On people who claim to be offended: Watching Ricky Gervais’ ‘Derek’

I’ve hardly been following much TV these days, and the few things that I do tend to reflect my political and opinionated tendencies. I like comedies and sometimes documentaries. I mostly do podcasts nowadays because I am mostly at my computer during the recent days and podcasts serves nicely as background while I’m actively searching, or reading, or doing some other task. There are some things that I must follow if I find out about it, such as new seasons of already established things that I like (for example, when the next Red Dwarf series comes out, I’ll watch it even though I expect it will be disappointing and crass).

Ricky Gervais’ comedy writing and performing is often about social and cultural issues. There are layers to many of his works, such as the pseudoreality of playing himself in ‘Life’s too short’, or the parody of the docu-soap of ‘The Office’. Gervais’ latest vignette (which may turn into a TV series), Derek, is about a man who works in a care home for the elderly. There is an amusing presence of Gervais’ creative-partner-that-isn’t-stephen-merchant, Karl Pilkington (playing Douglas, who seems to be a caretaker/custodian), who always brings comedic value to his roles, surprisingly both characters are not playing some real-life equivalent of their persona (although Pilkington comes close).

I thought I would write about watching the series because there is one thing that I was quite oblivious about. All I knew was that it was a Gervais creation and that alone is a reason for me to watch it. I then saw some reviews and comments on twitter and my Google Reader feeds saying how it was contraversial and offensive. I did not realise until half-way through the piece that Gervais’ character is apparently exhibiting some form of learning disability. Most of the behaviours exhibited by the character seemed unusual and eccentric, and there was a suggestion that Gervais’ ‘Derek’ character was the butt of most of the characters’ jokes.One gag where Derek’s character goes to get a pudding while an elderly man sitting next to him exploits the oppurtunity of Derek’s absence from his seat to take a remote control and change the channel leads to Derek eventually sitting on a bowl of custard accidently as he changed his focus on getting the remote back after getting his pudding, is to me, the kind of thing that can happen to anyone and works as a simplistic and knee-jerk reaction of hubristic humour, not that much different to many similar physical gags by Sascha Baron-Cohen’s ‘Borat’ gags. In that particular gag, it may be seen that the joke is about the character’s lesser intelligence or its just the funniness of having custard on his bum. I think it’s the latter.

What really gave it away that Derek had a learning disability was a scene when he goes to a pub after work with one of his colleagues (Hannah, played by Kerry Godliman). There are some (as the casting at the end describes) ‘chav girls’ who are making some very cruel comments about Derek; his age; his demeanour; his clothes and the implicit comparison  they are making between him and Hannah, saying thing such as how she “can do better”. While it is depicted that Derek’s colleagues can be irritated by him (particularly Douglas), they stay loyal to him all the same. Hannah motioned Derek to leave the pub from the intolerant women by the bar and then attacked one of them, as a gesture of solidarity with her colleague.

I’m reminded of this because of an anecdote Michael told me:

At the gym where I work out, there is a cleaner who seems to be there all the time (considering that the gym is open about 15 hours a day and I’m never there at a ‘usual’ time). I used to see him chatting away with other patrons, particularly parents of children attending classes, and he was always friendly and kind. Initially he seemed very cold when I passed him or when he told me if a particular cloakroom is closed, but as I’ve been there regularly for over a year now, I’ve found him to warm to me in recent months, presumably now that I’m as familiar to that gym as the barbell is to the weights room. I noticed that some of his colleagues would suspiciously laugh or say things about that cleaner which seemed very rude yet he would be oblivious that it was rude. I then noticed a manager chastise these employees who told them that this cleaner had a learning disability, to which the staff suddenly were silenced.

I’m reminded of something that (I think it was) Foucault said about illness, namely that people are often ill because they are treated poorly. That inversion of illness always seemed wrong to me in some way: surely people are ill because of some biological basis? It is often said that the significant costs to a condition such as HIV/AIDS is not the medical condition itself but the way society has come to treat those individuals. I wouldn’t have learned that Derek had anything so different about him unless I saw the reactions from other people. I did suspect that his character was unusual, but I thought that was part of the character.

In that way Gervais has opened up a thought to me: when considering a person like Derek, how do we define an understanding of him? Through the way he speaks? or his clothes? his hunched walk? Or perhaps by the features that his character exhibited, such as his unequivocal kindness to the care home residents, his friendliness (sometimes overfriendliness) with his colleagues and his excitable temperament towards having a good time while working. The second part of the piece becomes much darker and less comic, with the misanthropic perpetual singleness of Hannah’s character; the prejudiced ‘chav’ patrons of the pub and a scene where one of the care home residents dies.

There isn’t a joke about Derek’s intelligence, nor is there a pandering to tropes or stereotypes about the elderly or learning disabilities. I was half expecting jokes about the elderly, or some kind of prank showing the professional incompetence of the care home staff. How surprised was I then, to see a greater degree of sensitivity about disability than the likes of ‘Lifes’ too short’ (which features a scene where dwarves are literally tossed into some skittles) or ‘Extras’ (which featured a character with cerebral palsy, although the really offensive scene is where Gervais’ character makes a fool out of himself to a Catholic priest, with some inevitable priest molestation innuendos).

I find it disappointing, almost bemusing, to see how there is so much negative response to Gervais’ latest endeavour. I almost think that they haven’t even seen it, and are writing from a platform of being offended as a form of art. I’m also sure that Gervais anticipated this kind of ideosyncratic response, and even provoked it purposely. I think that Gervais provoked the sense of offense about learning disabilities not by any form of stereotypical or negative depiction of the character, but as an artist trying to make a point. Gervais is all about making realities within reality, and the pseudo-reality of fake offendedness (not a word) is the social point about disability that people are oblivious about.

Learning disabilities, as well as other kinds of marginalised groups (such as say, the elderly, transgender or physically deformed) are usually invisible to pop culture and the media at large, except if there is a story which is about them being disabled, old, transgendered or deformed. When is there ever a news story about how a famous spokesperson for a famous brand/band/company makes an announcement, and also happens to be transgendered or has a deformity, and the comment response is not actually about that part of their lives, but what they have to say?

Invisibility is the most easy form of tolerance, because you don’t have to actually be around these people to accept them. The response of being offended by a show such as Derek shows how intolerant these people are. The show is, to Gervais’ own admission in a recent interview, not about Derek’s disability but his character and the way that he is percieved by others and is treated as an outsider. People can be outsiders for all kinds of reasons, and often their very presence of is a form of ‘breaching’. The example of Cerrie Burnell is a case in point. Burnell’s presence on CBeebies is in no way about her dyslexia, or that she was born with one arm, but the complainers made it about her arm (it’s also odd that they didn’t complain about her dyslexia, but if it was a visible disability I’m sure they would, too). The intolerance is about seeing people as they are: as characters with personalities, characters with flaws, virtues, interests, hopes, desires, sexuality or a sense of humour.The show is about an unlikely group of people who are marginalised in various ways: Hannah is a perpetual singleton whose work commitments have become her life; Derek and his friend who doesn’t actually work at the care home are bound together as outcasts who find companionship a mutual benefit (even if it has its difficulties). Gervais himself says that the character does not have a specific condition and perhaps degree is the imposition from the us, the audience.



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