Our most beloved—and loathed—comedians tend to tread a fine line between savvy-critic and gross moral offender. As with law, journalism, art and many other socially influenced and influential vocations, the best comedy should make us question and define our values, our limits and our morals. Ricky Gervais tested our social-triggers this week with his joke toward Caitlyn Jenner. The quip goes like this:
‘What a year she’s had. She became a role model for trans people everywhere, showing great bravery in breaking down barriers and destroying stereotypes. She didn’t do a lot for women drivers. But you can’t have everything, can you? Not at the same time.’
At some point shortly after the Cheshire-cat-man finished his roast, the internet exploded. I found the joke crude, but funny. Then again, I had a dying grandmother who made a “don’t buy green bananas” comment when she was about a week from heading to see Jesus, so black and bitter-sweet is how I like my humor. That said, what followed afterward, Ricky’s bit about ‘men in dresses’ was antiquated and cringe-worthy. Now, if we look at the comment that’s been isolated, actually breaking it down into its components—beginning, lead-in, punchline: what part, exactly, got so many folks in a twist? It wasn’t Caitlyn being a trans woman. Ricky actually paid homage to her transition, courage and her capacity to be a role-model. After buttering up her image, he then went with the classic “women drivers” shtick. I’m surprised people weren’t more offended by his use of this trope, or by the blacker elements of his comedy: the question of guilt in Caitlyn’s dropped vehicular manslaughter charge. Even the dialog following that joke had far more inflammatory potential. However, very few outlets aside from the Atlantic and Slate, seem to be offering deeper insights on why people felt up-in-arms. (Ricky really should have stopped after the first joke.)
Complicating matters, though, is that we’re always ready to be offended, and you can never predict from what. I’m all for being respectful, and for limits as to how abrasive, rude, or bigoted we can be. However, when you take an art like comedy, and demand that it be utterly sterile, free of any scorn or critique, you’ve removed the insightfulness—often unpleasant, if true—necessary for satire. Should we stop teaching artists to paint nudes out of the hedonism it might affect in its painters? No, that’s ridiculous. Just like I wouldn’t want any writers, including myself, to overly censor their work from profanity, necessary violence, or whatever else they choose to include that lends to their vision, their portrayal of humanity.
Now, there are exceptions, moments when artists overstep their bounds, miss their audience, or simply manage to offend everyone. I don’t agree with vaginal knitting, for example, as being the best way to promote positive images of women and their bodies. And that’s not me being a misogynist, or missing the message about acceptance. Vaginas are a wonder. I came from one–we all did. I think women’s bodies are works of divine sculpture. Nonetheless, vaginal knitting is an obscure and alienating performance art. I do not see how the greater feminist message is served by conjuring scarves out of one’s vagina–if anything, you’ll produce more revulsion, twisted-desire or fear than understanding (and no one will ever accept mittens or sweaters from you at Christmas). At some level art needs to be understood and accepted–even ephemerally or subconsciously–by most of its audience in order to convey a message.
Overall, though, and in situations like the Gervais-Jenner gate, there’s a moral and self-esteem argument at work here, where people are projecting their own sensitivities onto each and every situation. If you want to contribute, really contribute to social causes, and not just add to the internet white-noise, find something better to do with your time than getting angry at celebrity jokes: help out at a soup-kitchen, an animal shelter, an HIV clinic, or a home for battered women. Do something as humanitarian as any of those examples, and then see if you have the impetus, and perspective, to give two shits about a tasteless joke aimed at Caitlyn Jenner.
I’m more interested in how many trans people were actually pissed off at the comment. I’ve hunted the internet and Twitter for the answer. Opinions, of course, seem to be split: some trans people are pissed off, some aren’t. Many are ambivalent, responses such as: “I can see how that would offend someone, but not me.” Indeed, there’s no overwhelming—offended the whole transgender community—majority as you’ve seen broadcast in some of the more hyperbolic headlines. I’ve talked to a trans friend, who found the (first) joke hilarious. She wasn’t even aware of all the drama-vultures circling the incident. Alas, with Twitter, Facebook and the rest, the spread of information and of sympathetic indignation has reached an all time high. How much of it is real, and not just another form of mob-mentality? I’m mad, because other people are mad, and so I should probably be, too. Step away from the computer and ask yourself if Ricky’s joke actually offended you, or, better yet, any trans people you know. If it didn’t, stop feeding the frenzy, and the next frenzy that will surely pop up on our social-media feeds.
Once again, the human race has collectively wasted seven precious days of our lives bickering for the sake of bickering, when there are better things in life to discuss, and over which to be upset. Better role-models, too, than our ‘Woman of the Year’, Jenner. Yes, she’s had a journey, and been through a gauntlet. I’ll not dispute that. Still, I’ve never understood how her troubles and triumphs equate or exceed those of trans people who aren’t gifted with money, status, or any of the countless blessings that made Caitlyn’s transition as easy as a weekend trip to the spa. Talk to some of those other people: the transgender persons who’ve known hate, abuse, or a lifetime’s struggle trying to accept themselves–or to be accepted by society. Ones who didn’t arrive to acclaim on the cover of Vanity Fair. I want to hear their stories, not a tale about how a well-to-do woman, ex-Olympian, and all-around glamorous gal, finally freed herself from the trappings of her body. Sounds like one of the vapider episodes of Sex In the City. I mean, I guess that’s a story, Jenner’s—but not the most interesting one to me.
Next year, Glamour Magazine, if you can’t think of anyone else, just give Laverne Cox a damn award: transgender icon, transgender woman, transgender black woman—she uses and embodies all three designations. God, I love her. Everyone does. She inspires others simply by standing up in a room. You can feel her story, pain and success when she speaks. She’s authentic. She has gravitas and real grace; her poise: a back made strong from struggle. She’s the kind of person we should not only discuss more, but also listen to: rather than the lingering petulance of people stirred by commentary toward celebrities with whom they can’t even relate.
A bit of advice as well for next year’s Golden Globe casting call: bring back Fey and Poehler and save us all from the headaches and fallout of billing ‘edgy’ hosts.
All my love,
P.S. In what is EXCELLENT NEWS, I learned today that Jessica Jones, Season 2, has been green-lit! Also: happy birthday, Betty White.