Ricky Gervais knew what he was doing and why he was doing it when he took on transgender activism in his new Netflix special, SuperNature. Three quarters of an hour into his set, he told his audience:
‘I talk about AIDS, famine, cancer, the Holocaust, rape, paedophilia…the one thing you should never joke about is the trans issue. They just want to be treated equally. I agree; that’s why I include them. But they know I’m joking about all the other stuff, but – they go – ‘no, he must mean that’.’
The backlash to Gervais’s jokes suggest he was right. For all the subjects Gervais made gags about, it was his description of the ‘new women’ as he called them, ‘the ones with beards’, that has caused outrage.
Gervais’s show was a full-fronted assault on the mantra that transwomen are women. Was this wise? It was certainly unkind, but since when did comedy need to be kind? Last year, Dave Chappelle, the American comedian, got into hot water when he set his sights on transgender ideology in his own Netflix special, The Closer. Chapelle explored the concept of punching up and punching down, something Gervais picked up on himself.
When we punch up we can be unkind with impunity. Political leaders, the wealthy, the privileged, Royalty; when they are the butt of jokes, they are expected to take it. But punching down is different. Nowadays it takes a brave comedian to turn the heavy ammunition on the downtrodden and the marginalised. But Gervais went there when he quipped: ‘Will I ever find Schindler’s List funny ever again?’
If he could get away with joking about the Holocaust – surely the epitome of punching down – why did his jokes about transgender people spark such outrage? Gervais’s explanation, which he offered to The Spectator last night, perhaps reveals the answer:
‘My target wasn’t trans folk, but trans activist ideology.