I confess that I have not read David Walliams’ book, The Boy in the Dress, but I did watch the BBC’s adaptation of it this Christmas. I realise that Christmas telly should never be taken too seriously but, during the hour long teleplay, I found myself at times wondering what the audience were supposed to get from Walliams’ story.
If the point of the play was to reassure boys and girls watching that it is okay to express your gender however you feel comfortable then The Boy in the Dress failed. The sum total of the message to children watching seemed to be that faded and rather unoriginal lesson: ‘be yourself’. I found myself questioning whether that message really needed Dennis to wear a dress? Could he not have simply customised his school uniform as one of the other characters did?
The trouble with putting Dennis in a dress is that Walliams’ story then becomes about gender and cross-dressing, a subject that Walliams was never going to handle well. He has shown on numerous occasions that he finds men in dresses hilarious. Not to mention the fact that the funniest thing he thinks he can do is to pretend to be a screamingly camp gay man when in interview. Walliams’ humour is unevolved. Television has moved on since Are You Being Served? and It Ain’t Half Hot Mum.
The hammy over-acting of those (usually) quality comedy actors Meera Syal, Jennifer Saunders, Tim McInnerny and Walliams himself didn’t help. It suggested that this was to be taken as seriously as one takes a pantomime where actors traditionally cross-dress and we all have a good laugh at the man in the frock (a British tradition of stage and screen that is so ingrained in our psyche that trans women are up against it all the time). Walliams’ own turn in the piece was a first rate example of how badly he handles the depiction of characters who are LGBTQ. There was no reason for the referee of the football match to be a gay man. The 1970s stereotype was there purely as cannon-fodder for the gag machine.
The story would have made more sense and been vastly improved with a single scene between the football referee (if that character had to exist) and Dennis about how difficult it is to grow up knowing you are different. It’s not a hard scene to write, but it is if you don’t really understand or empathise with the subject matter you are tackling.
Don’t get me wrong, it was a fun hour of light entertainment. The young lead (Billy Kennedy) playing Dennis was great. But, don’t walk away with the idea that this was a depiction of what it feels like to be a trans child with all the struggles and angst that involves not just for the child but their parents, too. Because the drama made no attempt to explain Dennis’s love of girls’ clothing or his headmaster’s cross-dressing, there was nothing helpful that someone struggling with their gender identity could grasp on to. Dennis liked dresses because he saw a magazine cover of Kate Moss. It went as deep as that. Tomorrow he’ll probably like One Direction.
Some people in the world of television have seen it as ground-breaking, tackling a difficult subject for children. This is worrying. I fear that cisgender programme commissioners will, unfortunately, feel they have “ticked the trans box” this Christmas, which shuts the door for other writers, possibly trans writers, to really tackle the subject properly.
For anyone reading this who thinks that trans* people are touchy and lacking a sense of humour, can I direct you to Amazon’s Trans Parent? A deeply funny look at trans issues, starring a man in a dress who never relies on tired old tropes to get his laughs, written by someone who has personal experience of that subject, that is chock full of messages about how you treat someone whose gender expression is different from their biological sex.