Table of content
2. Ethnicity and race – the creation and function of otherness
2.1 “The duplicity of the Asiatic” as humoristic substance
2.2 “The bestial sexual license of the African” as humoristic substance
3. Gender minorities – performance and performativity
3.1 One is not born, but rather becomes, an unconvincing transvestite
3.2 The only homophobe gay in the village
4. Minorities as butts of jokes
4.1 Prejudices towards minorities in the United States of America
4.1.1 Hispanic Americans
4.1.2 African Americans
4.1.3 Arab and Muslim Americans
4.2 How one becomes the butt of jokes
4.3 The subversive power of jokes about minorities
Without any doubtLittle Britainis one of the most observed British comedy productions of this decade.1 For three seasons the audience has been entertained by witty remarks about minorities in British society: immigrants, gays, lesbians, transvestites, people with special needs, or people of different race and ethnicity – all of them became the butt of jokes. On the contrary ‘classic’ jokes about for instance politics and politicians, celebrities or the Royal Family appeared as support to the main-characters rather than being core topics of the sketches presented in each episode.
Along with such a success criticism and questions arise concerning the alleged concept that the writers Matt Lucas and David Walliams follow: entertainment on behalf of minorities. Johann Hari (2005), commentator ofThe Independent, criticizes that “the show is cluttered with ugly prejudices”. Fergus Sheppard (2005) ofThe Scotsmanexclaims that Little Britainis “not busting down prejudice, […] it’s probably just reinforcing it.” DoesLittle Britaintruly entertain on behalf of minorities? Do the jokes imply hidden racism, contempt and hate towards minorities, which consolidate biases towards the minor parts of society? Because of its success in and outside of the United Kingdom, the BBC and the producers have decided to launch this comedy program in the United States, too. Although it would be interesting to ask whetherLittle Britainwill be able to maintain its concept in front of the American viewers, this work will not intend to make any predictions. Instead it will project the concepts of the sketches, and take a look at minorities that could become the butts of jokes and name prejudices towards minorities in the United States that need to be dismantled.
Following Homi K. Bhabha (1990) section two will shortly introduce his theoretical ground to define ethnic and racial minorities. It will be questioned whether consolidated views on Asians and Africans become the humoristic substance for two main characters, the Asian lady-boy Ting Tong Macadangdang and Marjorie Dawes, the nasty leader of a weight loss support group.
Section three will approach gender minorities. Judith Butler’s (1990, 1993) theoretical work on sex and gender and her performance and performativity theory will function to analyze the transvestites Emily and Florence, and Daffyd Thomas, a young gay man from a small Welsh village.
Section four will introduce ethnic groups and races in the United States, that might be depicted in sketches in an adaptation of the British comedy series. What views and attitudes towards Hispanic Americans, African Americans, and Muslim and Arabic Americans do exist? Which prejudices do they have to face in society, media, and politics? Could such a comedy production asLittle Britaincontribute to reveal prejudice and false pictures?
Section five will end with a preliminary conclusion on this paper.
2. Ethnicity and race – the creation and function of otherness
This chapter will first explore Homi K. Bhabha’s theoretical approach towards ethnic minorities – what could be called an approach towardsotherness– before applying it to certain characters and sketches inLittle Britain. Bhabha’s postcolonial theory aims to describe howothernessemerges out of the discourse of colonialism (1990: 66). What is the colonial discourse? And how does it produceotherness? Bhabha specifies the colonial discourse as “an apparatus of power”, which creates a space for a ‘subject peoples’ through the production of knowledges in terms of which surveillance is exercised and a complex form of pleasure/ unpleasure is incited. It seeks authorization for its strategies by the production of knowledges of colonizer and colonized which are stereotypical but antithetically evaluated. (66)
It is shown, thatthe otheris not necessarily a mathematical minority, but a physically conquered and by ideology oppressed group of people. They comply with a subordinate role because of stereotypically marked knowledge, which is created and spread by the dominant group. At the same time the subordinate is being distinguished from the superordinate power in its ‘value’. Hence, this machinery allows the colonizer not only to exercise control but also to justify the conquest of a degenerated population (70). The main strategy of the apparatus of power is the construction of stereotypes by continuous repetition of stereotypically defined features that can be referred to without accentuating the need for proving one’s theory at any time and – or – any place in historical discourse. Bhabha defines this strategy as “the force ofambivalencethat gives the colonial stereotype its currency” (66).
The notion of colonial movement describes a one-way direction, namely ‘the nation’ colonizing the – yet to become – colony. But one has to keep in mind a second, and today far more important movement: the migration of former colonies towards ‘the nation’. Ever since migration exists – and not only colonial migration, but migration within Europe itself for instance, too – ‘othering’ cannot be regarded as an exclusive strategy of colonization but also becomes a strategy of nation and nationalism. Bhabha – who as millions of migrants has “lived the moment of the scattering of the people” (139) – critically asks whether theemergenceof a national perspective – of an Èlite or subaltern nature – within a culture of social contestation, can ever articulate its ‘representative’ authority…? (144)
Such a representative articulation is possible according to Bhabha – but only, if certain conditions are fulfilled in order to get rid of a “hierarchical polarity” (140). He states:
The scraps, patches and rags of daily life must be repeatedly turned into the signs of a coherent national culture, while the very act of the narrative performance interpellates a growing circle of national subjects. (145)
Those pieces ofdaily lifedetermine therefore not a nation but a national culture andagencywould underlie those subjects who add or supply these “scraps, patches and rags” to the culture, not in the sense of a finite completion but as an inscriptive contribution (152ff.). Bhabha explicitly refers to the cultural fear of connecting the global with the local and the spacein-betweenthat emerges from “cultural globality”, yet also – and presumably this is the important aim of his theory – this ‘glocalized’ space offers migrants and minorities future agency (216) through the “untranslatabilityof culture” (224, my emphasis). In opposite to this assimilation would be the “assimilationist’s dream, or the racist’s nightmare” (224). Therefore, the aim of atranslationwould not be to turn Hindi, Greek, Chinese, Indian and Black into English or American, but to turn English or American into Hindi, Greek, Indian, Black or Chinese as it will be shown in the upcoming examples.
