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Column: We need to talk about Nuala ... RTÉ's portrayal of trans character is shallow and cruel

RTÉ’s newest comedy offering wheels out quite a few stereotypes but none are treated as badly as the character of Nuala Mooney, a transgender woman played by Aprés Match’s Gary Cooke, writes Lisa McInerney.

Lisa McInerney

RTÉ PREMIERED ITS new sitcom The Centre last night, and based on the promos, you’d be forgiven for not setting your Sky+ for the occasion. Comedy on RTÉ has taken a bit of a kicking in recent years – OK, in most of the years – with much of its line-up coasting on a love-it-or-hate-it sentiment with an audience especially prone to peevishness. The Centre, which was produced “in association with” Steve Coogan’s Baby Cow Productions, is the latest offering: a mockumentary on the day-to-day running of a community centre in a deprived neighbourhood in Dublin. Unfortunately, it’s still closer to Upwardly Mobile than it is to Spinal Tap, coming across like an overwound attempt at crossbreeding Little Britain and The Brittas Empire.

The titular Centre is run by a motley crew of borderline deviants: the taut spinster manager, the power-hungry bitch, the lurid Traveller (yes, Katherine Lynch again), the insecure chameleon who appropriates other cultures as a substitute for developing a personality of her own… All of these characters are treated with zero affection on the part of the writers, which is quite the problem when it comes to crafting great satire – surely the end goal of any mockumentary-style undertaking. But none of these oddballs is treated quite as badly as assistant manager Nuala Mooney, a transgender woman played by Aprés Match’s Gary Cooke.

The punchline?

Nuala – pronounced Noo-alla, for some reason – is introduced in the show and in its promotional material as a pre-op transsexual. Did you get that? Pre-op. In case you forgot. That means Nuala still has male genitalia, because The Centre’s nasty logic dictates that not only are transgendered people publicly classified in terms of what they’re packing below the belt, but their physical state is, in and of itself, a punchline. In the show, we are introduced to Nuala, “six months into her pre-op transgenderisation journey” (What?), as she struggles with the problem of public toilets. She doesn’t know which one to use! Hilarious!

Later on, Yasmine Akram’s megawagon character Amanda makes snide jibes about hairy feet, badly-groomed brows and Adam’s apple, which is fine because Amanda is a sociopath. But the audience isn’t encouraged to disagree with her. Nuala does have hairy feet. Nuala really didn’t groom her brows. Six months into her transition, Nuala remains a man in a dress.

The point to Nuala seems to be that Gary Cooke looks funny with lipstick on.

Worthy examples

It’s 2014. It’s not like society is still so Neolithic that its writers couldn’t know how to portray transgender characters. There have been plenty of worthy examples in recent years, from Hilary Swank’s Oscar-winning portrayal of Brandon Teena in Boys Don’t Cry, to Felicity Huffman’s critically-acclaimed performance as Bree in Transamerica. The positive visibility of trans people in “real life” is improving too: think Isis King, Laverne Cox, Chelsea Manning, Chaz Bono. There is plenty of education, freely available, about the issues that trans people face every day: there is absolutely no excuse for treating a character’s gender as not just a joke, but the joke, the only joke, the only feature of the character worth exploring. It’s not good enough in Ireland. I mean, come on. We’re fairly open-minded people, right? We’re better than this.

The reality for trans people is distinctly unfunny. Trans people are more likely to face discrimination. Trans people are more likely to be violently assaulted, both physically and sexually. Trans people are more likely to be murdered.

Great comedy levels the playing field

That’s not to say that a transgender character cannot be funny, that his or her portrayal has to be constant commentary, like a walking PSA. In Orange Is The New Black, to take a recent high-profile example, Sophia’s gender didn’t make her funny, but her dry wit and hopelessly clunky attempts to wheedle prescription hormones out of Sister Ingalls certainly did. The issues Sophia faced weren’t funny, but there was humour to be found in how she dealt with them. Oh, and whether or not Sophia had a penis was recognised by the OITNB writers as being secondary to her words and actions. Kind of like in real life.

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Comedy isn’t supposed to be safe; the best stand-ups don’t just make us laugh, but challenge the way we deal with pain, failure, discrimination, inadequacy. Life, let’s face it, can be pretty horrible, and sometimes it takes a surreal lens to make sense of it. Comedy can be vicious. It can even be excoriating. But it should never be cruel. Great comedy levels the playing field; weak comedy widens the chasms.

More cruel than it is crude

Comedy is also subjective, and no one’s going to be storming Montrose because they don’t find Katherine Lynch’s interminable Bernie Walsh hilarious enough. After all, one man’s gentle evening’s amusement is another man’s excruciating punch to the kidneys. And I suppose you wouldn’t be exiled for suggesting that it’s novel to see a largely female cast in a home-grown comedy, and therefore to take The Centre as a worthy undertaking at the very least. So far, Nuala’s status as a trans woman seems largely accepted by the characters she works with: straight-talking, salt of the earth (in the sense that you really shouldn’t salt earth) Dubs. It’s just a damn shame the audience isn’t encouraged to do the same.

The real problem with The Centre isn’t that it’s hit-and-miss, nor is it that it’s just not highbrow enough for international syndication. It’s not because of a political-correctness-gone-mad conscience robbing us of the right to laughter, if we can’t help but wonder if Katherine Lynch really should keep spitting out Traveller stereotypes or why the statutory rape of Amanda, years later, becomes a bitch’s victory. The real problem with the Centre is that its humour is more cruel than it is crude, and that’s saying something in a premiere peppered with stained knickers and fart jokes.

Read more of Lisa McInerney’s columns here >

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Lisa McInerney

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