It makes me think of the exchange of comments on sexual violence on Wednesday, on the uses made of rape and the depiction of suffering. Gatiss has immersed himself in art which presents murder, and rape, as if they were the symbols of a dream, or as if prurience or trauma or other such unhelpful emotions could even be salvative if guided in the right way. Kier-La Janisse's recent book "House of Psychotic Women" is a great example of a critical practice that does just that, on what might seem recalcitrant material. The same logic may of course apply to racist caricatures.

And being "centre left" is no more than being able to knot a tie and not reply "very well thank you" to "how do you do". I can't believe you'd give him an atom's worth of consideration for that, but then I'm a 17 year old virgin.

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Kit Power 4 years ago

I'm trying to unpack what you mean by "That these characters were intended as parodies seems quite likely (even obvious, given the creators involved), but that's rather beside the point: they are touching upon real issues that affect real people."
Domestic abuse is a real issue that affects real people. Does this mean the 'grotesque' "defence" does not apply to Punch and Judy? If so, then I disagree, but fine, I follow your logic. If not, however, I wonder if you could highlight what you see as the difference?

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SpaceSquid 4 years ago

To pull a few recent theme together, yesterday Phil (not to be confused with Phil S) pointed out Lawrence Miles (with unfortunate irony) has already suggested Gatiss's problem is in coming up with discrete interesting ideas and then slapping them together with no thought as to the effect the assemblage may have on others.

If we continue making the assumption that Gatiss is primarily responsible for Babs, I think the closest one can come to as a defense for the character is that something similar has happened here. At least part of the humour involving the character comes from watching the faces of other characters sitting in her cab trying to process the ludicrously specific details she insists on sharing.

That distinct subset of the character's use never struck me as making fun of transgender people, so much as looking at the yawning gap evidenced by a non-trivial percentage of cis men who are entirely supportive of transgender people as an abstract concept, and utterly horrified when presented with the specifics that being a transgender person can entail.

To this straight cis white middle-class man, that struck me as an interesting thing to do. The problem comes that, as Spacewarp points out, it's taking place in a show in which almost everyone is a grotesque, and those that aren't (Benjamin, Brian etc.) exist only for the qrotesques to play off. So the thinking goes "want to explore cis reactions to details of a transgender woman's operations", then "need for her to be a grotesque to fit in with show's ethos" to what we see on sceen, something which ends up horribly offensive to a lot of people.

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sorrywehurtyourfield 4 years ago

But it also perpetuates a common and unpleasant stereotype that trans women are obsessed with telling all and sundry all sorts of intimate details about any surgery they may have had. Which is horribly objectifying, disrespectful and reductive, and speaks far more about the obsessions of the cis men writing this sort of material.

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SpaceSquid 4 years ago

I've genuinely never come across that stereotype before, and if I had my post would have read very differently (actually, probably wouldn't have existed at all). I apologise for my ignorance.

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elvwood 4 years ago

I wasn't as keen on The League of Gentlemen as some of my friends, but this wasn't because I was offended by it; I'm not a horror fan, for one, and I just didn't find it very funny, because the balance was too far towards making me feel uncomfortable. I definitely put it in the Grotesque / Punch & Judy category - but I've never been keen on Punch & Judy shows, even as a child. And since TLoG failed to hit any of my buttons I just remember it as "the one with those awful, grotesque people in it" and quote the "local shop for local people" bit occasionally.

It's interesting what pushes people's buttons. I was fine with South Park and smugly laughed at the people who were offended by it - until the episode where Mr. Garrison decides his problems are caused by his father not sexually assaulting him as a child, and goes to rectify that. I haven't wanted to watch an episode since.

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sorrywehurtyourfield 4 years ago

Hey no worries. :) If anyone's interested, I recommend the book Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity by Julia Serano which, amongst other things, has a terrific analysis of various film & television depictions of trans women. One of the common types, often in "well meaning" depictions, is of the bouyant, happy trans woman who merrily talks endlessly about her surgical procedures to anyone she meets. The comedy is presumably meant to come from its subversive breaking of social taboos, but certainly in my experience trans people are about as interested in being publicly objectified and defined by what's between their legs as cis people (i.e. not very much). So there are real problems when writers believe that using trans people as a device to challenge gender norms is automatically flattering to trans people without really considering the experience of those affected.

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Abigail Brady 4 years ago

The only actual League I've seen is the film, which either omits or strongly downplays the Barbara. The film is a characters-meet-their-creators one, and sees, for example, Herr Lipp come face-to-face with Steve Pemberton, and realises that he is a joke. The League are more than slightly horrified at all this. I've not seen it since its theatrical release in 2005, so my memory is kinda hazy, but it seems to be an answer to precisely this sort of criticism.

From what I'm hearing I think I would react against Barbara a lot less than I do with say, Emily in Little Britain, who is a similar character, but presented outside of a grotesque context.

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SpaceSquid 4 years ago

Thanks for the tip. Does Serano have any ideas on how better to tackle the "It's fine to be transgender but FOR GOD'S SAKE don't give details" reaction?

Thinking about it a little more, perhaps my original post can stand with a tweak from "interesting idea irredeemably damaged by inclusion of the grotesque" to "well-meaning but unhelpful idea then made massively worse by inclusion of the qrotesque".

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SpaceSquid 4 years ago

The film is actually really interesting, because it contains the elements you mention that give it more than the endless rotation of monstrous freaks that made up the series - and indeed can be at least plausibly be read as an attempt at redemption - but perhaps for fear of going too far in one direction, the actual comedy in the film is reduced to scatological references and dick jokes.

Not that the show itself was particularly high-brow, of course, but the film is much more lowest common denominator, for want of a better term.

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sorrywehurtyourfield 4 years ago

So I identify as trans, and although I'm stealth at the moment, I'm currently building up to something more open. I had fond memories of LoG from when I was a teenager, so a few months ago I rewatched it. I had much the same rage reaction to you, mixed with bafflement that I'd somehow erased the character of Barbara from my mind, and a depressing realisation that perhaps it was demeaning stereotypes like this (and similar caricatures in Little Britain) that caused me to have such a screwed up sexual identity at a formative age. I mean, if a programme like this is your main exposure to trans people when you're a teen struggling with gender identity issues, it's hard to describe how terrifying the prospect of being yourself seems and how illegitimate it makes you feel.

And it's a broader problem that "just" how trans people feel when watching it. A few comments here seem to assume that the public are basically nice and not transphobic, and that the comic appeal of Barbara is best explained in other terms. The accounts of violence, harrassment and discrimination that one comes across in trans communities, however, makes me feel much more cynical and pessimistic. Because the reality is a substantial number of people (I suspect a majority) do not know or do not knowingly know a trans person. As a result, characters like Barbara are basically their only exposure, a one note joke afforded no respect. And maybe a character like Barbara would be less damaging if there were many positive depictions of trans people on television, but there's really not much to speak of, and I think it's irresponsible of artist to not be aware of such contexts.

As a stealth trans person, I feel fortunately not in much immediate danger in my public life. I've nonetheless had enourmous trouble coming out to my parents who have attacked me with transphobic and mysoginist stereotypes that bear no resemblence to any experience I've tried to explain to them. I can only assume they picked up from Family Guy or something like that, because I can't think where else really. We underestimate the power and danger of television at our peril.

(The sad and ironic thing is, I found the "coming out" subtext of Gatiss' Night Terrors pretty heartening at a difficult time.)

"I’m sorry, dear reader, I just don’t have it in me."

Fair enough, I completely understand. :) I wish somebody would, though, I've never seen the series adequately held to account for this. But thank you for flagging it up.

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John Callaghan 4 years ago

I'm very aware that this is a sensitive and important issue and also that I've not actually seen much LOG. I'm putting my oar in to apologise for a show I have no strong opinions on because there's one point that I feel is worth articulating, and that's an addendum to the idea of grotesques in British humour (which I agree with).

No-one is watching LOG thinking that it's observational comedy. They aren't chuckling away because they're saying "that's what people are like!" Nor is it mocking transgender people in general. Like much of British humour, it's based on failure and misery. It's a sort of grand guinol of inadequacy and awkwardness.

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sorrywehurtyourfield 4 years ago

Um, just avoid the idea altogether? :P As I recall, Serano's main point is that depictions of trans people are so rarely done with meaningful research or consultation with trans people, let alone actually written by trans people themselves, so the best thing writers and creative people could do is simply ask.

Personally, I have long thought that television needs, to put it basically, a trans equivalent of Queer as Folk, that aims to capture the trans community (a very interesting place) in a range of different experiences and tones. And such a thing absolutely must be written by an insider, somebody who has genuine experience of the culture they'd be depicting.

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Andrew Hickey 4 years ago

And of course in the film, Herr Lipp is given even more depth than that, and is more or less the hero.

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Andrew Hickey 4 years ago

"nobody in the UK sees it that way"

I do. Even at the time, when I was unaware of what transphobia even meant, and would have been likely to make jokes about trans* people myself, I thought the character of Barbara had a cruel edge to it. And that's coming from someone who has far, far more time for the show than Phil apparently does -- it's one of my all-time favourite programmes. But I can't for a second argue that it isn't also horribly transphobic.

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sleepyscholar 4 years ago

Carnivalesque in the sense that Bakhtin wrote of.

I remember Barbara Dixon (who used to sing on the Two Ronnies, didn't she? More nostalgia) as one of the more sympathetic characters on The League of Gentlemen. And Papalazarou is unquestionably parodying through excess the insular English caricature of the 'Other.'

I'm not saying it isn't problematic. Punch and Judy is problematic. But it demonstrates that this application of parodic excess in an ironic way is thoroughly British, and is widely understood within British culture.

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SpaceSquid 4 years ago

Sorry, I wasn't being clear. I didn't mean "what can cis male writers do" so much as what can be done in general. A trans equivalent of QaF sounds like a damn good idea.

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Wm Keith 4 years ago

LOG looks down on its grotesques, in a way that Coronation Street didn't look down on Hilda Ogden. The horror of Hilda was heightened by the fact that she was "one of us"; but none of us will ever be Local.

