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People are too complicated…

with 6 comments

Only You Can Define Yourself

Ricky Gervais’ latest series, Derek, is currently airing on UK television. Gervais plays Derek, a care worker in a residential home for older people. Reaction in the papers today prompted me to watch it. Here’s a link to the first episode. (Probably available in the UK only.)

The programme raises a number of interesting issues, but I’ll stick to the language-related ones.

Firstly, and most straightforwardly, a common error: Derek is described in the Guardian as ‘a 50-year-old man with an undiagnosed mental health problem’. Now it’s safe to say that Derek is depicted as having some kind of learning difficulty or disability. This is not the same as having mental health problems. Journalists should ensure their terminology is correct.

More interesting to consider is the following, written by a different critic in the same newspaper:

Gervais insisted that the character is not intended to represent a specific disability; he is simply naive and gullible….Personally, I accept that Gervais is not portraying someone living with an identifiable syndrome. But, for me, this is a weakness of the series…The drawback of Derek is not that it is cruel about disability but that it is often soft on a character whose identity remains too vague.

A critic in The Independent newspaper is similarly reductive, asking, What if there’s a label for this kind of dimness? But doesn’t provide an answer. (And such an interesting use of the word ‘label’ there.)

We shouldn’t feel this need to place people in neatly labelled boxes; their individual identity is not defined by a diagnosis. And it should be noted that Derek’s identity as portrayed by Gervais is anything but vague.

Tellingly, none of the other characters portrayed in the programme have been criticised by TV critics for not having been assigned a label. Even though none of them have one.

As Derek says in response to an official’s offer to have him ‘tested for autism’, if being ‘tistic’ doesn’t mean that he’ll die and won’t change him, then he doesn’t need to find out, thanks. And neither do we. The words, the labels, would get in the way of the person.


People are too complicated to have simple labels.
Philip Pullman,  The Amber Spyglass


(To be clear, I’m not saying that individuals and those who care for them should not have the right to obtain a clear diagnosis in order to receive the advice, treatment and services to which they are entitled.)

Photo credit: mtsofan

Am I allowed to say that? A no-nonsense guide to political correctness


6 Responses

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  1. I have nothing to add, as you’ve said it all (and well), but thanks for saying it!

    Maggie Manning

    31/01/2013 at 9:38 pm

  2. I’ve only seen the trailers and it’s obvious to me that Gervais is playing someone with a learning difficulty, not a mental health issue. As you pointed out, they are very different things. I haven’t seen the show itself, because I didn’t want to watch someone taking the mick, but your description of it makes me think it may be better than that. I’ll give it a go this week.


    04/02/2013 at 2:36 pm

    • Hello, Pie, nice to see you here. Yes, it’s an interesting one. I wasn’t going to watch it until I read the reviews. It raises a lot of interesting issues in addition to the language-related ones; some people, for example, object to what they see as little more than cruel playground-type mimicry. And, putting everything else aside, there’s the basic question, is it actually any good/worth watching? I found it quite moving in places, which surprised me, but hated the unconvincing and gratuitous sex-obsessed character. I’m going to watch a couple more to see how it pans out and if critics’ reactions change. Thanks very much for stopping by.


      04/02/2013 at 4:15 pm

  3. I hadn’t heard of “Derek” until your article, (it isn’t showing here yet) so I watched an episode online. I like Gervais’ work in general, and the subject matter is something I have direct experience with, as you know. I did see Derek and his mates as only slightly less-marginalized societal outsiders than the residents of the home. That gave me a lot to consider, after I was finished laughing. I do believe comedy is based directly on pain we have difficulty viewing head-on, and it was hilarious to me because it was pretty familiar stuff even if exaggerated. We all get thrown out to some extent, once the culture at large perceives us as used up. Thanks so much for mentioning the show!

    Invisible Mikey

    06/02/2013 at 8:01 pm

    • Hi, Mikey

      You’re welcome! I’m glad you were able to view it where you are. The more I think about various aspects of this programme, the more interesting it becomes. I think many of the TV critics were too precipitate with their knee-jerk reactions. I hadn’t considered the aspect you raise, re. the comparison between the position of the residents and that of Derek and his colleagues. Interestingly, a few of Gervais’ relatives work as professional carers. The NewStatesman published an interesting and positive review of the programme, including a brief interview with Gervais about it. The reviewer echoes your point about pain and having to ‘face the truth’ in the writing. Thanks, Mikey, always good to see you here.


      07/02/2013 at 7:16 am

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