Comedy is great, right? Student comedy… maybe not so much. I don’t want to put down the hard work of amateur writers and actors in Cambridge, and I certainly go into a student comedy production with a much more forgiving attitude than for a professional one. However, inexperience doesn’t excuse offensive and potentially triggering writing. That’s unfortunately something I’ve experienced more than once in Cambridge.
Last year I saw the Footlights panto and for the most part it was slickly written – well performed. But there was one joke that was entirely unnecessary. In one scene suitors present themselves for the king-to-be, but the last princess is actually a man in drag. Apparently the male-identified features and voice are hilarious enough to warrant this being a joke in itself. But why should this be? If we’re saying that a man who is identifiably in drag is inherently funny, we’re saying that trans women are risible as well. Trans women routinely receive abuse for not looking ‘feminine enough’, so I don’t think it’s hard to see how this joke is not only offensive but also dangerous.
Last year I also went to see Mission Improv-able by the Cambridge Impronauts. For the most part it was a good show. Once again though I was disappointed, this time by an intersexphobic joke. When, in one of the several moments of audience participation, the actors asked people which one of the character’s intimate secret should be revealed to be, someone said, “she was born a man!” This elicited laughs from the audience and was treated as a serious option by the actors, but was thankfully not chosen. While this wasn’t written directly for the show, the fact that there is such a pervasive atmosphere of transmisogyny in Cambridge that it went completely unchecked is disheartening, and stopped me from enjoying the show as much.
The last straw came with Failure: A Sketch Show with a Chip on its Shoulder. I went into the show thinking to myself, ‘I hope there won’t be any problematic jokes this time!’ In one of the sketches two parents come to a geneticist because they can’t conceive, and after the geneticist tells them he can make a baby for them but only with very odd specifications they go off the idea. He tells them to try and conceive again and they then reveal the fact that they don’t have any genitals. Another scene had Sherlock Holmes and Watson examining a deceased woman, and Sherlock getting steadily aroused as they do, evoking Steubenville and other cases of sexual assault where the victim was unconscious.
The point I’m trying to make is, while some people might think these jokes are harmless, they’re not. Transgender people grow up experiencing great transphobia, many based on the idea that, “a man in a dress is funny.” Later they go on to suffer psychologically. They’ve have been told they’re a joke, and often physically, as people abuse them based on the same idea. Intersex people face a huge stigma for having non-normative genitals, often resulting in involuntary surgery and psychological trauma. Any woman with a history of sexual abuse knows it’s no joke, and given that 1 in 5 women in the UK has experienced sexual violence since the age of 16, it’s likely that at least one person in the room would have had an unpleasant reminder from that scene.
These scenes are all potential triggers for the people I’ve mentioned above, and the fact that they’re so widespread in theatre in Cambridge is appalling. Nobody should have to leave the theatre having been reminded of traumatic experiences. Equally, nobody should have to worry every time they go to see a play that there will be blatantly transphobic ‘jokes’ in them.
If you’re part of the Cambridge theatre scene, I urge you to at least put trigger warnings in the marketing for productions. From now on I’m not going to go to see anything without making sure beforehand that there isn’t any offensive humour like the above, because I’m tired of leaving the ADC and Corpus Playhouse feeling like I’ve helped perpetuate a transphobic, misogynistic atmosphere in the University.
Rowland Goodbody studies Linguistics at the University of Cambridge. They are the Cambridge University Student Union’s LGBT+ Reps Officer and is King’s College LGBT+ representative