The Trans Award has recently joined up with the BBC Writers Room to launch a script writing competition - calling for positive and affirming portrayals of transgender characters in mainstream comedy. While the desire to change the ways the media represents transgender issues is cause for celebration, the competition’s premise does pose a certain kind of challenge for a comedy writer.
What does it mean to portray someone in a positive light? That they are happy and accepted by their society? Or, that they avoid tired stereotypes and, instead, come across as a fresh, original character who people can relate to?
The latter seems like a favourable option. Whereas the former notion of trying to prescribe specific kinds of characters sets off alarms bells for a few different reasons:
A comedy writer will often be hesitant to make any character too happy or well adjusted. Generally, comedy comes out of placing characters in difficult or even desperate situations, humiliating them, confirming their worst fears and generally putting them through the mill. This is how the audience gets to know them, and learns where their boundaries lie. Likewise, the idea that this character should be accepted by the people around them flouts key comedy rules – storylines and tension is created through conflict and a perpetual lack of harmony.
The debate over transgender issues tends to provoke comments on taste and offensiveness, functioning as parameters of what is deemed worthy discussion. But, as Picasso once famously said, taste is the enemy of creativity. Taste has no place in comedy; rather, comedy is perhaps best and most fruitfully used when exploring ideas that are subversive or unpopular. Writers should, therefore, not shy away from representations on the grounds that the majority may not be pleased by these. In the world of comedy, each person should be presented through the comedic gaze – subject to scrutiny and laughter.
What can often be pleasurable in comedy or any form of art is its ability to reflect the nature and details of everyday life. We should portray not only the positive aspects of the transgender experience but also the inevitable challenges faced. To ignore this would be frustrating for an audience, and ultimately an unsatisfying representation of the complexities of this subject.
To this end, I hope the winning script is one which tackles transgender issues with courage and conviction. I hope it is one that does not avoid difficult subjects but confronts them head-on to create fresh and original comedy.