Comedy is truly one of the greatest art forms. Laughing makes you feel good, obviously—but it can be so much more than that. Good comedy can be powerful. It can challenge bad ideas in a way that other forms of discourse can’t even hope to match.
If you can make a good argument, that’s great. But if you can make a good argument AND be funny with it—well, then that’s the equivalent of a nuclear bomb in the battle of ideas.
This brings me to Ricky Gervais’s stand-up special on Netflix titled ‘Supernature’. I went to see this show in May of 2019 and left the theatre almost certain some of the jokes would not make the final cut of the eventual Netflix release. I was delighted to discover I was completely wrong about that—as the jokes I’d suspected of getting the chop were present in their full glory when it hit the streamer earlier this year.
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I didn’t think the jokes in question would be edited out because they weren’t funny (they are hilarious) or that they were far too offensive for a mainstream Netflix audience. No, I assumed they would get the chop because they did something you are not supposed to do; they made fun of the absurd tenets of gender ideology and mocked the viciousness with which their more zealous foot soldiers attempt to enforce them.
I knew the very moment I left the theatre in 2019 exactly how the press would frame these jokes were they to see the light of day. I also knew just how much of a meltdown social media would have too. And this all came to pass in precisely the depressing manner I had expected. Endless headlines about bigotry and accusations of hatred towards trans people followed. These reactions were about as irresponsible as they were inaccurate, dishonest and sinister.
The joke that became the epicentre of this storm is this one below:
With this particular joke, Ricky does exactly what he’s always done. He goes for bad ideology, zealots, pseudoscience and dogmas. Fundamentalist religion again, basically. You can see this penchant for poking fun at ‘unquestionable truths’ in every other special he has released. Also, the very scenario at the centre of this gag is one that will be familiar to the many women that have stuck their head above the parapet on this issue.
So why was the reaction to his latest special different from all the others? It was different because he dared to poke fun at the new godless religion in our midst: that of gendered souls and self-identification. It’s always at this point one is required to differentiate this from (and affirm their commitment to) trans rights. As though doing so would make any sort of difference in the mind of those determined to paint everything a shade of bigot.
Well, just to be clear anyway, trans rights are human rights. I want the rights that I demand for myself to apply to every transgender person on earth. I consider anyone that abuses, oppresses, harasses, hurts or discriminates against transgender people to be an enemy of mine. I would also go a step further and suggest that an ounce or two of compassion isn’t too much to ask for either. And I have no doubt whatsoever that Ricky Gervais feels the same way about this. The ironic tragedy being that by any sane measure, Ricky Gervais would be considered an ally to trans rights. Because he is.
I’ve been a huge admirer of Ricky and his comedy since I was a teenager. I’ve also been fortunate enough to spend some time with him, recording podcasts and generally mucking about. Everything about his sensibilities appear to stem from a commitment to individual liberty and a dislike of unfairness. I’ve seen this in his work over the years and I’ve seen it in person. I suspect this mentality comes from a poor, working-class upbringing. When you come from a poor background and don’t have much else, free expression and the right to be who you want to be is utterly priceless.
The right of the individual to speak, do and vote as they please remains the greatest tool of emancipation for anyone that lacks wealth or institutional power. And if you believe anything Gervais has said aims to remove that right from transgender people, then you haven’t listened to anything Gervais has said.
I’ve also enjoyed the comedy of Robin Ince too and I was pleased to meet him when we recorded a number of podcasts with Ricky. I don’t have a bad word to say about that experience. I did notice that Robin had unfollowed me on twitter a while back, but that’s fine—I would probably unfollow me too.
But I was especially disappointed to see Robin’s public response to the release of Supernature, describing Ricky as a “Role Model for the Alt-right”.
Robin said in an interview:
‘I think it is easy to forget the collateral damage of jokes. Anti - trans punchlines seem to have become highly profitable and it ignores the dehumanising effect on a swathe of already marginalised people.
‘I think Ricky believes it is just him being a "naughty boy". I believe it makes him a pin-up and role model for the alt right (which is sadly just the mainstream right nowadays) and, whether he likes it or not, a useful ally in the culture war.
‘I know he is not a supporter of alt-right ideology, but I see his words used as gifs and memes in support of such ideology.’
