Inexplicable blockbuster sitcom Mrs. Brown’s Boys returns to TVNZ tonight. Jean Sergent writes about the show’s transphobia and how we as a culture need to do better.
A show that hinges on a man in a dress making broadly sexual jokes shouldn’t be a multi-award winner with sell-out live shows, but it is. The Radio Times in the UK voted it the best sitcom of the 21st century. The best sitcom? Of the 21st century? You mean the century that spawned the first three seasons of Arrested Development, The Peep Show, The Thick Of It, and Toast of London? That century? May the ghost of Mary Tyler Moore forgive us for our sins.
It’s mind-boggling how a show like Mrs Brown’s Boys got made, but how on earth did it become one of the biggest shows in the world? How do people watch this?
Brendan O’Carroll, the man behind the make-up, created Agnes Brown in the 1990s. Since then, she’s been on a strange journey from radio, to books, to an Anjelica Houston film with Ray Winstone playing a baddie, to a stage show, to a sitcom, to an even bigger stage show. Somewhere along the way, The Mammy became a bloke in a bad wig, sending up Irish women to the delight of millions.
Why on earth do people watch it? It’s the bloke in a wig bit that gets me. Arguably it’s also that it’s just dreadful and unfunny, but as Brendan O’Carroll would point out, there’s an audience of millions screaming with laughter. Is it offensive? And if it is, are the people who make it and watch it being wilfully bigotted?
In conversations about whether or not material in comedy can be deemed offensive. the issue of intent often comes up. If someone doesn’t intend to be offensive, then how can offense be taken? As a culture we’ve mostly become OK with saying that rape isn’t funny and should very, very rarely be part of a comedy situation. But where are we at with gender identity and sexuality? People of minority identities are forced to prove that jokes that make fun of aspects or assumptions of their identity are genuinely harmful. Why are they forced to do that? Because members of dominant social groups have something called privilege that allows them to experience media uncritically. When people want to show off to their peer groups they do so by engaging in actions and words that oppress minority populations. I’m not making this up, it actually happens! Regardless of intent or notions of “harmless fun”, offensive humour can cause real world hurt.
Cross-dressing has a lengthy history in comedy. Shakespeare is chock full of it. Tony Curtis is sexier as Josephine in Some Like It Hot than he is as Joe. Monty Python overfloweth with griping old women waving their handbags about. So what’s the problem now?
It’s not just about intent, it’s about audience. Mrs Brown’s Boys is the kind of lowest common denominator comedy that makes some people sneer and other people grip their sides and reach for the sellotape incase their guts fall out. Lowest common denominator is also semi-synonymous with ignorance and bigotry, so we aren’t doing the Mrs Brown’s Boys audience any favours by describing them as such.
Is it transphobic? I think yes, although it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly why unless you unravel intent, context, and capacity for harm. Mrs Brown is “funny” because she’s played by a man in drag. We’re beginning not with the concept that an old Irish matriarch can’t be funny (of course she can), but that a man in a dress is always funnier. This functions to perpetuate the misogyny and transmisogyny (the intersection of transphobia – hatred of transgender people; and misogyny – hatred of women) of man-in-a-frock comedy.
Next there’s the issue of verisimilitude – is the character giving the appearance of truth or reality? Absolutely not! It’s a studio audience comedy where the actors are routinely rewarded for fudging their lines or laughing at their own jokes. In contrast to Mrs Brown, Louis Anderson’s performance in Baskets gives an emotional warmth and depth that is transcendent. Christine Baskets doesn’t play at cheap laughs for cross-dressing, she’s a real character played with depth, heart, and grace. Mrs Brown is an overblown clown whose falsies could fall out at any second.
The final issue in judging whether or not a performance in drag can be perceived as transphobic is assessing whether or not the performance contributes to ongoing bigoted attitudes. Trans people are woefully underrepresented and misrepresented in popular media. Mrs Brown isn’t a trans character, and I’m certainly not arguing that she should be played by a trans actress. In fact, I think she should be wiped from the annals of broadcast history like a Soviet statue of Stalin, but that’s just a matter of taste. Also, a matter of taste is that Mrs. Brown’s Boys is boring, lazy and tired. If you’re going to play around with toxic bullshit, at least put some effort into it.
Media is where we learn what is and isn’t acceptable in terms of attitudes and behaviour. Media is where we find role models. Media is where we learn what people think of us.
Transphobia in the media perpetuates transphobia in the culture. Trans rights are the key human rights question of our era, and we do our trans siblings absolutely no favours by letting transmisogynistic garbage like Mrs Brown’s Boys slide out of the reach of critique. Put it in the bin. Give the money to gender minorities and let them make something genuinely funny. Humour that perpetuates bigoted viewpoints and makes fun of minorities is over. We can do so much better.