Friday, February 8, 2013
Pop Between Realities, Home in Time for Tea 54 (The League of Gentlemen)
Yes, this is an issue I’m particularly prickly on. Transphobia raises my hackles with a directness that other forms of offensiveness don’t. So much so that it’s just not a topic I’m eager to deal with on this blog. I could get two thousand words of sputtering outrage out of Barbara Dixon in which I meticulously track all of the horrific stereotypes trotted out by it and draw the direct line from what’s a “joke” in The League of Gentlemen to what gets real people killed for being trans. Because it’s there, and it affects people I love, and everyone involved should be ashamed, and I really doubt they are. But it would barely be about Doctor Who, and more to the point, the level of rage involved is just too exhausting to go through, and I just did the post on The Shadows of Avalon, and, I’m sorry, dear reader, I just don’t have it in me. So let’s instead just accept that I am never going to be able to give a polite and reasoned analysis of the merits of The League of Gentlemen and instead do the autopsy of this joke. In other words, how does a character like Barbara Dixon happen.
She’s hardly the only offensive bit of The League of Gentlemen. The canonical example is Papa Lazarou, a blackface circus clown whose actual skin color appears to be grotesque blackface makeup. He’s certainly a jaw-dropping character for the late nineties, and I’m thoroughly unconvinced he ends up anywhere near the right side of good taste, but there’s at least some defense that people marshall whereby he’s not actually a racist parody of minorities as creepy lecherous others, he’s a parody of racist depictions of minorities. I’m inclined to say that’s perhaps too slender a reed of irony to support the character, and that the central joke of Lazarou is in fact how creepy and horrible he is, not how bracing a parody of historical British depictions of race he is. But no matter, because nothing resembling that defense exists for Barbara Dixon. And there are more than these two examples we could turn to. So first of all, we should take her as a symptom of a larger problem. Given that, let’s look at where that problem comes from.
One theme we’ve been tracking as we slowly move the pieces into place for the big “Doctor Who comes back to television and unexpectedly is a phenomenal hit that becomes the biggest show the BBC has” moment is the steady transition of the role of cult television within the larger cultural ecosystem of television. We’ve already looked at how Buffy the Vampire Slayer marked a breakdown equation of “cult television,” i.e. television aimed at a specific middle class young male demographic that is permitted to have lower ratings in exchange for delivering a rabidly faithful audience with money to spend, with “genre television,” i.e. stuff with aliens, wizards, and/or vampires in it.
This separation, for a time, looked difficult. Simply put, cult television was at least produced and marketed in such a consistent and defined fashion as to seem totalizing and “how things were done,” so to speak. But in practice and hindsight we can see that the window was surprisingly narrow. As we started in on the Wilderness Years we noticed that Star Trek: The Next Generation, launched in 1987, not only didn’t rely on the cult model for its audience, its entire business model relied on the fact that Star Trek was not cult television and did not work that way. This should be instructive. Not ten years before the TV Movie an old and cancelled sci-fi show came back to massive success in a manner diametrically opposed to cult television. And yet when the TV Movie hit the cult paradigm was all that was possible. That the possibilities for genre television closed down so fast made it, in some ways, inevitable that they’d re-open.
But we should try to understand why the cult television model took root so thoroughly. Much of it had to do with the way in which geek culture changed in the nineties, and in turn changed the culture around it. I’ve just written an entire chapter on that for the book on They Might Be Giants’ Flood, but the short form is that in the 1990s, driven largely but not exclusively by the rise of personal computers and the Internet, the nature of what was “geeky” changed. Geek culture stopped being a core of signifiers: Star Trek, Dungeons and Dragons, an interest in math and science, etc - and started being an aesthetic akin to camp - something difficult to define exhaustively, but easy to list examples of.
