Archive | April, 2012

In Comedy, It’s All About Deciding Who’s Us & Who’s Them

28 Apr

Krampus twins(Via)

 

The Guardian’s stylebook contains the greatest commentary on style I’ve ever seen in print:

political correctness: a term to be avoided on the grounds that it is, in Polly Toynbee’s words, “an empty right-wing smear designed only to elevate its user.”

Around the same time, while researching the back stories of Life’s Too Short for my review, I came upon the controversy over the word “mong” in which Ricky Gervais found himself embroiled this past fall.  Apparently “mong” is a British English insult derived from “Mongoloid,” the very antiquated and now unacceptable term once used to describe people with Down’s Syndrome.  Both Americans and Brits have probably heard “retard” used the same way.  Gervais eventually apologized to those who objected—including the mother of a child with Down’s Syndrome who has frequently endured the insult—but not without first dragging his heels screaming at what he called “the humorless PC brigade.” 

I will never get over how many comedians insist that any criticism of their work is an indictment of all comedy; as if there’s no such thing as an unfunny comedian, only stupid audiences.  This logic sets the bar for comedy so low that no comedian need ever try to be original.  Ignoring the “PC brigade” (i.e., anyone who doesn’t live with the privileges they do), they can simply regenerate old stereotypes, mining the minstrel shows, the frat houses and the school yards, and if no one laughs at this, it’s simply because we’re all too uptight, right?  Wrong.  We don’t refrain from laughing because we feel we shouldn’t.  We refrain because, unlike the repressed who giggle away in awe, we’ve heard it a thousand times before and we know it’s far from unique.  And isn’t unique what every comedian, entertainer and artist strives to be?   

Like politics, comedy can be divided into two categories: that which confronts our problems with our own selves, and that which confronts our problems with others.  Xenophobia literally means the (irrational*) fear of strangers and the second type of comedy relies upon this fear.  There has to be a “them” for “us” to laugh at.  So Republicans laugh at Democrats.  Hippies laugh at yuppies.  Academics laugh at hippies.  Progressives laugh at bigots.  It’s fair game when beliefs are targeted because we must always take responsibility for our beliefs.  However, when the joke defines “them” as those who have had no choice whatsoever about their distinguishing quality—ethnicity, gender identity, sexuality, physical traits, mental or physical capabilities, or class background—and who continue to be disenfranchised by society’s delusions of normalcy, the joke had better target those delusions to be in any way original.  Otherwise, why pay for cable or tickets to hear someone lazily reiterate the guffaws of playground bullies? 

Every good comedian, from Stephen Colbert to Eddie Izzard to Christian Lander to the writers at The Onion, knows that the best jokes mock people’s hang-ups and clumsy reactions to minority issues, not the mere existence of minorities. My beloved Flight of the Conchords frequently flip gender roles and ethnic stereotypes, exposing the absurdity of racism and misogyny.  As the following video demonstrates, 1970s machismo has been begging to be made fun of.  However, when it comes to physical Otherness, it is the body—not fearful attitudes toward it—that they choose to snicker over, 54 seconds into the video:

 

 

Hermaphrodite?  Really?  An intersex kid’s medical reality is your toy?  C’mon, Conchords.  You’ve proven you’re great at making fun of white Kiwis tripping over Maori culture.  (“Jemaine, you’re part Maori…  Please be the Maori!  If you don’t do it, we’re gonna have to get Mexicans!”)  Surely you could come up with some good bit about hipster comedians clinging to lookist and ableist jokes like teddy bears and throwing temper tantrums when they’re taken away.  Or take a tip from Mitchell & Webb and take a jab at the way the ableism of reality TV masquerades as sensitivity:

 

 

Of course comedians have the right to make jokes objectifying minorities.  But I’m more interested in why they feel the need to, why they choose to objectify some people and not others.  Being gay, disabled, trans, intersex or non-white is not inherently hilarious to anyone who doesn’t live their lives sheltered from anyone unlike them.  The American freak shows of P.T. Barnum and the racist British sitcoms of the 1970s signify not just how profoundly disenfranchised minorities were in these countries, but how absurdly provincial audiences must have been in order to be so easily titillated.  Many comedians who reiterate chauvinist jokes argue that in doing so they are pushing the boundaries, expanding freedom of thought in defiance of PC oppression, when in fact they are merely retreating to well-trod ground, relying on ideas that challenge nothing but the very young idea that minorities deserve to be included in the dialogue as speakers, not objects.  As Bill Bryson has pointed out, the backlash against “political correctness” took place the moment the idea was introduced and has always been far more hysterical than what it protests.   