Also, LOG is not self-mocking. There is no Ken Barlow.

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Andrew Hickey 4 years ago

Yes, but Barbara's inadequacy and awkwardness stems entirely from her being trans.

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Spacewarp 4 years ago

@John. Agreed. This series, and it's characters, are so extreme, so far out there, surely they can never be taken as serious observations on society. It features a repulsive Greek landlord who sees all women as objects to be molested and all men as objects to be bullied with allegations of homosexuality. It has stereotypical thick Northerners (Geoff), slaggy council-house wives (Stella & Iris), bitter and twisted lesbians (Pauline and Cathy of the Job Centre). To take the character of Barbara and say that it is says anything negative about trans-gender people is completely ignoring the fact that Barbara isn't a trans-gender person. She's a 100% absurd comic creation that doesn't even approach realism. She has a man's voice, a man's body, and is patently a man in a dress purporting to have had a sex-change operation that went wrong. There is no way she could ever be taken as a representative of a real person, and this is underlined by the fact that the rest of the characters in the town completely accept her at face value (which is also absurd) apart from Geoff who for a second raises his head above the parapet of absurdity and calls her a man in a dress (for which he is thrown out of the cab).

As for Papa Lazarou. Even more extreme than Babs, he's quite obviously a supernatural character, who dresses like a Goth Gypsy, wears a black face and white lips (just the face, not the neck or body), owns a Circus and collects wives. He couldn't be more extreme if he tried, and yet he's dismissed as a racist character simply because he's blacked up. Why not take issue with the fact that he's obviously Greek (he's got a Greek accent and a Greek name) or that he portrays members of the Travelling community in a bad light?

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Spacewarp 4 years ago

@Andrew.

Surely Barbara's inadequacy and awkwardness stems from her being a totally surrealistic character that is taken seriously be all around her.

Witness Kenny Everett's character "Cupid Stunt" who was plainly a man in a dress (she even had Kenny's full beard), yet taken at face value when, for example, being interviewed by Michael Parkinson.

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Phil 4 years ago

I'm not entirely certain that the fact that all the characters are stereotypes is a great defence.

I loved LOG when I saw it on first broadcast, and own (or did own) the DVDs. I haven't seen it in years, and I'm not sure how I would react to it now but suspect I would have a lot of problems with it. (I also grew up not too far from the village where they filmed the series, though I've no idea if that makes a difference to my opinions one way or the other).

But I do remember the stereotypes being not actually that funny, and the bits I liked being the parts where they put a bit more effort in.

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SpaceSquid 4 years ago

I think there's a fair case to be made that the film at least is self-mocking, though admittedly in that self-congratulatory "look at how we don't take ourselves seriously" way that never works as well as the people trying it think it should.

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Andrew Hickey 4 years ago

Obviously the characters aren't serious observations of society. That's hardly the point. The *only* joke to Barbara is that she's trans -- that's it. She's 'funny' because she's still got masculine secondary sexual characteristics. Ho ho ho, my aching sides.

Whereas with Pauline, to take one of your examples, the fact that she's lesbian is not, in itself, the only notable thing about the character. In fact, thinking about it for half a second, she *isn't* lesbian, but bi (she has sex with Ross and marries Micky). When I think of Pauline, I don't think first of the character's sexuality (in fact I'd forgotten it altogether), but about her job, her cruelty to the people she's supposed to be helping, her obsession with pens, her fake jollity ("Hokey cokey pig in a pokey, jobseekers!"), her condescension towards "Micky-love"... all of which are part of the character, all of which are funny (but sometimes also played seriously).

The character of Barbara has none of that. She's closer to the kind of abusive mockery that Little Britain goes in for, than the more interesting stuff the League generally did.

Also -- for every one of those other stereotypes, there were at least some examples of non-stereotypical characters with those characteristics on British TV at the time. There were *some* Northern characters, gay characters and so on. As far as I can recall, there were *no* trans* characters on TV other than Barbara at the time -- Hayley Cropper in Coronation Street wasn't until a couple of years later.

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Andrew Hickey 4 years ago

As for Gatiss' intentions himself, he's always struck me as slightly clueless about minority groups he's not in, like in http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2010/oct/23/mark-gatiss-family-values , where he says "I think a lot of people who say they are bisexual aren't."

If he's willing to reinforce biphobic stereotypes like that in serious conversation (even though I'm sure he wouldn't see himself as biphobic) then I don't find it hard to imagine him as equally cluelessly transphobic.

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Abigail Brady 4 years ago

It'll be interesting to see what (if anything) the the BBC Trans Comedy Award comes up with.

I'm arguably the type of person they were aiming that competition at, but for various reasons I decided not to.

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Spacewarp 4 years ago

This comment has been removed by the author.

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Spacewarp 4 years ago

I guess it's possible that because the series is so ingrained in my mind, I can't see the wood for the trees. Maybe if I had watched it for the first time today I'd find the character of Babs grating on me. After all it was 10 years ago, the world was a different place, and I was a different person. The thing that I find disappointing is Phil's strong reaction to it. Basically he can't seem to get past the offensive characterisation of Barbara. Which is a shame as I think LOG was a truly ground-breaking series that showed you could blur comedy and drama and make it work. I'd hazard a guess that without LOG we wouldn't have had Little Britain, Sherlock, or a few particular episodes of Doctor Who.

Having said that, personally I wince whenever a comedic point is made about leukaemia on TV, because my son has leukaemia. So I just grit my teeth and push past the bits that I don't like. Although admittedly Babs is all over the series so it's quite difficult to avoid her.

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Andrew Hickey 4 years ago

"Which is a shame as I think LOG was a truly ground-breaking series that showed you could blur comedy and drama and make it work. "

I absolutely agree. It's an all-time favourite programme of mine. Just one that happens to have some very unfortunate transphobia in it.

"I'd hazard a guess that without LOG we wouldn't have had Little Britain, Sherlock, or a few particular episodes of Doctor Who."

Oh, be fair, it's hardly the fault of the League Of Gentlemen that we've got all that rubbish now ;)

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Abigail Brady 4 years ago

I've now watched the first episode. In that, Barbara isn't really a character, is she? She's a punchline, inserted to string together the sketches. Even grotesques as blatant as Edward and Tubbs are well-rounded compared to her. Does this change as the show goes on?

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Andrew Hickey 4 years ago

She has a *tiny* bit of character development, in that by series three some things happen to her that aren't only to do with her trans status. But essentially no.

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SpaceSquid 4 years ago

I'd put her development (small though it is) as beginning in season two, actually. She gets more to do in the tail end of season one, in fact, though I'm not sure what we get can be considered an improvement.

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jane 4 years ago

My mother has that opinion about bisexuality. It's very annoying.

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Andrew Hickey 4 years ago

I meant that in series three there's the whole 'kidnapped for marriage' plotline, which isn't solely about her being trans.

On the other hand, [and I think I actually may have to put a TRIGGER WARNING and some space here]





having the local butcher perform her operation instead of a surgeon, and having him botch it and mutilate her genitals to the point where they're unrecognisable as either male or female, is hardly an improvement in terms of having her be not just a joke about "aren't trans people disgusting and hilarious?"

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Andrew Hickey 4 years ago

According to my bi-activist friends it's actually one of the most commonly-held prejudices against bi people.

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Andrew Hickey 4 years ago

(Correction, it's the *vet*, not the butcher, who performs the botched operation. Because that's so much better...)

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Abigail Brady 4 years ago

Absolutely. And it's as likely to come from lesbians and gay men as it is from straight people... and it's quite a bit harder to bear coming from that direction.

(And don't get me started on the very nasty streak of transphobia that I have encountered a little bit too often from cis gay men.)

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SpaceSquid 4 years ago

The kidnapped for marriage is in season 2, and was what I was referring to. In fact, if I remember rightly, she's almost entirely absent from season 3.

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Spacewarp 4 years ago

Bit unfair taking his quote slightly out of context.

"I had a girlfriend before I ever had a boyfriend, but it was just a phase. I think a lot of people who say they are bisexual aren't. I loved her dearly and we had a very nice time, but on the Kinsey scale, I would say I was always predominantly gay."

He's mainly talking about himself and the fact that he thought he was bisexual at the time because he felt strong affection for someone of the opposite sex, but that he eventually realised he was gay. He then makes a general statement about how he thinks some other bisexual may feel the same. I don't call that "reinforcing biphobic stereotypes".

You know, there is an undercurrent of rather nasty Gatiss-bashing going on here, not unlike that to be seen on our favourite Doctor Who forum. Which is unfair as there is no evidence that Mark Gatiss even had any input into any of the trans or gay characters on LOG. There were 3 other writers involved, and Barbara simply doesn't come over as one of Mark's. From observation of his work, it's far more likely that she was the creation of Steve Pemberton, as the LOG tended to play their own characters.

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Abigail Brady 4 years ago

So, she never, for example, starts oversharing about *other* things?

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Andrew Hickey 4 years ago

You're quite right. Clearly I need more coffee.

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spoilersbelow 4 years ago

(Apologies in advance if this doesn't come off quite right, it's a particularly sensitive issue for me)

Gatiss' statement an odd point of contention, at least for me (speaking a male bisexual), because it's been my experience that a good number of people who identify as bi are of the "I'll kiss another girl when I've had enough to drink because it makes guys think I'm hot and desirable" strain. And so I'm stuck sometimes asking myself "well, how serious are you, really?" when some folks (young, college age women, mostly) come out a little too exuberantly and excitedly. It's not a question I'd ever ask out loud to someone's face, but it's always a unfair, persistent doubt in the back of my head until I get to know them better, because all too often it's something someone does for attention, rather than due to an actual attraction to both genders (admitting here with full disclosure that "real usable data" is not the plural of "anecdotes").

And so, I'm torn between not wanting to be a jerk and overly defensive of an orientation which is by no means exclusive or "mine" anymore than it is anyone else's (I'm certainly not a gate keeper, nor do they need my approval), but also not wanting to see reinforced the stereotype of "bisexual means kisses other girls for fun because their boyfriends think it's hot." Katy Perry even wrote a song about it.

