Private Eye Magazine’s LGBT Problem

I wanted to start this blog post with a paragraph chock full of Private Eye magazine’s admirable qualities. At first try I wrote things such as ‘satirical vehicle’, ‘British institution’, ‘biting investigative journalism’ etc: and at least one favourable comparison to Hogarth. On redrafting I realised this would quickly make me a contender for the Eye’s Order of the Brown Nose. The only praise necessary of Private Eye is that it is funny.

I’ve been an avid reader of the Eye for 2 years. So, I write as an alienated fan rather than an enraged outsider for all the difference that makes, which perhaps can never be much when bringing humourless charges against satire. But, any thinking person should acknowledge that comedy often has a target, consciously or not it’s laughing at something. And, when you fall into the sightlines you should get your chance to say your piece. Taking a joke requires some recognition of truth in it, but taking criticism of a joke can be just as hard as we may have to accept that not everything is funny because it’s true. Worse yet, we may have to think about why we are laughing.

The following article appeared in issue 1441 of the Eye, on page 30, the latter end of the Eye’s satirical half where the wit inevitably slackens:

Doctor Who ‘gay character’ applauded

by Our Doctor Who Correspondent

Reg Eneration

DOCTOR Who fans have welcomed the news that when the programme returns later this month, the Time Lord will have his first openly gay assistant.

                “It’s so important a show like Doctor Who, about a Time lord many thousands of years old, who has lived in twelve bodies whilst travelling through space and time in a police box to battle with space monsters, is properly grounded in the way people live today,” said all fans.

                “Gritty social realism is so important to a show like this,” agreed Doctor Who, while using his sonic screwdriver to reverse the polarity of time to create an alternative wormhole timeline in which the Dalek invasion of earth 2049 never took place.

‘Gritty social realism’. I might not have taken such issue with this article if not for that wording. Even as caricatured exaggeration that seems like a huge leap. To me that sounds more like an ongoing storyline where the Doctor starts battering one of his companions. Or maybe the time heroin addicts try to break into the TARDIS. It’s a phrase more properly deployed for The Wire than Doctor Who. Maybe if you’re particularly straight and squeamish you could call gay sex by this name, but does this extend to gay romance? Or the mere inclusion of LGBT people?

But let’s get away from potentially sloppy wording. What humour there is in this article comes from the contrast of down to earth social issues with the high concept sci-fi of Doctor Who. The subtext of course is that these things don’t go together, perhaps shouldn’t be together at all. While I’m not exactly what you’d call a fan of Doctor Who, it only takes me a moment’s thought to remember that the Dalek’s are based on the Nazis. How much more socially contentious can you get than that really? The best sci-fi has a proud history of social commentary. In books, there’s The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds. 1984, Brave New World and Fahrenheit 451. Films of this sort are even more numerous. There’s Metropolis, Brazil, The Day The Earth Stood Still, They Live, Demolition Man, District 9, Get Out etc. The dribbling of sci-fi we get on TV hardly rises to this standard, but need I trot out the familiar argument that Star Trek featured TV’s first interracial kiss?

The article does state that this move has been ‘welcomed’ and ‘applauded’ by ‘all fans’, which is perhaps a parody of blogosphere clickbait exaggeration. But, if all the fans like it what exactly is the problem? Fans don’t necessarily tend to like things which are objectively good, but people aren’t obligated to be fans of good entertainment. The subtext is hard to read here, it seems a tad arrogant if it’s a complaint that a show I’m not a fan of is doing a thing I don’t like. Is it that the show might alienate potential fans, or that it is alienating its silent ‘real’ fans? The humour seems to rest to some extent on the idea that this is something imposed onto an audience otherwise consuming mindless sci-fi. But from the purely anecdotal experience I have with Doctor Who fans, there are a lot of LGBT people among them. Is their joy at being seen somehow not real? Frankly, it’s surprising this new character has raised so many eyebrows, in recent years many Doctor Who characters have had some glancing gay flirtations.

The most important, the simplest, and in some ways the least obvious point though is that straight sexuality is never critiqued in the same way as that of LGBT individuals. A gay character in Doctor Who is a PC distraction, yet while the romance between Amy Pond and Rory was an ongoing storyline it was never called out in the same way. I’m sure many people do find all romantic plots distracting but straight ones don’t end up mocked in satirical magazines for simply existing. Even when Matt Smith was claiming his Doctor was asexual and more interested in chess than sex he was still being shoehorned into straight romances with little criticism that this distracted from the sci-fi. Private Eye is a magazine that tries to point out hypocrisies in the status quo, but its standing too close to this particular one to see it.

As if to pre-empt my letter of complaint, a cartoon below this piece had a companion asking the Doctor “do you think we’ll know if we get too politically correct?” The TARDIS in the background has ‘Thought Police Box’ scrawled on it. Admittedly cartoonists submit their work independent of the editorial line. But having submitted my own cartoons in the past I know that they choose the ones they feature on the criteria of does it make us laugh. Even created independently, it seems highly unlikely the cartoon is utterly disconnected from the content above.

