Benedict Cumberbatch’s portrayal of a trans model hurts anyone who has been boxed in by statements such as ‘men don’t cry’ or ‘women are nurturing’. Gender is a prison we all live in
Offline, I have signed one petition; leaning on a trestle table in a shopping centre, cowed by anti-vivisection propaganda and annoyed that a lady is watching me and I can’t steal the Biro. I walked away with a sense of achievement. I had “done my bit”; I had remembered my postcode. I have my own pens at home. Online, I have signed about two million petitions. If you think the world is great, it’s probably thanks to me. If you think the world is rubbish, well, imagine how bad it would be if I hadn’t ticked all those boxes for you?
Worse than useless, I worry e-petitions are detrimental, with their sense of catharsis and mini-activism. Channelling away agitation, giving us the opportunity to show all our Facebook friends just exactly how great we are at being compassionate. Tricking us into thinking we are doing something, disguising our apathy from ourselves.
This week, you may have come across a petition asking you to boycott the film Zoolander 2. A trailer for the movie features a scene with Benedict Cumberbatch introduced as “the most famous supermodel in the world”, the androgynous “All”. “This is the modern equivalent of using blackface to represent a minority,” the petition claims, asserting that the portrayal is “an over-the-top, cartoonish mockery of androgyne/trans/non-binary individuals”. The trailer has upset many people, and the petition (as I write) has collected nearly 12,000 signatures and much commentary.
Comedy, surprisingly for a form that intends to bring joy and joviality, is always upsetting people. Jokes rely on broad strokes, stereotypes, caricatures, exaggerations and simplifications. Most comedy could be described – advertised, even – as “over-the-top, cartoonish mockery”. And we’re OK with that when the targets are appropriate: reality TV stars, politicians, the posh. “Punching up”, it’s sometimes called. Lampoon the lucky, the strong, those who can bear it – topple the oppressors, but never the oppressed. The original Zoolander was 90ish minutes of calling male models stupid. What if they felt upset? Sorry, guys – you’re rich and beautiful, no one is going to feel outraged on your behalf.
Transgender people, non-gendered people, the androgynous and those with gender fluidity are beginning to be represented in pop culture. Non-binary gender is becoming part of mainstream understanding. In the Zoolander 2 trailer, it is All who is modern and successful, and the cis male models who are past it, unnecessary, asking stupid questions: “Hot dog or a bun?” Maybe this bluntly drawn androgyne exists because everyone gets made fun of in comedy? It’s fair, some might argue – we’re all targets. Equal-opportunity mockery.
Except that some “everyones” get a lot more exposure than others. For a subculture of any type, common perception is dictated by very few examples. A transgendered person might not be celebrating the success of Caitlyn Jenner as much as worrying every time she says something that is not true for them. The majority of people who are transitioning, transitioned or non-gendered are not rich, with an army of PRs. They are on the bus and stared at. They are shouted at in the street, commented upon in the supermarket and constantly dealing with the ignorant questions of the well-meaning. Upset caused by a film trailer is not oversensitivity or “PC gone mad”, it’s exasperation. Zoolander 2 will be watched by millions of people next year, Cumberbatch’s All might be the most high-profile representative of trans and gender-neutral people for 12 months, and that would be a step backwards, for all of us, actually.
Gender is a prison we all live in – “men don’t cry”, “women are nurturing”, “women can’t read maps and men can’t multitask”. We’re all diminished and restricted by sweeping statements defining boy and girl, our expectations and disappointments with ourselves, the way we look, what we enjoy, and the choices we make. Many of us cis people don’t spend much time thinking about why we identify as our gender, what has been thrust upon us by expectation and conditioning and how it is making our lives worse. We apologise for not liking sport or not wanting to hold someone’s baby when it is the concept of gender that is wrong. Bodies have a sex, but gender is a thing we made up, like your star sign or nationality. It doesn’t really say anything about who you are. The destruction of gender binary would free everybody.
So this is how I see it. When society has a conversation, it’s a macrocosm of real people talking. You’ll be in the pub or at the dinner table, conversing and listening and sharing ideas, and then Derek makes a joke to lighten the mood. Most of you laugh. Derek gets told off by someone – “It’s a really serious topic, Del. Stop that Chinese accent.” And the conversation continues. Derek would tell you his comedy cheered everyone up. Toni would tell you it really pissed her off. Charlie is tweeting what Derek said and has lost seven followers. That’s the way we talk. And I’ve changed my mind about petitions – I’ve realised they are part of the conversation, too. They’re an arms folded, face tilted “Can I just pick you up on that?” And checking ourselves, defending our position – that’s important. Perhaps comedy needs offence for balance, and this is the dance we do to get better.