What the following examples aim to present is thesubversive power of othering and othernessin comedy. Bhabha reveals how stereotypes are created by a constant repetition of ambivalent ‘facts’, which are ‘not provable’. His examples of the “duplicity of the Asiatic” and “the bestial sexual licence of the African” (1990: 66) seem to be the substance of many sketches inLittle Britain, and one would expect a further consolidation of the stereotypical perception of “theAsiatic” and “theAfrican”. However, precisely this negative consolidation is not the case.
2.1 “The duplicity of the Asiatic” as humoristic substance
The first sketch to be analyzed is the partnership of Ting Tong Macadangdang and her husband Dudley Punt (2005: series 3, episodes 1-6). Dudley orders Ting Tong from a Thai bride magazine and is highly disappointed by what he gets. His bride is absolutely the opposite of the pretty and slim girl Dudley was expecting. She is over-weighed, loud, pretends often not to understand him, and confesses in each episode a secret of her dubious past. Dudley finds out by-and-by that she is a lady-boy and that her real name is not Ting Tong, but Tong Ting, which is a boy’s name. During a quiz she proves to be smarter than her husband and hence admits that she grew up in Tooting in London and not in a remote village in Thailand as she had originally claimed. Ting Tong eventually invites and introduces her entire family to the U.K., first her mother, then the rest of the relatives, who invade Dudley’s apartment and turn it into a Thai restaurant.
Ting Tong reveals throughout the episodes exactly those characteristics that Bhabha names the duplicity of the Asian: she tricks her husband into a marriage, she baffles Dudley with her gender, she brings her family to the U.K. without Dudley’s knowledge and permission, and finally, she usurps his propriety and transforms it into a family business, from which Dudley is excluded. At the same time she unfolds within what Bhabha called the spacein- between. She considers herself to be from Tooting, her family from Thailand; she adapts English life (proving to know more about English society and politics than Dudley), yet does not assimilate or reject her roots. More than that, she understands Dudley’s selfish and ignorant character perfectly and knows how to ‘deal’ with him. It is not Ting Tong’s stereotypical character that adds to the comedy of the two characters. One has to watch closer and differentiate between the pictures that are depicted in order to understand why Dudley becomes the center of the jokes. They are built around his double-faced character and not necessarily Ting Tong’s.
Dudley is presented as a scruffy and lonely man in his late forties. He is neither very attractive nor very successful, but rather selfish and greedy, which explains why he orders a wife from a catalog. When Ting Tong arrives he complains that he has not received much value for money (Ting Tong costed him eighty pounds) and their honeymoon seems to be more of a savings trip (it leads them to his brother, who lives in a caravan with a wife ordered from Russia). To Dudley Ting Tong has the status of a personal slave, who has to do the chores and fulfill his sexual desires. As soon as she gainsagencyhe is threatening her to abandon her and send her back to Thailand, but concedes every time because of Ting Tongs sexual offers. In the end, when he is asked to leave his own apartment (and come back as a guest of the restaurant) it is very hard to feel sorry for his loss.
This post-colonial setting shows that it is not clearly possible to set up an equation in which Dudley would represent the colonizer and Ting Tong the colonized. Nor is Ting Tong the migrant who invades “the nation”, hoists her flag and kicks Dudley out of his home, as one might falsely assume. Both characters bear stereotypical characteristics that one has to explore carefully in order to find out, that what so far has been claimed to bethe otherreveals as much aboutthe one. Stereotype A (Ting Tong) not only reveals a stereotype B (Dudley), but shows the stupidity in B’s stereotypical perception of A as well. Hence, it is not Ting Tong who becomes the butt of the sketches, but Dudley. On the relationship between the joker and the mocked Christie Davis, who analyzed ethnic humor, writes:
Ethnic jokes “export” a particular unwanted trait to some other group and we laugh at their folly, perhaps glad or relieved that it is not our own. This possibility is also open to individual members of the ethnic groups being ridiculed, for all such groups are internally stratified and differentiated such that a listener from the ethnic group named or implied in the joke can always interpret the joke as referring to a subgroup other than the one to which he or she belongs. (Davies 1990: 7)
The sketches about Dudley and Ting Tong do imply ethnic jokes, however reflect our folly of how we perceive and deal withthe other. Thus, what one easily mistakes as an ethnic joke receives a subversive power that a listener from the ethnic group and the majority can identify a criticism of social behavior towards minorities. Hence, suddenly out of facts that are un-provable (as Bhabha has described for the duplicity of the Asian) emerges a mirror reflecting society and forming the agency of a minority.
1 For detailed information cp. Snell 2006: 59.