Tuesday 27 July 2010

King Solomon's Mines, Exit Seventy-Five

Just a quick scrawl to remind you that I am still here, dear readers, and to point you in the direction of a few links if nothing else...

Firstly, I would like to direct your attention to The Recusant, who are soliciting material for 'Emergency Verse', an anthology of poetry in opposition to the Coalition's assault on pretty much everything that makes Britain worth living in. I've had a piece accepted for it, and am in the company of eighty poets, including counterculture legend Michael Horovitz, former children's laureate Michael Rosen and all-around genius Andy Croft, but editor Alan Morrison is keen to get the number of contributors up to a nice round century. '100 Poets Oppose Coalition Cuts' would make a pretty good headlione. So, get your writing hats on and send some stuff in!

Other big-ups should go to the sites I found out about the Recusant anthology from: Todd Swift's fine poetry blog Eyewear  and the astonishingly comprehensive online writer's resource Write Out Loud which, if you're a writer of any sort, should totally be in your bookmarks.

In gadding-about social butterfly news, I will be going to Cellar Door Poetry in Durham on the 7th of August, and will probably be reading, either in one of the guaranteed slots or during the open floor period at the end. I like going to new poetry nights because I think they need to be supported. After an oddly fallow period the number of poetry and spoken word venues in the Newcastle/Durham area are bouncing back, which is to be welcomed and also assisted.

Also in going-out news, I am attending Washington Arts Centre for a special preview of Saturday Live poet Kate Fox's forthcoming Edinburgh festival show Fox News this coming Saturday, July 31st. I do recommend you catch this show: Kate is not only an incredible poet but she is actually one of the best comedians I've seen ever...and you know the high standards I have when it comes to comedians....

And now, having proved that I haven't vanished since last Friday, I shall sleep. Bonne nuit!

Friday 16 July 2010

Queers and History

One of the things I miss about working at Borders is having to make themed displays of books. This is always a fun part of the job, because you get to indulge your creativity. You have to come up with a unifying theme, something that will allow you to pull together a bunch of disparate books from your department, and you have to design the layout of the books in the display in such a way that it's visually appealing to the reader. It helps to do this if you have a very strong, immediately-apparent theme, and if you can 'anchor' the display on a book with a powerful, arresting cover.

Someone at Washington Library clearly has much display-fu, because when I visited there this Thursday, I came across an excellent LGBT-themed display (possibly in anticipation of Newcastle Pride? ) which was anchored around this book, and its particularly-arresting cover:

Queers in History, by Keith Stern, claims to be, you'll observe, 'THE comprehensive encyclopedia of historical gays, lesbians and bisexuals'in that picture. Obviously somewhere between the publication of the first hardcover edition and the paperback my library had in stock, someone must have pointed out that Mr Stern had done the usual cis gay thing of completely forgetting the existence of trans people, and the paperback (and the Kindle edition on Amazon) have had the title altered so that it now boasts of being 'the comprehensive encyclopedia of historical gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgenders.'

Now, first of all, I have something of an aesthetic problem with 'transgenders' being elided as one word and used as a single collective noun. I would no more refer to people as 'transgenders' than I would 'gays': I would say gay people, trans people etc. But I note that Stern is being equally reductionist about gays as well, by reducing them to their sexuality. So, meh, I thought, I'll give it a go. So I picked it up, checked it out, went home, read the harmless-enough foreword from Sir Ian Magnet-Gandalf, then moved onto Stern's own introduction. At which point my hackles began to rise, not - yet - because of cis-centrism and gaywashing, but because of something which appalls me on a pretty much equal basis: crappy scholarship.

On the second page of his 'comprehensive' history, Stern throws his suitability to helm such a project pretty massively into question, making the blanket assertion that:

'Most mainstream historians consider the sexuality of historical individuals to be meaningless, because the notion of a gay identity is a modern construct. They think if, in the past, two men or two women claimed to be united in a bond of love, they must have meant it in a friendly, non-sexual way. If those same-sex couples actually were having sex, historians would have us believe they didn't think of themselves as being romantically in love.'

Dem those dastardly 'mainstream historians!' Dem them! It needn't be said that actual historical research on sexuality is more complex than that, and that Stern is begging the question here to a pretty phenomenal extent. It isn't that historians are actively out to suppress the secret truth about gayness in history: it's that it is next to impossible to prove that same-sex love in past societies can be mapped exactly on to what we understand by 'gay' identity. The homosexual culture of ancient Greece, with its iron-clad distinction between the passive and the active roles, and the differing degree of respect accorded to each, is patently not identical to the more inclusive, egalitarian gay culture of today, any more than the medieval concept of dynastic inter-marriage explains the mooning mutual adoration of the Twilight saga's Bella and Edward.

