Pushing Back Against Privilege & What is Funny?

This week, I attended a show featuring six standup comediennes  sponsored by a leading nonprofit whose mission is empowerment of Jewish women world-wide. The host opened the show with jokes poking fun at assumptions about Jews, which felt welcome in an inclusive environment where the majority of the audience was Jewish. But I felt uncomfortable when the humor turned into exclusive abelist jokes, meaning prejudiced against people with disabilities, where the punch lines were that people with disabilities are inferior to others.

 One of the opening comediennes made a joke about a man telling her she was smart “for a lady,” and she recounted how she offered the quick retort, “you are good at using tools for a Mongoloid.” Hearing this word was a truly unpleasant throwback–Mongoloid is an old, pejorative term for a person with Down Syndrome that is also racist because it refers to the eyelid shape of people from Asia. This so-called joke also reiterates Douglas Bayton’s thesis in “A History of Inequality in America” about the trickle down effect of an oppressed group being labeled “mentally disabled” as the ultimate insult.

My discomfort grew when the headliner made a joke calling her mother “retarded,” and then minimized it by saying “retarded is a technical medical classification.” However, her joke was not using the “r-word” as a medical classification, she was actually mocking her mother’s lack of technical savvy. Furthermore, the r-word is not a “technical medical classification” and is no longer even in The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Medical Disorders. The current technical medical term is Intellectual and/or Development Disability (I/DD). A profound response on why using the “r-word” is not edgy or witty as the comedienne intended, but instead is a hateful slur comes from self-advocate John Franklin Stephens’s open letter to Ann Coulter.

The headliner had another joke where she recounted being stood up on a date by a blind man, which included a ton of gags about how she asked him out because she felt sorry that “he couldn’t see how cute he was,” and she saw a future together where “he could never see her cellulite.” These jokes do not even make sense if you have spent any time around a person who is blind or has low-vision, because from such interactions you realize complex and creative workarounds for seeing without your eyes. These jokes are premised on the prejudiced idea that being blind and/or having low vision also means that a person is truly deficient: incapable of a sense of touch (feeling her cellulite) and lacking the social conditioning and feedback from others to recognize that he is attractive.

After the Comedy Show, I wanted to address why I found these jokes so appalling, and I talked to the headliner. At first, when I tried to explain the complex skills people who are blind/have low vision use to navigate their daily lives and why her joke made no sense, she jibed,  “so why did he stand me up?” I quickly realized she wasn’t interested in developing a more nuanced understanding of the lives of people with blindness/low-vision, so I got to the point told her that I found her jokes to be prejudiced and abelist. She agreed, and said with pride, “I am going to offend a lot of people with my comedy.”

I had to accept that she simply didn’t care, and was even proud of her prejudices, but I thought that the host organization, which aspires to empower Jewish women, should care that humor grounded in prejudice is not even remotely funny. What makes comedy funny is the joining together of ideas that reveal truisms and absurdities about the way we live. Jokes whose punch line is premised on a person of privilege mocking the vulnerability of a group of people, are not edgy or original or even funny because they cruelly and boringly reiterate the status quo. For example, during the 2013 Oscars, the online news outlet The Onion tweeted that the nine-year old star of The Beasts of The Southern Wild, Quvenzhané Wallis, was a “cunt.” There is nothing funny about exposing a young African American girl to how society objectifies and sexualizes her, as this response articulates.

The following day, I emailed the coordinator for the nonprofit organization sponsoring the event, outlining many of my thoughts here. The coordinator wrote a congenial response that emphasized that as the host of the show, she does not and cannot control the comediennes’ content. She added that comedy shows are spaces for irreverent and sometimes offensive material, and she knew that none of these comics intended to offend or degrade anyone. I was disappointed by the host’s response because I felt like she missed my point: that until the comediennes can delve deeper and recognize that marginalized people, including people with disabilities, are first and foremost people whose rich experiences that can be very funny but are not to be made fun of, they will never be truly funny.

My final guideline comes from the blog “Black Girl Dangerous,” which gives excellent advice on how to push back against privilege. I  regret giving the organization my money to attend the event, and in the future I want to make more informed choices about the nonprofits and entertainers I support. In closing, I would like to recommend some standup Comedians who jokes, unlike those I parsed above, are irreverent and funny:

1. Margaret Cho http://www.margaretcho.com/2009/10/28/stand-up-clips/

2. Hari Kondabolu http://www.harikondabolu.com/videos/

3. Maysoon Zayid goo.gl/hRk5W9

2 comments

  1. I enjoyed reading your thoughtful article. I think it exposed and reflected a lot about people’s sensitivities and sensibilities.

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