COMMENT: Not all representation is positive

Illustrated rainbow pride flag on a white background.

Should we be happy that the rather shallow humour of Little Britain is being exported to America? Or that more and more companies are commissioning ‘gay’ adverts to appeal to homo-consumers?

Representation is always a slippery issue. Tony Grew muses on whether more adverts and more gay jokes are a good thing.

The announcement today that Little Britain is to be remade for an American audience has generally been interpreted as a triumph for UK comedy talent.

The rationale seems to be that Americans have taken to British humour for the first time since Monty Python, and we should all be proud that our comedy is being appreciated once again.

While I welcome exposing US audiences to Julia Davis’ darker-than-dark Nighty Night, I am more troubled by Little Britain.

Gay audiences have warmed to the characters of Daffyd, Emily Howard and Sebastian, the Prime Minister’s bitchy assistant.

But what do these characters actually say about gay people? Well first, lets examine Daffyd.

The ‘joke’ in the Daffyd sketches – and lets be clear, with Lucas and Walliams there is only one joke – is that he is so obviously gay but thinks no-one else is.

Fair enough. Much of the comedy comes from Matt Lucas’ outrageous costumes, and it is brave of him to display himself in them, but I wonder how much of the comedy in Little Britain is actually laughing AT gay people, not with them.

The fact that Lucas is gay is not a get-out-of-jail-free card against accusations of fostering homophobia. It is all about context.

When Little Britain was a cult programme, it was easy to argue that its brand of humour was aimed at a BBC3-type viewer, one with a discerning taste and a deeper understanding of the actual reality of gay life.

When it is some Essex white-van man with a can of Stella resting on his belly, chortling at the funny fat faggot mincing round being flamboyantly gay, it becomes much harder to argue that the programme is having a positive impact.

This is a moral minefield, and we hear similar arguments about racially-based comedy. Would the material used in Goodness, Gracious Me have been as funny coming from white comedians?

Would gay people be comfortable with the completely over-the-top caricature of a transvestite like Emily Howard if it was a creation of Jim Davidson and not Walliams and Lucas?

Is it OK for gay people to mock gays, but not straight people? I for one feel very uncomfortable with the massive success of Little Britain, because the vast majority of the audience probably do think that all gay people are like Daffyd, Emily or Sebastian.

It is not the place of comedy to ‘promote positive images’ of anyone. I just think we need to pause and ask, who is this programme aimed at and what is it they are actually laughing at?

I have similar problems with the timid racism of Little Britain. The introduction of ‘Thai bride’ Ting-Tong in the most recent series is a clear example of a racist joke, based on prejudice and lowest common denominator humour. Oh look, she has opened a restaurant, and got her whole family to move in.

A socially-responsible broadcaster like the BBC needs to pause and think about the implications of much of what Little Britain actually says to its millions of viewers about minorities in our country. I for one am not delighted that every 6-year-old in the country goes around parroting phrases like “I am a lady” or “I am the only gay in the village.”

The success of Little Britain is not a breakthrough moment for gay people, it is equivalent to the mincing and insulting gay characters of the 70s and 80s, from Mr Humphries in Are You Being Served to the sickening campery of Dick Emery.

The same applies to “breakthrough” programming like Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. This is a programme that merely enforced stereotypes about gay men. It isn’t something to be celebrated.

We are not all mincing, clothes-and-interiors-obsessed sceaming ninnies. To any straight American watching the programme – and it is made FOR straight Americans – this embarrassing parade of one-note cliches confirms everything they do not like about gay men.

If I start talking about that man Jules with his little dog and his cheap-as-Asda ITV programme I might actually vomit. Brian Dowling? You think he has a career because of his insight and talent? Or because straight producers, executives and advertisers like a camp queen for a bit of ‘exotic humour’?

The same issue is becoming apparent in advertising. When Innocent Smoothies advertise their product with a picture of gay icon Quentin Crisp and a tagline referring to “exotic fruit”, is that a breakthrough for gay visibility?

To me it seems more like some Tristram in a Soho ad agency with a ten pound note up his nose thinks it’s funny to call gay people fruits and thinks as it’s 2006 he can get away with it. Can he? Would he advertise spades with a picture of Mr T from the A-Team?

No he bloody wouldn’t because, as we have seen, the taboo of racism is nowhere near serious as homophobia.

It is still OK for uncreative ad types to laugh at gay people to sell their products.

Or, of course, tailor their advertising to get money from the gays.

In ad world, gays are a honey pot, bulging with cash and with no responsibilities. Hell, they spend it all on drugs, clubs and holidays anyway.

We know from the excellent work that Stonewall have been doing into homophobic bullying at school that far from more visibility helping, it might actually be harming many gay kids.

The antics of Walliams and Lucas are not something that gay people should celebrate. The news that their paper-thin mockeries of gay men and transvestites are to be exported to the tolerance-free US is worrying.

Twenty years ago it was perfectly acceptable for Jim Davidson to perform crude and insulting black caricatures on prime time TV.

Gay people need to start to look at how they are being portrayed, rather than just celebrating the fact they are being represented.