The nature of this aesthetic is, I would argue, largely one of excess. Geek culture, in its various forms, is a reaction to the overflow of information. It is fundamentally an aesthetic of excess, not in the sense of going too far, but in the sense of reacting to an overabundance of stimuli and information. This sometimes takes the form of direct revelry in excess - the aesthetic of the collection, for instance, is a clear-cut example of geek culture just wallowing in excess. But the excess can be quieter too, and need not be materialistic excess. The romantic image of the hacker, for instance, as someone endlessly playing within systems and finding neat things to do is not based on material excess (indeed, the most stereotypical hacker is often something of an ascetic, paying little attention to their material living situation in lieu of focusing only on the system) but on a more intellectual excess. Excess is always accepted and tacitly valued - there can be no geeking out without excess - but the excess can also be a source of apprehension, as in the paranoia of The X-Files.
But because the rise of this aesthetic was gradual we went through a intermediate phase in which “geek culture” was recognized as a big thing, but where it was still understood in its narrow “set of signifiers” form instead of in the broader form it was transforming into. This was a fundamentally misleading phase, in that the broadening of geek culture was, in fact, why it was suddenly a much bigger thing. And so its collapse into a different sort of geek culture was in some ways inevitable. This is why the hedonism offered by Russell T Davies was so enticing: because in the modern world we are all geeks, reeling in the face of sensory and cognitive overload.
But while geek culture turned out to be the perfect response to the conditions of the late nineties, it is not as though its rise happened because everybody saw the light and became geeks. Rather it is that many of the core “geek signifiers” were never that far out of mainstream culture to begin with. The highlighting of geek culture in the nineties wasn’t just misleading because it failed to realize that geek culture was larger than the narrow banalities of cult television and its ilk, but because it assumed that geek culture was in a marginal position for any reason beyond historical accident. A broad view would remember that the BBC were pioneers of science fiction in the 1950s and 1960s, and that science fiction was massive in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Yes, it was going through a bit of a fallow period in the late 80s, but it had done that before - the late 60s/early 70s were middling in terms of popular science fiction, with a massive drop in interest following the moon landing. Then it came roaring back in popularity with Star Wars.
In other words, the other thing that the cult model forgot was that the supposed cult was actually far more porous and in the open than expected. And by the late 1990s/early 2000s the cult was beginning to make it into positions of reasonable power within the world of television. What this meant is that there was an awful lot of television that started cropping up in the late nineties that was blatantly written by people who had spent real time in cult television fandom. You had Spaced in 1999, for instance, with Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright, both of whom have done some stuff since. You had The Morning With Richard Not Judy in 1998-99, with Stewart Lee, who, again, has done some stuff since then. You had Queer as Folk in 1999. And you had The League of Gentlemen, which was straightforward sketch comedy, except that it was sketch comedy happening in the midst of scads of horror movie tropes. So, for instance, the first episode features a quiet subplot in which a local couple turns out to occasionally murder strangers and burn their bodies. And to its credit, this is done quite smartly - that plot starts by looking like a dreary recreation of the Cheese Shop sketch from Monty Python: the shop won’t actually sell anything to the hiker who stops in. But then it takes a macabre turn as the shopkeepers turn out to be, you know, homicidal.
It’s not, crucially, sketch comedy about horror movies. Rather, it’s something subtler: a fairly normal sketch comedy show into which the macabre continually intrudes. But the key thing to recognize is that the tone of the series assumes an audience who is familiar with the cult television mindset and approach. Even if there’s no sense that the show is making in-jokey references to specific texts, it’s clearly a show written by people who have stayed up late at night watching bizarre horror movies for people who have done that or something similar. The aesthetic of geek culture underlies everything that The League of Gentlemen does. But this is also what sets it up for its colossally offensive turn vis a vis Barbara Dixon.
