on allies and comedy.

I’m getting ready to facilitate a training on white privilege this weekend.  It’s one of the most challenging workshops I facilitate, and it’s one of my favorites.  Why?  Because it’s heavy on accountability, and it’s even heavier on humor. It’s a conversation about oppression with privileged people: it requires holding people accountable to the misconceptions that they perpetuate and the racism they’ve internalized. But if our first conversation about our shared privilege were only serious, heavy-handed accountability, I’m pretty sure we’d all implode, or at least be so terrified at the prospect of implosion that we’d disengage. So, to engage new allies in thinking critically about their own privilege, humor is a must. It allows us to keep conversations political and dive deep into difficult conversations that many of us spend a lot of time & energy trying to avoid.

Conversations with allies are necessary.  Where I live, there aren’t enough queer and trans people to comprise a majority and make widespread social change on our own.  Same goes for communities of color, immigrant communities, and most marginalized people.  In order to create change, we’ve got to be good at educating and engaging allies.  And when we’re doing that, humor is paramount.

I’ll start by saying that this is strictly a first-person narrative—I’m speaking only to my own experience of comedy.  The clips I’ve chosen don’t offend me, but that doesn’t mean they’re universally inoffensive.  What I want to talk about here is the power of humor to make us recognize privilege and oppression, and I’ll do that in the first person.

I have one friend who’s spectacular when it comes to joking about identity.  It’s a master class: in one quick turn of phrase, he can identify the power, privilege, oppression and interpersonal dynamics that are happening in the room at that moment.  When he makes a great joke, I feel delighted, impressed, jubilant and, with the jokes designed to call out my privilege, a little bit embarrassed.  It’s the spoonful of sugar that helps the medicine go down.  And I’ve seen it work with volunteers, movement leaders, strangers on the street, and even my most recalcitrant family members.

On a person-to-person basis, it works.  And when that happens on a wider stage, something magical happens.  It’s social alchemy. It’s movement building.


Louis CK and Privilege

Case in point: Louis CK, a white comedian who jokes about identity constantly.  Take this appearance on the Tonight Show:


Did you see what just happened?  On one of the most mainstream, middle-of-the-road TV shows around, Louis CK spent several solid minutes talking about race, history, neocolonialism (!), privilege, and experience.  He damn near has an accountability session with the white folks in the audience.  Had this been a serious conversation, it could have looked like the nightmare scenarios that many of us have experienced and continue to relive: the kind where things quickly devolve into personal attacks and someone ends up storming out. Instead, because it was funny, this audience laughed and applauded. 

Exhibit B, the first scene from an episode of the FX series Louie (very NSFW):


It’s not inoffensive, but it’s authentic.  And in amongst the dick jokes and shit talk, this scene manages to do more public education about gay men’s culture, history and experience than just about any other mainstream show I’ve seen.  It speaks to many straight men’s squeamishness and ignorance, allows them to feel it, and ultimately gets them to deeply experience a gay character’s world-weary familiarity with his daily experience of homophobia, and their role in perpetuating that homophobia.

And that gay character’s demeanor is important, too.  He doesn’t come across as a tragic victim, although he’s aware he could be, and many gay men are.  He appears to have a fairly thick skin, taking his lumps just like any of the straight guys around the table.  And when you get down to it (for once!) this queer person, speaking from his own experience, comes across as one of the most reasonable people in the room.  This is a notable break from the usual options of Brokeback Mountain tragic queers, impossible-to-please angry queers, and inconsolably hypersensitive queers.

The scene is, as far as I’m concerned, a little coup.


Maria Bamford and mental illness

Maria Bamford is an accomplished comedian who, in 2006, released a YouTube series called The Maria Bamford Show, chronicling Bamford’s recovery from a mental break (also NSFW):

As with Louis CK’s work, Maria Bamford’s comedy manages to speak in a deep way to the impact that mental illness can have on a person’s life, and how that impact is specific and distinct for women.  It also conveys the tangle of mutually reinforcing systems of internalized sexism, relational aggression amongst women, homophobia, and the stigma of mental illness.

