Tuesday, 22 March 2011

Comic Relief: Unfunny, uncharitable and unacceptable.

When Comic Relief’s fundraising efforts undermine the very people it says it wants to help, it is time for it to re-examine the way it does what it does.

After a very long battle Melissa was allowed to go to school as a girl just in time for her class Christmas party. Assigned male gender at birth she has always insisted she was a girl. Her parents supported her and eventually, her school allowed her to be herself. Her class teacher has stopped calling her Jack and allowed her friends and classmates to call her Melissa, which is what they had been doing all along.

But this didn’t stop older boys in the school from bullying her and persistently attacking her in the playground, assaults about which the school did nothing, despite multiple complaints from her parents. After witnessing their daughter’s constant suffering and seeing what used to be a bubbly, happy child becoming increasingly depressed and moody, her parents have reluctantly taken her out of school and started educating her at home.
Melissa is just 7 years old.

Serena was also assigned male gender at birth but has always felt like a girl. She was 13 when she abandoned school. She had been persistently bullied since she was nine years old to the extent that she was being punched or kicked in school almost every day. On one occasion she was hit in the head with a cricket bat, and on another her clothes were set alight. Once again the school did nothing. She self-harmed and began substance and alcohol abuse. She became depressed and suicidal, sending her distraught mother suicide notes; she frequently went missing and got involved in petty crime. Eventually, with the determined support of her mother, she was able to take her GCSEs with the help of a home tutor.

In order to combat the negative portrayal of trans people in the media which is the root cause of Melissa and Serena’s* problems, this week a Memorandum of Understanding was launched with Trans Media Watch and some responsible media organisations to promote fair and accurate portrayal of trans people in the media. Their aims are simple “accuracy, dignity, respect.”

However Comic Relief and ITV are apparently not interested in accuracy, dignity or respect when it comes to trans people. Comic Relief says it raises money for charities that, amongst others, help young people with mental health issues, young people who abuse alcohol, young people sexually exploited and trafficked, and people who suffer domestic and sexual abuse. Young trans people are represented disproportionately in these groups, and many of those needing the services of charities that help these people, as a result of the treatment they have received throughout their short lives, will be transgender. Yet Comic Relief have decided to use “comedian” Peter Kay to raise money for charity through a music video, which, typically, ridicules transwomen. Worse still Kay is to feature on ITV’s Loose Women show this week as their first “transsexual” panellist, to promote the video. It is these kinds of stereotypical depictions of trans people many “comedians” of his ilk rely on, that represents one of the main sources of transphobia in the media today.

So why does this matter? This kind of “humour” helps generate a climate in which it is acceptable to ridicule, exclude, assault and otherwise harm trans people, to bully us because we are Not Really Human. These “comics” make us targets for the hatred of the bigoted and the ignorant. But the damage they create goes well beyond that. If they are constantly ridiculed on TV why should trans children be taken seriously by staff when they are being bullied in school? And what if you are a trans child, fearfully hiding your secret longing to be who you really are, terrified that someone might find out? Only despair and self-hatred lie down that lonely road. Yet what other roads are open to a child who sees people like him or her belittled and mocked not just for entertainment, but in the name of charity?

So how can Comic Relief and ITV possibly justify using comedians whose stock-in-trade involves contempt for and derision of transgender people? In my opinion, ITV’s use of Kay in Loose Women is akin to inviting a member of the Black-and-White Minstrel Show onto the programme. Media organisations like The Guardian and Channel 4 have shown they can represent trans people with the “accuracy, dignity and respect” that Trans Media Watch advocates so why can’t Comic Relief and ITV?

Why is this charity happy to use comedians whose output helps contribute to the very social problems it says it wants to ameliorate? Maybe it is because Comic Relief has simply become a vehicle for the second-rate to self-congratulate or salvage terminal careers. Maybe they operate a kind of macabre cost-benefit analysis; “If we raise enough money to sort out loads of other people what does it matter if a few trannies top themselves?” Although life will get better, Melissa and Serena, wonderfully tough cookies though they are, will still have a lot of hard times to come. It is about time Comic Relief stopped making them unnecessarily harder.

*These are not their real names, but they are real kids and these are their real experiences.


  1. So well expressed. It stuns me that with every form of bigotry we have to make this argument again and again. How do we get the message across without first getting a concussion from banging our heads against the wall.

  2. Natacha, this post is excellent, but it is REALLY starting to annoy me now people saying "So much for the MOU". MOU does not stand for magic wand. It stands for "will work towards better telly on trans people". The MOU *does* count for somehting, and just because there is a problem with Geraldine, which no one in the cis media really seem to get, doesn't mean that Channel 4 are not on a journey with us. Come back in two years time and if things haven't improved at C4 then you can write that the MOU was a failure.

  3. I completely agree with Paris and I'm really sad to see this PS attached since I read this blog last. The MOU is indeed only the start of what may at times seem a frustrating and difficult journey. It may not have occurred to people because of some teething trouble, which I won't try to deny, that C4 have a huge amount they can teach us about getting a positive message out just as we feel there's much we need to teach them. We plan to learn together and make a positive difference instead of dwell on the negativity of the past ... though that will undoubtedly come back to haunt us from time to time. Sarah L

  4. @Gender Trust Apologies for the comment about the MOU. In have removed it. You are correct that it is too early to judge it, I was just feeling rather pissed off and disappointed when I wrote this. After a wonderful launch, it really seemed like a let down to see C4 doing this. But you are correct, the MOU is going to need at least two years before we are going to see any effect and we should all support the MOU and try to help broadcasters make it work.