Monday, February 22, 2010

I bet you think this joke is about you

A back injury has relegated me to the horizontal plane for the past week, and I haven't felt like blogging much. But thanks to Allah and Vicodin (mostly Vicodin), I can resume. I'm sorry to my thousands of devoted fans for the hiatus. One particular story from this past week struck a chord with me. If you haven't heard/seen, a recent Family Guy episode featured a character with Down syndrome, the voice of which was done by an actress who actually has Down syndrome. In the episode, it's insinuated that this character's mother is Sarah Palin, whose son, Trig, has Down syndrome. (When asked what her parents do, the character, Ellen, responds, "my mom is the former governor of Alaska.)

Uh oh. Palin has a history of taking jokes about her a bit personally. When David Letterman joked a little while back that Palin had come to New York for the purpose of going to Bloomingdale's to update her "slutty flight-attendant look," she wasn't laughing. Her response was that Letterman had missed the real point of her trip, which was to attend an autism conference. On top of this, she also let fly some barely incoherent, sanctimonious babble—the kind of dialogue that we’ve come to expect, and that I’ve grown quite fond of—, this time something about the degradation of women. Sarah's right, Letterman did miss the point, and I'm guessing he missed it on purpose, because autism conferences don't make for good jokes. Like a true, gross politician, she made a pretty harmless jab into a self-important advertisement for herself about the good deeds she was doing.

But jokes about her family are what get her truly riled-up. In June, Letterman said this: "Sarah Palin went to a Yankee game yesterday. There was one awkward moment during the seventh-inning stretch: her daughter was knocked up Alex Rodriguez." Palin's response was to lash out at Letterman, calling him “sexually perverted” for making sordid references about what she believed to be her then 14-year old daughter, Willow. In his own response, Todd Palin, the husband, threw in the totally harmless words "rape" and "despicable," just for good measure. It should be clear to anyone with even a decent sense of humor that Letterman's joke wasn't that funny, as is the case with most of his stuff. But I also thought it should be clear that Letterman was not talking about the 14 year-old Willow, but the 18 year-old, uber-pregnant Bristol. I guess I assumed this because it seemed to me that a joke about one of the Palin kids being pregnant would, most likely, be directed at the kid who was pregnant—not the un-pregnant 14 year-old. Sarah, darling, sometimes you are such a retard.

Okay, that brings me to the next point. Gear-up the DeLorean and fast-forward to last week. ("We're going the future?")

After the Family Guy episode, Palin asked, "when is enough enough?" (I'd ask Palin the same question, as her seemingly unquenchable thirst for media attention has led her to bring daughter Bristol into the spotlight. Bristol has recently worked as the spokesperson for the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, as well as for the Candie's Foundation. You could look at her as the perfect person to speak for abstinence, or as a humongous-ly hilarious parody of herself.) In response to the episode Bristol said, "When you're the son or daughter of a public figure, you have to develop thick skin. My siblings and I all have that, but insults directed at our youngest brother hurt too much for us to remain silent." "If the writers of a particularly pathetic cartoon thought they were being clever for mocking my brother and my family yesterday, they failed," she said. "All they proved is that they're heartless jerks."

They are definitely heartless jerks. Seth Macfarlane and the other creators of Family Guy have made it clear over the years that there is no one they will not offend, and they seem to have a jolly good time doing it. But let's get some things straight. If you actually watched the episode it would painfully obvious--yes, even to Sarah Palin--that it was breaking down stereotypes and empowering an oft-degraded character, and that it was not, as the Palins suggest, picking on an easy target with cheap humor because it could. In any case, the Palins' responses to the show's portrayal of someone with Down syndrome bring up some interesting questions with answers that are not so concrete. In the interest of publishing in a timely manner (and also to save your eyes from staring at a computer screen--seriously, go for a run or something), I'm going to do this piece in segments. Here's the first question I pose:

1. Are some things off limits to joke about?
Boy, this is a toughie. After some soul searching I admit I am torn on this question. As a person who stutters, I am perhaps more qualified to answer this question than other, more genetically perfect people. Whether or not this is true doesn't really matter because I got your attention now. My opinion on this is that making certain topics off-limits, like Down syndrome, takes the power out of the hands of the person who's afflicted with the thing; they instantaneously become a victim--even if they don't want to be. It's the same concept as someone stopping a schoolyard fight because she thinks the bully is going to kick the crap out of her friend. Well, yeah, maybe, but that's the way it has to go: it's a nice gesture, but the friend must be given the chance to fight his own battles.

Think people with Down syndrome can't fight their own battles? This is what Fay Friedman, the actress with Down syndrome who played the character on the episode, said in response to the Palins' comments: "I thought the line...was very funny. I think the word is ‘sarcasm.’ In my family we think laughing is good. My parents raised me to have a sense of humor and to live a normal life. My mother did not carry me around under her arm like a loaf of French bread the way the former Governor Palin carries her son Trig around looking for sympathy and votes."

Boo. yah.

Also, outlawing certain topics from being used for humor, or making certain topics taboo gives power and importance to those who use them in a real malicious way. Where before these people would just be a-holes, they now become social criminals, rising from anonymous idiots to infamous jerks.

I said I was torn though, and I am. There are definitely downsides to being laissez-faire about this kind of thing. Language is a huge part of what instructs us on how to treat other people. Every time we use "retard" or "fag" as a derogative word--even if we're just joking--it subconsciously trains us to think of people we assign those labels to in a derogatory way. Maybe once won't do much harm, but hundreds of those over time add up to some serious brain rewiring. Think, "the cow goes mooooo".

To be continued.

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