Despite practising a form of entertainment wholly unsuited to the medium of wireless, the ventriloquist Peter Brough attracted 15 million listeners to his BBC radio show, ‘Educating Archie’, during its 1950’s heyday. Every week, audiences tuned in to hear the latest adventures of Archie Andrews – the mannequin of a wisecracking schoolboy, into which, Brough assured us, he was throwing his voice without moving his lips. At the beginning of March, 2016, BBC Radio 4 reached a second aural landmark by placing another essentially visual phenomenon on the radio: it granted two thirty-minute slots in its late-night schedule to the stand-up comedian (and self-proclaimed “metal-head, amateur occultist, musician” and “vegan heterosexual transvestite”), Andrew O’Neill. Keen to bolster its claim to be representative of Britain’s increasingly diverse population, and to be providing a voice for its multiplicity of minority groups, the BBC evidently thought that squirrelling away two episodes of ‘Pharmacist Baffler’ at 11 o’clock on a Tuesday evening was the best way to promote tolerance and understanding, and to elevate the profile of the UK’s transgender population. …But who cares what time ‘Pharmacist Baffler’ was on, or how many minds it cured of prejudice and ignorance! It was a comedy show, and should be judged, therefore, according to how funny it was, right?
Part one of ‘Pharmacist Baffler’ was much better than part two. The first instalment was fresher, more confessional, and crammed more food-for-thought into its thirty minutes than the sequel, but both episodes suffered from having the sort of well-behaved studio audience whose self-satisfied snickering becomes a barrier to enjoyment. O’Neill’s audience reminded me of the kind of prim, easily-pleased, middle-class Edinburgh Fringe goer who is so eager to applaud weak punchlines and tolerate mediocre material, that the performer is exonerated from the responsibility of having to win the crowd over and hold their attention – and of having the quality of their material sifted and judged. Such audiences attend stand-up comedy not to laugh or to be challenged, but to spend an evening agreeing with politically right-on soliloquising, and to cheer vicariously at a bourgeois outrage they can empathise with.
O’Neill is very much preaching to the easily converted, therefore, when he begins episode one by offering a selection of alternative epithets for ‘transvestite’. He is, he suggests, a ‘pharmacist baffler’; a ‘clothes poof’; a ‘correct toilet double-check instigator’; and a ‘patriarchal birth-right rejecter’, who is, by his very existence, “laying bare the arbitrary nature of our socially constructed gender norms”. The language of gender is clearly important to O’Neill, which makes his cruelly dismissive treatment of a member of his audience in episode two seem particularly unwarranted. In order to observe that sexual attraction amongst hetero-males is based on the appearance of femininity – rather than actual biological differences between the sexes – O’Neill invites a spectator to participate in a thought-experiment. He asks his stooge to choose a sexually alluring celebrity female. The man in the third row picks on-screen, teen-bait karaoke singer, Anna Kendrick, and is then required to choose who he would rather sleep with: Anna Kendrick if she had a penis, or lugubrious, hang-dog, alcoholic (and deceased) character actor, Michael Elphick, if he had a vagina. To seal the deal, perplexingly, O’Neill also adds a hypothetical £80 million pay-out by way of an incentive for choosing one or the other. (Anna Kendrick would be so flattered…)
By way of proof that he is not exclusively attracted to beings who possess the necessary equipment for procreation, O’Neill’s willing participant says his choice of partner for the beast-with-two-backs would be “she-male Kendrick”. With the impatient splutter of a petulant teenager who thinks his parents don’t understand his recent conversion to vegetarianism, O’Neill mutters, “What an incredibly offensive term,” before patronising his otherwise guileless and well-meaning respondent by telling him he still has a lot to learn. But can ‘she-male’ really be considered offensive? I’m not sure any label can be deemed offensive unless it has been used as a tool of oppression; as an instrument of ghettoization and control. I don’t remember reading about years of violent historical struggle for she-males’ economic and political equality, or of shameful periods of she-male slavery, or of there ever being she-male only seats at the backs of buses. The worst that can be said about ‘she-male’ is that it’s a bit of an eighties’ moniker – that it’s the sort of word you used to find printed on a masseuse’s calling card in a London telephone box – but an offensive term? No.
O’Neill’s dissection of whether it is the female sex per se who are attractive to heterosexual men, or whether it is the accoutrements of womanhood (long hair, clothes, make-up, and so on) that men find sexually alluring, is a timely one. On April 4th, 2016, twenty-five year-old New Yorker James Dixon confessed to beating twenty-one year-old transgender woman, Islan Nettles, to death when she told him that she had been born male. In August, 2013, Dixon and some of his friends had been chatting-up a group of girls on the pavement of a suburban street. “I asked the one I was talking to if she was a guy,” Dixon admitted, and when Nettles had said yes, Dixon had become possessed by a “blind fury” at having “got fooled by a transgender”. Dixon had punched Nettles so hard, he had knocked her to the floor, and he had then continued punching her until she had lost consciousness.
