The new series of Graham Linehan's The It Crowd starts this Friday. But even though I've loved Linehan's work since Father Ted, I won't be watching. (Trigger warning: article discusses transmisogyny and implicit support of 'trans panic' violence)
Graham Linehan is one of the most gifted sitcom writers in British TV history. As the writer of Father Ted and Black Books, he created the in-jokes of my generation of young British comedy-geeks. Mention My Lovely Horse, Dougal's diagram, or Bernard Black's 'lolly' made of frozen wine to anyone around my age and you'll get a wry smile or a laugh of recognition. I say all this at the beginning of this piece not because I do not come to bury Linehan, but because I want it to be understood that what I'm going to say later comes from a sense of deep disappointment and betrayal.
Recently, having been introduced to it by some very good friends of mine, I got into Linehan's next series, The IT Crowd. This series is best described as Black Books with computers. It has the same main three characters, described by one of the other cast members as 'a nerd, a woman, and a man from Ireland,' all of whom are isolated from the 'normal' world by a particular location (a bookshop in one series, a basement IT department in the other). And the first two series, and the first few episodes of season three, are brilliant. One of the season three episodes, 'Are We Not Men?' was one of my favourite pieces of TV in years. In the episode, lovable geeks Moss and Roy learn how to speak 'like real men' from a website, become friends with a bunch of football-loving cockney geezers, witness a robbery and have to flee for their lives. To a person like me, who has always struggled to speak the Tongue of Bloke, this episode was fantastic. I loved it both for its humour and its insightful take on gender stereotyping.
Then I watched episode four, 'The Speech', and any admiration for Linehan's humour and nuanced view of gender politics went out the window. 'The Speech', you see, has a long subplot featuring one of the other characters in the show, sleazy boss Douglas Denholm (played to perfection by master of the ridiculous, booming overstatement, Matt Berry). In this story, Douglas romances Emma, a business journalist sent to report on him, and in the course of the episode he discovers she's a trans woman. Douglas at first seems bothered not a jot by her telling him she 'used to be a man' (would a trans woman actually say it that way? I doubt it) and they form a close relationship, conveyed by a 'hilarious' montage of both Douglas and Emma watching the darts, gorging on pizza, drinking pints and so on...because you see, she's really a man! Ah, hilarious. Did we not just have an entire episode devoted to debunking lazy gender stereotyping?
But it gets worse. Douglas reveals en passant that he thought Emma said she 'came from Iran'. When Emma reveals what she actually said, Douglas visibly shivers and goes into a long drawn-out 'trans panic' response, which ends with a scene in which Douglas (who, it has been established early in the series, is actually a rather weak, craven person) beats Emma unconscious. A scene which ends with a long, lingering shot of Emma's unconscious body. And a scene which plays the whole beating for laughs.
Recently, in this blog, I wrote about the case of Andrea Waddell, a trans woman killed by a cis man in circumstances rather like those of Douglas and Emma, but whose fate was far from funny. What happened to Andrea is far from an isolated case. Trans people are often marginalised by a society which treats them as, at best, the butt of a joke (see my recent post on 'light-hearted' cissexist slurs) and at worst as freaks or gender criminals out to deceive 'normal' cis gender men and women. The reason an event like the Trans Day of Remembrance exists is because trans people are at a much higher risk of violence, and a terrifyingly higher risk of murder, than cis people. In these circumstances, I find it hard to laugh at a wacky slapstick scene which shows the brutal beating of a trans woman.
Actually, I'd find it hard to laugh if it was a cis woman too...but of course, Linehan wouldn't dare have a scene where Douglas assaults a cis woman for TEH LULZ. You have to wonder: is his making a joke out of a trans woman being beaten (a) a sign he hates trans people, (b) a sign he just doesn't really care about them or (c) a sign that he secretly wanted to just do a scene where a girl got the shit kicked out of her, and making her a trans girl gave him the perfect excuse? Either way, it shines a disturbing light on the real Graham Linehan. And that's why I can't watch the new series of The IT Crowd, or any of the other episodes now; it's why I'm thinking of getting rid of my Black Books DVDS, and taking the complete Father Ted box set off my Amazon wishlist. Because Graham Linehan, who I genuinely thought of as a comedy genius, turns out to be the kind of immature wanker who giggles over 'women who used to be men' and thinks beating up women is funny. I've seen people like that. I've met people like that. And they're always the enemy, however many jokes they can come out with.