Saturday 29 May 2010

an open letter to David Walliams

David Walliams' fansite have linked to my previous post, describing it as 'horrible'. This is a quick reply.

Dear David,

I see that your fansite have linked to my parody of your Nationwide poster, where you and Matt are dressed as Emily and Florence, your transvestite characters. The wording of the poster has been changed to "We're doing the Black and White Minstrels next. How divine". Your fansite describes this as 'horrible'. I'm sorry that they should think so. I was trying to make a point.
I'd hoped that the connection was reasonably easy to make, but I realise that sometimes what I think is blindingly obvious, isn't so.

To me, the Black and White Minstrel Show was about members of the dominant culture appropriating and caricaturing the identity of members of another culture. And as I see it, that is what you are doing with your transvestite characters. The difference between the two instances is that the first one is no longer acceptable. And I believe it's only a matter of time before what you do is also more widely seen as past its sell-by date.

You might argue that no-one could relate your characters, Emily and Florence, to real people, as they are such extreme caricatures. Unfortunately, some folk apparently do just that.

I lead a quiet and pretty normal sort of life. But a few years ago, I was in the papers as a result of some nastiness that happened to me. The press coverage was pretty much as you would expect, when a transsexual woman is in the papers. And one of those papers (the Daily Star) used 'Little Britain' references to describe me. It wasn't the end of the world, but it was an annoyance. Your characters provided a model and a vocabulary for people (people who had never even met me) to treat me as a caricature. And where people treat other people as caricatures, they don't treat them as real people. And they may (and sometimes actually do) end up abusing them.

It is claimed that you've "spoken out for the trans community for years". I'm afraid I don't know what it is that you've said; and I admit that I haven't read your book. But I do know that the trans community has within it some articulate voices, more and more of which are beginning to find platforms. When I speak, it is only for myself; I do not pretend to speak for a community. But I am sincere when I say that I do wish you would give up on Emily and Florence. I think the world (my world anyway) would be a little better for it.

13 Jan 2011 - postscript: my comment on the new Walliams and Lucas vehicle, Come Fly With Me, here.

(this post has been edited, as I initially thought that the David Walliams fansite was the voice of David Walliams himself.)


  1. Well done, Dru...:-)

    BTW, my impression of both characters was that they were transsexual, rather than transvestite, hence the OTT emphasis on them wanting to be seen and treated as "ladies".

  2. Nice one Dru. Little Britain has really pissed me off, and loads of other transpeople I know, for a long time. We should not have to tale this sh*t

  3. Excellent parody - and your anger is totally appropriate.

    Very glad to have found your site through a link on Jenny's blog.

  4. Good for you - revolting programme anyway, cannot stand it.

  5. Thank you, everyone, and hello Julia! It is a worry putting this message 'out there', but I thought it needed doing, and if in doubt, do it yourself, I say. I'm glad that it seems to be approved of by people whose opinion I value.

  6. Isn't the joke that the two characters are quite 'bad' at being convincing transvestites (if you see what I mean), and thus we're laughing at their incompetencies (a common vehicle for humour)?

    I can see how it would be offensive if they didn't have very prominent moustaches, very overt hair-pieces, etc. But the climax of humour in the advert is when one of the characters slips up, reverting to his real, deeper voice, and thus we laugh at his 'failure' to pass convincingly as a woman.

    I apologise in advance if I am misunderstanding your grievance; however, I can only really see how it would be offensive if we were just supposed to laugh at the fact that they are transvestites. If one follows your logic, you could similarly say that the advert is offensive to women, because (again, following your logic) it portrays the image of a woman as someone who dresses in ludicrously old-fashioned outfits and has a silly high voice. But again, I don't think this is what forms the basis of the humour...

    What do you think?

  7. Yes, I can see that the intention might be simply that- they are ‘rubbish transvestites’ and the intention is that we laugh at the gulf between how they want to be seen, and how everyone sees them. And this sort of disparity could be used to create humour in any number of situations- like the odd job man I know who is something of a standing joke among those who have seen him in action because he is so bad at fixing things, but believes that he is supremely competent… I don’t find that sort of comedy funny, but that’s a matter of personal taste, of course.

    Accepting, though, that this is the basis of the humour, I don’t think that it is always ‘read’ that way by the audience. My concern is that some people conflate transvestites with transsexuals; also, more bothersomely, that those people see transgender identities as bogus; a trick played (with varying degrees of success) upon the public. As here (cribbed from a quick trip to the BBC website):

    Emily: Florence, do as I do and watch how they don't suspect a thing. (Calling out) Ready, gentlemen!

    Tennis player: Well, have you got any balls?

    Emily: Oh no, we are ladies.

    What ‘they’ don’t suspect (but really do, of course) is that Emily and Florence are men. And that makes it funny, apparently. As a commentator upon David’s fansite says “The whole notion of men dressing as women (and vice versa, let’s be fair) is FUNNY and while transvestites may take it very seriously, the rest of the world does not”.

    I really don’t see much room for respect for transgender identities in an attitude like that.

    I’ve cited, in my blog, two instances where I’ve had ‘Little Britain’ stuff thrown at me. I have heard of plenty of other instances. These are from trans women trying to lead lives that are true to their sense of self. Other people may not necessarily accept that identity, but surely the least we might hope is that they could respect it. But as I see it, the Little Britain characters are sending out the message that trans women are men really, and it’s OK to laugh at them.

    Whatever the intention behind the characters, that is how it is going down in the world.

    A friend reminded me of Harry Enfield, when he came up with a character called 'Loasamoney'. Fantastically successful for him. And then people - southern soccer thugs often - started co-opting the character and the language and starting using it to attack northern fans. Enfield took the view that he had not created this character to be the fuel for prejudice and bigotry, and he killed 'Loadsamoney' - one of his most successful characters - right away.

    Your final pojnt, that we could read the characters as offensive to all women, is interesting, and we could possibly get some mileage out of at least considering it. Because the ‘tyranny of passing’ is something to which natal women can be subject, just as trans women can be. But I think that’ll do for the moment.

  8. I'd love to see a world in which characters like the Laydees were only harmless, lighthearted humour. Unfortunately recent research conducted by Trans Media Watch - 'How Transgender People Experience The Media' - clearly demonstrates that they are used as a reference point for transphobic abuse. Whatever Walliams' intentions, a significant proportion of his audience sees them as an invitation to ridicule ordinary trans people in real life.

    It seems to me that there are possible solutions to this that could work for everybody. What might happen, for instance, if the Laydees encountered a realistic trans character, the way the 'only gay in the village' character encounters very ordinary gay people? There is comic potential in this and it would undermine the common assumption that the Laydees are representative of all trans people.

    If Mr Walliams really wants to help the trans community, let's open a positive dialogue and try to work something out.

  9. I quite agree, Jenny; grandstanding is not the most constructive way of doing things... I'll be hauling out the Basildon Bond tomorrow...

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  11. well said, and on my behalf. Whilst I think the humour is weak, the potential for damage in some way or other is great. More than that the program is a pile of poo

  12. ...which latter point seems to be progressively more widely accepted, and will hopefully do a lot to usher this stuff of to that there Dustbin Of History!