The ability to distinguish readily between male and female, O’Neill observes, is a biological necessity; the need to be able to find a mate is hard-wired into human biology to ensure the continuation of the species. To aid this instinctual, atavistic drive, society has made it even easier to differentiate male from female by dictating that the sexes should dress and present themselves in contrasting ways. Encountering transgender people, therefore, often proves disorientating, and leaves us uncertain of with whom we should be attempting to propagate the human race. O’Neill argues that, as a result, transvestites are the targets of a great deal of misdirected homophobia: crossdressing confronts heterosexual men with what they really find desirable about women, and that makes those men angry because they are ill-equipped to process the nuances of attraction transvestism embodies. Transvestites show that femininity isn’t biological – it’s cultural. Crossdressing, from this perspective, is thus a political act (intentionally or otherwise): by carving out a comfortable social space for yourself, you force the world around you to confront its assumptions about sexuality and beauty. Islan Nettles isn’t the only transgender woman ever to have paid a high price for that.
When O’Neill was describing his childhood bewilderment at wanting to look like a girl, I identified with much of what he said, and I was happy that he allowed the strength of his confession to stand on its own, without trying to shoehorn jokes into the narrative. At five, he said, he thought there had been some sort of postnatal error; that maybe he’d been born a girl and then somehow surgically altered to have the reproductive equipment of a boy. With the wisdom of introspection and adulthood, he now realised that this had been his five-year old brain telling him that he would be much happier wearing the clothes of the opposite sex, but it wasn’t until he was in his late teens that he felt able to confide his “urge” (not, as he asserts, “hobby, lifestyle choice or subculture”) to his closest friends. This moment – and the glorious non-reaction of his father when he first glimpsed Andrew en femme – are cited by O’Neill as the keystones of his self-acceptance, but it was with insightful poignancy that he then summarised the transgender paradox…
For a transvestite, being confronted with the disparity between how you want to look and how you actually look can be heart-breaking. When you present yourself in public in female role, the reaction you are hoping for is, “She looks hot.” The reaction you get, on the other hand, is, more often than not, “That bloke’s wearing a dress.” O’Neill admits to occasionally wishing he had a more feminine face, but maintains that he is at peace with his self-proclaimed inability to pass as female, and so has stopped attempting to. Hence, he has some pertinent advice for transvestites who seek to be happy in their own skins: accept the limitations of your own personal form, and dress accordingly.
The number of transvestites who look terrible (and, it must be admitted, give the crossdressing community a bad name) is legion. Most of these, O’Neill argues, are fetish transvestites: men who wear what turns them on, instead of what suits them, based on a perception of femininity that crystallised along with their sexual preferences around the age of five. Equally likely to provoke raised eyebrows (rather than admiration for their refusal to conform to established gender norms) are what O’Neill refers to as “fancy-dress party only transvestites”. These are the men who – despite their protestations that they are doing so simply for harmless, hilarious fun – always arrive at costume parties dressed as schoolgirls or French maids, because this is the only outlet for their sartorial predilections that they have so far felt brave enough to exploit.
With exacting precision, O’Neill observes that, when a man cross-dresses, he attracts ridicule. This is because of the superordinate status to women he has been granted by historic and hegemonic processes in society: when a man wears woman’s clothes, he humiliates himself because he is perceived as having subjugated himself; of having deliberately debased himself by abandoning the trappings of the masculinity that underpins the superiority he has heretofore enjoyed. The corollary is not true, however. Women who power-dress (for example) do not invite derision because they are perceived as having put on a uniform more befitting the dominant, masculine role – not of having deliberately stepped out of one.
As if in acknowledgement of the paradox inherent in parading transvestism on the radio, O’Neill begins both episodes of ‘Pharmacist Baffler’ by asking members of his audience to describe what he is wearing. Volunteers genially oblige, as O’Neill explains that he knows he is lucky – being a performer – to inhabit a social world in which he has greater freedom than most to dress as he pleases. From his privileged position, he maintains, he has a responsibility to represent transvestites as well-adjusted and non-deviant; as people who are happiest when they wear women’s clothes (and who are not ‘depressed’ or ‘confused’, as it is convenient to assume crossdressers’ proclivities make them). O’Neill thus has a duty, he asserts, to humanise transvestism.
As part of this process of humanisation, O’Neill uses a conspicuous portion of his sixty minutes of airtime to emphasise his own heterosexuality. He reminds listeners with unwarranted frequency about how much he “fancies women”; of how his attraction to women was so profound that it led to a desire to emulate them; and of how “the sexuality of transvestism” is the product of “an overdriven heterosexuality”. Ladies should consider a night with him, he suggests, “if you’re bored of knowing where your clothes are.” He tells his audience how much he likes “heavy metal and drinking booze”; tells two anecdotes about how being out in public with his wife precludes from him looking gay; and declares that his joy at possessing a functioning penis has made him totally uninterested in seeking sex-change surgery.
