This post is going to be a deviation from my usual rants. It is going to reflect a rare moment of self-doubt (Ahem!) and I invite discussions from my readers and colleagues – in other words, let me know if I am wrong, somewhat wrong or totally wrong, wrong in the narrow context of the US or wrong globally.
Something came up in the news a few days back that I wanted to share with you all. The Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) is an admirable organization representing the voice of the LGBT community for over two decades, serving as a watchdog and advocate for that community. Their mission is [I quote] “empowering real people to share their stories, holding the media accountable for the words and images they present, and helping grassroots organizations communicate effectively” [End quote].
Recently, GLAAD has called for an apology from the makers of Saturday Night Live (SNL) and its host NBC for a skit about pre-operation transgender persons. The SNL skit was a faux commercial for a fictitious product Estro-Maxx, in which several pre-op transgender persons waxed eloquent about the “benefits” and ease of use of the product.
I don’t know if any of you have seen the advertisement-style video of the skit presentation. It can be found at the NBC website (I don’t know how long it’d remain available). [Caveat: some of you may find it objectionable; watch at your own risk]
According to the news report I linked above, GLAAD has termed the skit “a dangerous and blatantly anti-transgender segment” that has “degraded the lives and experiences of transgender women“; the organization has set up an online petition aimed at SNL producers and NBC to tell them that “transgender people deserve respect.“
I am in three minds about it. First, I do understand GLAAD’s objection (at least, I think I do). The skit was probably not to the best of tastes, and was not very funny either, at least to me. And the most important thing is that the fact that transgender people are a vulnerable community; the prejudices, bigotry, bias and discrimination against them are very real. Therefore, any representation of such a vulnerable group should be sensitive to those issues.
On the other hand, it seems to me that people who are up in arms against the skit may be missing the point of the parody altogether. The skit was not so much mocking pre-op transgender women, as mocking the common practice of product advertising targeting a particular group — such as using darker skinned people (like Southeast Asians) to advertise a product that claims to lighten the skin tone and make the user “fairer”.
The third thing that is simultaneously bothering me is the larger question: when it is or may be acceptable to use humor involving disadvantaged, vulnerable, minority populations. Is it a line in the sand, or can it be cast in stone? For example:
- Is it okay if a comedian from the same community does it – like a Black or Hispanic or Indian (Asian) comedian (there are so many of them) poking fun at themselves and at the stereotypes that exist, but not okay if someone outside that group does it?
- Is there, or can there be, a limit to being sensitive about a group, particularly since people’s sensitivities vary greatly, and one person’s comedy will always likely be another’s rude, impolite insensitivity?
- Can there be something like being too touchy or too sensitive – something will always remain until the discrimination and taboo in the society at large towards that issue are gone? Is any discriminatory practice ever totally gone, or is it repackaged and re-served?
- Dark humor of the South Park variety (which, I shall freely admit, I don’t always get) is expected to push our boundaries and challenge our mental faculties beyond the comfort zone – perhaps that’s where we begin to examine the stereotypes critically, ultimately deciding to accept or reject them. But should they be muzzled instead?
- There are all sorts of people who find South Park funny and all sorts of people who consider it incredibly offensive; I found the episodes with Mrs. Garrison and Richard Dawkins distasteful and needlessly obnoxious without any greater message behind it. But my reaction was to not watch that episode again, or to generally stop watching South Park altogether, barring a lay episode here and there. Should I have gone on to start an online petition, too? Coming to think of it, did GLAAD ever object to the portrayal of Mrs. Garrison, a post-op transgender woman with a male-pattern bald patch and staunchly creationist views? (I don’t know)
I don’t have an answer. A part of me feels ashamed that I may never be able to completely understand these issues because I am not one of the vulnerable people in the context. But another part of me argues that it is not necessary to be a part of a group to think about the issues surrounding it. One probably doesn’t need to be a criminal to understand the socio-economic and psychological issues surrounding crimes and criminal activity. But how do I know if my line of thinking is right? Is there, or can there be ever, a golden mean, a middle path for such contentious issues?
And if I go out of the context to a larger question: who or what sets the limits to what we can and cannot mock or laugh at (or even laugh with)? Do the atrocious “Yo Mamma” jokes —nevertheless liked and repeated by many— represent reprehensible misogyny? Would there be a day when we cannot —gasp!— mock creationism, flat-earth views, homeopathy and so forth? How exactly should social ethics apply to humor?
I now declare open season on this post. Please feel free to comment (or not); and if you don’t mind, please forward it to your friends requesting comment. Let’s initiate a discussion.