Friday, May 31, 2019

No, Grousing Comedians Are Still Not Right That Audiences Are Too Sensitive

by Neil H. Buchanan

One particularly frustrating aspect of the all-purpose, empty complaints about so-called political correctness is that they are actually bipartisan.  That is, right-wingers -- prominently including Donald Trump -- constantly whine that all of our problems are caused by being too politically correct ("We can't even shoot immigrants at the border, ya know?" "Why can't police rough up suspects?" "People shouldn't feel bad about saying 'Merry Christmas!"), and everyone else rejects those particular examples but then says, "Even so, PC culture can get out of hand."

Let us leave aside the ongoing reality that no one can actually define the key term here in a way that does not boil down to "being sensitive to things that I don't care about, even though I'm outraged when people are insensitive to what I do care about."  In fact, most of the time, the complaint is really about being expected to care about other people's concerns.

Lack of a clear idea about what is truly at stake rarely stops people from arguing passionately that they are right.  What is especially interesting, however, is how comedians -- a group that strongly leans left in its political attitudes, most definitely including social and cultural matters -- constantly grouse about their audiences being too sensitive.

Back in 2006, "Seinfeld" alumnus Michael Richards was seen on video unleashing a nasty stream of racist bile at some African-American hecklers during his stand-up act.  Even though he apologized and his friends did not defend his remarks, Jon Stewart used the occasion on his show to complain that audience videos were making it difficult for comedians to hone their acts before live audiences.  The idea, I guess, was that a comedian needed to be able to make some racist and sexist comments while working toward what might be funny?

More recently, English comedian Ricky Gervais has practically turned his career into an effort to say, "You're all PC policing me, but I don't care.  In fact, I don't care so much that this is pretty much all I'm going to talk about.  How much you're not bothering me.  At all."  One might imagine that his time would be better spent figuring out what his audiences would not find offensive, but complaints about political correctness are (in entertainment almost as much as in politics) the lazy way to express grievance.

I clearly hold a low opinion of those who hide behind such complaints, but is there a limit to my contempt?  Are there situations in which "PC has gone too far"?

I have been thinking about this question after (finally) going to see the latest tent-pole movie from Marvel Studios: "Avengers: Endgame."  That film has set all kinds of box office records, and it has been in theaters for over a month; so I assume that many readers of this column have already seen it.  In any case, I am not going to take care here to avoid spoilers, although my focus is not on the story line.

Because I had already heard a lot about "Endgame," I arrived with relatively low expectations.  It was a long, sprawling final chapter in the "Avengers" canon, and it was almost guaranteed to be a mess.  In some ways it was, but I actually liked it a lot.  I even liked the final half hour, which amounted to little more than a long, emotionally manipulative series of victory laps and curtain calls.  Yes, the filmmakers were being self-indulgent, but they have earned it.

Prior to the ultimate battle scene, a big part of the comic relief in the film revolved around the character Thor, who has always been played by Chris Hemsworth for laughs as much as for hunkiness.  (Hemsworth's comedic chops were on delightful display in 2016's remake of "Ghostbusters," a movie that was savaged by sexist trolls for being politically correct for starring, gasp, women.)  But Hemsworth is the ultimate gorgeous hunk, with an impressively muscled physique that usually is not hidden under things like, I don't know, shirts.

The big joke in "Endgame," then, is that Thor has (for very good reasons, having been part of the losing side in the previous film that ended with half of all life in the universe being destroyed) gone into a five-year tailspin, fueled mostly by beer and pizza.  He is first seen in a ratty bathrobe and with an unkempt beard and long hair, happily drunk and in denial -- and clearly out of shape.

Rather than putting him in a simple "fat suit," the filmmakers put him in what I assume is called a "fat skin," a prosthetic outer layer that looks convincingly like a fat belly and sagging chest.  When Thor's robe first falls open, the audience's reaction was delighted laughter.  So was mine, so much so that I identified it as my favorite touch in the film when I talked to someone about the movie afterward.

I was then told that the filmmakers had received a lot of negative feedback about that choice, because some people viewed it as body-shaming.  It is no longer acceptable to make fun of fat people, so it is apparently also not acceptable to make fun of a person for becoming fat.

Again, my general attitude about entertainment -- and comedy in particular -- is that funny is whatever the audience thinks it is.  As I wrote in a column last year: "[E]ntertainers should shut up about their audiences' supposed touchiness and try to write better jokes."  Should filmmakers have the same response that I argued the creators of "The Simpsons" should have had about the legitimate "brown-face" complaints about the character Apu, that is, that changed audience expectations require changes in creative choices?

