I often like to say that I was born loving Monty Python. As superlative as this sounds, it is a claim based on a vivid childhood memory of my Dad flipping through channels one day and letting the screen rest on a clip involving an English narrator and exploding bushes. As any Python fan will know, this of course was the “How Not to Be Seen” sketch, but all I knew at the time was that I was rolling on the ground laughing uncontrollably and experiencing a joyous sensation of silliness unleashed and liberated. But then my Dad changed the channel and started watching NASCAR, and it wasn’t until a decade or so later, after half-watching Holy Grail during a German class (in English; don’t ask) that I caught myself wondering if this was the same group of people I encountered in that still fresh and delightful memory. So it is with all that affection in my heart that I started thinking about gender dynamics in Monty Python – and realizing, with some surprise, that there are elements in their work worth thinking about critically.
This occurred to me first on what must have been the 27th or 29th viewing of The Life of Brian, undoubtedly their best movie and in fact, one of the best movies ever made. I was watching one of my favorite scenes in the film, when Brian befriends the revolutionary Jewish cell the Judean People’s Front (or is it the People’s Front of Judea?). At one point, we meet the vulnerable push-over member of the group, Stan. Stan keeps interrupting the flow of declarative principles that the group leader, Reg, likes to harangue his followers with by correcting Reg’s gender-normative language to include women. The short exchange that follows involves Stan confessing to his desire to be a woman, and Reg eventually commenting of this, “it’s symbolic of his struggle against reality.”
When I was younger, I used to love this joke. It seemed such a refreshing corrective to identity-obsessed politics that put in place all the strange sort of people I had encountered who, in their gender non-conformity, made me uncomfortable. That the question was simply one of reality versus delusion, of unsound or silly people versus solid and rational ones, was a comforting thought – even if I only engaged in it indirectly, without hardly realizing. Not until years later, after a massive political reorientation and realization of my own hang-ups and misjudgments, did I realize how fucked up the joke was. It is obviously transphobic. I can’t possibly see any other way to explain why it might be received as humorous.
I say this not at all to condemn Python or write their body of work off as somehow all saturated with sexism and gender normative politics; on the contrary, it stands out precisely because so much of Python involves a cultural critique of received wisdom, sexual repression, and unquestioned authority. But by the same token, no one is perfect, and clearly, there were limits even to the critical brilliance of Python in the late-1970s – and in fact, I think it is interesting to also think about other gender dynamics at play in their work.
I was helped along in this by John Cleese, who in the wonderful and delightfully indulgently long documentary about the group, Monty Python: Almost the Truth, commented about how the comedy troupe dealt with women. “I think that Pythons were probably a little unsophisticated so far as the fair sex was concerned — and I don’t think that we would have felt very comfortable writing anything that approached a genuine love scene…so what we wrote was caricatured stuff, and most of the time it was the sort of stuff you saw when you went to a pantomime.”
And indeed, there are pretty much only two “female characters” that appear in Python sketches – either the dumb blonde, usually played pitch perfect by the awesome Carol Cleveland, or the silly, frivolous older woman – always played by one of the men of the comedy troupe. So it would appear, indeed, that Cleese is right – that whatever the politics that was implied (often very heavily) by their comedy, Python remained in a historical moment that had a hard time thinking past gender normative ideas and employing female characters in any other way than as a kind of prop to get to a punch line.
The depth of this discomfort is made even more interesting by the dynamics that swirled around one of the troupe’s most talented writers, Graham Chapman. A closeted gay man who dealt with his situation largely through alcoholism, the members of Python were pretty much all, it appeared, very surprised when he finally came out and told them he was gay. Although all were supportive, it seems like Cleese, his closest writing partner, had the most trouble digesting the news; as he put it, “it was as though Michael Palin had turned to me and said, ‘I’m Chinese.’ I’ve got nothing against you Michael, but it is a surprise.”
So what to take away from all of this? The primary lesson I garner is that even amongst those who adopt a critical stance towards traditional norms and values, the fact remains that very few of us escape our historical moment, and all its various lines of oppression, entirely. We may see certain injustices and mock them at the same moment we are blind to others and replicate them. And this is why it is so important to be self-critical, and to think of these various structures of oppression as not something only Other, unambiguously Bad People do, but something we all swim in, whether we like to or not. Only with this willingness to realize that we are not exceptional do we open the possibility of all of us becoming collectively better.
So with that in mind, I can easily continue to adore Python – indeed I could as soon part with them as I could a piece of heart – while recognizing that in some respects, they came up short; in same cases, they even fucked-up. But any cultural politics that aims at recognizing and correcting for our internal otherizing necessarily has to avoid a politics of purity – because in the politics of purity, too few remain to do too much work.