Which doesn't mean that Gatiss should be saying it out loud, and I find myself less convinced by his assessments than I would be if he had more direct experience with it. But I completely understand that line of thinking. It's frustrating on both sides.

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SpaceSquid 4 years ago

"So, she never, for example, starts oversharing about *other* things?"

My recollection is that she branches out into oversharing about aspects of being a woman in general, rather than being transgender specifically, but that's still very much presented as being funny because of how tattooed and hairy and huge she is.

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Andrew Hickey 4 years ago

"He then makes a general statement about how he thinks some other bisexual may feel the same"

No, he says *a lot* of people who *say they are bisexual* *aren't*. Not that *some* *may* *feel the same*.

The claim that many or most bi people are 'really' gay or 'really' straight is, according to all the bi people I know, the most widespread and pernicious biphobic stereotype there is, and Gatiss was, there, repeating that stereotype.

I don't think it's 'nasty Gatiss-bashing' to say that he comes across as a bit clueless about his own privilege. Compare what's being said here about Gatiss with the claims that were being thrown about about Miles in Wednesday's post's comments, and Gatiss is getting off extraordinarily lightly.

The difference being, of course, that when Miles says something clueless, he does it on his blog or in interviews, when speaking or writing extemporaneously, and never lets that leak into the actual work he does. Gatiss, on the other hand, manages on a regular basis to let horribly offensive stuff into the actual work he does. Whether he created Barbara or not, and I agree that it's likely he didn't, he does have equal responsibility for the character appearing in the TV and radio shows he co-wrote and starred in.

Likewise, he didn't himself write the episode of Sherlock that featured fairly horrible Talons style orientalist racism, but as executive producer he should have picked up on it. And he *did* write The Unquiet Dead (and I largely agree with Miles' take on that).

I'm not bashing him as a person, at all. I'm saying he seems not to have examined his own privilege particularly hard, and that that *does* affect his work.

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spoilersbelow 4 years ago

And putting the in context, I've now got my size 10 firmly in my mouth, at least as far as addressing Gatiss is concerned (if he was only making a personal statement about himself, not a broader attempt at judgement).

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Spacewarp 4 years ago

@Andrew

Actually he says he thinks a lot of people who say they are bisexual aren't. It's not an authoritative statement aimed at the bisexual community. It plainly reads as something based on his own experience. Which was why I quoted him in full.

As for Gatiss-bashing, the fact is there were 4 people involved in that series, and yet nothing has been aimed at the other three. Gatiss has equal responsibility for the characters he is involved in? Well so do Dyson, Shearsmith and Pemberton, but nobody takes them to task. I suspect it's because Mark Gatiss is a) known to readers of this blog by his Doctor Who/Sherlock connections, b) more publicly well-known in general and c) gay.

I mean is Jeremy Dyson gay? Or bisexual? Nobody knows, so let's go for Gatiss the easy target.

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Jesse 4 years ago

the late 60s/early 70s were middling in terms of popular science fiction

I realize the word "popular" is a crucial modifier here. But speaking as someone whose chief interface with sf has always been on the prose side, I need to point out that this was arguably the genre's most creatively fertile period in that medium.

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theonlyspiral 4 years ago

Do we have any evidence that Gatiss wrote for Barbara? I mean specifically? Because I've spent the last 2 hours avoiding any actual work and trawling the internet and I just can't find any.

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Andrew Hickey 4 years ago

And if he'd said "In my experience a lot of Jews are money-grabbing bastards," would that have been OK? Even if it had been his experience?

People are talking about Gatiss here because this is a Doctor Who blog, and Gatiss is the one who has worked on Who, and this kind of privilege-blindness has played into his work. Indeed, it was the principal criticism levelled against Gatiss' first work on the show, in what was one of the first, and most controversial, pieces of criticism of the post-2005 show -- a piece of criticism from Lawrence Miles, who has been the principal subject of the blog for the last couple of weeks, and I think will be for the next week or two as well. Gatiss is simply relevant to the discussion in a way that Pemberton, Shearsmith and Dyson are not. I think the closest any of the other three have come to being involved in Who is Shearsmith appearing in one of the PROBE direct-to-video things Bill Baggs put out (written by Gatiss, actually).

That said, yes, Pemberton, Shearsmith and Dyson all take at least as much responsibility for the creation of Barbara, and their role in perpetuating transphobia through League Of Gentlemen is at least as reprehensible as Gatiss'. Probably more so, at least in the case of Pemberton.

As for people's motives -- I think the only people who have singled out Gatiss for criticism here are Phil S and myself. I don't know Phil's motives, but he's never struck me as homophobic. I also don't believe my own motives are homophobic -- they're the ones I outlined above.

From the way you're talking, I take it that a lot of other people have been critical of Gatiss in the past, on various fora (Gallifrey Base?), that those criticisms have been homophobic in nature, and that you think therefore that the criticism here is probably related to that. I've actually not looked at Gallifrey Base in about five years, and even then I did so incredibly rarely. I'm fairly detached from Doctor Who fandom for the most part.

If there's a pattern of unwarranted attacks on Gatiss, then I can certainly see how my comments could seem like part of that larger pattern, but at least in my case I'm only singling out Gatiss because of how this sheds light on a larger pattern in his work, and that work includes his Who work. I certainly don't want to give the impression that I find him unilaterally responsible for this particular piece of transphobia.

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Arkadin 4 years ago

Agreed and agreed. It was much like with Doctor Who itself--the retreat from popular consciousness allowed SF to experiment with new forms, which later entered and reshape the popular consciousness.

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Sean Daugherty 4 years ago

I think it does apply to Punch and Judy, honestly. When domestic abuse (or transphobia, or old fashioned racism) is a real problem being faced by people everyday, the difficulty becomes parodizing it in such a way that it doesn't feed into those attitudes in the first place. That's the old minstrel show problem: the racist caricatures being depicted were recognized as over-the-top, even at the time. Audiences didn't react to them as if they were documentary in nature, but to the extent that the affirmed existing (and comparatively more mild, though still deeply damaging) stereotypes, they also reinforced them.

Insofar as Punch and Judy gets excused from this (and, again, I'm not entirely convinced it does), it's because it's so utterly divorced from reality, and because we're essentially trained through experience to disentangle it from the real issues it would otherwise touch on. But that's not a hugely convincing argument to me, even in that case. In the case of The League of Gentlemen it seems even less likely, given both the nature of the parody and the form of the presentation.

Though, not having watched it, it's entirely possible that the creators successfully thread that (very narrow) needle. From experience, though, I've seen very few forms of entertainment that have.

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Ununnilium 4 years ago

The highlighting of geek culture in the nineties wasn’t just misleading because it failed to realize that geek culture was larger than the narrow banalities of cult television and its ilk, but because it assumed that geek culture was in a marginal position for any reason beyond historical accident.

Actually, I'd disagree that it's an accident. More and more, I've been bumping into bits of data that suggest that the stereotype of geeks is an identity constructed as part of the anti-intellectual turn of the late '40s and '50s.

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Arkadin 4 years ago

Also, as far as judgment of gay creators goes, there's no one here who has a bad word for Paul Magrs. (Though there are reliably less comments on entries about his books, maybe because people find them harder to engage with, because they're so elliptical and enigmatic and thematically complex, and grounded in a literary/theoretical tradition most of us aren't experts in. I'm someone who's actually read a good bit of academic postmodernism and queer theory, and I still find it hard to come up with come up with coherent thoughts about his books in the pace blog entries here move. But still.)

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Seeing_I 4 years ago

What's funny is that the situation with Barbara's botched sex-change is almost exactly the premise of the contemporary "Hedwig and the Angry Inch," which then treated its character with 1000x more sympathy and compassion...AND was hilarious, to boot.

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Seeing_I 4 years ago

@ spacewarp: Sorry, but Gatiss is a hack. Call that nasty bashing if you will. He seems like a lovely man and he's a good actor, but he hasn't written a single worthwhile Doctor Who script since "The Unquiet Dead." Everything else has been nothing but collections of familiar tropes and unreconstructed nostalgia thrown together into the merest semblance of plot. Keep this man FAR away from the show-runner's chair.

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Steven Clubb 4 years ago

I'd like to see a larger context for that interview. It's easy to say "he shouldn't say something like that out loud", but a good interviewer will put someone at ease and get them to open up about subjects they're usually fairly tight-lipped about.

But in this particular case, I think he's stating something which is undeniably true for *some* people. For men, coming out as bi is often a stepping stone for coming out as gay. Which is not to deny that many people are genuinely bisexual, but simply to say that when navigating one's own sexuality that the answers they come up with initially aren't necessarily the ones they'll end up with.

For me, as long as someone isn't saying "you're doing it wrong", then statements like this don't strike me as offensive as there are many paths through the minefield that is sexual identity. Gatiss appears to be describing his own journey and saying "you're not alone" to all the others like himself... even if it's not as diplomatically phrased as it probably should be.

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Andrew Hickey 4 years ago

Seeing_I -- actually, I thought Night Terrors was far and away the best thing in series six, though still not as good as it could have been. I don't think Gatiss is a hack, as such, I just think that when it comes to TV SF he has banal tastes, and writes accordingly.

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Ununnilium 4 years ago

I think it's probably also because he doesn't tend to be part of these overarching trends Dr. S is focusing on. Indeed, Magrs seems to be the one who's best at claiming the margins for his own.

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Philip Sandifer 4 years ago

For me it's purely that Gatiss continues to be important to Doctor Who. He's the only reason I covered LoG at all.

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theonlyspiral 4 years ago

The thing to keep in mind Andrew is one of responsibility. I will not argue the relevance of talking about Gatiss. He's is part of the story of Doctor Who. However before we lay everything at his feet the fact of the matter is we may be unfairly singling him out of the four. Let's give the man his due here. At worst he's blinded by privilege. I mean if someone has evidence to the contrary then I would by all means like to see it. Yes he participated in a program that had Transhaming in it...but I have a hard time blasting him for that when he wrote Night Terrors.