In general, yes.  There truly is no basis on which a creative person can say that an audience owes her the right to make any joke that she wants to make.  Free speech is a fine thing, but the freedom to stop listening is not only morally important but the essence of the business model of the entertainment industry.

Even so, not every complaint about any particular creative choice is as legitimate as any other.  People who want to say, "No, this really is funny, and I don't think it demeans nor should it offend," are not necessarily saying what Republicans say about everything they dislike: "You people have just gotten too sensitive."

As a person who is still fighting a lifelong battle with weight issues (currently, I am happy to say, on the winning side -- but always knowing that it might go wrong again at any time), perhaps I have simply bought into the unenlightened mindset that says that fat is ugly.  Maybe my laughing at Thor arises from my own body image issues?

Maybe, but the joke in "Endgame" is not that "fat is funny, and fat people can be ridiculed," at least not as a general proposition.  The joke is that Thor -- the ultimate chiseled specimen of Hollywood-style manliness -- has simply stopped being what we think of Thor as being.  It is not that "he's fat, which is always funny," but that he has reacted to tragedy by becoming just another middle-aged guy who is out of shape.  The filmmakers are not saying that he is pathetic because he is fat, or that all fat people are pathetic.

And Thor himself actually does not care about being fat, as he shows no sign of being embarrassed or trying to cover up or make excuses.  He is sad, and he is dealing with it in a way that is unhealthy in many ways.  Hemsworth is also a good enough actor to pull off being a fuzzy-headed, friendly doofus.

Does that mean that people who are offended by that aspect of the movie should "just stop it with your PC crap"?  Of course not.  If enough people agree with them, future films will not rely on this kind of humor.  It is possible that relying on fatness -- no matter the context or the character's backstory -- will someday be viewed in the way that we currently view, say, Mickey Rooney's mind-bendingly offensive "oriental" character in "Breakfast at Tiffany's."

I strongly doubt it, but it is not out of the realm of possibility.  After all, even though the humor of Thor's situation is that the god who had zero percent body fat is now a couch potato, people could decide that relying on "fat is funny" in any context needlessly reinforces pain and shame for real people who have been harmed by social bias against people who are not standard-sized.

If that happens, then that is what should happen.  And if I am still around when that happens, I will think: "Wow, I can't believe that I once laughed at that kind of joke."  Just as many of us now look at, for example, the early seasons of "Friends" and think: "How much homoerotic panic can go into one TV show?"  Again, if it happens, then it happens.

In the meantime, it is perfectly healthy for people to debate what counts as appropriately sensitive versus overly touchy.  At this time and in this place, most people (including me) found the visual joke about Thor to be hilarious.  But all such reactions are contingent, and we can live with that and change as needed.


Joe said...

"savaged by sexist trolls for being politically correct for starring, gasp, women"

The problem with that movie was that it was boring. (I admit I was so bored and disappointed with the first half that I turned it off; someone told me the second half was better.)

Emily Doskow said...

"As a person who is still fighting a lifelong battle with weight issues (currently, I am happy to say, on the winning side -- but always knowing that it might go wrong again at any time), perhaps I have simply bought into the unenlightened mindset that says that fat is ugly. Maybe my laughing at Thor arises from my own body image issues?"

Nailed it. I don't think there is any such thing as winning the "battle" against "weight issues." There's only restricting food successfully enough to conform with the culture's idea of what is an acceptable size (as opposed to being the size your body naturally wants to be while eating what you want to eat).

I think the idea of a distinction between ridiculing someone for being fat and ridiculing them for getting fat ignores the reality that intent and impact are so often not aligned, and the impact on people in larger bodies of seeing someone be ridiculed for having a larger body (whether it's lifelong or recent) is harmful. As an ethical vegan, you've made a commitment to not harming other sentient creatures, and I hope that includes your fellow humans.

As a fellow lawyer and ethical vegan, I love this blog and I appreciate all you do and say, and this comment comes from that mindset of support and appreciation. If anything in it sounds otherwise I ask your forgiveness. In the same spirit I want to suggest you might take a look or a listen to some of the anti-diet nutritionists and therapists like Marcella Raimondo, Christy Harrison, and others, who are working on healing disordered eating for (including dieting) and diet culture, for individuals and in the bigger picture.

Thanks for listening!

Shag from Brookline said...