Toni Morrison has said, “What I really think the political correctness debate is really about is the power to be able to define.  The definers want the power to name.  And the defined are taking that power away from them.”  Revealing that it is all about power explains why emotions run so high whenever minorities get upset by certain jokes and comedians get upset about their being upset.  But this redistribution of power can be productive.  Taking old slurs and xenophobic tropes away from today’s politicians and comedians challenges them to think beyond their own experience and to wean themselves off society’s long-held fears, to redefine “them” as those enslaved by the limits of their imagination; in essence, to really push the boundaries.  Yet too often they default to the tired claim that this challenge infringes on their right to free speech. 

Some progressive critics do bring on the censorship accusation by using the ineffective phrase “You can’t say that!” and sometimes this is indeed an open attempt at censorship because most media outlets self-censor.  For example, Little People of America has called for the Federal Communications Commission to add “midget” to its list of words you can’t say on television.  I understand the temptation to insist upon the same treatment afforded other minorities: If certain ethnic and gender slurs are banned by newspapers and TV networks, why not others?  But this tactic too easily insults those other minorities—are you claiming black people have it easier than you?—and creates the concept of a forbidden fruit that will only tantalize right-wing politicians and shock jock comedians.  Simplifying the issue into Good Words/Bad Words can be a waste of an opportunity.  Instead of limiting itself to which words are always unacceptable regardless of context or nuance, the dialogue should always aim to reveal which minority jokes truly blow people’s minds and which lazily replicate institutionalized chauvinism. 

Instead of splitting hairs over the modern meaning of the word “mong,” I’d love it if a comedian went at the fact that Dr. Down came up with the term “Mongoloid” because he thought patients with the diagnosis resembled East Asians.  Because really.  Who’s asking to be made fun of here?

 

 

* “Phobia” always indicates an irrational fear, hence arachnophobia, agoraphobia, claustrophobia, homophobia, etc.  Fears that are well-founded are not phobias.

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Lessons in Grief

22 Apr

(Image by Stephen Alcorn © 2003 http://www.alcorngallery.com)

 

Humans are afraid of many things, but death probably ranks the highest.  Whether embracing the pragmatic/repressed approach that insists we keep off such upsetting subjects or delving into the artistic/philosophical fascination with all things morbid, almost no one talks about the realness of grief.  It’s too much of a drag.

This week marks both the birthday and the death day of one of my very best friends, Bill Palinski (1984 – 2004).  My life changed forever when he left without warning.  I had lost close relatives and acquaintances before him, but he was supposed to grow old with me.  He was supposed to accompany me through life, doing what he had always done: enthrall me with his superstar adventures, teach me lessons through his wisdom and his flaws, celebrate with me, listen to me complain and cry, and make fun of me the entire time.  Bad things can happen, but you never truly believe it at the most visceral level until one of your closest loved ones is ripped away from you.  He would be supremely annoyed were I to use his death as a source of self-pity, but he would be pleased to know it has helped me understand grief and those it consumes. 

When you’re in bereavement, you constantly feel on edge.  You want to punch strangers on the subway for going on with their lives and not realizing what an amazing person is missing from the world.  You feel constant guilt whenever you try to do something that doesn’t involve mourning your loved one.  Almost everyone, including your closest friends, says something that strikes you as deeply insensitive.  (Sometimes it is insensitive, other times your anger picks targets at random.)  For the first several months, you avoid parties or any social situations where people will ask you “What’s new?” because you’re constantly on the brink of tears and anyone’s problem unrelated to loss seems incredibly petty to you.  Many people like to talk about death in the abstract—the prospect of dying, the politics of war and violence, famous murder cases, existentialism, Halloween, the songs they want played at their funeral—but almost no one enjoys talking about someone you know who died.  And everyone is ready for you to “move on” and “get over it” way, way before you are.  Getting over it is out of the question.  Growing from it is the only alternative to being paralyzed by your newfound proof that bad things can and do happen, and may very well happen again.  The only way to keep ourselves from letting this fact drive us mad is to engage in what bereavement counselors call “healthy denial.” 