I think these are bad arguments for a number of reasons. Firstly, Robin works backwards from the assumption that the punchlines in question are “anti-trans”. I refuse to believe that someone working as a comedian for so long (and a friend of Ricky Gervais no less) is unable to distinguish between the subject of a joke and the target of a joke.
Robin also appears to place a higher importance on the potential consequence of misunderstanding someone’s words rather than an objective reading of the actual words and intent. It’s akin to saying it does not matter what you said or intended with your words. Someone was ‘hurt’ by your words and therefore there’s no distinction to be made between you as a bad person or a misrepresented one. Given the subjective nature of how people react to speech, this seems like an especially unjust way to treat someone.
Also, the suggestion that Ricky is simply being a careless, thoughtless “naughty boy” does not make sense in light of the way these jokes are constructed. Anyone can stand on a stage and say “naughty” things for effect, but this doesn’t tend to fill theatres. The jokes in question have clearly been laboured over. Re-written then re-written again to make them airtight and laser-focussed on the target, removing as much wriggle room for misunderstanding as possible without risking sucking all life out of it completely. Every beat, pause and inflection is honed night after night to make sure the material lands in just the right way, for just the right reasons. This is attentiveness, not naughtiness.
Invoking the ‘alt-right’ here feels like a cheap point. The implication is that good people should refrain from engaging in this area of discourse lest they embolden bad people. The irony of course being that this would be to surrender the entire stage to…the alt-right. I can’t think of an easier way to embolden them than that.
Not to mention the term ‘alt-right’ is a concept so poorly defined as to include anyone from Nazis, garden variety conservatives or staunch lefties that don’t particularly like Islam. Robin himself reveals the term is little more than a way to smear your ideological counterparts when he makes the farcical claim that the “mainstream right” is the “alt-right”.
Did Robin mean to associate Ricky with literal Nazis when conflating him with the alt-right though? I know Robin was clear to note that Ricky himself doesn’t subscribe to ‘alt-right’ ideology, but does that matter given the association between Ricky and Nazis has now been made in the mind of many because of Robin’s words? It’s outcomes, not intent that people should be judged by after all.
Anyone not of Ricky Gervais’s stature would find it very difficult to survive the level of defamation and scorn from mainstream media outlets that followed after a few gags at the expense of gender ideologues. If you want to speak truth to power, then it’s difficult to find a better way of doing so than being vocally honest about biology and women’s rights in 2022.
I assume like many people on the ‘other side’ of this issue, Robin is motivated by sincere empathy. I imagine he is concerned for a vulnerable minority that faces genuine bigotry. Not only do I accept Robin is motivated by a sincere desire to avoid harm, I can do so without smearing him as a “pin-up” for the type of misogynist that views this issue as an opportunity to chip away at the rights of women. Because that would be a dull, uncharitable and easy game to play. And the conversation would not move forward a jot.
Which brings me to a recent mini Twitter storm instigated by Robin after he waded in on the news that Joan of Arc would be portrayed as ‘non-binary’ with ‘they/them’ pronouns in an upcoming theatre production at London’s Globe:
He seems to miss the point that by claiming Joan of Arc is ‘non-binary’ it reinforces sexist stereotypes about what a woman may or may not be. It tells us that if women exemplify physical strength and courage, the word ‘woman’ is no longer appropriate.
After dismissing the bulk of the responses from women calmly explaining the problem, he went on to make a rather peculiar claim about the power dynamic at play:
Apparently, in “the current climate” the “power” is on the “side” of those of us that challenge gender ideology. Why? Because the Conservative leadership candidates have acknowledged the existence of biology and the importance of single sex spaces during their campaigning.
As someone that I had previously considered a thoughtful type, Robin doesn’t appear to have thought about this issue much at all before wading in to it head last.
The first thing to note about this, is that the Tories can (and do) say anything they want. Their public proclamations do not magically change the nature of our academic institutions, culture, laws, social networks, media outlets, corporations and workplaces however. Yes, Tory contenders make populist noises about the issue, but what is the reality of ‘the current climate’ for the average person when they come into collision with this issue anywhere other than in their mind?
Well, just from this week alone a woman was paid a visit by a number of Police Community Support Officers. Her crime? She had a small adhesive sign on her door that read ‘trans-ideology erases women’.
