Is it okay to joke about trans people? Ricky Gervais has joked about almost everyone in Hollywood over his four performances as host of the Golden Globe awards. He hit Robert Downey Jr. for past drug problems, Justin Bieber for being unmanly, and “some famous Scientologists” for maybe being stuck in the closet. But it was his jokes about Caitlyn Jenner and Jeffrey Tambor, who plays a trans character, that roiled Slate’s LGBTQ blogger J. Bryan Lowder.
Lowder says he was “cringing” while watching and that Gervais’s jokes “add[ed] yet more anti-trans sentiment to the world Sunday night.” Some on Twitter agreed. (You can find someone on Twitter to agree with anything.) But Lowder also said he thought the jokes bombed and thus that America has reached a “trans tipping point” where jokes on trans people are no longer acceptable. You can watch the opening monologue for yourself. It sounded to me like there was a lot of laughter after the jokes.
Either way, it does seem Lowder is onto something: Politically correct comedians and media entities often feel joking about trans people is off limits. Seth Myers seemed reluctant to joke about Jenner following the unveiling of the Vanity Fair cover. Spike TV cut their awards show host Clint Eastwood’s joke comparing former professional wrestler Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s transition from athlete to actor to those of “Jim Brown and Caitlyn Somebody.”
Gervais, who has been called back year after year even after joking that the Foreign Press Association “accepts bribes,” apparently has more freedom. So what was his “offensive,” “transphobic” joke?
But as I say, I’m going to be nice tonight. I’ve changed. Not as much as Bruce Jenner, obviously. Now Caitlyn Jenner, of course. What a year she’s had. She became a role model for trans people everywhere, showing great bravery in breaking down barriers and destroying stereotypes. She didn’t do a lot for women drivers, but you can’t have everything, can ya? Not at the same time. … Yes. Yes. That is the level. An old man pulling me off. Again. Um, at least Jeffrey Tambor did it in a dress. Um, what a year he’s had. Oh. What an actor, what a role. Every day, he has to put on all that women’s clothes and the hair and makeup and let people film it. That takes balls. So, I don’t know how he does it. I really don’t. I’ve seen his balls. They are huge and long. I don’t know he tucked them in the bra, that thing push them out the back and let them hang out, like a bulldog? No one knows. I love Jeffrey Tambor.
So Gervais goes after Mel Gibson for his record of going off on drunk anti-Semitic rants (“I like a drink as much as the next man. Unless the next man is Mel Gibson”), but better not go after Bruce Jenner for smashing his car into the car in front of his and pushing that unfortunate driver into the next lane and killing her. (The crash happened before the name change.)
Let It Go, People, It’s Just a Joke
No, the real problem isn’t about the car crash joke but rather the dual references to Jenner both as Bruce and Caitlyn. According to Lowder, that’s “dead-naming”—proving social justice activists can come up with a name for everything.
The overwrought word for a simple phenomenon illustrates the problem with social justice critiques of comedy and pop culture. They are too high-strung, they take themselves too seriously, and they are not able to lighten up and just let things go for an instant. Everything needs to be analyzed and classified down to a single word.
It’s not enough to express yourself in simple English. Social justice critics need to come up with a pseudo-intellectual language to affirm themselves. Gervais didn’t simply call someone by the wrong name. He dead-named. A hypothetical know-it-all who happens to be male and condescendingly explains his view to a woman isn’t simply being arrogant, he’s mansplaining. College cafeterias don’t just make crappy food, making crappy food means they appropriate. Social justice warriors can find an offense everywhere—and must, to justify their existence.
Social Justice Warriors Need a Sense of Humor
In comedy, it’s easy to find an offense if you are looking for it. Comedy is meant to push the lines. It’s entertaining. In fact, it is might very well sting when a particularly harsh joke dings you or an interest you have. Certainly some of the celebrities Gervais took aim at looked a little taken aback when their faces showed on camera, especially in the first two years when they might not have been expecting it as much.
Yet most of them showed they had a sense of humor after getting over the initial shock. Johnny Depp gamely played along in 2012 and answered “No” when Gervais asked if he had seen his own film “The Tourist,” after Gervais had spent much of the past year saying no one watched it. Gibson was back this year and collaborated for the sign off.
Maybe that’s why conservatives are sometimes said to be happier than liberals. So many liberals just can’t let go and have fun once in a while. Not even at a meaningless awards show that hires a comedian who compares the very show to Kim Kardashian—“a bit louder, a bit trashier, a bit drunker … and more easily bought [than the Oscars].” You don’t have to like all the jokes, but is a bad joke really such a big deal as to merit a diatribe?
Every awards show seems to end in arguments about the offensiveness of jokes, and every comedian—even certified grade A feminists like Amy Schumer—are said to be racist, sexist, or some other -ist. So it must be good that Gervais is under fire for something, or else he wouldn’t have done his job.
Of course, Gervais knew it would, happen, too. He tweeted this during the night:
Can't wait for people to start reporting that I offended some people at The Golden Globes. Of course I fucking did. pic.twitter.com/IIIwsKbKVx
— Ricky Gervais (@rickygervais) January 11, 2016
Here’s hoping other comedians follow his example and don’t submit to the joke police.