I started reading some of Mark Twain's writings as a pre-teen in the early 1940s. I enjoyed his stories and as I got older, I enjoyed his humor Then when I got a little older, I became aware of his posthumously published "Letters from the Earth," a fascinating book with wide ranging essays and stories. Twain specifically proscribed publication of these for a fixed period (35 years?) following his demise. Why? Was Twain concerned that publication while he was alive might have impacted negatively on his literary reputation? Was Twain concerned that such lifetime publications might have been what is now referred to as politically incorrect, as some groups might have been offended thereby? Perhaps by the time of their posthumous publication, Twain might have thought, certain groups would not have been offended by these essays and stories. I wasn't offended. Maybe certain groups were offended. Times change. What may be considered politically incorrect at a certain point in time may be acceptable commentary at a later time. The content and context of statements claimed to be offensive by some groups have to be examined with care Some such statements can be evil, but not all. Is it politically incorrect for the WaPo to identify Trump's lies so far as president? Trump, and his base, may find this offensive. But I think SCOTUS can take "judicial notice" of Trump as a liar when a case before the Court concerns an issue of presidential animus.

Joe said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Joe said...

Looking up the Twain book, the information I found said that he left some of his writings in trust for his daughter. These writings were published over a span of time, but no reference to him setting a fixed date. The specific one cited was not published until around 1960 because at first his daughter did not give permission to do so. The "letters" appear to be an early version of CS Lewis' "Screwtape Letters" but with an intent much more critical of Christianity.

Standards do develop over time though politicians today still are wary about being labeled a non-believer. For instance, George Burns in the 1950s once told a story about a woman who was not communicative when he talked to her -- all she said when he asked her questions was "Yes." He told the audience that someone like her would be so boring on her honeymoon. Who wants a woman who just said "Yes. Yes. Yes." The audience had a bit of shocked silence.

Anyway, humor at times can simply be mean, and it is okay to flag that though it should be done with some sense of perspective. I think, especially since comedians over time push the envelope, Jon Stewart's concern was at least somewhat understandable. Some humor that many women deem okay is seen by other people as sexist. Stand-up acts probably are easier calls, since the audience often knows basically what the person is all about.

Shag from Brookline said...

Joe, a geezer operating on memory should be aware that the memory is the second thing to go. Your comment moved me to check my copy of Twain's "Letters from the Earth," and its 2+pages Preface (reread with the assistance of my magnifying glass) set forth the trust arrangement that Twain provided for and its application. Twain had confidence in his daughter and the person he entrusted to make recommendations, presumably with the thought of preserving his literary legacy. Twain in his aging was bothered with financial concerns and became embittered with the losses of a daughter and his wife of many years. Maybe some of the essays/stories in the posthumously published book were driven thereby.

[As an aside, some people may not be concerned with legacy, such as recently displayed by Trump's AG Billy Barr in a CBS interview. Maureen Dowd in her 6/1/19 NYTimes column "Lowering the Barr" points this out, as well as some interesting contrasts between Bard and Bob Mueller.]

Political (in)correctness is frequently focused upon comedians, perhaps because of Bill Maher's "Politically Incorrect" TV series that soon left the airwaves. A lot of comedians prior to Maher employed humor that was offensive to some groups. Bob Hope comes to mind early in my lifetime. There were the insult comedians based in Las Vegas. And there was Lenny Bruce, who inspired many comedians who followed. In my dotage I recall jokes from years ago that I have to think about before repeating in order not to knowingly offend anyone. But political (in)correctness in entertainment may be a false equivalency when compared with politicians, elected or not, engaging in such. perhaps certain professions engage in political (in)correctness, like historians claiming beneficial paternalism of slavery. We might also point to some economists and columnists. Why it might even extend to legal academics who are into digital "Virtual Briefing" to attract SCOTUS justices and clerks with their ideology and political views on cases before the Court. I found Will Baude's comments at the VC quite interesting on this subject, suggesting that he had no problems at least with his role therewith. That might be encouraging to legal academics with different ideology and political views to do likewise. Might this possibly result in "illegal (in)correctness" as to the parties to a case before the Court not in a position under rules of the Court to address if considered by any of the justices?

TruePath said...

You are correct that if people don't like those kind of jokes then others will be written but that doesn't address the question of whether normatively they *should* find those kind of jokes offensive.

Surelly, as a sociological matter, surely it's POSSIBLE for a society or culture to become too focused on finding offense looking for any interpretation (even unintended) on which a remark might be seen as offensive. I mean we all know it's possible for individuals (to their own misfortune) to be so inclined. Once you admit this possibility you need to actually engage with whether it's actual. For the most part I don't think it is but you can't just dismiss it by noting that society determines what kind of humor is offensive. It does but we can ask if that is a healthy way to draw the line and you don't really say much about why where we are is healthy.


As an aside, while there was sexist vitriol directed at the new ghostbusters, it was also a truly awful movie. I rented it thinking the negative attitudes were a bunch of sexist bullshit only to find that instead of the witty banter of the original the new ghostbusters relied on childish gags like having one of the main characters walk silly. It was played as a goof. I think it would be great to have a all female take on ghostbusters but this film was awful.