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Andrew Hickey 4 years ago

Personally, I think taking part in attacks on a marginalised and vulnerable group like trans people is rather more important than whether someone wrote a half-decent episode of a TV science fiction show. Trans people, especially women (and especially women like Barbara who don't 'pass') are many, many times more likely to be assaulted, raped or murdered than cis people are. I think contributing to that culture outweighs being able to write quite a watchable story about scary dolls that come to life.

And no-one has been saying anything *other* than "At worst he's blinded by privilege" here -- I've been saying stuff like "I don't think it's 'nasty Gatiss-bashing' to say that he comes across as a bit clueless about his own privilege", "I'm not bashing him as a person, at all. I'm saying he seems not to have examined his own privilege particularly hard," and "and this kind of privilege-blindness has played into his work".

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Ununnilium 4 years ago

I don't have a problem criticizing someone for the bad they've done while acknowledging the good they've done. I think it's a necessary part of being a fan of things that can be problematic.

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theonlyspiral 4 years ago

You're right I shouldn't have aimed that comment at you. And most people are being fairly reasonable about Gatiss. I got defensive because when I see a big number of people hammering on someone (be they gay, straight, trans or cis) is turns me red. That's my bad and I apologize. Like I said I'm not sure is appropriate to lay Barbara at his feet. Dr. S does cover his other failing but I just can't see the man as Transphobic or inciting hate on any level. There is a great amount of hammering on him for some reason in fandom. I think at worst he's a just a mediocre writer, but he gets criticism leveled at him on the net as if he was quietly plotting to destroy the show.

I mean it's not like he wrote "Fear Her".

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Andrew Hickey 4 years ago

Don't worry about it -- it's a natural, and honourable, reaction to want to defend someone when it looks like a crowd is all piling on them. I had much the same reaction to people attacking Lawrence Miles in the comments to the last post. Far better to instinctively leap to the defence of the underdog than to instinctively join in the pile-on.

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jane 4 years ago

It was enough of a concern for Dave Chapelle to walk away from a huge body of his own work.

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jane 4 years ago

"But it also perpetuates a common and unpleasant stereotype that trans women are obsessed with telling all and sundry all sorts of intimate details about any surgery they may have had."

The first transwoman I met went into all those sorts of details upon her coming out, but that was before she'd had any procedures done, and as a way of preparing her friends for what was to come.

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Alan 4 years ago

Honestly, I thought the stereotype being lampooned with Babs wasn't that of the overly chatty transgender person, but rather the stereotype of the overly chatty cab driver who insists on cheerfully sharing absurdly intimate personal details with a passenger who is quite literally unable to escape until the cab reaches its destination. That said, I don't have very many clear memories of the Babs sketches, and mainly remember fast-forwarding through them to get to the more interesting storylines involving Edward and Tubbs in the "local shop" and Ben's struggles against the Dentons.

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jane 4 years ago

@Steven: "But in this particular case, I think he's stating something which is undeniably true for *some* people. For men, coming out as bi is often a stepping stone for coming out as gay. Which is not to deny that many people are genuinely bisexual, but simply to say that when navigating one's own sexuality that the answers they come up with initially aren't necessarily the ones they'll end up with."

As spoilersbelow says, this is part of what makes bixsexuality so tricky -- and not just to talk about, but in actual practice. It's an identity appropriated for other purposes, often without conscious intent.

And it's doubly problematic when it comes to actual relationships. So, going back to me and my mother. When I've brought other women home to meet the family, in Mom's eyes I'm not bi, I'm lesbian, and when I've brought home men I'm suddenly straight. It's like, the relationship I'm in is what's defining me, rather than my own interior experience.



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jane 4 years ago

@Andrew: "I don't think it's 'nasty Gatiss-bashing' to say that he comes across as a bit clueless about his own privilege. Compare what's being said here about Gatiss with the claims that were being thrown about about Miles in Wednesday's post's comments, and Gatiss is getting off extraordinarily lightly."

But it's more than a matter of cluelessness, Andrew. Miles isn't just clueless. He actively attacks other writers and their work in his critiques, at disparaging length and with personal animosity. That's always going to provoke a stronger response.

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Andrew Hickey 4 years ago

Oh absolutely. I was talking more about the accusation that Miles is, for example, misogynist, which seems based on a handful of juvenile jokes he's posted on his blog.

If it's acceptable to say someone's misogynist because he does a stupid blog post about "which woman in each episode would you most want to have sex with" or photoshopping a blow-up doll's head onto a woman's face (neither of which I'm defending, at all), then it's not unfair to make the much milder claim that someone's reinforcing transmisogynist tropes -- not that he's transmisogynist or transphobic, just reinforcing those ideas, possibly unwittingly -- when he takes the much more premeditated, and much more public, decision to taking part in and co-write three TV series and one radio series in which a major recurring joke boils down to "trans women are disgusting".

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Tom Watts 4 years ago

I'm a bit concerned by these repeated uses of the word clueless, along with stupid and juvenile. I mean, have you guys never heard any punk rock? Any Frank Zappa? Stupid, juvenile and clueless are the well worn artistic methods. LM's radio times cover hack was motivated by rage, a bit of insurgent anger against sexism and commodification. Punks gob, that's what everyone used to know about them, and these kind of creatives communicate by spitting in the listener's face - good for the skin probably. Clueless to my ear has overtones of social ineptitude, a hint of identity politics shading into snobbery.

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encyclops 4 years ago

I don't know if I saw the blow-up doll thing firsthand or just heard about it, but wasn't the point of that image that Amy is treated by the show as being an object rather than a character?

If so, he could perhaps just have said that (he wouldn't be the only one, and I can see where they're coming from) more "tastefully", but then we wouldn't be talking about it.

And to the point, if you assume that's what he meant by it, he at least believes he's criticizing, not espousing misogyny.

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Tom Watts 4 years ago

And of course it's the audience's duty to gob back, rather than complain about the poor standards of hygiene.

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Andrew Hickey 4 years ago

Tom -- except that Miles gets extremely upset when people get angry at his blog posts, which suggests that it isn't deliberate confrontationalism at all. I don't believe that in *those* posts he wanted to cause offence, nor that he entirely understands *why* they cause offence. As opposed to the stuff where he just flat out insults Steven Moffat or Paul Cornell or whoever.

encyclops -- I agree that was his intent, but he handled it badly enough that a *lot* of people, many of them inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt, and not people who go looking for offence, took it the opposite way.

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Tom Watts 4 years ago

Flat out insults are also defensible, common enough in popular music or in poetry especially. His distress on receiving the blowback does disconcert me, but it's common enough in the case of deliberate provocateurs who are either conscious of isolation or distressed at what they see as the facts of the world - disagreement becomes proof of the obduracy of other people as facts. But, I concede, this is all speculation, and I'm merely supposing.

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encyclops 4 years ago

On biphobia: ah, this takes me back. I wasted a lot of time back in the day arguing with gay men (mostly) who used to bait us fluffy bisexuals with comments like Gatiss's. As biphobic slurs go, noting that lots of people claim to be bi when they later conclude that they're not is relatively mild and easy for me to forgive. At least it's factually true, though also misleading and ultimately harmful. The more interesting suspicion I've drawn from my own experience is that lots of people who ARE bisexual claim to be straight -- that is, I suspect the majority of our community is closeted, even to themselves.

On Katy Perry: read the lyrics to that song sometime. The first line of the chorus and the middle eight are enthusiastic about kissing a girl, and almost every single other line is an excuse, a disclaimer, or a reassurance that she's really straight, honest. I'll take stunt bisexuality over no bisexuality any day, but barf.

On LoG: I've come close but never dared to watch it; the grotesque isn't my favorite mode of comedy. From what I understand of that mode, though, if you haven't offended someone to the point of rage, you're probably not doing it right. If whoever created Barbara isn't pleased that so many of you have such strong reactions to her, he's probably in the wrong line of work.

On Mark Gatiss: I love that the show I love has so many out gay people working on it, and I try very hard to give Gatiss's work the benefit of the doubt; that is, I want to like it more than I do. But by and large, I don't. "Victory" was atrocious, "Lantern" ugly and ill-conceived, "Terrors" facile, "Unquiet" overrated at best. I enjoy his Sherlock episodes a bit more; in fact, I think I'd consider "The Great Game" my favorite of that series so far. And I'm looking forward to finally reading Nightshade soon.

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encyclops 4 years ago

I forgot to mention I think he's absolutely splendid as Mycroft.

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Archeology of the Future 4 years ago

What's interesting to me is that as we move closer and closer to the present day and our own immediate experience, the level of investment in the ethical, moral and political issues that Phil pulls out in his readings is heightened.

The past, it seems, was a foreign country. The past gatting closer and closer to our present in proximity is another matter though...

It's worth pointing out the fact that Royston Vasey is the real name of near-the-knuckle northern comedian Roy Chubby Brown. I'd suggest that Phil has a look at some clips of him on Youtube,as I think it's key to understanding some of the queasiness of League of Gentlemen.

All of the memebers of The League of Gentlemen gre up in the north of England. England, for such a small country, does have significant regional cultures, stuff that doesnt travel 'well. They all had the experience of moving out of the cluture that they, in theory, belong to; the culture of working men's club jokes and regional pantomime, going off to 'that university'.

In many ways League of Gentlemen is a kind of love/hate recapitulation of those common popular tropes and stereotypes which they could no longer claim to authentically access but which still remained as part of their cultural heritage. You can see the same tension at work in Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer's work from a similar time - That sense of being from 'the North' but no longer of the north so carrying the old steotypes and tropes forward in nerw forms in a love/hate way.

There's loads of class tension in it, too, as the League of Gentlemen is in someways an attempt to make slightly higher culture of of low cultural pieces. I think the experience of university scarred all of them, that sense of being confronted with 'posh southerners with their 'high culture'.

There is, I think, an argument to be made that geek culture is the chosen flight from the anxiety of being confronted with the full totality of human creative endeavour, a rtreat from the weight, expectation or implied challenge presented by the ever growing cannon of (supposedly) great works.

