Time for a brief step back from my ongoing self-obsession, I think, and a post about something else for a change. (Hurrah! shout those few hardy folk still persevering with this blog.)
I’m not an advocate of censorship in any area. That’s particularly the case with comedy, where a quick mental flick through my favourites shows plenty of comedians who don’t shy away from sensitive issues. My objection to comedians like Bernard Manning and Jim Davidson has less to do with the fact that they’re racist fuckwits (although that’s a big problem with them as people) and a lot more to do with the fact that their jokes aren’t funny. Take away the “he’s attacking people I hate so I laugh at what he says” response of other racist fuckwits and there’s precious little humour to be found.
Recently there’s been a bit of a backlash against those ultra-pc comedians who often seemed to be terrified to say anything in case they offended someone. Comedians like Ricky Gervais (especially in his stand-up routines), Frankie Boyle, and Jimmy Carr have had mainstream success with material that a few years ago would have probably been considered beyond the pale. All three of these comedians would doubtless say that a lot of their jokes are intended ‘ironically’, and that when their audiences laugh they are responding to the breaking of a social taboo, but I’m not so sure. When Ricky Gervais does 10 minutes on obese people being greedy slobs, is the joke made ‘safe’ because he’s overweight himself, or are people actually laughing because they agree with what he’s saying? In other words, are we getting back to “he’s attacking people I hate so I laugh at what he says”?
For me this has a particular resonance with humour about gay people, and particularly with the most high-profile example of it around at the moment, Daffyd from Little Britain. Daffyd is probably one of the most benign characters in Little Britain. I’ve never actually watched the show – it’s not my kind of humour – but I’ve seen plenty of highlights, and it’s fairly obvious that the main thrust of the Daffyd sketches isn’t to mock the character for being gay. The main ‘joke’ (such as it is…) is the difference between the matter-of-fact reactions he encounters and the shocked and horrified reactions he was expecting.
Like all Little Britain characters, Daffyd is unappealing. He wears inappropriate clothing that is deeply unflattering – it’s fairly obvious from the audience laughter tracks that laughing at his appearance is actively encouraged. More importantly, he’s a drama queen. He not only expects shocked and horrified reactions, but is actually disappointed and upset when they don’t materialise. This is effectively saying two things: that Daffyd wants to be different (“I am the only gay in this village”), and that it’s ok to laugh at his difference because it’s deliberate.
If this only affected adults I’d be pretty relaxed about it. I think the message it sends out to adults – that if you’re gay it’s better to try and pass for straight – is fairly retrograde, but not all that worrying. Most gay people know at least one person who’s technically out but still terrified of “acting gay”, and it seems a little odd to most of us, but nothing more than that. Unfortunately it doesn’t just affect adults. It also affects people like Laura Rhodes.
When she was 12, Laura Rhodes told her best friend she thought she might be gay. Laura’s best friend didn’t keep the secret, and from that point on Laura was bullied remorselessly at school. She took to over-eating, and then to self-harm. The response of her school was to blame her. The welfare officer told her that it was her own fault for talking to her friend: “Laura fully realises and appreciates she must accept the blame for the current situation.” Eventually the school realised the bullying had got bad enough to warrant expulsion, so that’s what they did. They expelled Laura Rhodes (the victim of the bullying, let’s not forget), and she ended up killing herself. The school’s head teacher responded: “We have searched our consciences and have to say our consciences are clear.”
There’s so much that’s wrong with this situation, but one thing in particular is obvious. As far as the school and the bullies were concerned, Laura had chosen to make an issue of her ‘difference’ by talking about it, and so all of the consequences were her own fault. This is exactly the message that Little Britain’s Daffyd sends out.
Unfortunately, Laura Rhodes hasn’t been the only person driven to suicide. Jonathan Reynolds had come out to a few of his friends when he was 15, but, like Laura, he found he was bullied by other people at school, and, like Laura, his school did nothing to help him. Just before he committed suicide by lying down in front of a train travelling at 85mph he sent a text to his sister:
Tell everyone that this is for anybody who eva said anything bad about me, see I do have feelings too. Blame the people who were horrible and injust 2 me. This is because of them, I am human just like them.
Events like this are rare, but homophobic bullying is extremely common. According to research carried out in 2007, nearly two-thirds (65%) of bisexual and gay pupils have been victims of it. Of those who were bullied, 92% suffered verbal abuse, 41% had been physically assaulted, 13% were threatened with a weapon, and 12% were the victims of sexual assault. 17% had received death threats. If this is the first time you’ve come across these statistics, I would hope you’re shocked by them. They mean, for example, that almost 27% of all gay and bi pupils have been the targets of physical abuse as a result of their sexuality, and that 11% have received death threats because of it.
It’s against this background that Daffyd has to be judged. Not only do the sketches reinforce the idea that Daffyd’s difference is something he has chosen, they also send out the message that homophobia is a thing of the past. No-one has a problem with gay people anymore, they seem to say, and gay people who claim otherwise are attention-seeking drama queens trying to make themselves out to be more interesting than they actually are.
I don’t believe for one second that Little Britain is the cause of homophobia in schools – I went to secondary school 20-ish years before Daffyd had been thought of, and there was plenty of homophobia in my school, some of it from the teachers. What I think it has done is to point up homosexuality as a clear example of difference, and to say that it’s ok to laugh at obviously gay people. It’s also served to suggest that the very real homophobia experienced by a majority of gay and bisexual kids at school isn’t a significant problem, and if it is, it’s their own fault for wanting to be different.
The study I referred to above also found that less than a quarter of schools had a policy of teaching their pupils that homophobic bullying is wrong. Gay pupils at schools which had made a point of doing this were substantially less likely to be victims of anti-gay bullying than their counterparts at other schools. It seems to take very little to counteract a lot of this homophobia, but it also takes very little to encourage it, and this is why Little Britain is a problem.
I started this post by saying that I’m not an advocate for censorship, and I’m not. I’d feel very uncomfortable supporting any campaign that tried to tell Matt Lucas and David Walliams what subjects they can make jokes about, or the BBC what kind of comedy shows they should commission. But I do think it’s legitimate to ask Matt Lucas (who’s gay) and David Walliams (who’s not remotely homophobic) why they feel comfortable making sketches that have the effect of encouraging bullying against gay teenagers. And I also think it’s legitimate to ask fans of Little Britain why they feel so comfortable watching something that tells them that, if gay people find themselves the victims of homophobia, it’s their own fault for drawing attention to the fact they’re gay.