Stern's project, though, is to convince us that being gay has meant the same thing at all points in history. And so Stern informs us that the medieval Saint Aethelred, who wrote tenderly of male 'companionship' was 'forced to choose between his love of God and his lust for boys' (this is far from Stern's cheesiest line, mind you: that honour must go to the entry on Alexander the Great, which begins 'Alexander conquered most of the known world. He also conquered the young eunuchs Bagoas and Medius.' Saucy!). Stern is able to provide a source for his assertion that Aethelred was gay, which is unusual in a book whose author openly admits to using Wikipedia for fact-checking in his acknowledgements (remember that: we'll come back to it later). Unfortunately the source he cites is problematic: John Boswell (and yes, I am using Wikipedia; it's late at night and I'm pushed for time), a lifelong catholic who really was torn between religious devotion and his own sexual desires, had a vested interest in proving the medieval church had tolerated homosexual desire, and this led him to the scholarly imposture of his book Same Sex Unions in Pre-modern Europe, whose question-begging and misuse of sources were comprehensively outlined in  a devastating review by Daniel Mendelsohn - oddly, one famous gay man who isn't included in Stern's 'comprehensive' encyclopedia, perhaps because pointing people in Mendelsohn's direction might lead to some readers finding out that the 'controversy' which surrounded Boswell's book was more complex than simply yet more censorship from those nasty old 'mainstream historians.'

Mendlesohn's exclusion is surprising because, as a well-to-do caucasian cis gay man, he's pretty much Stern's target audience. What's less surprising is the glaring omission from this 'comprehensive' encyclopedia of many historically important trans people. You might think that, given his interest in queers and history, Stern might deign to mention trans historian Jan Morris, but you'd be wrong, Professor. Perhaps Lili Elbe, one of the first women to receive gender-reassignment surgery, might be worthy of a mention? Nope. What about the Chevalier D'Eon, whose gender was such a matter of dispute that a betting pool was ran about it on the London Stock Exchange? Surely the Chevalier deserves to be included in a 'comprehensive' list of historical 'transgenders'? What about Patrick Califia, Chaz Bono, Buck Angel - or indeed any trans men, for that matter? Even Brandon Teena doesn't get a mention, which means that Stern's 'comprehensive' history is less well-informed on the subject of trans men than most people with a Film Four subscription.

Or indeed, of a blogger who can be bothered to spend five minutes looking up names on Wikipedia. Ironically, Stern's words of praise for the online encyclopedia are proved more right by his own book than anything he says in his introduction. If you want a truly comprehensive database of queer people in history from across the gender spectrum, don't bother with this cissupremacist, biased, myopic, badly-researched gazeteer of gay: just get online.

Sunday 4 July 2010

Why Eddie Izzard is a God, and Matt Lucas is a fool I am destined to piss on in the gutter

Having discussed the intersection of gender and comedy, it's fair at this point to unleash a little rant I've been wanting to launch for a while, focusing on just how much of a boundary-smashing genius Eddie Izzard is and how the forces of retrogression in gender-based comedy can lick my sweaty bits and tell me that they love it.

The genius of Eddie Izzard isn't that he performs in drag. The genius of Eddie Izzard is that he's a transvestite. There is a massive difference between these two things, and that difference lies at the heart of the way in which Izzard genuinely changed the game for stand-up comedy in ways many lesser comedians are trying to catch up with, and some are actively trying to run away from.

Before Izzard, there was a long tradition of drag in British comedy and, whether it was hateful shit like Dick Emery, the more affectionate Northern social observations of Les Dawson, or the weirdness of Monty Python and Terry Jones' endless appearances as 'generic old woman' (most memorably as Brian's mum in Life of Brian), the joke was always, on one level, 'Hey! Look! It's a bloke dressed up as a woman!' The comedy in all these cases - even with Jones and Python, whose work I otherwise worship - depends, in large part, on the disconnect between the ideas of a certain type of idealised femininity and a certain form of masculinity which the performer is assumed to really have. It turns, in fact, on transmisogyny

The brilliance of Eddie Izzard is that his comedy doesn't. Although Izzard finds comedy in his experiences of other peoples' reactions to his transvestism, the punchline in his work isn't hey-look-it's-a-man-in-a-dress. The punchlines in Izzard's work tend to be more thoughtful, odd, and surrealist. Izzard's work is more likely to focus on discrepancies in the Bible than discrepancies between his birth-assigned gender and the clothes and make-up he likes to wear. In a country as sexually unsophisticated as Britain, and in a field as generally immature as British comedy, the idea that a man could wear high heels and make-up on stage without it being the focus of the joke was akin to the impact of glam rock on music. Eddie Izzard is the David Bowie of comedy.

