Brendan O’Neill

Ricky Gervais is guilty of blasphemy

He has mocked identity politics – the god of our times

Ricky Gervais is guilty of blasphemy
Ricky Gervais (Photo: Netflix)
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I have long thought that if Life of Brian came out today, it wouldn’t be Christians kicking up a fuss about it — it would be trans activists.

When Monty Python’s classic tale of a man mistaken for a Messiah came to cinemas in 1979, people of faith weren’t happy. They saw it as taking the mick out of Christ and they aired their displeasure noisily. Nuns in New York picketed cinemas. In Ireland the film was banned for eight years.

In 2022 I reckon it would be a very different story. It wouldn’t be Monty Python’s ribbing of the gospels that would outrage the chattering classes — it would be their mockery of trans people.

Life of Brian was way ahead of time. It was Terf before Terf was even a thing. There is a brilliantly observed scene in which Stan of the People’s Front of Judea — or is it the Judean People’s Front? — says he wants to become Loretta.

‘I want to be a woman. From now on, I want you all to call me Loretta’, says Stan, played by Eric Idle. When the others push back and say he can’t just become a woman, he says: ‘It’s my right as a man.’ Which was remarkably perspicacious.

‘I want to have babies’, says Stan / Loretta. ‘You can’t have babies! You haven’t got a womb!’, barks John Cleese’s Reg. Transphobic or what? To calm things down, Francis (Michael Palin) says they should accept Stan’s desire to be Loretta as being ‘symbolic of our struggle against oppression’. ‘Symbolic of his struggle against reality…’ Reg mutters.

Imagine if a film or TV show did something like that today. Showed an aspiring ‘trans woman’ being mocked for not having the right body parts to be a woman. Showed a man who wants to be a woman being told — for laughs, remember — that the only thing he’s struggling against is reality.

The cancel-culture mob would kick into action. There’d be a Change.org petition, maybe even a physical protest outside the offices of the production company or streaming service that was foolish enough to broadcast such trans-poking humour. ‘Jokes kill!’, we would be told, day and night.

Hell, JK Rowling can’t even very politely say ‘men aren’t women’ without being subjected to weeks of hatred and violent threats — so heaven help the film company that tried to air a Stan / Loretta skit in these febrile times.

This week, my theory about Life of Brian in 2022 was kind of proven right. For we had the pretty extraordinary sight of Ricky Gervais getting a very free ride for his God-mocking while being dragged into the Twitter stocks for his gags about trans issues.

In his new Netflix special SuperNature, Gervais vents his atheistic spleen. The Christian God is cruel and perverted, he says. Those Christian fundamentalists who believe Aids is the Almighty’s way of punishing gay sex clearly believe in a God who’s up in heaven thinking, ‘I’m sick of all this bumming’. And so just as God once said ‘Let there be light’, according to Gervais in the 1980s He said, ‘Let there be Aids’. What a rotter.

This isn’t the first time Gervais has made fun of God and those who believe in him. He’s famously an atheist. He talks about it all the time. (Rather too much, in my view.) But God-bashing is fine these days. Cool, even. Christians tend to take it in their stride. Believers have mostly kept their counsel following Gervais’s latest mockery of their wicked, ridiculous God.

The same cannot be said of trans activists and their allies. Not even remotely. They have responded with fury to Gervais’s blasphemy against the new god of genderfluidity.

He’s been called all the usual names. Transphobe, Terf, bigot. His crime? Choosing not to adhere to the ideology of transgenderism, daring to dissent from that pseudo-religious mantra we are all now pressured into saying: ‘Trans women are women.’

What’s funny about this spittle-flecked response to Gervais’s trans jokes is that he was really only saying what trans activists themselves have said. He had a bit on ‘old-fashioned women’ — ‘you know, the ones with wombs’ — complaining about born males using their bathrooms. ‘What if he rapes me?’, these women say. To which Gervais, playing the trans activist, responds: ‘What if she rapes you, you… Terf whore.’

Cutting, yes. But also incredibly accurate. Some police forces and courts do indeed refer to rapists as ‘she’ and ‘her’, if that’s how they identify. And, as feminists have pointed out, this results in rape victims being pressured to refer to their rapist with female pronouns. As for the language, anyone who has spent more than five minutes online in recent years will know that that kind of thing is said to gender-critical women all the time.

Like all great blasphemous comics, Gervais is merely shining a light on things that really are said, and things which really do happen, and inviting us, his audience, to laugh and say: ‘Yeah, that is kind of ridiculous.’ Much as Monty Python did with the Bible, in fact.

But, say Gervais’s humourless critics, while the likes of Monty Python were punching up — against God, no less — Gervais is punching down, against vulnerable, marginalised trans people. I don’t buy this at all. Gervais has made it clear that he fully supports rights for trans people. His issue is with the excesses of trans activism and the authoritarianism of identity politics more broadly.

‘I talk about Aids, famine, cancer, the Holocaust, rape, paedophilia’, he says in SuperNature. ‘But no, the one thing you mustn’t joke about is identity politics.’

Absolutely. And that’s because identitarianism is the god of our times. It’s the new religion of the elites, their means of controlling and reprimanding the masses. Ridiculing identity politics is to the 21st century what questioning the authority of God was to the 15th. The woke rage against Gervais really does echo earlier outbursts of intolerant religious fury against anyone who dared to dissent from the Word of God.