I’ll set Mark Gatiss’s co-Gentlemen, Jeremy Dyson, Steve Pemberton, and Reece Shearsmith, aside for the moment. I’m not tracking their careers, and I’m honestly unaware of the extent to which this criticism tars them, although it’s notable that Dixon is voiced by Pemberton, and so one assumes is not Gatiss’s character specifically. But I think there’s a fairly clear-cut line to be drawn from the elements of The League of Gentlemen that owe a debt to cult television to why there’s a horrifically offensive bit of mockery of trans people in it. And it’s a line that explains, I think, many of the problems I’m going to express with Mark Gatiss in general over the remainder of this blog.
The crux of the problem is one of nostalgia. The fun of The League of Gentlemen, and I can at least see how it would be fun, even if I failed to have any, is that the show occasionally feels like various trashy yet glorious movies of the 1970s, which is to say, things that Mark Gatiss got on video in his late teens in the 1980s, or enjoyed watching as a child. And to The League of Gentlemen’s credit, it does nostalgia well by understanding that the tone of the thing being remembered is more important than the details. The bit about murdering the hiker, for instance, is apparently a reference to The Wicker Man, specifically in terms of how there’s a police officer investigating the missing hiker who also gets killed. This makes sense - there is a similarity there. But what’s interesting is that The League of Gentlemen doesn’t do any explicit references to The Wicker Man. It just uses a vaguely similar plot and larks about with the general tone of creepy local folk who kill outsiders. Which works well, because far more people remember the general feel of The Wicker Man than would remember most of the specific details. And in this regard there’s a wising up compared to the “kisses to the past” nonsense of the TV Movie, for instance.
The problem with nostalgia is that it’s terribly uncritical. It’s an unironic and unreconstructed love of the past. And it’s a fundamental aspect of geek culture, the staggering breadth of history, and, in the current moment, medial history being one of the most basic excesses that one engages with. Of course geek culture is going to be full of nostalgia. But Mark Gatiss runs into a problem here, which is that he’s consistently unwilling to be in the least bit critical about his nostalgia.
And so we get a situation like Barbara Dixon. On the one hand, she fits into a tradition of cross-dressing comedy in British comedy that is difficult to criticize in the general case. In most regards she’s no different from any number of characters Fry and Laurie, Monty Python, and dozens of other comedy acts have done, and she’s just another facet of the pantomime dame. Except that Gatiss and company have tied her to a real identity, namely that of trans women, and so instead of having broad comedy about gender conventions and their upturning we have a bunch of staggeringly, awfully vicious swipes at real people of the sort that are routinely used as justifications for their violent murder. And the same logic seems to animate Papa Lazarou - he’s a bunch of horror tropes thrown together to be funny with no real thought over the fact that they’re at best borderline racist.
Which is fundamentally strange. All evidence is that Mark Gatiss is a well-balanced center-left sort. He’s a competent writer - I’ve yet to see anything by him that’s extraordinarily good, but he can structure a plot. I know that sounds like damning with faint praise, but it’s really not: getting a plot to hang together is hard, Gatiss can do it reliably, and for that he’s reliably employed. He’s not vocally political, but the quotes I can find suggest that he’s a center-left sort. Maybe he wouldn’t be specifically sympathetic to the trans issue, but, you know, pull up the list of Gatiss’s problem moments up to present and one imagines he’d be, in the abstract, sympathetic to at least one of them. And yet he keeps making this mistake.
In both cases the problem is that nobody seems to have thought about the possibility that a bit of mass cultural froth could have political implications. Because it’s nostalgia. Nostalgia demands we treat the past as apolitical so that we can simply love it. It aspires to be apolitical art, which is impossible to start, and then to be apolitical art about history, which is doubly impossible. And while nostalgia is inescapable for geek culture, there are options: ways to be self-aware and smart about it. Queer as Folk is fundamentally a piece of nostalgia about the Manchester gay club scene, but it’s not blind to the implications. Nor was The Grand, Russell T Davies’s stab at period drama. But Mark Gatiss’s work fails to be self-aware about the implications of nostalgia. It just blindly apes things Mark Gatiss liked in the past. And the results, all too often, are catastrophic.