Of course, one of the sadder things about being a rock music fan in Britain is that guys like Bowie are few and far between. We might occassionally strike it lucky with, say, a Brian Moltko or a Jarvis Cocker, but more usually Britain is the country responsible for terrible pub-rock shite like Oasis and the Stereophonics. Rock music straight men can listen to while wearing football shirts and drinking Carling. Unfortunately it's the same with comedy. A lot of men wouldn't be seen dead at an Izzard gig or a Placebo show, because they're terrified of looking gay in front of their mates. The idea that a man might look good in make-up, the idea that there might not be such a hard-and-fast line between acceptable male and female behaviours, and, probably, to paraphrase Hunter S Thompson, the gnawing fear that people somewhere are having fun in ways they'll never know, is a terrifying prospect for these fuckers. So they retreat to comedy which repeats the same old transmisogynistic tropes, which makes them feel comfortable in their tired, old, fossilised notions of gender, which allows them, once again, to grunt ha-ha-it's-a-guy-in-a-dress.

They retreat, in fact, to Little Britain (you'll notice I never include links to Little Britain when I blog about it. This is for the same reason many bloggers choose not to provide links to the Daily Mail in their blogs: I genuinely detest everything about it. I used to laugh at it, it's true, but I used to shit my pants as well. People grow up, and having grown up I despise the fucking show. Besides, the thing is fucking ubiquitous, you probably know what I'm talking about without a link and, if not, Google is your friend). They retreat to David Walliams and Matt Lucas in ridiculous crinoline dresses shouting 'I'm a lay-dee!' (Not that bad drag is all Lucas and Walliams can do. They can do fat suits and blackface too. They're a multi-talented pair.) And Lucas and Walliams make them feel safe and make them feel good and make them feel that, yes, it's okay, you can laugh at a man dressed as a woman (or a black woman. Or a fat woman. Or a lower-class woman. Or a disabled person [because they're all faking]. Or a mentally-ill woman. Or a woman who wets herself. Ha ha ha. Ha. Ha. Ha ha ha ha ha HA. It's astonishing that Lucas and Walliams got away with fooling people that they were 'edgy' for so long, because, really, there isn't a Mars Bars wrappers' difference between the world of their comedy and the world of the Daily Mail).

This is Lucas and Walliam's function: to convince the mass of people following them that they're enjoying something genuinely 'edgy' and exciting when actually their show is deeply retrogressive. All the vomiting, pissing, OAP-kissing, wobbling arses and breast-sucking in their shows serves the same function as the sound of loud electric guitars in the music of Oasis: it creates an impression of excitement and daring, but ultimately serves to distract from the essentially conservative nature of the enterprise (recall that the supposedly edgy, rock 'n' roll mofos in Oasis complained loudly that Jay-Z shouldn't play Glastonbury because rap isn't 'proper music').

It can be depressing, thinking about the popularity of acts like Lucas and Walliams. But you have to think about the long run. Oasis were the biggest band in Britain once, but they're a musical joke now, endlessly retreading the same dull path of lyrics ripped off from the Beatles and guitar riffs ripped off from Slade while newer, exciting bands spring up around them and their contemporaries, like Damon Albarn and Jarvis Cocker, remain creative and musically vital (Bowie, indeed, barring a disastrous stint in the eighties, was a vital musical force for thirty years, while Oasis burned out creatively in about six). And now look at Lucas and Walliams, reduced to slapping on their make-up and reprising their tired old schtick in a series of ads for a building society. Their true colours are revealed: they're a bank manager's idea of what's funny and hip.

Meanwhile, Eddie Izzard continues to perform incredible stand-up, has carved out a decent enough niche as a movie actor (though it's painfully obvious Hollywood doesn't really know how to use him properly), and ran forty-three fucking marathons.

It's fair to say that the idea of a transvestite running forty-three marathons wouldn't occur to Lucas and Walliams, because it doesn't fit in with their transmisogynistic worldview. But it doesn't really matter. In whatever Eddie Izzard does, he'll keep on running, while, creatively and comedically, the little boys from Little Britain remain stalled.

You're not funny, stuff your money

(Trigger warning: transmisogyny)

Anyone who's swung by my Facebook page lately will have noticed my anger at the current ads being ran by Nationwide Building Society, in which washed-up UK comedians David Walliams and Matt Lucas reprise a range of characters from their over-rated catchphrase-com Little Britain, including the deeply transmisogynistic skit in which the duo play a pair of 'ladies' who insist on being addressed as such in spite of their deep voices and facial hair. These hateful sketches weren't funny when the pair ran them during their show, and are even less funny trotted out in the service of naked commercialism. But they're indicative of an aspect of what some people mistakenly call comedy that is really beginning to get on my tits.