And for all the summarizing I just did, grief varies profoundly with different circumstances.  Losing your best friend and losing your mother and losing a child and losing someone to a long illness and losing someone in an accident and losing someone to murder are all very, very different experiences.  People in grief are usually desperate to hear from other survivors, but they never want the different circumstances shaping their grief to be dismissed for the sake of relativizing sorrow.  The phrase “I know what you’re going through” should be used with caution.   

I didn’t know any of this before I lost him.  I always wanted to help others in bereavement, but I was that awkward person who was scared whenever I didn’t know what to say and believed any sort of grieving beyond a few months was probably unhealthy.  Staying away from social gatherings certainly sounded like a bad idea.  I’m sure I said many careless things that were hurtful.  I probably still do when reacting to someone else’s loss.  But I now find it heartwarming, not sad, if they want to tell stories about the person who’s gone.  And I know to let them call the shots.  If they want to talk about it, listen actively.  If they do not, don’t prod.  Only offer advice or philosophy when they ask for it.  Otherwise listen, listen, listen.  As a friend said after a loss, death highlights how often we forget the importance of listening in all aspects of life; how much we prioritize having an opinion ready for any sort of subject we encounter. 

The grieving process takes up to two years, and of course, the pain never goes away.  There’s not a day that goes by without my missing Bill, but I no longer feel guilty when I push tears aside to pursue something I truly believe in.  Time has brought me to this more productive state of mind, but so has his inspiration. 

At his funeral, his sister said, “We’re all going to have to be a bit better than we had planned on being now that he’s gone.  We have to take on some of the good works he was going to do.”  I’ve carried him with me on every adventure I know he would have loved and never got to have: finding true love, taking in the Tokyo skyline, meeting David Sedaris, learning naughty words in Swedish, belting out “Wig in a Box” a hundred feet away from where the Berlin Wall stood, appreciating the beauty in all the wonderful friends I’ve made since his passing who will only ever know him as photographs and stories.  But I have also let him remind me that I rarely have an excuse for not supporting a cause I believe in. 

Alice Walker said, “Activism is my rent for living on the planet,” and no one embodied this as well as Bill.  By the time of his death at age 20, he had been an exchange student to Ireland, a volunteer for exchange students to the U.S., done volunteer home renovation for a poor black community in South Carolina, donated and signed petitions for the Natural Resources Defense Fund, and worked for almost 10 years with the Quakers for peace, non-violence and human rights.  (In trying to summarize all this in a letter of recommendation, a guidance counselor wrote that he did volunteer work to aid poor Quakers.)  He made friends left and right—in every sense—while simultaneously being known far and wide as the coolest of the cool.  To him, being hip was all about a scathing wit (“Oh, Emily, your little dwarf arms just can’t reach!”) and a refined sense of the absurd (a few times he insisted we pretend to fight at parties just to see everyone else’s awkward reaction).  But it was never about being too cynical to care or work for justice.

Okay, he hated the rainbow flag—“Where was I when they voted on that?!”—preferring the sober tones of the Human Rights Campaign logo.  The medium is the message, of course.  But whenever I slump into cynicism, daunted and wanting to do nothing but complain about humanity’s capacity for cruelty, the ubiquity of ignorance and the overwhelming number of flaws in the system, he is always quick to answer: “So?  You’re alive.  You can do something about it.”

 

 

Female Privilege

14 Apr

(Rates of violence worldwide, used under CC license via)

 
 
Recently at Feministing, Cara Hoffman wrote about violence that targets men, setting off an angry debate. Most commenters rightly supported the idea of feminism openly discussing the ways in which men are specifically victimized, but there were some who said this had no place in the movement. Such a women-only approach to feminism is indeed sexism that, like male chauvinism, will never be successful as long as it is determined to concern itself with only one half of the population. The hero and heroine gender tradition oppresses men, women and those who identify as neither. As women, we should never be so insecure as to ignore anyone’s true disenfranchisement or to deny the privileges patriarchy automatically bestows upon us.  

Yes, being female comes with certain privileges under patriarchy. (And no, I don’t mean Phyllis Schlafly’s you-get-your-restaurant-meals-paid-for-so-be-happy-staying-out-of-the-workforce sort of “privilege.”) Privilege is granted by society to certain people based on things we had absolutely nothing to do with: our gender identity, our ethnicity, our sexuality, our physical traits, our mental capabilities, our class background. That is why any privilege—like any form of disenfranchisement—is the essence of injustice. 

