The recent Don Imus imbroglio, in which the radio host called the Rutgers women's basketball team "nappy-headed hos," has raised a slew of issues about racism and sexism in comedy, and it reminded me of an experience I had last month when I went to a comedy club to see a friend of mine perform in an amateur stand-up contest.
The Rutgers women in action.
I wasn't surprised to find out that of the 13 contestants that night, only four were women (among them, my friend). What did surprise me was that among the nine men who performed, six or seven of them used gay jokes in their routine. And by "gay jokes," I mostly mean "homophobic" jokes. The one man who told gay jokes that were not homophobic was also the only gay man performing.
I have to admit, I was a bit offended by some of the gay jokes. They seemed unnecessary and sophomoric, and honestly — why would you tell homophobic jokes in the San Francisco Bay area? The majority of the audience wasn't amused, either, judging by the results of the competition: The top four winners included three women (none of whom told gay jokes) and the one gay man.
The Don Imus mess follows on the heels of other comedic missteps from Rosie O'Donnell and Michael Richards and shows that Americans are just about done with racist comedy, and Imus' offensive comment has even yielded a debate (finally!) about misogynistic comedy. That debate is far from over, however; hopefully, it's just beginning. In this Chicago Tribune editorial, sex-positive feminist activist Margo St. James points out: "We've got to get down to what it does to women to call them whores. We've got to go after the big problem, not one big mouth!"
The whole thing raises a bunch of questions for me: When will Americans really be ready to confront institutionalized sexism and misogyny that makes it OK for people (everyone from rappers to, well, old white men) to refer to women as "hos" and "bitches"? Is it really possible to reclaim those kinds of terms the way that lesbians have reclaimed "dyke" and gay folks in general have reclaimed "queer"?
And when will comedians stop slinging cheap shots at gay people with bad gay jokes? Many of the gay jokes I heard that night last month referenced effeminate men, which ultimately translates to — you guessed it — misogyny. Yeah, those jokes are homophobic, but they are also sexist: If people didn't think that being feminine was so bad, perhaps those gay jokes would simply no longer be funny.
My guess is that it's gonna take a long time for Americans to let go of their sexist jokes. If the Pussycat Dolls are now about empowerment, I sense impending disaster.