And her work is deeply vulnerable.  She’s dealing with the humiliation of returning to her hometown, and facing the nightmarish realization that, while she’d left her hometown for years, her hometown didn’t forget her.  In her work, I can see myself and people I’ve known and in so doing, I can reach some greater realizations about my parallel experiences.  Plus, it’s a cathartic release to laugh at those experiences and begin to let them go.  And I’m guessing I’m not the only one who feels that way.


Why humor matters

Neither of these comedians are unassailable.  Like any comedian, they have certainly offended someone (or lots of people) at some point.   And, as viewers, many of us have been offended. (I certainly have.) For me, the difference between the clips provided here and the infamous EstroMaxx sketch is how humor is used. In so many cases (EstroMaxx included), humor is used as a tool of harassment and humiliation. It isn’t the same thing as face-to-face harassment or physical assault, but it’s certainly on the same continuum. It illuminates just enough oppression to perpetuate it. In the cases of Louis CK and Maria Bamford (and, I would argue, Margaret Cho, Dave Chappelle, and other deftly brilliant comedians), oppression doesn’t illuminate humor, humor illuminates oppression, shining a light on privilege’s cover of darkness. Humor isn’t an end here, it’s means to an end.

But the point here isn’t to set a seal of approval on a comedian’s full body of work.  It isn’t to create a rubric for determining which jokes are progressive enough, and when.  It’s to recognize the ways in which comedy can move us forward, engaging unlikely allies in even more unlikely settings.

Humor can gain access to spaces, people and attitudes that our communities and movements would otherwise struggle to engage.  In the sweet violence of laughter, something cracks, and we open ourselves up to others’ experiences in a way that, without humor, would feel too vulnerable to bear.  There really is something revolutionary about humor.  When it works, it allows us to see ourselves and others clearly, bringing us closer together, and bringing our differences into sharper focus.  It affirms our experiences and the experiences of those around us, and engages us in deeper conversations about power, privilege and oppression than we otherwise would.

You can’t hold me accountable, I’m hilarious!: SNL, trans communities & the politics of taking a joke

Week before last, Saturday Night Live aired the sketch above as a fake ad for “EstroMaxx,” a once-daily hormone treatment for transgender women.

I know. There’s a whole lot of bad going on there. Take a minute if you need one.

Thankfully, and almost immediately, the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) responded by launching a petition, calling upon SNL producers to address the impact of the sketch. In their release, GLAAD provided a quote from org president Jarrett Barrios, who said:

“The violence, discrimination and harassment that transgender Americans experience each and every day is no laughing matter. ‘Saturday Night Live’ is a touchstone of American comedy, but Saturday’s unfunny skit sends a destructive and dehumanizing message.”

GLAAD’s response is timely and critically important. But the format of a press release doesn’t allow for a full response, breaking down just how & why a sketch like this is so destructive. So let’s do that here.

The Problem with EstroMaxx

To put it simply, a sketch like EstroMaxx contributes to a climate of transphobia. Where there had been radio silence on trans identities, EstroMaxx filled that silence with counterproductive and misleading messages. (And it’s become part of a little avalanche of transphobia, from Craig Ferguson to Adam Sandler.) Here are some of those messages:

The sketch makes a joke of passing, without recognizing the extraordinary barriers, challenges, and yes, violence, that people face when they don’t appear to be a gender that can be quickly and easily categorized. Trans and gender non-conforming people are followed into bathrooms, called names, and subjected to the use of gender pronouns that may not reflect their identity. And that’s just the daily background noise that transphobia creates. On the larger end, trans and gender non-conforming people face pervasive discrimination, violence, and even dramatically increased rates of death, both by suicide and murder. Given the considerable risk, it’s incredibly unlikely that a trans woman would sport a week’s worth of facial hair growth. Should she have the right? Absolutely. But the chances that she’d do so this cavalierly are slim.

