The Blog

We Need to Talk About Derek

As both a comedy writer and the sister of someone with learning disabilities, to say that I was interested in watching Ricky Gervais'sis something of an understatement. That's right: I was.

As both a comedy writer and the sister of someone with learning disabilities, to say that I was interested in watching Ricky Gervais's Derek is something of an understatement. That's right: I was mildly intrigued.

I'm a fan of Ricky Gervais. Like many, I adore The Office and unlike many, I have a sneaking admiration for his work and career ethic, in all its American-style, 'fuck 'em' glory. Yes, he's made some turkeys - but then, so have most of my comedy heroes, and I don't hold that against them. You can't hit it out of the ballpark every time.

Where I've fallen out of love with him, however, is over his use of the word 'mong'. Most pointedly, I take issue with his defence: that as the meanings of words change, and 'mong' now means 'stupid', the original context of the word no longer matters. As far as I can tell, one can draw a direct line from Down Syndrome > 'having mongoloid features' > 'mong' > 'stupid' - and even in 100 years' time, when the etymology may long be forgotten, the fact remains: the word's meaning has a hurtful, ignorant root, and to continue to use it continues the association of Down Syndrome with stupidity.

Growing up in the '80s with an elder sister who had severe learning disabilities, I was all too aware of the word 'mong' (and who can forget its equally charming cousin 'Joey', and its third-cousin-twice-removed 'flid'?). The terms 'learning disabilities' and 'learning difficulties' weren't used then - at least not by people in the street or kids in the playground. Back in the '70s and '80s, we described my sister Katharine as 'mentally handicapped'. Now, she is 'learning disabled' - a much wider term which groups learning difficulties such as dyslexia and autism with more severe disabilities like Down Syndrome and my sister's own particular form of mental and physical handicap.

So while I'm not a careworker or medical professional, I have been around my sister and her friends over many, many years now - and I do think I would at least recognise the portrayal of a character who is similarly learning disabled. Having watched Derek, it was clear to me that its lead character was exactly that. Only: according to Ricky Gervais, he's not.

"[Derek]'s not the smartest tool in the box but he's cleverer than Father Dougal, and not as different as Mr. Bean," Gervais told disability campaigner and blogger Nicky Clark. "He's based on those people you meet who are on the margins of society. Nerds, loners, underachievers."

But the naivety and nerdishness of Father Dougal and Mr Bean - and Blackadder's Baldrick, to whom Gervais has also compared Derek - is cartoonish. Daftness writ large for the sake of broad humour, and thus entirely in keeping with the worlds they were part of. The world of Derek, on the other hand, was very real. And so to have Gervais script and act the part in the way he did - aside from his lines, it was how he looked at people and the way he moved - made it appear that he was, in fact, acting the part of a learning disabled man.

When pressed by Clark to explain why some would think Derek is learning disabled, Gervais said: "Well, firstly there is no argument. Derek is a fictional character and is defined by his creator. Me. If I say I don't mean him to be disabled then that's it. A fictional doctor can't come along and prove me wrong."

With my comedy writer's head on, I admit that Gervais has a good point. We're arguing over whether a fictional creation is one thing or another, and of course he is just that - fictional - and Ricky Gervais made him what it is.

But how one intends things and how they are received are two quite different beasts. Which brings us full circle to the word 'mong', and Gervais's defence of that. Because I would argue that it doesn't matter what your intention is when you use such a word - it is how it is received by those whom it refers to, who are affected by its usage, that matters. It's the lesson that Stan learns in the excellent South Park episode With Apologies To Jesse Jackson: that one can sympathise with a group of people, and try to understand why they are upset about something (in Stan's case, it's whites understanding blacks), but it's only when you admit that you don't really 'get it' that you do, in fact, 'get it'. Because by definition, the offence is something felt by them, not you.

Regardless: the issue here is that when I sat down to watch Derek, I feared Gervais's portrayal of a learning disabled man would be offensive. In fact, the character of Derek was entirely sympathetic - and the real offence comes in Gervais's refusal to acknowledge that this sympathetic man was learning disabled.

For Gervais - and Channel 4 - to not describe Derek as such is at best disingenuous and at worst, cowardly. And this cowardice was no more apparent than in one particular scene. As the Tweeter @chicalolita points out in this blog post, when the teenage girls mock Derek in the pub, they call him things like "granddad", "tramp", "pumpkin" and "paedophile". The one word that's absent - the one word we all know they would be most likely to use in such a situation, and yet the one word that they don't utter - is... You guessed it. Mong.