Sunday, 17 March 2013

You Mu Mu Make Me Angry

  As someone who works with people with autistic spectrum conditions and other learning disabilities, I was very much on the side of those numerous voices from within the disabled community who found Ricky Gervais's Derek a repugnant, insulting caricature. The wonder is that Channel 4 (part of whose remit used to be to address "minority interests") ever commissioned a full series after the pilot episodes were met with such anger and puzzlement- worse still, a second series has now apparently been approved.
   That the opinions and feelings of individuals with cognitive disabilities are still accorded so little respect in our society should be seen as profoundly dismaying, but in fact - in spite of the undoubtedly positive impact of the Paralympics on the media-perception of those with physical disabilities - it feels like we're tottering backwards in this regard. Could it really have been nothing more than an ironic coincidence that Atos, the IT company paid by the government to carry out the “fitness to work” tests on people with disabilities, were also one of the main sponsors of the Paralympics?

  At a time when disability benefits are being rigorously scrutinised and the very parameters of what constitutes a learning disability or difficulty are being redefined in order to shunt vulnerable young adults off “welfare” and into non-existent jobs or bogus training-schemes, is it helpful for Gervais’s Derek, in a notably excruciating scene early on in the series, to decline an assessment for autism on the grounds that he doesn’t want to be labelled, that “bein’ ‘tistic” or not won’t change him in any way?
    If we read into this Gervais’s hamfisted retort to detractors who suggest Derek is a parody of an autist, we also see how little he has reflected on the consequences of such a statement or sought the informed input of people on the autistic spectrum. For many, a diagnosis of autism can be a source of immense relief, self-justification and empowerment in the context of a life-long struggle to understand their own sense of difference or alienation within society; for others, particularly the parents of young children, the diagnosis can initially be an upsetting or alarming one, but with it comes access to a raft of services and support-structures which will hopefully end up providing the appropriate long-term support the parents require to meet the specific needs of their child.

    But Gervais has no interest in presenting people on the autistic spectrum as empowered, appropriately-supported, functioning members of society, in the same way that for their own agenda the Coalition has no interest in doing so. Derek merely perpetuates the stereotype of the marginalised, dysfunctional, hard-done-by “funny little man” which the tradition of the medical model of disability enshrines. Although last year’s Winterbourne scandal should almost certainly be the nail in the coffin of people with disabilities being relegated to indefinite health-care provision, it beggars belief that it was only the uncovering of systematic abuse on the level secretly filmed by the BBC which finally brought an end to this anachronistic paradigm whereby people with disabilities are taken pity on, removed from their communities and saddled with life-long medical care and control. Until the social model of disability is more widely understood and embraced, whereby the mismatch or deficit between provision and need is located within social structures themselves, will we move beyond the sad, belittling world of Gervais’s Derek.
    In the end, however, beyond any ideological objections, the series appalled me with just how banal and fathomlessly sentimental it all was. After the final, cataclysmically awful episode, in which Derek was reunited with his long-lost dad (to a soundtrack of Coldplay’s tear-jerking singalong Fix You) and the other world-weary characters gave preposterously earnest testimonies to Derek’s essential “kindness”, objections to faux-autism were supplanted by horror at X-Factor-like levels of cynical audience-manipulation and – one can only suppose - desperate attempts to win over “even the harshest of critics” ie. almost every person with a disability plus anyone with an iota of intelligence in the whole country. Presenting Derek as an exemplar of kindness which redeems all his other failings (Gervais’s justification for the character in interviews) is just another level of enlisting the viewers’ sympathy and pity, another misguided aspect of a demeaning, marginalising perspective on disability.

   One wonders why Gervais didn’t take the advice of his showbiz buddy Ben Stiller in the words he gives to Robert Downey Jr’s actor-character in Tropic Thunder(2008): invoking examples like Forrest Gump and Rain Man, his avowed rule is “Never go full retard”. Futhermore, Stiller’s character in the film has already broken the rule and portrayed a hilariously twee village-idiot called Simple Jack, a ridiculous spoof of a well-known yet rapidly-fading actor trying to “extend his range” by playing a sweet, sentimental character with disabilities who wins everyone over with his gauche naivete.

   Stiller was parodying this in 2008, as though it were already a trite cliche: Gervais, take heed.


  1. Totally agree Oliver. The problem for me is Gervais has waded insensitively into a subject he doesn't appear to know much about. As if he is some moral crusader, pretending not to be affected by the fact his character, Derek, is portrayed as being a little odd or learning disabled.

    Gervais has at best, been unhelpful, at worst, been quite damaging and abusive towards people with learning difficulties who, at the best of times, endure archaic and misplaced attitudes from most of society, a lot of whom are the very people who work with them anyway!

    I remember being impressed by the Chris Morris film, 'Four Lions' and seeing how such a sensitive and even dangerous subject, could be portrayed on screen. Of course, there will always be someone somewhere who is going to be offended by what they see, however in this case, Morris clearly did his research, two years of it; interviewing many people, analysing lots of data and researching a variety of subjects to make sure that the final product was at least a fairly accurate representation of how it really is.

    If he really wanted to stimulate debate on attitudes towards disability, then he should have at least been more truthful and direct about what he was trying to do.

    Maybe Gervais should take a leaf out of Morris's book and do his homework, otherwise, he should stick to doing comedies about cringeworthy and nauseating characters which is clearly something he know's a lot about!

  2. Thanks for the insightful comment, Anon. Love all those poems you wrote through the ages.
    I doubt if Gervais has much interest in stimulating a debate about disabilities, since in his celebrity bubble genuine social issues are unlikely to impinge on his consciousness, although at the same time he would be the first to boast about pushing the boundaries of what's acceptable or palatable to present in comedy.
    I think I know your secret identity. Why not open up and become a Member who follows this blog?