Men face oppressive double-standards in dating and the family unit that I will address in a later post, but, in the wake of the arrest of Trayvon Martin’s killer, I want to focus for now on prejudices against men that are truly life-threatening. Beginning at the personal level, my husband has been beaten up twice by strangers. My brother and several guyfriends have been attacked outside clubs by strangers. Others were shoved down the stairs and slammed against lockers in school by bullies. I’ve never once been challenged to fight as they have, just as they have never experienced sexual harassment as I have. Of course far too many women are beaten by both men and other women, just as far too many men are sexually assaulted by both women and other men, but my personal experience and my husband’s are representative of the increased risk each of us face for certain kinds of attack in our society. There’s no need to try to decide which is worse: the threat of sexual assault or the threat of coming to blows. Both can end in the worst possible way, both are always inexcusable. Both target people based on their apparent gender. 

As a woman, I am far less likely to be challenged to fight or to be suspected of violence by authorities. As a woman, I am automatically more trusted to be around children. As a woman living in the United States and Europe, I have never been asked to die for my country.  As a woman, I can express more affection to a member of my gender without fear of gay bashing than a man can. As a woman, I can buy products of any color without fear of gay bashing. As a woman who’s not physically strong, I don’t have to worry as much as a man does about being picked on by bullies looking for an easy target. As an achondroplastic woman, I’ve always been less likely to be confronted by an assailant looking to engage in dwarf tossing than an achondroplastic man is. As a woman, I am permitted to choose emotional fulfillment over professional success without being considered a failure. This is why homeless women attract less contempt than homeless men. And part of why men are three times more likely to commit suicide than women. 

In a previous post discussing female sexuality, I quoted Chloe S. Angyal’s point that traditional gender roles consider sexuality a no-win situation for women, that any type of behavior we choose can be seen as an invitation to sexual assault. For men, the same Catch-22 can apply for men regarding violence. Looking tough? You’re a threat that needs to be knocked down. Looking vulnerable? You’re the perfect victim to pounce on. If you are identifiable as a minority through your appearance or behaviors, you’d better make sure you avoid the wrong parts of town, which, in some cases, may include your entire home town or country. Or shoot first. 

Like the virgin/whore cycle with which women are encumbered, men are confronted with the brute/wuss standard from the earliest of ages. You’re a monster if you use your fists to solve your problems, but you’re a sissy if you can’t. Non-violent young men must endure society’s suspicion that they are prone to be violent while at the same time enduring their own vulnerability as a victim of violence. The reality of violence against women can never be denied or downplayed, but neither can violence against men, who are 2 to 4 times more likely to be killed by violence than women. Because of the pressures of the traditional model of masculinity, men are far less likely than women to seek help after being threatened or assaulted. 

Most violence enacted upon boys and men is by other boys and men, and this proves that, as with violence against women, the solution is not to condemn a gender, but to condemn an attitude. Googling “female privilege” results in some very creepy websites, wherein men rage about women who won’t sleep with them after they held the door for them, and patriarchy relies on this polarization of the genders for survival.  Despite what so many of those misogynistic websites claim, women who identify as feminists demonstrate less hostility toward men than women who embrace traditional gender roles because we know that those traditions screw everyone over, including men.  That’s why we unite with men against them, taking them apart bit by bit, non-violently.    

  

 

In Activism, The Medium Is The Message

6 Apr

 

An acquaintance recently referred to me in a discussion about limb-lengthening on a Tumblr page.  Having heard about my medical experiences from mutual friends, he insinuated that I may have been forced into it, reported the procedure is used to make people with dwarfism “look normal” and dismissed it as therefore morally wrong.

Around the same time that week, The New York Times featured a discussion regarding whether the Internet’s contributions to political discourse are always productive under the headline, “Fighting War Crimes, Without Leaving the Couch?”  The Internet itself is so multi-faceted it undoubtedly does as much good as harm.  Like all media, it has both cerebral and shallow corners.  And, as the Times piece reveals, there is a fine line between slacktivism and activism.  But the recent trend toward microblogging—Tweets, Facebook status updates, Tumblr—for political discussions is rife with problems.  For every productive comments thread I’ve read, there are conversations that never evolve beyond slogans, sneering, choir-preaching, or kneejerk reactions with most information based on hearsay.  Every single piece of information cited in the Tumblr discussion on limb-lengthening contained at least one factual error.  (More here on the fact that it was posted in the context of sick fascination rather than bio-ethics.)  That microblogging brings those who don’t have the time or energy to compose an entire blog post or article into the discussion is hardly a compelling argument, since it quickly extends to Those Who Don’t Have the Time to Research Or Think Much About the Issues. 

