Image Source: Getty / Handout
Ricky Gervais’s new Netflix special, “SuperNature,” was released this week, and it includes (not at all surprisingly, for a Boomer British comedian) some transphobic jokes.
To wit: “Oh, women! Not all women, I mean the old-fashioned ones. The old-fashioned women, the ones with wombs. Those fucking dinosaurs. I love the new women. They’re great, aren’t they? The new ones we’ve been seeing lately. The ones with beards and cocks. They’re as good as gold, I love them. And now the old-fashioned ones say, ‘Oh, they want to use our toilets.’ ‘Why shouldn’t they use your toilets?’ ‘For ladies!’ ‘They are ladies — look at their pronouns! What about this person isn’t a lady?’ ‘Well, his penis.’ ‘Her penis, you f*cking bigot!’ ‘What if he rapes me?’ ‘What if she rapes you, you fucking TERF whore?'”
He goes on: “You can’t predict what will be offensive in the future. You don’t know who the dominant mob will be. Like, the worst thing you can say today, get you canceled on Twitter, death threats, the worst thing you can say today is, ‘Women don’t have penises,’ right? Now, no one saw that coming. You won’t find a 10-year-old tweet of someone saying, ‘Women don’t have penises.’ You know why? We didn’t think we f*cking had to!”
At the end of the special, Gervais clarifies, “Of course I support trans rights,” adding that “trans rights are human rights.” However, if trans people are going to exist, he’d prefer that we transition according to his standards: “But meet me halfway, ladies: lose the cock. That’s all I’m saying.”
As an exhausted trans man, I have an extremely novel idea: how about we just don’t care? Gervais is wrong about a lot here. The incidence of trans women raping anyone is so rare that it’s absurd that transphobes bring it up so often (trans people are far more often victims than offenders). Bathroom bills are explicitly transphobic and completely unnecessary for protecting the cisters. Demanding that someone transition the way you want them to transition and look the way you want them to look is self-centered in the extreme, not to mention unrealistic for many — medical transitions are costly and require insurance, which trans people in the United States often don’t have (again, Gervais is British). Oh, and by the way, trans men exist! When is someone going to make an offensive joke about me? I feel left out.
Still, I’m not so sure that this is all as deeply offensive as Twitter pundits are making it seem. “Old-fashioned women” is honestly a pretty funny way to refer to cis women. And I don’t really see a problem with the sort of befuddled sentiment behind Gervais’s jokes. He’s right: public understanding and awareness of trans issues has taken a twisty-turny road over the past decade-plus, and while the trans community did know that we could all use more inclusive language around gender, many cis people didn’t. And that’s on top of the fact that transitioning is confusing. The cis people in my life stopped deadnaming me a lot sooner than the voice inside my own trans brain did, so when cis people express confusion, I’m not personally going to blame them for that. At least Gervais takes the step of specifying that trans rights are human rights, and that, for that matter, trans people are people.
This is not to defend Gervais. I find these jokes as funny the rest of his jokes — which is to say not at all, for the most part. But treating “SuperNature“ as if it’s the new “The Closer” is a false equivalence. Dave Chappelle got up on a stage and dragged a deceased trans woman into his own psychosexual baggage about trans people, defended the most violent TERF propagandist on the planet, and then, at his premiere, whined about how he’s a victim just minutes after being called the most influential living comedian. The absurdist woke mob that Gervais conjures is an absurd joke, whereas Chappelle seems convinced that the absurdist woke mob he talks about in “The Closer” is actually real and, more dangerously, that trans people deserve backlash and need to be shut down.
In 2018, Gervais tweeted that it’s not the public, but comedians, who are too sensitive:
Please stop saying “You can’t joke about anything anymore”. You can. You can joke about whatever the fuck you like. And some people won’t like it and they will tell you they don’t like it. And then it’s up to you whether you give a fuck or not. And so on. It’s a good system.
— Ricky Gervais (@rickygervais) December 31, 2018
If I were to critique “SuperNature” to Gervais’s face, I’d probably tell him that I would have appreciated it if he hadn’t brought almost totally nonexistent rape accusations against trans women into his set, and I might walk him through all the winding, exhausting, all-consuming steps I’ve had to take to get my medical transition. It would be his choice to care or not, and if he didn’t care, I’d think he was a jerk.
But similarly, I can choose whether or not to care about this special and these jokes. Contrary to some opinions floating around the internet, I’m not sure it’s necessarily harmful for cis artists to voice these ideas and their confusion. In Kendrick Lamar’s song “Auntie Diaries” from “Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers,” Lamar intentionally switches between deadnaming and misgendering and correctly naming and gendering his trans cousin and uncle. The song follows a cis Black man learning how to adjust his perception of his family members, and it’s moving and beautiful. In Gervais’s case, the joke falls flat because of his inclusion of harmful stereotypes, but it’s not a dissimilar sentiment.
Trans people are called upon constantly to get outraged at any number or type of news events, whether it’s Governor Greg Abbott punishing trans kids and their parents in my thankfully former state of Texas or a comedian making a bad joke. We’re pressured to have an opinion; for that opinion to align with our “woke” cis “allies'” opinions; to speak up about everything; to not just care about, but find a way to like and never speak ill of, every other trans person in existence. The burden of compassion fatigue often falls on the shoulders of the people most in need of compassion: BIPOC, trans, gay, fat, disabled, and otherwise marginalized people. We are expected to not just care every time our communities are even tangentially or sort of attacked, but to also inform and manage the reactions of cis, straight, white, normative people who have more power than us. We don’t get the leisure time or the mental breaks that it takes to accomplish things in our lives other than being marginalized people.
So, I’ll care when all the cis people in my life refuse to relinquish their affection for She Who Must Not Be Named and the Fascist Boy Wizard Cop she created. I’ll care when the most influential living comedian lies about trans people. I’ll care when legislation is being drafted to separate trans kids from their families or keep them from playing sports on spurious grounds. I’ll care when Alex Jones continually pushes the falsehood that trans people want to surgically alter children and break up families. I’ll care when the Catholic Church tells its millions of congregants to disbelieve and distrust their trans neighbors and lobbies for anti-trans legislation. I’ll care that the far right is claiming that the US military has been “feminized” by trans inclusion and lauding Russian state and personal violence against trans and gay people. But Gervais’s poorly constructed jokes aren’t that important to me, and when my allies know more about Gervais than they do about any of the above issues, it’s time for them to reflect on the extent of their allyship.