The line that things are getting too Politically Correct is by now one commonly parroted in the Eye. That’s not to deny there’s some PC rubbish out there, but this example they’ve picked verges towards gay agenda hysteria. This isn’t the first time they’ve let the PC buzzword get in the way of genuine thought. The Books and Bookmen section at the back is often where its smuggled in. Near the end of last year, the section suggested that Malika Booker had awarded the Forward Prize for poetry to women of Caribbean heritage, simply because she had that in common with them. The issue after published no less than 4 letters of complaint, pointing out that the same is never assumed of white men. One reader even wrote in a poem pointing out the prize was picked by a panel of 5 with 2 men on, which is a big oversight to make for a magazine that is half devoted to investigative journalism.

This isn’t the first time I’ve noticed something, well, queer about Private Eye’s treatment of the LGBT community, though it’s the first time I was bothered enough to write in. When Paul Burrell, a man who’s spent his adult life coasting on his connection to princess Diana, got married they skewered his attention seeking and theft of Diana’s possessions by suggesting he might wear her wedding dress. And loathsome though he is, I can’t imagine the same joke being directed at a straight man. Then there was the Peter Pansexual cartoon, where the fey changeling propositions Wendy ‘Bring your brothers and the dog to Neverland and I’ll bang the lot of you’. This one earned them a rather humourless letter about ‘reinforcing harmful stereotypes’, although a loss of humour may be excused when the joke is you’re into paedophilia and bestiality.

The Eye’s relationship with gender non-conforming people has also been consistently poor, perhaps because they’re the minority most easily dismissed with the magic words Politically Correct. The Eye gives annual ‘Rotten Boroughs’ awards to stupid and hateful quotes from British councillors. In 2016, alongside such offerings as a councillor calling the public a ‘Bloody rabble’ with microphone left on, another who callously offered to donate the steam off his piss to the Jo Cox memorial fund, and excuses for not paying council tax as lame as ‘I wanted to see how the system worked’ and ‘Because of Brexit’, a parking survey that dared to ask ‘Are you male / female / gender fluid / non-binary / intersex?’ was somehow deemed quotably worthy. They mocked a similar Guardian questionnaire for having a third, blank gender box, and an anonymous respondent for writing trigender in it. Note, trigender was not an option it was written in by a respondent as an answer so the result was they mocked the individual and not the questionnaire. The article was ambiguous as to whether this was a journalist having fun or someone with actually gender identity issues they were mocking.

Homophobia is not a new accusation to the Eye, it dogged its every step in the 60s and 70s when it dismissed gay rights as ‘Poove Power’. This is all long before I was born into an era where LGBT people have it comparatively easy, and much of this was presumably the editorial line of Richard Ingrams. He did go on to write a great deal of homophobic drivel in my lifetime. He has variously suggested that gay marriage requires inverted commas because marriage ‘by its definition, involves a man and a woman’, that the gay community is not a real community in the same way, that there’s nothing particularly wrong with a bishop suggesting homosexuals may want to get medical help to ‘reorientate’ themselves, and that he can’t be a homophobe because homophobia is a ‘made-up word’ (as though any words aren’t made-up) to pathologize the far nobler sounding ‘anti-gay feeling’.

‘Anti-gay feeling’ may be a dodge on Ingrams behalf, but it has a neutrality that more tailors it to describing the Eye at present. You see, I don’t think the smart and witty people at Private Eye, snickering public schoolboys though a minority undoubtedly still are, wake up in the morning and say think ‘Let’s make fun of the gays.’ No person capable of nuanced thought genuinely believes in a deliberate malice behind what they do. Indeed, current editor Ian Hislop believes you should try to mock the powerful not the weak, so how does this come about. The Eye is very old fashioned in its way, it looks back to Punch and Hogarth and deliberately publishes very little material online. So perhaps it’s an instinctive reaction to something that has still only been accepted relatively recently. I guess it’s just not something they think about a great deal about too.

When an offended party decides that the category of jokes that they find offensive is de facto not funny, they have missed the point entirely. With a second’s thought it is obviously possible for something to be both funny and offensive, and often the two qualities depend on each other. To object to something you find offensive on the grounds that it is not funny is to slip accidentally into a dishonest stance, and bring down on yourself the ire of the subjectivity crowd. The ‘offended’ stance of course then brings the ‘Can’t you take a joke?’ crowd, who by responding prove in their own logic that they ‘Can’t take criticism of a joke’.

While I have the right to criticize the Eye I’ll still unfortunately have to word things carefully at the end, because in the current political climate any hint of an attempt to censor (a word people throw about as though editing and writing involve no inherent forms of censorship) immediately places me as a member of the ‘authoritarian left’. An argument like I have set out always has an implicit call to action, by pointing out what is bad you insinuate that something should be done for the good, and too many people will happily imagine that involves the smashing of printing presses or something alike. Still, I should not pretend that ‘do something’ feeling doesn’t exist. If I absolutely must suggest something must be done, it is simply that the writers of the Eye should be critical of themselves on this subject. I will recommend only 2 questions they could ask themselves before putting out articles such as this. Of course, they can draw whatever answers they like from them.

  1. Would you make the same joke about straight people?
  2. Just who exactly does this joke laugh at laughing at?

My subscriptions remains intact.


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