The other evening I went out with a bunch of people, some long-time friends and some newly met. When someone complimented my black skirt, I said, “Thanks. I made it.”
My friend G was sitting next to me at the time and he piped up. “Jen, that’s a great red skirt.”
I paused looking at him, then started laughing as I gave him a playful smack.
The woman sitting with us was a recent acquaintance and the look on her face must have been truly horrified because through his laughter, G said, “I’m the only person who ever gives Jen any shit.” Not exactly true, but close.
Did you laugh? If not, here’s a question to ask yourself: Do you think of disability as a negative? For instance, is it my obstacle to overcome, a tragic situation, or something you wish I was spared?
I have a theory that people who view disability as a negative often miss the humor in situations such as the above. the tragic is simply not humorous, akin to poking fun at someone dying. (Btw, is the euphemism for a dying person existence challenged?)
There is a fundamental belief in our culture that something pitiable should be off limits. You don’t laugh at another’s hardships. When G deadpanned about my skirt being red, he assumed I knew he thought me capable of dressing myself in the desired clothing of the desired color. What happened would not be amusing if G honestly thought I’d believe him for more than about two seconds while I realized he was kidding.
Previously I have touched upon the idea that when it comes to language, the audience matters. Those who know your politics and opinions have a context in which to understand your words. On the other hand, strangers have no more information than the words you utter by which to judge your character. Therefore, using reclaimed words like crip or queer works only when the listener knows certain specifics about you.
This same principle can be applied to humor. A black person making fun of black people can be a source of hilarity whereas a white stranger doing the same thing appears to be racist. It’s all about what the audience knows about the speaker. It’s all about context.
Saturday Night Live has taken a great deal of heat for its portrayal of New York’s Governor Paterson, who is the first legally blind person to ever hold that office. Apparently, they had him stumbling around a room, using charts upside down, and not responding properly before a camera. Basically, SNL banked on the fact that blind people are seen as incapable of doing certain things and played that up for a laugh, along the way giving millions of people the idea that blind folks aren’t able to function in a room, develop systems to make certain materials are right side up, or face a camera when given an auditory cue. (On September 26, Paterson was given a chance to dish some of it back to SNL when he appeared on the show.)
In reading about the controversy, I stumbled across a paraphrasing of David Letterman’s philosophy: poke fun only at things over which an individual has volition. Those beyond one’s control are not appropriate.
G is correct that very few people tease me about things related to blindness. At first glance, it seems like blindness is entirely beyond my volition and therefore, under the Letterman Doctrine, sacrosanct. I would argue that there is a distinction between using misconceptions about a disability to evoke humor and highlighting the mirth in, for example, me using the phrase “at first glance.” The former encourages misinformation to spread whereas the latter is about irony and facts.
As this entry might show, I am not completely clear on where the lines should be drawn when it comes to humor based on marginalized group status. I do know that audience matters and I find humor that perpetuates stereotypes to be inappropriate.
Should people make fun of blindness? Definitely. Should they do so without thought of audience and enabling misconceptions? Nope, unless their goal is to be such an ass that even a blind person can se it.