I think with the League of Gentlemen there was a sense of trying to have your roots and eat them

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Andrew Hickey 4 years ago

I agree, flat-out insults *are* defensible. All I was saying there is that he seems aware of what the effect of them will be in a way that he doesn't so much in the case of some of the other stuff.

(Just in case it seems otherwise, I am a *huge* fan of Miles', consider him one of my two or three favourite writers, and think his criticism ranges between "interestingly wrong" and "spectacularly perceptive" and tends more toward the latter than the former. I have no interest in his rows with various other writers, because I don't know them or him so don't know who's right, and don't really care. But there are a handful of his posts that make me cringe, and that either don't work as they are intended or seem out of line with the rest of his work. It's those to which I'm referring, not his posts in general. My use of the word 'clueless' is referring to only those posts, and may sound harsher than I mean it to -- I've certainly made remarks and blog posts over the years that I would now consider clueless, and I suspect most people have.)

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Andrew Hickey 4 years ago

Agreed with this -- you can really see the difference when you compare the League Of Gentlemen or Reeves & Mortimer with contemporaries like Newman & Baddiel or Lee & Herring, who are more southern and middle-class.

I'm Northern myself (I live in Manchester), and one of the funniest experiences I ever had was when a friend from Yorkshire and I showed my American now-wife an episode of The Wheeltappers And Shunters Social Club and just looked at her reaction as we explained this is what mainstream TV entertainment was like in the North until fairly recently. (I'm actually too young to remember that show from its original broadcast, but I definitely remember ones like it from a few years later, and the culture of which it was a part).

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Seeing_I 4 years ago

@ Andrew Hickey: See, I think Gatiss has very good taste, it's just that all he's capable of is pastiche. Sort of a mad-libs approach to "the sort of thing Doctor Who does" with very little depth or insight. Personally I thought "Night Terrors" was dire, but that's me.

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encyclops 4 years ago

There is, I think, an argument to be made that geek culture is the chosen flight from the anxiety of being confronted with the full totality of human creative endeavour, a rtreat from the weight, expectation or implied challenge presented by the ever growing cannon of (supposedly) great works.

Hmmm. At first I was like "hey, yeah," but then I remembered that the only people I know who regularly engage with the canon of (supposedly) great works, apart from (and usually including) those who work in academia, are geeks. So I think it depends on how you define the term (aside: I refuse to identify as a geek myself, even though it applies to me as well as anyone; I'll accept "nerd" if I must accept anything).

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jane 4 years ago

"I've come close but never dared to watch it; the grotesque isn't my favorite mode of comedy. From what I understand of that mode, though, if you haven't offended someone to the point of rage, you're probably not doing it right."

It's much like South Park, isn't it? It's trying to be offensive. I'm just catching up on LoG at the prompting of the blog. The second episode has this bit with dragging around a dog, and being in dog rescue I didn't take too kindly to it. Mostly the first bit, which had a real dog getting yanked around on a chain. Ho ho ho, isn't animal abuse funny.

On the flip side, there's the bit with the vet who keeps killing people's pets, but here what's funny isn't the absurd animal deaths, it's the vet himself and having to deal with the awkward situations that stem from his own incompetence.

And I wonder if this ethos isn't the driving force behind the whole show -- that these are people who are unaware of themselves, who lack a sort of self-consciousness that we're meant to take as funny. Which can work, but can also backfire spectacularly. I mean, there are aspects about myself that I'm unaware of, and I think this is true of everyone. At the same time, the show often lacks sufficient self-awareness of what its larger impact may be.

For example, the Job Centre bit. On the one hand it's funny to see such spectacular incompetence. But it can also be taken as a not-so-funny critique of job-seeking programs, a way of justifying getting rid of social services in general.

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jane 4 years ago

I once heard a taxonomy of geek culture that went something like this: Dorks are smart obsessive people who are unaware that they humiliate themselves in larger social contexts. Nerds are smart obsessive people who are painfully aware that they humiliate themselves in larger social contexts. Geeks are smart obsessive people who are graciously accept that they humiliate themselves in larger social contexts.

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Spacewarp 4 years ago

Oh blimey, I remember that first time round! "Ding Ding Ding! Thank-you please!"

Dreadful programme. The 70s gave me the 3rd Doctor and Jo Grant. There had to be a downside, and Wheeltappers was it.

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That Guy 4 years ago

One thing to note is that a lot of your argument seems to run on the assumption that Barbara is raped and murdered becuase she's trans and therefore deserves it. Quite apart from the fact she isn't murdered (she's living at the end of the third series)... abudction and being murdered is standard operational procedure for nearly everybody in League of Gentlemen. If she wasn't at least threatened with death once in a while, you'd be complaining she was singled out for special treatment...

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jane 4 years ago

@Tom: "I'm a bit concerned by these repeated uses of the word clueless, along with stupid and juvenile. I mean, have you guys never heard any punk rock? Any Frank Zappa?... Clueless to my ear has overtones of social ineptitude, a hint of identity politics shading into snobbery."

I don't know about anyone else, but I'm using "clueless" in a particular way, based out of my own experiences of ineptitude -- that of not fully grokking the larger implications of my actions. Case in point, my lovely exchanges with Andrew the past couple of days.

With Barbara in LoG, we're presented with a character who seems completely clueless as to how she comes across to other people, and this is all fine and dandy as far as generating uncomfortable situations that we can find funny -- which is the underlying ethos of just about scene and character in the show, as far as I can tell.

But there's also the cluelessness on the part of the writers that this particular caricature can have deleterious consequences outside of the context of the show itself -- whether it's stoking the derision of transsexuals, or the dysphoria they suffer. This isn't a problem in the case of Uncle Harvey and Aunt Val, because they don't represent a class of people who are systematically oppressed.

Another example is how the Gelth function as a metaphor for immigration in The Unquiet Dead. In this case, there's actually competing metaphors, because they're also a metaphor for the Doctor's issues with losing his people in the Time War. He invokes the immigration metaphor rightly, but because the Gelth turn out to have nefarious intentions, it ends up serving as an anti-immigration screed as well, and I'm not sure that's actually the authorial intention of the work.

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jane 4 years ago

@Alan: "Honestly, I thought the stereotype being lampooned with Babs wasn't that of the overly chatty transgender person, but rather the stereotype of the overly chatty cab driver who insists on cheerfully sharing absurdly intimate personal details with a passenger who is quite literally unable to escape until the cab reaches its destination."

These are not mutually exclusive stereotypes. Both of them are in play.

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Andrew Hickey 4 years ago

No, it doesn't. Reread what Phil said. He was merely sarcastically *guessing* that the character would be raped and murdered. It's the very nature of the character he's complaining about.

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Andrew Hickey 4 years ago

I think you're misreading the JobCentre stuff there. The criticism is not of the programmes, but of the people who work in them, many of whom really are very like Pauline (I know this having both been long-term unemployed and having worked at the JobCentre, and having seen it from both sides). Pauline is actually based on a JobCentre worker who had behaved much like that towards Reese Shearsmith when he was unemployed, as I recall. It's not meant as a critique of the institution, and nor do I think anyone watching at the time would have taken it as one. It's an observational bit about a particular type of person who flourishes in that role.

I suspect that you're missing quite a lot of cultural context here, some of which is partially talked about in "Archeology Of The Future"s comment below. Just as an example that's easy to explain, the vet you mention -- yes, some of the humour is in the awkwardness, but much more is in the fact that he's a parody of a specific character -- Tristan, the young, idealistic vet from the TV series All Creatures Great And Small, who was played by Peter Davison.

A lot of the lack of self-consciousness you're seeing isn't being played for laughs in itself -- rather, the joke is that these are recognisable types, but distorted to the point they become grotesque caricatures. And those original types are lacking in self-consciousness because they are types from a supposedly-less-sophisticated culture, the North of England (specifically, Royston Vasey seems to be located somewhere in Lancashire). That culture is one the League members had been brought up in, but had left.

Without that context, I can see how easy it would be to read it as just offence for the sake of offence, but there's a *ton* of subtlety there that undercuts that reading, but which it's not really possible to explain in a blog comment.

(I suspect that Phil missed most or all of that as well, actually. For all he's an Anglophile,

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Andrew Hickey 4 years ago

sent that half-way through typing, because I'm an idiot...
for all hat he's an Anglophile, Phil's Anglophilia is mostly for a particular type of British culture, very much centred around London and the Home Counties, and I suspect he's much less familiar with Northern culture, and that that colours his outlook.

(Were I doing the choosing of Pop Between Realities stuff, for example, I *couldn't* have talked about Mark Of The Rani without talking about Brass, and I would have had great difficulty leaving out things like Auf Weidersehen, Pet, The Beiderbecke Affair, Boys From The Blackstuff, Brookside and more when talking about the 80s).

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Andrew Hickey 4 years ago

Agreed with all of this, and that's what I meant by clueless, too.

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encyclops 4 years ago

Yeah, I stopped watching South Park shortly after the movie (which I thought was brilliant) came out, partly because of some of Matt & Trey's post-9/11 attitude, but mostly because I felt like I "got it" and wasn't going to get much more out of it. I'm sure they've done some clever stuff on the show since then (and I know they have outside of the show, in other projects), but it can be like talking with that problem kid you know who's basically okay but also thinks it's funny to occasionally try to give you a charley horse. It's hard to laugh at his jokes when you're steeling yourself for the next "hilarious" punch.

On the other hand, the more I observe and perform comedy, the more it all seems to fit into the general theory that humor arises from (in order to cushion) the gap between expectation and result, in the incongruous and the just plain wrong. If the incongruity is too small, there's no tension to release. If the wrongness is too big (as Barbara is for Dr. S), humor can't soothe it. And our expectations are all different in size and shape, so we laugh at different things and get pissed off at different things.

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Ununnilium 4 years ago

"I've come close but never dared to watch it; the grotesque isn't my favorite mode of comedy. From what I understand of that mode, though, if you haven't offended someone to the point of rage, you're probably not doing it right."

You know, the fact that you were trying to be offensive is not actually a defense against the claim that you were offensive.

