Regular readers of this blog will know of my enjoyment of the comedic work of genuine, certfied laughter-genius Stewart Lee. Lee - who recently gained notoriety through his campaign to get the Piss-Weak Lager Comedy God Award to be given to Japanese performance-art troupe Frank Chickens - is a breath of fresh air in a world composed of 'comedians' like Michael 'it's funny isn't it how, hmmmm, things happen, yes, itsfunnyisn'tit, yes' Mcintyre, Peter 'catchphrase regurgitator' Kay, or Sean 'genuinely vile human being' Lock. His work is dark, bitter, twisted and, at its best, becomes a kind of meta-comedy, breaking through some kind of wall beyond even the fourth and trapping the audience in a recursive awareness of how twisted the jokes are even as they laugh at them. A challenging comedian like that is worth ten Russell Howards. However horrible the image of ten Russell Howards bounding towards you, hilariously going 'hello!' in a silly voice and waving in a laugh-a-second impression of someone with learning disabilities, might be.
That last sentence is my homage to one of the key tropes in Lee's comedy - the moment when he will skewer another performer's schtick with pin-point precision. Because I'm not a professional comedian, my example tends towards the needlessly brutal and vicious - Lee's versions of this trick can be subtler and even affectionate (my favourite, despite my love of Izzard's work, is his brilliant line 'I'll improvise, like Eddie Izzard...pretends to do.' [in fairness to Lee, he has explained that he genuinely admires Izzard for his ability to make what are obviously meticulously-planned moments in his set appear to be improvised on the spot]).
If you've read this far, and you're familiar with the way entries of this sort on my blog tend to work, you'll be expecting a similar skewering of Lee himself at this point. What has he done, Adam? Has he by any chance said something transphobic, insulting and generally offensive? Well, kind of, yes. And, frankly, I'm baffled.
You see, I've been reading Lee's otherwise excellent book, 'How I Escaped My Certain Fate' today, and, during the otherwise funny introduction (it is actually a very good book except in the respect I'm going to have a go at. I'm hoping both those 'otherwises' will make that seem clear), Lee comes out with this line, apropos of his description of an alternative comedy promoter discovering Lee had been educated at Oxford:
'"But you're not like those wankers, are you?" he added with all the desparation of a disappointed sex tourist who has just discovered his beautiful Thai prostitute has a penis, and is wondering whether just to try and make the best of it.'
Now as a writer I can see why Lee has gone for this line. He needs a simile for someone discovering a secret about another person, and he also needs one that fits with his carefully-crafted 'edgy' comic persona. Superficially, it seems to fit the bill. But when we subject it to the kind of deep comic analysis which is often the hallmark of Lee's own act, we find it's actually kind of unpalatable.
The problem with this seemingly throwaway line is the implicit assumptions it contains. There are three main assumptions buried in this joke, all of them problematic.
1) Trans people are prostitutes. The basic trans woman joke is essentially a variant on this line. Man goes to prostitute. Man discovers prostitute is trans. Hilarity ensues! Well. Not really. Very often what ensues is the sex worker involved being attacked violently and possibly murdered. Some versions of the joke even imply that this violence is deserved (and to be fair, the 'disappointed sex tourist' in Lee's gag at least doesn't do that). But leaving even that aside - even if suddenly punters stopped being violent to trans sex workers - one of the implicit assumptions in a joke of this kind is that the only place you are liable to find a trans person is a red light district. While it's true that many trans women often go into sex work due to the persistent and often unacknowledged discrimination they face in 'conventional' employment, there are trans people in all walks of life. There are trans poets, journalists, architects, scientists, broadcasters and, indeed, comedians. This implicit association with the sex industry contributes to a widespread perception of trans people as being somehow sleazy which becomes both a self-fulfilling prophecy and also a contributing factor to problematic point two...
2) Trans people are (often exotic) others. Notice that the prostitute in the above scenario is, of course, Thai. There is something definitely very odd and a bit sleazy about this, on the part of Lee and the whole 'Bangkok chickboys' tone of this conversation in the culture. It smacks simultaneously of Orientalism and transmisogyny. It's a fairly toxic combo: it contributes to the belief in our culture that trans people are not like us. Which is a ludicrous notion. Trans people are a small segment of the population, but you find them in any population, caucasian, black, hispanic, asian, south asian...attitudes to trans people differ from culture to culture (some countries are much more welcoming to trans people than others), but trans people are to be found everywhere. Not all of them are flawless 'oriental' beauties (and indeed it should be noted that not all 'oriental' people are flawless beauties either): there are dumpy white trans people, athletic black trans people, skinny Irish trans people, and all sorts of combinations. One even encounters overweight non-binary trans people with pale skin who find it impossible to tan and fight an ongoing battle against their body and facial hair with an ever-expanding arsenal of depilatory creams, razors, waxing and tweezers. You know, as a hypothetical example. Actually scratch that, I'm talking about myself there, because to do otherwise is to play into the hands of problematic assumption three...
3) Trans status is a shameful secret. Oh NOES! The prostitute was really a MAN! What a horrible dark secret! What a disappointment! Oh the womanity! Oh, bollocks, more like. Is it really Stewart Lee making this joke? This tired old piece-of-shit joke we'd be more likely to expect from some hack like Letterman or Lock? For Venus Castina's sake, being trans is nothing to be ashamed of. It's only the twisted assumptions of cis society which regards it as such, and that is in no small part due to the previous assumptions listed above. And jokes like this, which - while seemingly inconsequential - reinforce those assumptions, do not help to solve the problem.
In fact, I'll go further. Jokes like this have a body count. Read that link. Every second day the murder of a trans person is reported. The true casualty figures, as always in this sort of crime, are probably far higher.
This is why I'm deeply, sorely disappointed in Stewart Lee. I don't think there's any malice in his line. I think he genuinely hasn't thought about it. And in a way, that makes it worse. Because, having followed his work as I have, I know he genuinely does think very carefully about his art, and that he generally comes at things from a sensibility rooted in the alternative comedy of the 80s. It's just a shame - a damn shame - that, for this one throwaway line, this one moment, he slackened that focus.
It is an otherwise good book. Lee is, I think, one of the good guys, and his thoughts on comedy and the construction of a stage act are required reading for any performer. But I wish he'd thought a little more when he was writing them.