It encourages disrespectful behavior, like leering at trans people’s bodies, using the wrong pronouns, and laughing at the daily lived experience of trans people. The writers here clearly did their homework: they read up on the medical care necessary to transition. They looked into hormone treatments and surgery, and found out how difficult they are to access. Hell, they even brought in the danger that trans people face in going through airport body scanners. They learned all that, and then what did they do? They made all that hurt and all those barriers into one big hateful joke. Classy.

It paints a target on the backs of trans women, portraying them as clueless, bumbling impostors who are completely unaware of the way they’re perceived. Bobby Moynihan appears as a woman with styled hair, no makeup, and a beard. Paul Brittain wears a skirtsuit with feathered hair and a mustache. On Friday, most Americans weren’t specifically on the lookout for people whose gender presentation they didn’t recognize. By Sunday, Saturday Night Live’s 5.4 million viewers were. And that’s 5.4 million people who will start making jokes, saying hurtful things, and even inciting violence against trans people. It’s not a one-to-one equation, that’s for sure—watching this sketch won’t make you transphobic. But it definitely won’t make you less transphobic. And it certainly won’t make trans women any safer.

It fetishizes trans people, while simultaneously making anyone who’s attracted to trans people creepy and suspect. That’s right, people who date trans people: you’re on the hook, too. Keenan Thompson’s attraction to Bobby Moynihan is played for skin-crawling laughs. Can it be genuine attraction? Nope. It’s got to be creepy. Partners of trans people must be even crazier than trans people, if they find that attractive.

Isn’t anything funny?

So we’ve established what’s counterproductive about EstroMaxx. But when is humor productive?

Here are some questions to ask yourself: Does it expose the bias that trans people face? If so, awesome! Go forth & funny! Does it educate people on trans identities and communities? Rock it out! Is it in the hands of trans-identified people? Go team!

Look, I’m the fat girl who makes more fat jokes than anybody. I’m a big fan of the funny. Humor’s also a great tool for interrupting oppressive moments, and for taking control of narratives about our communities and experiences. But jokes that perpetuate oppression and misconceptions? Thumbs down.

“Why can’t they learn to take a joke?”

GLAAD’s response has popped up on a number of web sites, from MTV to Perez Hilton. Many of the comments feature a sad old line, rehashed again and again: “Why can’t they just take a joke?” It’s a line that’s used time and time again, in a wide range of context against a variety of communities. It’s deceptively simple, and it accomplishes several things at once. This one short line can deftly:

Absolve the speaker of any responsibility. It’s not my fault that I said it, it’s your fault for misinterpreting it. I don’t need to confront my privilege, you need to confront your hyper sensitivity. This one can also quickly and easily slip into accusations of emotional instability or straight up mental illness—a tactic that’s been used against women (hysteria was a real illness, everybody!), queer people (reparative therapy, anyone?) and communities of color (drapetomania made slaves run away!), to name a few. Simply put, the why-can’t-you-take-a-joke approach swiftly shifts focus from the oppressor to the oppressed, and can shortly thereafter cast dangerous aspersions about that person’s stability. Fair? Hardly. Effective? Definitely.

Creates a space in which it’s okay to be oppressive and you can say anything as long as it’s in jest. We also see this when white people make racist jokes ironically, as a way to prove how “post-racial” they are. Ultimately, this doesn’t prove anything to anyone: it perpetuates oppressive tropes and makes them impossible to critique. I like to call this part “you can’t hold me accountable, I’m hilarious!”

Places blame and responsibility on the person/community that’s already being targeted. If you’re offended, that’s your own fault. Not only that, but you’re ruining it for the rest of us. The take-a-joke line quietly but clearly creates a climate where speaking from your own experience and voicing your needs is now, in this bizzarro upside down world, somehow oppressive to people with privilege. I know, you guys! It’s ridiculous.

Ultimately, the EstroMaxx skit is deeply transphobic. It perpetuates some dangerous myths about trans people (particularly transfeminine people, who are already at extraordinarily heightened risk of violence and discrimination) and salts that wound by making a mockery of the oppression they face. And when someone musters the courage to speak out against that oppression: they’re too sensitive to be trusted, and they’re a pariah for “ruining a perfectly good sketch.”

Some joke.