I’m quite used to having my story cited in debates because of the exposure I’ve allowed it.  I love debate like other people love video games and limb-lengthening is a contentious issue.  (Just ask my friend who witnessed a stranger with dwarfism approach his mother and demand, “How could you ruin your child’s life like this?!”)  When ignoring the broad-sweeping nature of his assertion, I consider this friend of a friend’s kneejerk opposition to cosmetic surgery preferable to, say, the handful of journalists who have interviewed me and chosen to portray limb-lengthening as a painless miracle cure for anyone unhappy with their size.  But reading his hasty dismissal of my seven-year-long experience based only on what our mutual friends had told him brought back memories of all the people I’ve observed summarizing deeply personal, overwhelmingly complicated decisions in 140 characters or less, both online and off:

“It’s been TWO months since she died.  He’s gotta move on.” 

“It was so selfish of her to get pregnant now with everything her husband’s going through.”   

“It’s absolutely horrible to abort a fetus that tests positive for a disability.  Who would do such a thing?!” 

“Only one girlfriend?  Well, then she’s not really gay.  She was just experimenting.” 

“It’s ultimately selfish to want a child with dwarfism.  You wouldn’t want to do that to a child.”

“No wonder she got mugged.  Any girl who goes hiking alone should know better.”

“It’s so stupid that women are supposed to be upset about not being able to have their own kids.  They could just adopt.” 

Assuming others’ motivations, knowing what’s best for everyone, passing on poorly researched information; too often gossip masquerades as political discourse, both in the media and at home.  We all feel compelled to have an opinion.  About everything.  The more noble root of this is the desire to actively take an interest in everything.  But that nobleness dies the moment we can’t be bothered to consider anything beyond our gut reaction before spouting off; the moment a desire to improve the world devolves into the simple urge to mark everything we see with our own personal “GOOD” or “BAD” stamp. 

Obviously, as a blogger I am constantly offering my opinions.  But I remain acutely conscious of my chosen medium, taking inspiration from Marshall McLuhan whose quote heads this post.  There is a difference between tabloids and broadsheets, between documentaries and reality TV, between a blog entry and a Tweet, and it’s not just big words: It’s the intellectual commitment required of the audience in order to consume.  True learning demands this commitment and risks upsetting our world view.  Voyeurism indulges our complacency and guarantees our prejudices will be cemented.     

Every blog post I put out is both a labor of love and a terrifying experience.  Every week I hear the imaginary voices of every individual who could in any way be implied in my arguments howling at me, “Who do you think you are?!”  The voices aren’t loud enough to scare me into silence.  But, combined with the inspiring examples set by my partner, my mom and dad, Ariel Meadow Stallings, Barack Obama and many others, they motivate my every edit of that girl in high school who was so well known for her righteous indignation that she was voted “Most Argumentative” in the yearbook.

That girl has made so many mistakes along the way.  I found out that posting your religious views online can earn you applause from strangers but cost you a friendship.  I’ve learned using the “I know someone who…” argument can offend or embarrass said person if you haven’t asked their permission, even when it’s intended as praise.  I’ve learned passion alone inspires your supporters but usually sounds like ranting to the unconvinced, especially on Facebook.  I’ve learned mass emails are not only passé outside the workplace but were never very popular to begin with.  (At least not among the recipients.)  I’ve learned to never read the comments section on YouTube unless I want to lose all my faith in humanity.

I intend to address all the reasons why I underwent limb-lengthening eventually, but at the moment I’m not sure yet if I can in anything less than the 13 pages I needed in Surgically Shaping Children.  I’m sorry to play Tantalus to those unable to shell out the cash for the book or find it at their library.  This undoubtedly limits the number of people I inform.  But, for now at least, I prefer to be held responsible for a few well-informed individuals rather than many misinformed ones.  And no matter how I end up condensing it, I know I won’t ever be able to fit seven years of limb-lengthening into one Tweet.