Saturday, June 11, 2011

Planned and Deliberate - Comedic Violence in the First Degree

Comedy wouldn't be what it is if those who engaged in it weren't a little outrageous. But are there no limits to how far one can go? Who decides what those limits are and when they apply? In some or perhaps many jurisdictions, the laws of the state may overtly prohibit the type of speech that comedians can engage in, especially when the comedic speech concerns those with power. In other ("relatively freer") jurisdictions, the restrictions may be those imposed by members of civil society and people within the entertainment industry, rather than by politicians. Norms are temporally and culturally contingent. Jokes that target individuals from a particular community may be acceptable at one point in time, but moving forward in time may be rejected and excoriated.

The recent heterosexist and homophobic comments made by comedian Tracy Morgan in Tennessee are examples of jokes that are viewed as unacceptable in many contemporary North American cultures (amongst others). At a show earlier this week, Morgan made jokes stating that homosexuality was a choice and if his son chose to be gay, he would take out his knife and stab him. Kids who were being bullied for acting gay, he admonished, should stop whining and essentially "man up". The outpouring of condemnation has come from a variety of sources, including the Human Rights Campaign and Morgan's own 30 Rock co-star Tina Fey.

All of this criticism and denunciation is well-founded. Morgan, like other comedians do not operate in a social and cultural vacuum. They are aware of the mistreatment that many LGBTQ youth face, even if he chooses to minimize it. Furthermore, we have to recall that this likely wasn't a spontaneous discriminatory utterance - he wasn't for example responding to a heckler (although it would hardly be justified even if that was the case and it wasn't justified when Michael Richards resorted to racial epithets). If it was part of a stand-up routine, it might be fair to say that this was planned and deliberate "discrimination in the first degree." While portions of a comedian's act may be improvised (e.g. when a comedian engages in some impromptu colloquy with an audience member and usually at the latter's expense), there are many other portions that are clearly worked out in advance and form part of the overall sketch. It is considered and deliberated upon - in other words some time is spent contemplating what goes into the sketch and what stays out - pros and cons are weighed as to what will have the greatest impact.

Without a doubt, had Tracy Morgan made these jokes as late as the early 1990s, he might not have faced much hostility of any sort. Back in those days, a number of comedians made jokes about gay people, including Eddie Murphy in his film "Delirious" from the early 1980s. You could hardly imagine Mr. Murphy doing that kind of sketch today. Times have changed, norms have changed - for the better. When comedians like Tracy Morgan violate these norms, the result may be scorn and denunciation with a potential for loss of job opportunities. Although, there may be limits to that too - after all, Mel Gibson is still acting in or directing films.


Sunday, June 5, 2011

Sexual Assault and the City

Sexual assault is one of the most serious crimes known to civil societies. It impacts upon those subjected to sexual assault in a most intimate fashion. It isn't limited to instances of rape. It can involve the unwanted and offensive touching by one person or more of another without consent. In most cases, these assaults are perpetrated by men against women. Yet, one can easily imagine circumstances where the opposite may also be the case. This is eminently possible when we consider that under a broad understanding of sexual assault, men can also be the object of sexual gratification of another. Given the predominant paradigm of male on female sexual assault, forms of popular culture do not treat the converse as worthy of serious discussion.

Where it is covered it may be constructed as legitimate conduct. During an episode of the once popular television series Sex and the City, the character Samantha Jones learns of a masseur who provides more than skilled massages but cunnilingus to select female patrons. Expected to be treated to such extra services, she schedules an appointment with this masseur. As the allotted hour winds its way closer and closer to its end, Samantha seeks to accelerate the process of her obtaining sexual gratification by grabbing the masseur's genitals. This is naturally intended to signal the masseur as to her sexual intentions. The scene transitions to the manager or owner of the spa berating Samantha for sexually touching one of her male employees. Clearly, the masseur takes exception to what Samantha does. Samantha responds by informing the manager/owner that the masseur has a history of satisfying female customers in a manner that exceeds the scope of his duties as a masseur. We learn further that the masseur's employment is terminated. Samantha's action goes unpunished, save for being banished from the spa and being dressed down by other women who were serviced by the terminated masseur.

What lesson(s) is to be learned from this? Clearly, where a man has a sexual history, this means that he must be expected to comply when advanced upon by another a woman to whom he has not yet given consent. Let us imagine Samantha is Samuel and the masseur is a masseuse who is known to provide fellatio to select clients. Would there be any doubt that if Samuel touched the genital area of the masseuse, this would be construed not only as a sexual assault on her person, and interference with her bodily integrity, but also an act worthy of arrest and prosecution? We would have little doubt that Samuel would deserve such treatment. Surely the masseuse would have been acting inappropriately by going beyond the scope of her employment with other clients, but it wouldn't justify her being sexually molested by Samuel. Sex and the City's treatment does just this when the male is the "victim" and one of its lead characters is a "sex offender". However, the victim's status as a victim is impugned and tainted because of his sexual history with other clients, the very type of attack that feminist scholars and activists rightfully criticized the legal system for allowing to be done to women.