I mean, this comes up with South Park too. Yes, I know they were intentionally trying to make fun of whatever thing. But that doesn't necessarily mean that it was ethical to do so, or to do so in the way they did.

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Jesse 4 years ago

mostly because I felt like I "got it" and wasn't going to get much more out of it

They actually went in several new directions after the movie. Some of them were misfires, but quite a few were brilliant.

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encyclops 4 years ago

That sounds about right.

I just hate the sound of the word "geek," the original meaning, the self-congratulatory way it's used ("graciously accept" is kind), and perhaps most of all just the idea that we need to have an ostensibly self-deprecating word for engaging with the world in a certain way. It's a personal problem, and perhaps one only a geek would devote a moment's thought to, let alone express on a Doctor Who blog. :)

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Matt Michael 4 years ago

Phil says, "To The League of Gentlemen’s credit, it does nostalgia well by understanding that the tone of the thing being remembered is more important than the details"

Which is precisely why something like The Curse of Fenric is a far better evocation of Hinchcliffe Who than Attack of the Cybermen is of Troughton, despite Fenric being neither a sequel nor referring in any way to those Hinchcliffe serials where a buried evil returns to menace the present via Hammer Horror motifs.

But I think this approach is notably lacking from Gatiss' DW work, which too often feels like a lot of specific details lifted from cult TV stuck together rather than creating something in a similar style. For a long time (until Victory of the Daleks, in fact) The Idiots Lantern was my least favourite new Who because it felt as I watched it like a string of direct references to Sapphire and Steel, Quatermass etc without any sense of its own identity.

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Ununnilium 4 years ago

Personally, I think anyone who tries to make a distinction between "geek" and "nerd" has entirely too much shame about being either (present company excepted, as far as I can see).

And I'd say that being a geek/nerd is all about diving joyfully into parts of human creative endeavor - but that anxiety still exists, and can manifest as a turning inward, of the type that thinks Attack of the Cybermen is the height of Who.

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Sean Daugherty 4 years ago

Out of curiosity, and so I could read this with a little more knowledge, I rented and watched the first episode of The League of Gentlemen. And I'm just as torn as ever. If anything, Phil S.'s being charitable in his description of Barbara Dixon. It's a shockingly insensitive portrayal for the late 1990s.

Which is doubly irritating, because there's really a lot to like there. It's a truly clever concept for a series, and I can certainly see why it's been praised as effusively as it has been. But there's no self-reflection on the tropes it's adopting, and that negatively colors the whole thing. I think Phil nailed it when he talks about the uncritical nature of it all.

Which is, I think, another potential distinction from Punch and Judy, which is, if nothing else, at least commonly understood as something of a historical and cultural artifact. That doesn't mean it isn't without its problems, but it's easier to accept a work as emerging from a less understanding (and less critical) past than it is to accept a work featuring those same problems that was originally performed in 1998.

To put it another way, I can deal with the nasty racial prejudices of much of the Patrick Troughton era of Doctor Who by contextualizing them. That doesn't mean I like, or even necessarily excuse them, but I can at least attempt to see it as an unfortunate product of its cultural context, and make a go at appreciating it despite the problems arising from that. If, on the other hand, Steven Moffat was to rewrite Tomb of the Cybermen for next season, keeping all of the prejudice and overt racism intact, I'd have rather more of a problem with it, and would have difficulty seeing past that. I can just about deal with the fact that Gerry Davis didn't know any better. I can't deal with the fact that Moffat (in this hypothetical) doesn't, or that Mark Gatiss didn't.

That only goes so far, of course. As I said, I do think Punch and Judy shows are problematic. But I can envision a limited defense for Punch and Judy that I can't really grant to The League of Gentlemen, no matter how much I wish I could.

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Wm Keith 4 years ago

They always go on, on 1970s retrospective TV programmes, about the Sex Pistols swearing on TV. But that was on local TV, Thames or London Weekend. In Granadaland, what were we watching? Sit Thi Deawn?

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Philip Sandifer 4 years ago

I agree with you - I had a more rambly version of that paragraph that noted that the fallow period of popularity in the 90s where sci-fi became "cult" coincided with a similarly fertile period in the margins.

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Philip Sandifer 4 years ago

I want to resist a bit that there's a matter of personal subjectivity here. Transphobia certainly upsets me more than some forms of discrimination, and yes, there are personal reasons for that, but I think that's distinct from transphobia just being something I happen not to like.

Yes, humor exists in the gap between expectation and result. But so do other things. One expects that one's self-identity is not grounds to be raped and murdered. The result is often different. Indeed, the supposed gap between expectations of what a woman is and the reality of some trans women's bodies is, in point of fact, the immediate grounds for their rape and murder in many, many cases.

That's simply not funny. It's not a matter of personal bias here or of the wrongness being too big for me. It's that the wrongness of that joke is the exact same logic that leads to real people being murdered. The fact that I know and love dearly people who are at risk for that makes it something I'm more acutely aware of, but that's what makes me notice it, not what makes it wrong.

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storiteller 4 years ago

Geek culture, in its various forms, is a reaction to the overflow of information. It is fundamentally an aesthetic of excess, not in the sense of going too far, but in the sense of reacting to an overabundance of stimuli and information.

I think it's not just an excess of stimuli, but an excess of genuine enthusiasm. People sometimes don't like talking to socially-awkward geeks because it's frustrating when someone is so excited and it's hard to get them off of a topic you don't care about. However, if done correctly, being a geek can be terribly refreshing and fulfilling in a culture that can be preoccupied with irony. There's a genuineness to being a geek about a topic, whether it's SF, computers, football, or gardening. While it's been appropriated to mean "anime fan" here, that's actually why I like the Japanese term okatu. It's actually a perspective I've held for a long time and actually wrote my college application essay on. I'm glad to see others espousing it lately!

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jane 4 years ago

"Indeed, the supposed gap between expectations of what a woman is and the reality of some trans women's bodies is, in point of fact, the immediate grounds for their rape and murder in many, many cases."

Or suicide, given the intensity of many trans people's dysphoria (not just trans women.)

I've only seen 2.3 episodes of LoG now, but from what I've seen so far, as far as I can tell, Barbara is seen as female by the Locals -- and as someone noted elsewhere, it's when her identity is challenged that someone gets kicked out of the cab.

Which might almost get them off the hook, except for the discourse of her introduction. It's the laugh track that's telling -- the track doesn't tell us to laugh at the discomfort of the people getting a ride, it tells us to laugh at the details of Barbara's embodiment. And that's what's particularly cruel.

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Scott 4 years ago

I read it more as the general tone surrounding Barbara being similar to the kind of discourse that has often been used to excuse or justify the assault and murder of transpersons in real life, not that this actually happened to Barbara in the show.

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encyclops 4 years ago

Ununnilium:You know, the fact that you were trying to be offensive is not actually a defense against the claim that you were offensive.

Oh, absolutely it isn't. I don't believe I said that it was.

Philip Sandifer:That's simply not funny.

With respect: it is funny, because there's nothing simple about it. It's not funny to you, and I'm pretty certain it wouldn't be funny to me. But clearly it was funny to the LoG guys or they wouldn't have done it.

Should they find it funny? Should anybody? I don't know. I'm certainly not trying to tell you that you should, or that because humor is subjective you should forgive it. I'm no more inclined to find it funny or forgivable than you are.

I actually have quite a few boundaries in my own comedy, which sometimes I feel a little awkward about because I work with people who claim there shouldn't BE any limits on what you can joke about (and I always think of Carlin's "proof" that rape can be funny: "picture Porky Pig raping Elmer Fudd"), so this is a subject I think about, the question of why something's funny to one person but not another. I don't think it's just about whether the topic is personal; I don't have any personal experience being or being killed by a serial killer, but I discovered once that I really couldn't bring myself to play one in a scene. Go figure.

Oh, another example from a show I otherwise love: the Morocco episode of AbFab I found incredibly uncomfortable. I doubt that's universal, and I'm certainly not about to claim that people who laughed at that prove (or more pertinently, that the creators of the show believe) that selling your daughter into slavery isn't wrong. Yet I can't see any better explanation for why that became a script than that Jennifer Saunders thought its wrongness was hilarious and I didn't.

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encyclops 4 years ago

Oh not at all -- making fine distinctions between words is the sort of obsessive fun that geeks and nerds both love. ;)

Are there really fans who love "Attack" that much? I remember not completely hating it, but that was because of the violence (I was at the age where Aliens seemed like the greatest movie ever) and that odd soundtrack, not the much-criticized "continuity porn."

I used to think all of 1970 - 1983 was the height of Who, but I've been catching up on the 60s stuff thanks to DVDs and there's some fantastic stories in there too. Maybe Who is the height of Who.

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Philip Sandifer 4 years ago

The standard of "anything people find funny is, in fact, funny" is one I have trouble with. The existence of 4chan and /b allows that approach to be brought to the conclusion whereby actual rape is funny. Not even jokes about it. The rape itself.

I would suggest that there are some "jokes" in which it is firmly the sense of humor of the people laughing at them that is broken, and that these jokes can accurately be described as "not funny."

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Alan 4 years ago

Has there ever been a "good" depiction of a transgender person on television? Seriously, like, ever? All I can recall from the entirety of modern television is (a) comedies that make a joke out of the transgender character and (b) "very special episodes" where a transphobic character learns a lesson in tolerance when his best friend (usually from "the war") shows up as a woman. Hell, The Jeffersons did that storyline. Is the general treatment of Barbara (set as it is against the backdrop of a town where everyone is grotesque and most people are homicidally deranged) more or less offensive than, say, the IT Crowd episode that addressed transgender issues by having Douglas fall in love with a beautiful "transgender" woman (played by the very non-transgendered Lucy Montgomery) who enjoyed "mannish" things like boxing and arm-wrestling. The joke is that he misheard her say "I used to be a man" as "I used to live in Iran." When he realizes the truth, he dumps her rather brutally, and then they get into a violent fistfight modeled on a fight scene from The Bourne Identity.

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Daibhid C 4 years ago

See also the xkcd Venn diagram in which one circle is labelled "geek", one "nerd", and the overlap is "people with strong opinions on the difference between geeks and nerds".