O’Neill then rejects the stripe of trans-exclusionary radical feminism that is epitomised by Germaine Greer’s most recent media outbursts – and by the apoplectic proselytising of Maryland lawyer, Cathy Brennan – by dismissing feminists who brand transvestites fetishists and attention-seekers, as “shit feminists”. The audience cheers, and, tragically, an opportunity to explore a genuinely complex and interesting issue through the medium of comedy is lost, in favour of a bargain-basement laugh from an easily-satisfied audience.
Unfortunately, O’Neill’s pathological need to remind his audience of his own heterosexuality serves not to reinforce his claim to be challenging socially-determined gender norms, but to undermine it. His defiance of what has – and what has not – been determined as ‘male’ and ‘female’ via historical, institutional and hegemonic processes is purely sartorial. For O’Neill, gender nonconformity is a question of the right to wear skirts and make-up, not of the freedom to be truly different. By continually referring to his attraction to women, his bloke-ish inclination towards beer and breasts, and his personal attachment to his genitals, O’Neill is emphasising his fundamental similarity to his audience (and, therefore, to a humdrum stratum of society generally), not to his essential difference from them. He may choose to dress like a girl, he reminds us, but, other than that, he is the same as everyone else. That BBC radio chose O’Neill as the voice of English transvestism isn’t merely tokenistic: in its lazy, half-baked, cowardly way, it underlines the belief that crossdressing is an eccentricity, and does nothing to promote the political agenda of subversion – and of embracing an ‘alternative’ worldview – that gender nonconformity can genuinely claim to entail.
O’Neill’s sixty minutes of mainstream broadcasting is the same sort of tragic missed opportunity that occurs in the denouement to David Walliams’ 2008 children’s novel, ‘The Boy in the Dress’. Walliams’ book follows the transvestial voyage of discovery of its twelve-year old central character, Dennis Sims, and, in its opening chapters, tricked me into thinking that here, at last, was a novel with the potential to break new ground in the education of young, impressionable readers on the feelings and frustrations associated with crossdressing. However: when Dennis finally plucks up the courage to attend school dressed as ‘Denise’, he blithely overcomes public scorn and derision by proving himself a whizz on the football pitch. Dennis may like to dress like a girl, in other words, but that does not prevent him from excelling in a socially-sanctioned, stereotypically male endeavour like team sport. Through aptitude in an activity already loaded with public approval, Dennis is able to win back the approbation of his peers despite his partiality for girls’ clothes. And the moral of the story is: People will accept you whatever you wear, provided you are good at football; people will overlook any sartorial handicap, provided you are still, essentially, a boy. (And that’s without me wading into the dubiously amoral swamp of Dennis blackmailing his headmaster over the latter’s own crossdressing habits, or of me unpacking the creepily quasi-erotic relationship between Dennis and the girl who helps him discover his inner-female – the school’s resident teen-siren, Lisa James.)
O’Neill cites Eddie Izzard as a formative influence. It was the experience of seeing Izzard perform stand-up, he maintains, that inspired O’Neill to become a comedian. The problem with Eddie Izzard, though, is that he stopped being funny after his ‘Glorious’ tour in 1997, and now spends most of his time running marathons and performing his Eddie Izzard tribute act in the United States. Izzard has also reduced his cross-dressing to having perfectly coiffed hair and wearing nail-varnish with well-tailored suits. If I was being generous, I would admit that Izzard’s stylistic conservatism is an inevitable consequence of his growing old and finding what looks best on him, but nail-varnish with a Saville Row suit might actually be what Izzard means when he describes himself as an ‘executive transvestite’.
The trouble with having a role-model, however, is that Andrew O’Neill isn’t eight years old. If you aspire to buck trends and blaze-a-trail, you exclude yourself, by definition, from having idols. If you have a celebrity role-model, you anchor yourself to a set of values that have been pre-determined for you by the status quo, and, consequently, to an established mode of thinking and behaving. You can’t claim to be doing something new if you declare that your heroes have done it before, and you aren’t courageous or radical if you beg an audience to overlook your unorthodox fashion choices by pleading with them to find you funny. O’Neill didn’t even have the challenge of winning his studio audience over, and his insistence that – apart from his skirt, lipstick and leggings – he likes booze, birds and boobs just as much as the next man, was not a step towards a greater understanding and acceptance of gender nonconforming people, but a reminder of the institutionalised conditions that continue to be placed on that acceptance.
Andrew O’Neill’s website can be visited here… http://www.andrewoneill.co.uk/index.htm