Wonderful fights between narcissism and worthlessness

Daily Show, Colbert Report, and Inclusion

on November 7, 2012

[Trigger Warning: Discussion of transphobia and rape culture with examples of transphobic comments]

I remember when I actually struggled with keeping up with every Daily Show and Colbert Report. The details are fuzzy, and it sadly may have been because I couldn’t take time from playing World of Warcraft for any other entertainment media, but it was during college, when I would stretch morning and night for general flexibility, and while I watched all of Avatar: The Last Air Bender and the first season of Arrested Development that way, it was mostly a weekend affair; Tuesday to Friday was watching last night’s episode of The Daily Show in the morning and The Colbert Report in the evening. Religiously. Fanatically. Maybe it was that devotion, or my lack of knowing about my privileges and the experiences of discrimination others face, or a less comprehensive view of the issues tackled by the shows (I didn’t get news from anywhere else really) that allowed me to keep watching with such abandon. At some point I started to have disagreements with the occasional false equivalencies or jokes that targeted a discriminated party lazily, or meanly, or sanctimoniously. As I became more progressive, something I’d always thought myself to be while basically not being hateful or regressive and generally empathetic through college, I became less able to enjoy The Daily Show and The Colbert Report. There were still amazing episodes, their media takedowns were still biting, and there were (and are) a lot of high points. But the low points stood out more, and I no longer wanted to watch every episode. These days I don’t watch most episodes.

But! I’ve been trying to get back into daily stretching lately, and because any TV I watch online I watch with my partner (and I will not deny her a single episode of Polar Bear’s Cafe because I watched it alone stretching!), I’ve been watching Daily Shows and Colbert Reports. While watching Oct. 31st‘s episode, between the Trump blasting and Chris Christie praising, Colbert had a Hurricane Sandy joke. A few of them, but of course one was, “Is that a dude’s name or a girl’s name?” The Colbert Report’s had this problem before (a lot, and so has the Daily Show: http://transradical.tumblr.com/post/20587052007/stephen-colbert-doubles-down-on-transphobic-joke, with a link to a more comprehensive list in that post), and transsexual people aren’t the only group to be the butt of simple jokes laughing at states of people’s existence. The first night of DNC coverage had jokes about Charlotte being known for exotic dancers on the level of “HAH HAH STRIPPERS” and within the first ten minutes Jon Stewart called a woman “it” after featuring her giving Jason Jones a lap dance. And I’m not in any way qualified to discuss it as a white male, but their coverage of race fluctuates in who is the butt of the joke and can echo some really horrible sentiments racists whole-heartedly believe.

The Daily Show and Colbert report don’t have this problem, really. It is not born out of Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert’s writing staff as though of whole cloth. Society has this problem; these two shows reflect it. Jokes about men looking like women and women being manly get laughs in our society, as do racist jokes, jokes about strippers not being human beings, and on, and on, so they get laughs on these shows. And, as in the rest of society, it’s a signal, that if you’re in the privileged group? Enjoy the good parts, the great parts, the parts that make a Stewart/Colbert ticket (if there would ever be one) likely to be a national contender in any election cycle, that make Jon Stewart the most informative news source for many people, and worry about the discriminatory jokes if you care. If you don’t, well, whatever! You can skip it! But if you’re in the minority, it’s a signal that you will have to put up with being laughed at for who you are as a human being, an experience unique to you, to enjoy the Fox News take downs and good comedy. You HAVE to deal with that part of it, even if you can deal with it. And if you can’t, you don’t get this entertainment option, and we’ll leave you to deal with it alone. Whatever!

But the transphobia stands out for the skill with which it isn’t handled. I’m a huge proponent of criticism, GIGANTIC proponent of it, and while free speech debates are almost universally derailing, I do agree that the answer isn’t to make joke topics illegal or verboten completely. Although, with certain cases like rape, we’ve proven that society supports rape and defines what a rape joke is to the point that you can’t trust most people to make light of the topic without targeting victims, or being triggering, or not being able to craft any sort of punchline that isn’t “You got raped!” But you’ll still get laughs for all this shit because society’s determined rape is funny. Being raped, the word, the emotional trauma being ignored and families/friends siding with the rapists, all of it! Great humor!

And society treats transphobia and transsexuality in the same manner. They’re both just hilarious topics, huh? What, you want to be a man but were born with qualities that make me think you are and should be a woman? HAH, HAH HAH, HAH. And as with rape, this trivialization through comedy makes all the dismissiveness, isolation, and violence against people who are transsexual easier to be carried out. And it is systemic of our society, but there’s a unique hurt that comes from seeing it so freely mined for “comedic effect” on the Colbert Report and The Daily Show. From the transradical Tumblr article above:

Now these statements aren’t nearly as horrible as what’s being said elsewhere in the media. But what’s rather disappointing is that this is coming from what is generally considered ‘with it’ progressives who should know a lot better. I’ve noticed that there race commentary is often somewhat unfortunate, however, I’ve always been impressed that the queer jokes on each show are usually done in a very conscious and aware way. I mean, they often feel like the kind of jokes my friends and I would tell. In contrast, the derogatory references to trans people seem to have no real purpose.

BAM. Nail hit on the head. The Daily Show overtly and Colbert with his subversive personality have always promoted the idea that homosexuals are equal people deserving of rights and the reaction against it is hilariously outdated and wrong. Sam Bee often plays a caricature of what conservatives and misogynists believe women to be, and effectively. And I may feel more uncomfortable with certain race jokes the shows make than others, but I can admit it always seems a product of a thought process that took more than a second, even if it ends up with racist tones. But the butt of every joke involving transsexual people is at their expense, othering, and lazy to a level usually reserved for Adam Sandler’s jokes about everyone who isn’t Adam Sandler. The transphobia needs to be called out, always, and if this is ever a concern that registers on their radar, it’ll not be a bumpy road but a valley full of mountains. But the end of that road is the same general respect for transsexual people (and inroads to respect for the entire QUILTBAG group of sexual and gender identification including the distinctions often ignored) that other minorities get on these shows, a potential boost in empathy for the cis-viewers at home who view themselves as progressives but laugh along with every man-hand joke, and it (mostly) means a viewing experience for transsexual people where once a month they don’t have to be informed by otherwise progressive people that they are weird and people unlike them are normal. And even if we get just that last thing and no change in the thoughts or treatment of transsexual people in society at large, it’d still be an important step, one that’s continually unmade, and it’s getting pretty fucking sad.


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