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Daibhid C 4 years ago

Regarding the idea that Barbara is a grotesque (which she is) and therefore isn't an apalling stereotype of a transgendered person (which she also is); what people are basically saying is that because no-one looks at a grotesque and sees a realistic portayal of a person, this does not influence or corroberate any opinions they have about the people the grotesque is based on.

If you're saying that, you're saying that Spitting Image didn't work, that nobody looked at Helen A and saw Margaret Thatcher, that the entire British tradition of the grotesque as satire is based on a fundementally false assumption. And I'm not sure that's true.

Let's look at Pauline. She's a grotesque. She might be based on Pemberton's own Restart officer, but I'm betting he exaggerated her quite a bit. Nobody could be as awful as Pauline. But anybody who's been in Ross's situation knows exactly what it feels like to be unemployed through no fault of your own and be put in a system that assumes you're an idiot or scrounger. She's a grotesque, but she's a grotesque who reflects a real thing.

This is why the end-of-season payoff worked; everyone on Restart wanted to stand up, declare they were an undercover inspector and fire the course leader, or at the very least believe such people existed.

And Barbara is the dark side of this. Nobody watching thought she was a realistic portrayal of a transgendered person, probably. But to the extent that she reflected viewer stereotypes, she reinforced them.

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T. Hartwell 4 years ago

It's been a while since I've seen it, so my memory might not be clear, but didn't Twin Peaks have a minor transgender character that was a bit more nuanced? IIRC her first appearance is used as a joke but she's treated fairly normally through the rest of her time on the show.

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Abigail Brady 4 years ago

Hayley has been a regular in Corrie for over a decade, and plenty of her storylines - especially latterly - have had nothing to do with her being trans.

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Dan Abel 4 years ago

This comment has been removed by the author.

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Ununnilium 4 years ago

That's a good point!

Well, perhaps I should say "a solid example of Who".

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Ununnilium 4 years ago

Yes! This, totally this.

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Philip Sandifer 4 years ago

I was actually reasonably impressed with Hit & Miss. Not perfect, but surprisingly solid for how trashily exploitative its premise was.

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encyclops 4 years ago

T. Hartwell: you might be thinking of Denise, played by David Duchovny.

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Ununnilium 4 years ago

I think there's an unexamined assumption in "anything people find funny is, in fact, funny", and that's "funny is always enough" - that if a joke is honestly funny, that makes it worth making. And I think there can be times when reasonable people can agree that, even if a joke is truly funny to its intended audience, there are, at the very least, certain times and places when you wouldn't want to make that joke even to that audience.

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Spacewarp 4 years ago

This has been a very interesting thread from my POV, and what has mainly come out (and something I have found intriguing in today's increasing "politically correct" society) is the uncomfortable balance between what is funny (or entertaining) and what is "offensive". Where do we draw the line? A joke about the Holocaust and how it didn't take place would be seen as offensive by most of society. However a joke about minority groups, where does that leave us? If we see a joke about someone in a wheelchair that explicitly relies on them being in a wheelchair...but is in no way saying that their wheelchair makes them (and all others like them) inferior...is that offensive? My wife tells a story about a customer at her bank who is black and whose name is Prince Charles. Whenever he's driving his car and the police stop him on whatever pretext, he gives his name, and they immediately run him in for wasting police time. Now if this was the subject of a sketch on the TV, would people see it as offensive? I suspect so. And it actually is funny, on so many levels - the fact that the police probably stop him mostly because he's black; the fact that they perceive his name is him taking the piss; the fact that it keeps happening to him. But it doesn't denigrate him as a person. It doesn't say this happens to him because of who he is, but because of who the police are. Is it offensive? And if so, to who? To him? Well he told the story to her, and it's a true story. This is what concerns me about arguments about offense. One of the Fawlty Towers episodes revolves around an elderly guest who is hard of hearing. That could be construed as offensive because the humour hinges on the portrayal of a stereotypical elderly "confused" person. But should it be? Personally I think our society should damn well be thicker-skinned than this. A joke about wheelchair users or non-white people or non-straight people doesn't necessarily mean those members of society are going to be targetted more because of that joke. Unless every single episode of your programme propagates that joke, and relies on the denigration of those members for the success of that joke. We had a meeting at work a month ago in which we were frankly told what kind of humourous comments were not allowed. I remarked to colleagues that there was now nothing left to joke about.

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Andrew Hickey 4 years ago

It's a lot easier to be thicker-skinned about things, though, if you aren't at something like twelve times the normal risk of being murdered, because people see you as not really human, in large part because of jokes like the ones in League Of Gentlemen. And I believe that something like 70% of trans women have been raped, far more even than the disgustingly high numbers for cis women or men.

"Unless every single episode of your programme propagates that joke, and relies on the denigration of those members for the success of that joke."

Which it does in League Of Gentlemen.

As an example, take The League Of Gentlemen Are Behind You, their pantomime special:

in this, Papa Lazarou, who is one of the villains, has been hunting for a wife, whose foot must fit his magic moonboot. We get to the climax of the story -- I'm typing this from memory now, but I rewatched this this afternoon, so while it's not quite verbatim, it's pretty close:

Barbara -- Here, that's my moonboot!
Papa Lazarou -- Who are you?!
Barbara -- I'm Barbara Dickless
Lazarou -- Barbara... that's not your real name, is it?
Barbara -- No, my name used to be Dave [displays her genitals to him]
Lazarou -- Ugh! A tranny! [tries to run away in disgust, falls backward, smashing his magic mirror and thus ending the story].

That's the punchline to the entire thing. "Ugh! A tranny!". That's Barbara's role in the story -- to display her genitals, be told Barbara isn't her "real name" (something that is *profoundly* offensive to trans people), have an offensive term used against her, and be so disgusting by her very existence that the villain fails through sheer disgust at her. That's the only scene the character's in in that DVD, apart from a brief coda where she goes off with the butcher, we hear a chopping noise and Barbara says "that's better" -- the implication being that the butcher has chopped off her penis, and that this is a good thing.

Now, just try replacing her with any other minority group:
Barbara -- Here, that's my moonboot!
Papa Lazarou -- Who are you?!
Barbara -- I'm Barbara Blackwoman
Lazarou -- Ugh! A nigger! [tries to run away in disgust, falls backward, smashing his magic mirror and thus ending the story].

There would be a national outcry had that been the ending. They'd never have worked again. But dehumanising trans* people is seen as OK by most.

The joke, such as it is, is *entirely* about members of the cis majority finding trans people repulsive, and we're meant to share that repulsion. It's not a borderline case, it's not something that's just people being thin-skinned, it's just outright *nasty*.

When someone has as many problems as trans* people have, thanks to societal attitudes towards them (did you know that legally if someone who's married transitions they have to get divorced, for example? The government *forces* happily married couples to get divorced because one is trans) then making... not even actual jokes, just repeating vicious slurs against that group, is just bullying, plain and simple.

There is no subject that can't be a good subject for humour -- nothing should be taboo for comedy, any more than any other form of art. But something claiming to be comedy should not excuse it from basic human decency, like not just hurling abuse at minority groups.

And I say this as a *fan* of The League Of Gentlemen, someone who has all their stuff on DVD, but can see the clear flaws in it.

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That Guy 4 years ago

Hang on, though, if you really think anybody in the audience is ever meant to find Papa Lazarou an Audience Identification Figure ... um, that would surprise me. Surely at least part of the joke there is that, Papa Lazarou has such a ridiculously specific requirement for his wife (and, indeed, the name "Dave" is the name that Papa Lazarou gives to EVERYONE, regardless of gender), yet his own prejudices means he runs repulsed away from the one person who meets him. Which means the joke is on him, not on Barbara?

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Andrew Hickey 4 years ago

Reread what I said.
It's not a "ridiculously specific requirement" -- it's the Cinderella story, but with a boot instead of a shoe.
BARBARA says her previous name was "Dave", part of the joke, yes, is that that's the name Lazarou gives to everyone, but the bit I was saying was objectionable was the claim that it's not her "real name".
And no, Lazarou is not meant to be an audience identification figure, but neither is Barbara. She's there to be treated as an object of disgust, and listening to the audience's reaction confirms this. The 'joke' isn't that Lazarou is prejudiced, but that Barbara is so disgusting that even Lazarou wouldn't want her. (He's seeking the person the moonboot fits because he has "all the other wives" already).

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That Guy 4 years ago

Lazarou says it's not her real name, not Barbara. That's a very fine point, but it's an important one. Barbara's self-identification as female is never in doubt throughout the series, is it?

And yes, a shoe is a ridiculously specific requirement, in Cindarella or in League of Gentlemen. In both circumstances, they're only meant to suit one person (the choice of "moon boot" is what makes it ludicrous, being ridiculously retro footwear).

I do think the surname stretches the line (though it's obiviously also a play on "Barbara Dickson"), though.

I'm wondering why so much comment on the dangerous nature of Barbara as a stereotype, when, for instance, the predatory-homosexual-stereotype that is Herr Lipp would seem to be equally dangerous (or more so, as it implies homosexuals are a danger to "normal" people, wheras Barbara never harms anyone). Yet his appearance isn't really getting criticised here at all. Is it merely because Gatiss is gay himself?

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sleepyscholar 4 years ago

Otaku as a Japanese term is inherently bound up in valuation of social adeptness. Its literal meaning without the honorific is "house" or "home". Japan having a whole complex of personal pronouns, the version with the honorific came into use as an extremely formal and distanced 2nd person address.

The term was then applied to "fans" to indicate that their social skills were so limited that they would use this most distancing of addresses in all interactions with others. Although the term has acquired some positive connotations (thanks to the general rehabilitation of geeks, and stuff like the Densha no Otoko movie), even now in Japan it is generally understood to refer to young men who barely leave their apartments, but who obsessively collect (or otherwise fanac) something. I think the relative lack of irony is more a feature of Japanese society in general, than anything to do with otaku.

This aside, your point about geeks as an antidote to cynicism is well made.