Last night, I watched, and for the most part enjoyed, a stand-up routine by the British comedian Sean Lock. I have to say that generally I've found Lock funny. His routines are well-crafted, his delivery well-timed, and he comes up with some nice, off-the-wall observations. I had watched a Russell Brand stand-up show before switching over to the Lock performance, and while I admired Brand's energetic delivery and rockstar attitude, I was reflecting that Lock seemed to be more polished, more considered, and a more well-rounded stand-up than Brand. Until, mystifyingly, and with the same kind of casual determination to piss over his legacy which apparently motivated Graham Linehan to turn The IT Crowd from an enjoyable sitcom in the mould of his previous work to a celebration of trans panic, Lock embarked on his encore.  An encore in which he opined, first of all, that 'fragrant ladyboys' still sound like growling heterosexual men when they come and, that, even more shockingly (and here I have to reiterate my trigger warning particularly for any trans people reading, because this next comment was astonishingly hateful) that the genitalia of post-operative trans women must resemble 'a squirrel that's been shot with a mallet.'

What. The. Fuck. Seriously. What the fuck? First of all, unless Sean Lock has something he'd like to share with us, I really can't see how he knows what any 'ladyboy' sounds like when they come (TMI warning: anyone unfortunate enough to have made sex with the author of this blog will definitely confirm that I sound like anything but a growling, butch lumberjack at the moment of what the French call 'the little death'), and as for the bit about the genitalia...That isn't good comedy. It isn't even bad comedy. It's hate speech, pure and simple.

A lot has been said by smug, privileged fuckwits in the media about how we're past the 80s heyday of 'alternative comedy' now. We've seen attempts to rehabilitate the reputations of evil-minded scumbags like Bernard Manning; we've seen TV shows like Little Britain splashed all over the schedules, all over the country on a nationwide tour and even over the Atlantic, in the (thankfully short-lived) Little Britain USA spin-off. But the idea that alternative comedy is something we've turned our back on wholesale is not true. In most areas of comedy we've integrated the key idea of the 'alternative' movement, which is, simply: people are not punchlines.

That's it. That's all it is. People, and their lives, aren't a joke because they happen to be black. Or Asian. Or disabled. Or gay. Or trans. Or at least, that's how it should work. But, because an awful lot of comedians are hateful, cynical, attention-hungry class-clown types, the reality is that some of them only accepted this settlement grudgingly. They won't take the piss out of black or Asian people because they know they form a large part of the population. Straight comedians won't tell bigoted jokes about gay people, because gay people have proved that they can lobby effectively and punish anyone who tries to turn back the comedy clock. But, far too often, trans people are considered fair game (seemingly with the sanction of Ofcom) because these cowardly so-called 'comedians' make the calculation that they don't have the numbers to affect their DVD sales and tour ratings.

Things are changing, however. Groups like Trans Media Watch are increasingly protesting about bigoted portrayals or treatment of trans people in the media. A host of other websites, forums and blogs (including, in its tiny and largely ineffectual way, the one you're now reading) are engaged in critiquing and taking apart the media and society's bizarre obsession to clinging to an outdated gender binary. We're a small movement now, but thirty years ago the people who dared to suggest that The Black and White Minstrel Show was, well, kind of racist were a minority too.  

It's the bolshy, pissed-off, not-gonna-take-it-anymore minority groups who ultimately change things. By drawing attention to how hurtful, unacceptable and bigoted this kind of 'comedy' is, we make the majority unlike us - in this case, cis people - uncomfortable about the yuks they're enjoying when they hear smug bastards like Sean Lock coming out with ugly descriptions of peoples' genitalia. And, while it's true that sometimes people like comedy which makes them squirm and feel as if they need a shower afterwards (cf. Carr, Jimmy, the career of), generally speaking no-one likes to feel like a horrible old Nazi bastard when they're enjoying a good LOL.

And so the TV appearances dry up. The DVD sales tail off. The audiences dwindle. And soon you're eking out the rest of your career as a bitter, ugly old man, standing up in front of similarly bitter, racist, misogynist shitbags, laughing their tiny little brains out and pissing their semen-stained pants at the thought that at least here, in this shitty theatre with fleabitten seats and a bar that serves nothing but Stowells wine and flat Carling, they're safe from the 'politically correct brigade' with their unreasonable insistence on treating people as people, not punchlines. You've gone from winning a British Comedy Award to becoming something less respectable than a performer in a peepshow booth in Amsterdam. In fact, in the words of the actually decent comedian Dara O'Briain, you might as well be playing golf with Jim Davidson.

(Unexpected Ending Alert: googling for an internet reference to that Dara O'Briain gag has led me to encounter Looks Like Satire, a fine blog which, though it doesn't seem to have been updated in a while, has some perceptive entries on the difficulties involved in confronting bigoted 'humour' and even features a much-better takedown of Sean Lock than my own, which leads me to conclude that my enjoyment of said show on TV was a function of (a) having consumed too much beer and (b) some incredibly judicious work by whoever had to edit the thing to a decent DVD length. And thus we see that evil is, in the end, ultimately self-defeating. Fuck you, Sean Lock. Eight out of ten cats think you're a loser.)