07 January 2010

Somebody is Really Missing the Point (maybe it's me)

OK, so Letterman said this:

And then HRC (and others as well), said this:
You may not be aware that the punch line in your skit has been used as a defense in nearly every hate crime perpetrated against transgender people that has come to trial. For example, the "trans panic" defense was infamously used by Allen Ray Andrade, who was convicted in 2009 of beating 19-year-old Angie Zapata to death with a fire extinguisher after learning of her gender history. According to media reports, it has also been the main defense employed by Juan A. Martinez for the killing of Jorge Steven López Mercado, 19, in Puerto Rico last November.

Your skit affirmed and encouraged a prejudice against transgender Americans that keeps many from finding jobs, housing, and enjoying freedoms you and your writers take for granted every day. We ask that you apologize publicly

Just to remove all traces of doubt: the so-called "gay panic" defense is wrong, loathsome, and vile in all respects, and I've published stuff on it in these terms (thought not put quite so starkly) in the past. But the thing one has to understand about the defense is that it depends quite heavily on heteronormativity. Whereas, it seems to me that this joke, if it is to be funny, is making fun of heteronormativity. Let me say that again, in different terms:

  • The panic defense only works as a defense if the audience (the jury) finds it logically compelling that a person would respond to any deviation from heteronormativity by assaulting or murdering the individual who so deviates.
  • The joke only works as a joke if the audience (Dave's viewers) rejects the idea that deviation from heteronormativity is obviously revolting.

Aren't the viewers supposed to be laughing AT the announcer who runs from the room, and not at Amanda Simpson? And if so, why the immediate rush to condemn the joke by HRC, GLAAD, and others?

So, who is missing the point, me or them?


sageblue said...

Them. Once again HRC is wrong-headed (which is why I don't give them money anymore -- for more on that score, just read Sully's screeds against them) and also gives credence to the lie that politically active LGBTs are humorless. Sigh.

Daniel said...

Not to blow up yr blog with my comments, but it seems to me that it is appropriate to call out the skit as making light of the sort of gay panic that frequently is the motive of a hate crime against a transgendered person.

I'm not sure that the funny of the joke hinges on a "laughing at" the announcer's overreaction exactly, but nor is it to laugh directly at Simpson for being a queeirdo. To laugh is to side with the announcer as the hilariously unfortunate victim of trans deception.

The joke, of course, is that the announcer had sex with Simpson, and is finding out about her trans identity when it is "too late": he had sex "with a dude." Gotcha! He runs away in disgust and shame. The funny is that he was tricked into gay sex. The laughter comes from knowing that he is joking, since finding out such a thing would be no laughing matter at all. It seems to me that this feeling of ewww--haha! would lead one to be sympathetic to a feeling of panic and a subsequent violent reaction when considering someone in that situation for real.

The embedded understanding is indeed a heteronormative one: a trans woman is a dude. Her sex remains, essentially, the one that is listed on her birth record.

Gladd says "Depicting people reacting in horror to transgender individuals is a dangerous stereotype for popular media to perpetuate because it contributes to the societal conception of transgender people as abnormal and deceptive, which all-too-often results in anti-transgender violence and/or discrimination when played out in reality." I think that's fair, although it elides the more subtle narrative of the joke where the announcer is reacting as the victim.

tenaciousmcd said...

Comedy rarely shows good taste, and given the history of violence against transgenders, it is hard to begrudge a little sensitivity. That said, I'd generally agree with Fro here.

I saw the bit when it aired, and FWIW (from someone outside the LbGT world) here's how I saw it. The joke obviously begins with a "heteronormative" premise, although, as I've argued before, that premise is unavoidable in mainstream culture, especially with respect to transgenders. There's no way around the oddity of the phenomenon, which affects a tiny % of the population and by its very nature jumbles all our instinctual categories of gender identity. Everyone, queer or not, struggles with what it means to "be a man" or "become a woman," and the identities won/found/created become prized truths. You can't expect members of dominant sex-orientations to just magically act as if those identity understandings don't matter--any more than you can ask gays to get over themselves. The latter just tend to be more conscious of those identities since they can less accept the standard/majority gender expectations.

Given the unavoidability of some degree of heteronormativity then, what LbGT should most want (short term) is mainstreaming--making it an oddity like any other, one that can be openly joked about. Maybe on a show with a mass audience. With a tolerant audience and a bemused host. And where the joke is mostly on the gay-panicked announcer. If you watch the show at all, you know that a running joke is the "Alan Coulter" character Alan Coulter often plays: a would-be lothario whose gender identity is actually very fragile and subject to constant disruption. Meanwhile, here's a picture of the first ever transgender appointee, and guess what?--she looks attractive and NORMAL. (Hence the joke that he couldn't have known "she used to be a dude.") The inversion of heteronormative expectations is what makes this (mildly) funny.

Meanwhile, I'll bet that the first most of this national audience knew about a transgender getting a major political appointment was this show, which treated it as just one more subject of gentle ribbing, unlike, say Sara Palin who gets brutally mocked on a nightly basis. Overall, a small win for transgenders.

fronesis said...

D: I appreciate your analysis here, which in mays is more subtle than mine. I still don't think the joke makes us sympathetic to the panic defense; if jurors laughed out loud when the defendant said he did it because of 'trans panic' then they would proceed to put the bastard in jail. If everyone thought the panic response was hilarious, then it wouldn't be used as a defense. But, you and Tmcd both point out that there's no reason not to be a bit more sensitive to an issue that relates to serious physical violence, and I agree. But I think sageblue is spot-on: part of the problem (that I was reacting to) is the HRC's knee-jerk humorless reaction that just confirms so many stereotypes about liberal PCness.

Tmcd: thanks a lot for the context; it's helpful for an ignoramus like myself who never watches letterman. You and I still have a subtle (but really significant) difference in understanding of 'heteronormativity', as when I use it I mean to refer to the upholding and coercing enforcing of the norm, not just to statistical averages. Partially spurred by conversations we had on email/blog long ago, I took up this issue in some detail in the queer tv book. So thanks for that, even if I haven't yet persuaded you! ;)

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