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Spacewarp 4 years ago

@Andrew

"...because people see you as not really human, in large part because of jokes like the ones in League Of Gentlemen. And I believe that something like 70% of trans women have been raped, far more even than the disgustingly high numbers for cis women or men."

I've snipped a bit but I think we still know the point here. Are we to believe that The League of Gentlemen is really that instrumental in changing society's attitude towards trans-gender people?

As ThatGuy points out, Herr Lipp is far more dangerous both to characters he interacts with, and as a role model to society as a whole. But are we to imply that Herr Lipp has caused people to beat up Gays more?

No, the reason trans-gender people get yelled at and beaten up in the street is because a lot of people are ignorant scum, and I'd maintain that those kind of people probably don't watch LofG. I used to work with a young lad who was very fat. He mentioned one day that people just yelled abuse at him as he walked down the road, just because he was overweight. "Why should they think they have the right to do that to me?" he asked. I didn't have an answer for that.

It's people who do this. Just people. Not because they saw it on a TV programme, but because that's how they are. I watched LofG all the way through, and it didn't change my view of gays or trans, any more than enjoying Eddie Izzard or Graham Norton does, because I'm a decent human being, not an ignorant thug.

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Andrew Hickey 4 years ago

So it's wrong for people to shout abuse at someone on the street for being different, but not to put that abuse on TV for an audience of millions?

As it happens, I do also think Herr Lipp is very problematic, but the differences are that his homosexuality isn't his *only* characteristic -- he becomes quite a rounded character in the film -- and that there were far more gay people on TV, and society as a whole was and is far more accepting of gay people. But yes, there's still a problem with the character, and if Phil had watched series 2 rather than series 1, I'm sure he would have been mentioned in the piece as well. Barbara is the worst, but far from the only, problem with the programme.

As for ignorant thugs not liking League Of Gentlemen, I see that Julie Burchill has in the past called it "genius" and "an excellent example of modern comedy". Do I think that watching it *caused* her to write her disgusting article on trans* people (which I won't link to, but if you don't know about it then here's Roz Kaveney's response -- http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2013/jan/13/julie-birchill-bullying-trans-community )? No, I don't. But I certainly don't think it discouraged her, either. So yes, at least one ignorant thug *did* watch it.

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Spacewarp 4 years ago

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Tom Watts 4 years ago

I'd add that while Birchill's article was cruel and loutish, I think it would be very wrong to call it incitement. And it's surely true that bisexual and transsexual -ism(s) are still contested, and it's not yet a matter of accepting self asserted identities without deep questioning. Of course this applies to all sexual identity,including hetero. And there have been cases (Friedkin's Cruising comes to my mind) of powerful and (IMHO) deeply truthful art being misrepresented in the heat of a political moment as hate speech. That said, comics as confrontational as Chris Morris manage to offend all and sundry without ever being "offensive" in the PC sense of the term, and I wonder whether comedy is the genre, the form of human expression, least hobbled by censorship, as it seems to me that audiences in closed societies laugh just as hard as the rest of us at their tame comics.

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Ununnilium 4 years ago

Bopping back to the OP for a moment:

"today's increasing "politically correct" society"

It really isn't. I mean, "politically correct" is kind of a useless, it-means-whatever-I-don't-like term, but even if you take it at its most clear value as "trying to avoid offense to anyone", that's not really the direction our society's heading at this point - certainly not in anything political.

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DaveAA 4 years ago

There was a transgendered character in Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles. She was portrayed in a positive light and there wasn't any big 'message' about transgenderism.

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Tallifer 4 years ago

I thought "The League of Gentlemen" was going to be a post about Captain Nemo et aliis, but a Google search corrected my simple mistake.

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Philip Sandifer 4 years ago

Alas, I think I'm done with Alan Moore on this blog.

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Travis Butler 4 years ago

Yup. I would go so far as to say that funny is *never* enough; if an act is atrocious without being funny, making it funny doesn't somehow excuse it.

As little as I like many of the attitudes defended in The Screwtape Letters, I have to admit it contains some very accurate insights into human behavior, and this passage is one of them:

“(Humor) is an invaluable as a means of destroying shame. If a man simply lets others pay for him, he is ‘mean’; if he boasts of it in a jocular manner and twits his fellows with having been scored off, he is no longer ‘mean’ but a comical fellow…Cruelty is shameful-unless the cruel man can represent it as a practical joke. A thousand bawdy, or even blasphemous, jokes do not help towards a man’s damnation so much as his discovery that almost anything he wants to do can be done, not only without the disapproval but with the admiration of his fellows, if only it can get itself treated as a joke.”

I'm also reminded of the nurse who committed suicide a short while ago, because she was successfully fooled by the perpetrators of 'prank comedy' into giving out medical details on the British royal family. I've never viewed this kind of 'comedy' as acceptable, because of the way it viciously plays on the kind of behaviors that help us live together in a society. (Willingness to help others, to trust...)

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Matthew Blanchette 4 years ago

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Matthew Blanchette 4 years ago

Um... what? Mr. Garrison's worldview is profoundly screwed-up; that's the point. :-/

Never mind that the episode you're referring to is at least over a decade old, now...

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Matthew Blanchette 4 years ago

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Matthew Blanchette 4 years ago

...even with this little number appearing in League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Black Dossier? http://i49.tinypic.com/i1fktv.jpg ;-)

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Andrew Hickey 4 years ago

If that *had* been in Black Dossier, it would have been very much worth mentioning, given that Black Dossier came out two years before Matt Smith's casting was announced ;). In Century 2009, it's probably less so.

I think the slightly (but not very) more interesting reference actually comes in LoEG: Century 1969, where we see the Troughton Doctor and an issue of "the Karkus" for sale, and of course Moore's ideaspace ties in very much with The Mind Robber. But there's no link there with the current series...

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Philip Sandifer 4 years ago

Yeah, I mean, I liked both of those, they made me happy as a fan, but as things to comment on go they're both pretty thin. In a comic defined by dense intertextual references to literature, mostly British, Doctor Who was one of the things in the mix. It would have been shocking if Century 1969 and Century 2009 hadn't had quick Doctor Who references. And the fact that Kevin O'Neil went deep enough to find The Karkus is sweet (and it does appear to be O'Neil who's responsible for a lot of the texture references like that).

But I don't think there's anything new to say about Alan Moore's relationship with Doctor Who there. It seems to be the thing he respects most out of a large pile of stuff he doesn't respect very much. Best of the unworthy, if you will.

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Matthew Blanchette 4 years ago

I suppose. And he does seem to lob an appalling amount of vitriol at James Bond (which I can understand, except that he's completely warped the character into something he never was in Fleming)...

James Bond is flawed, definitely, but he was never that much of an asshole to women (Goldfinger, of course, being the very unfortunate exception -- but he doesn't really care that Tilly Masterton loves Pussy Galore in the book). And yes, segments of, say, Live and Let Die the novel or Dr. No the novel can be incredibly tone-deaf when it comes to race relations -- I should know; I've read them -- but I can work past it, and acknowledge it as problematic. That doesn't mean I can't enjoy the good parts, can I?

James Bond, like Ian Fleming, was a man of his time. Unfortunately. That doesn't mean the books (and films they're based off of) aren't still fantastic -- even (or, perhaps, especially) with the rough edges smoothed away.

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neroden@gmail 3 years, 2 months ago

The part of League of Gentlemen which always squicked me out were the scenes with the "caring, loving" veteranarian who kills all his animal patients. Played by Gatiss.

The thing is, it's grotesque, but it's not actually funny, it's just shocking. Especially to anyone who's seen anyone injured by medical malpractice of any sort. And a disturbing amount of League of Gentlemen is like that. I do not really get it.

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Andrew Bowman 2 years, 9 months ago

Doubt anyone will read this for a while, but here goes: the main problem with this disertation on The League of Gentlemen is that it comes, consciously or otherwise, from an American perspective. The British, of whom I am a member, have a very different perspective, generally speaking. We laugh at the bizarre and the grotesque as a matter of course: it helps us to deal with things in a healthy and safe way.

Is TLoG any different, in principle, from Fawlty Towers, Blackadder or The Young Ones? Of course not: in fact, Michael Palin called Gatiss and co. Python's spiritual successors. Is the character of Barbara Dickson funny? Not especially, but the things she says are, as are the reactions of the people in the back of her taxi. Comedy is built on cruelty, that's the crux of the matter here. While the US has given us things like Friends and Cheers, both very funny shows, neither have that cruel streak which properly defines British comedy.

People like Ricky Gervais, Sacha Baron Cohen et al are excellent examples of this ethos. The Office, for example, is a superb piece of comedy and I suspect, although I haven't seen it, that the US version isn't as cutting or cruel as the UK version. Nothing should be sacred in comedy, but certain subjects should be approached in certain ways - the more bizarre the setting (Royston Vasey, for example) the more you can say. The alternative, of course, is a sanitisation of comedy, and no-one wants that, do they?

Sorry for rambling on but, as much as I enjoyed the discourse above, I do think certain points-of-reference have been missed or lost.

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Andrew Hickey 2 years, 9 months ago

If you actually read the comments you'll find that several of the people who were critical of the character, myself included, are British.

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Andrew Bowman 2 years, 9 months ago

Hence "generally speaking". Personally, I admire the dark side of British humour: the discomfort of laughing at something you really shouldn't; it's like the Black Knight sequence in Monty Python and the Holy Grail - it's funny because he's getting getting his limbs hacked off, and his complete indifference to it. Is that scene offensive to amputees, for example? It certainly affronted America at the time, due to the Vietnam War: violence wasn't something you could laugh at, so they thought. I have read, and continue to read, this blog from the beginning, and I find the insight and the comments fascinating. I found your distress at Jane's misunderstanding of austism and Asperger's very interesting Andrew, having two sons with latter and, despite not having been diagnosed as such, I strongly suspect I may too have Asperger's: I certainly recognise certain aspects of my own behaviour in what was being said. I just felt a more "cruelty = comdey" angle on the discussion would be interesting. Although, as I said, I didn't expect anyone to respond so quickly, so that's gratifying in itself!

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