The woman, clearly distressed by the encounter was treated to a sermon about the “offensive” nature of her sticker, and told she must be ‘educated’ on the correct opinions about gender, namely that “trans women are women”. The woman in question also revealed during this exchange that she had previously been raped. This may go some way to explaining her desire to clearly differentiate between the penis-havers from the non-penis havers in our society. Something we all agreed on 5 minutes ago.
I’m not sure what impact the words of Rishi Sunak or Liz Truss had on the power dynamic. You can hear the audio recording of the interaction here, as well as view a transcript.
We also have instances of female victims of male violence being reprimanded in court for refusing to refer to their attacker with their preferred female pronouns. Furthermore, mainstream newspapers have altered the direct quote of a rape victim to avoid misgendering their rapist. The BBC recently became the latest prominent news outlet to be found guilty of this.
Then there are also women’s prisons that contain some of the most vulnerable people in our country. These vulnerable women are being told they will not be separated from fully intact biological male criminals if said criminal claims to be a woman. Female prisoners that have been sexually assaulted by transgender inmates have had their requests for single sex spaces denied by the Ministry of Justice, with a judge ruling that “…barring all trans women from female prisons would ignore their right to live as their chosen gender”. There are female-ran organisations dedicated to campaigning on this issue.
We have seen long-established rape crisis centres stripped of funding for refusing to allow biological men into the fold.
I’ve also witnessed first-hand the guaranteed protests and intimidation present at every gathering where women that do not believe you can change your sex wish to talk. Just the act of reporting from these events and exposing the fascist-like tactics resulted in a death threat landing in my inbox.
Exceptional female athletes (sometimes indigenous minorities) have missed out on once in a life time opportunities and medals to make way for the entitlement of very average male athletes.
Consider the case of James Essses, expelled from his position as a trainee therapist and children's counsellor for having the wrong opinions on gender ideology.
Or Lisa Keogh, a Scottish Law student that was investigated by Abertay University for saying “women have vaginas”.
Theatres have cancelled sold-out gigs to please mobs screeching about the “transphobia” of Dave Chapelle, thus deciding for the general public what they can and can’t listen to.
Police investigated Harry Miller after he posted a limerick on Twitter. The police said they wanted to “check his thinking” after the limerick mocked the idea that men could be women.
Artist Jess DeWahls had her work removed from the Royal Academy of Arts’ gift shop in response to complaints she was “transphobic”. This was in response to her claim that “humans can not change sex” from 2019.
Social media companies have permanently banned women simply for declaring “men are not women”.
Women like Maya Forstater and Alison Bailey have had to endure expensive and hellish legal proceedings to seek justice for workplace discrimination after they refused to affirm gender ideology.
I could go on forever.
This is the “current climate” Ricky Gervais is making his jokes in. This is the reality that his jokes are taking aim at, not trans people. And this is clear to see for anyone that has actually been living in “the current climate”.
So I ask, if this is the reality of news media, courts, prisons, sports, academic intuitions, corporations, entertainment venues, public gatherings, social media, workplaces, rape centres, artistic expression and the police force in the “current climate”, where exactly does the power lie again?
Stephen Knight is host of The Knight Tube. You can listen to The Knight Tube here, and support it by becoming a patron here.
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He tours with Professor Brian Cox, who is GC, but not vocal about it - however his wife, Gia Milinovich is VERY vocal on the subject, and apparently he refuses to talk to her about the issue, and just shuns her. Robin Ince is very similar to Jon Ronson, they both know what's real but they both want to be 'liked' by everyone, and are just too cowardly to speak out.
That sentence, "....distinguish between the subject of a joke and the target of a joke."
Is it, in a nutshell.
Whoever you are, thanks for this. Your crystal clarity on the matter is a service to the cause. You have helped me articulate the problems of the gender woo more clearly and shed the mind games that are used by the gender ideologues to conceal the astonishingly rapid adoption of corporate gender woo.
We lesbians are at the sharp end of this gender ideology movement that feels like its seeking to erase women, me, objective reality.
It's often hard for me to hold on to empathy and distinguish between subject and issue. When under attack I instinctively go into street fighting mode. Especially when it's men who are attacking me/other women/ all women/reality.
Your clarity and words will help me campaign more effectively and with empathy. Thankyou. I've subscribed.