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After the reaction to A Very English Scandal, we need to talk about why we find camp men so funny

For those people who live their lives eschewing traditional masculinity and for whom campness isn’t a humourous affectation, the fetishisation by comedy of their behaviours, style or speech ultimately diminishes their experiences as a human being

Alim Kheraj
Monday 04 June 2018 16:58 BST
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A Very English Scandal trailer 2018

With the conclusion of the BBC’s A Very English Scandal – the dramatisation of the Thorpe affair in which former Liberal leader Jeremy Thorpe stood accused of attempted murder by his alleged former lover Norman Scott in the seventies – comes the news that things might not be all dead and buried. The attempted murder case has been reopened after police admitted that they may have incorrectly concluded that Andrew Newton, an airline pilot allegedly hired to carry out the killing, was dead.

The original scandal, as well as the resulting court case that saw Thorpe and three others acquitted against charges of conspiracy to murder, all makes great fodder for a Sunday TV drama. It is a very bizarre and ever so British scandal, where not even the alleged murder could go to plan. Still, when the adaptation’s director, Stephen Frears, stopped by The Today Programme on BBC Radio 4, he seemed somewhat unable to acknowledge the seriousness of the issue, especially pertaining to Scott’s complaints that the adaptation reduces his experiences to comedy.

“He complains about it being comic,” Frears said on the show. “The truth is, Norman is a very, very funny man… Jeremy Thorpe was very funny. There were jokes in the papers every day… You cannot stop it being comic.”

Indeed, Scott himself has said that he can see how the whole set up – the dead dog, the failed murder and the sheer tweeness of the scandal – was darkly humourous. “It is very laughable,” he said during a documentary on BBC Four, “but it’s also very, very serious.”

Scott isn’t wrong. An attempt on someone’s life, regardless of sexual orientation or social standing, is pretty much up there on the serious scale. Watching the courtroom scenes from A Very English Scandal, though, you can see that the consensus at the time was that the homosexual context of the allegations and Scott’s own effeminacy were funny. What’s disconcerting, albeit unsurprising, is that in 2018 Frears still sees the case through a lens of humour. Sure, it works for a TV show and quite well at that, too, but to negate Scott’s own feelings about the portrayal of the scandal is to enforce a disturbing tradition where homosexuality and campness in men is reduced to the butt of the joke.

Admittedly, campness and effeminacy have long been used for gags. But for those people who live their lives eschewing traditional masculinity and for whom campness isn’t a humourous affectation, the fetishisation by comedy of their behaviours, style or speech ultimately diminishes their experiences as a human being. Because of your campness, you are no longer autonomous, but labelled and grouped together as one entity.

Personally, I have had my identity overstepped by straight people in order for them to make comparisons to people like Alan Carr or early Scissor Sisters-era Jake Shears (both of whom I adore but bear very little resemblance to in any way). This is done in order for my queerness to be palatable. In other words, anodyne. You see it more today when a femme gay man gets their experiences narrowed to calls of “Yas queen!” and “Slay!” by RuPaul’s Drag Race fans.

Yet, this problem isn’t just a hetero one. Within the gay community itself, femmephobia and camp-shaming is a tangible problem. The generic mating calls of #masc4masc men on dating apps and in gay clubs diminish the desires and wants of those who don’t conform to traditionally masculine ideals. The media that caters to gay people just enforces this monotony. And in those rare moments when campness is celebrated, it’s still reduced to flamboyance and never given the erotic weight bestowed on upon their straight-acting counterparts.

Clearly, it doesn’t take a degree to see that this all stems from a fear and demonisation of femininity. A man behaving in what’s perceived as a traditionally female way is funny because it’s considered abnormal. And it’s considered abnormal because femininity of any kind is viewed as wrong. That campness and comedy are interlinked shouldn’t be all that surprising – making people laugh is better than aggressive displays of homophobia, even if it does come at the expense of your own identity.

Nevertheless, it feels like we should be past all that. If someone wants to use their campness or effeminacy for comedy, they should absolutely do that. But to assume that just because someone is camp their experiences are immediately comedic is, in 2018, reductive. Surely it’s time to close the chapter on dehumanising camp and femme men. If not, we might just rebel, one limp wrist at time.

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