Thresholds and the hierarchy of media criticism: Arrested Development and Stefon Edition

A night or two ago, amidst much anticipation for the new Arrested Development episodes, someone I respect retweeted comments from somebody expressing frustration with the omnipresent Arrested Development fawning; she had been thoroughly disgusted by the transphobia and homophobia in the show, and found it exasperating that so many people who wanted to consider themselves LGB and Trans allies were willing to set aside those concerns to enjoy the show. This commenter admitted she hadn’t noticed them before becoming trans herself, but now that she was aware, she found it impossible to watch Arrested Development and wanted to make it clear to other prospective allies that sure, they could watch it anyway, but she’d be judging them and wanted them to know they were being hypocrites, now that they’d been alerted to these attitudes.

This reminded me of an experience a few weeks ago when plenty of Twitter (including me) was mourning the departure of SNL’s Stefon, and another person I respect said that he was glad to see Stefon go because of his repeated slurs against people with dwarfism. And I agreed about the dwarfism – every time Bill Hader peeked out between the hands pressed to his face and said something about “midgets” I cringed, because a) I don’t think jokes about dwarfs are funny and b) it wasn’t necessary to the jokes he was telling (which Bill Hader didn’t see ahead of time) that the slur be included. It was just for the shock value of it. What I loved about Stefon was the way Hader reliably and irrepressibly broke character during his appearances. Since the SNL writers put jokes Hader had never seen before on the prompter, he frequently got tickled while trying to perform them and would giggle helplessly into his hands, and I’m a sucker for performers who break down and laugh. In this case, that outranked my disapproval of the word “midget”.  The person speaking up on Twitter and Facebook has a daughter with dwarfism, and nothing’s more important than that. Rightfully so. After I read his comments, I agreed with him. I likely wouldn’t have enjoyed Stefon as much had he kept reappearing.

Opening my eyes to an ableist/sexist/transphobic/homophobic flaw is usually needle that punctures the balloon. I loved Friends, but when I rewatch now I’m constantly cringing at the casual homophobia and anti-fat humor that is lazily spread all over it. Sex and the City was thoroughly ruined once I moved to New York and it sunk in just how whitewashed the whole thing was. So when I was watching Arrested Development reruns yesterday, I was listening actively for transphobic attitudes I’d missed at first. I knew mostly what she was talking about — Henry Winkler’s character patronizes cross-dressing prostitutes, at one point Tobias goes into a wig shop and is assured that “TVs” shop there, Michael assures his family that Rita is not a man and Gob says “as far as you know.” There are plenty of jokes that betray the fact that the writers are not thinking of the Trans community as viewers whose feelings might trump the laugh that comes from putting something inappropriate in a Bluth mouth (. . .).

And there are plenty of issues that I have that instinctive repulsion for, where a very little _____-ism crosses the threshold into intolerable and I switch off the show and refuse to watch it. Jokes at a rape victim’s expense, obviously, and jokes about alcoholics (not made by alcoholics). It’s also true that not every portrayal of an attitude indicates approval of it.  Obviously we know Barry Zuckercorn’s internalized homophobia is a character flaw, it makes him laughable (and later we see him thrilled about having gay sex). Lucille Bluth’s xenophobia contributes to her character’s cartoonish awfulness; she’s critical of her daughter’s body and weight; maybe we laugh as we cringe because we relate to it. Tobias’ closeted identity and freudian slips are comedic because he is bombastic and silly, plus his family knows the truth anyway. I can see how somebody who’s living in the closet because they fear their family/community’s reaction could find those jokes upsetting, but that person is not actually the target of the joke.

I’m not going to go through every joke and try to justify each one — who’s the object, who’s the subject, what the writers’ intent was, how even though it uses ____ as a punchline, it’s not really laughing at that, it’s laughing at people who think like that… — that rhetorical device is usually used in an attempt to diminish someone’s pain or explain why their feelings don’t matter. If I want to be a better ally, I have to be willing to consider feelings other than my own about a sensitive subject. When someone from a particular community watching a show feels the jokes are targeting them, and is hurt by that, that’s result of a choice the writers made and they have to live with it. And when I recommend the show to someone, I might say “the attitude towards X sucks, but the rest is funny enough to make up for it” (I have this problem with Archer, which is ridiculously offensive but occasionally the timing is so good it hurts).

When I’m writing TV someday, I want to make sure that none of my jokes are lazy, that my intent is clear, and that I don’t exercise any of my privilege as a mostly white, higher educated, middle class ciswoman to make jokes at the expense of someone who doesn’t deserve it or can’t defend themselves. And I get to use my vulnerabilities to make jokes at my own expense, that other people might not appreciate because they cope with that vulnerability in a different way.

My policy, even with shows I love, is that there’s a threshold for bad/hurtful jokes. One or two usually bounce off the doorjamb — humor is subjective, one bad apple doesn’t have to rot the whole barrel, I felt guilty for laughing but I laughed so the joke “worked” — but a habitual pattern that targets a group in my hierarchy of identity or allies, and yeah, the show’s ruined.

And that’s a decision everybody has to make for themselves.  Nobody has to make my battle theirs. If I can make a persuasive case that a joke represents an antagonistic attitude, and not just an observation about oppression that exists whether or not someone makes it a punchline, someone might agree with me and a show might lose a bunch of viewers just because they couldn’t resist one more tired “Bisexuals, they never make up their minds, amirite?!?!” jab. Or someone might value the construction of the joke above the content of it, or be so attached to the characters that they’re willing to forgive a joke in poor taste. Or they might not care that someone’s making fun of bisexuals because they’re not bisexual so we’re on our own. Everybody has a different threshold, a different perspective on their allies, on what community is “theirs”.

I really want to be a good ally. I want my feminism to be intersectional. I don’t want to be someone who gives a favorite show a free pass to avoid criticism. I want to be critical and I want to be demanding. And I want to give Arrested Development the chance to show us that in ten years off, it has sharpened its humor and refocused on targets that deserve it, targets that don’t receive abuse and mockery from every corner anyway. Because it is a damn well-written show, with interwoven jokes that span all three seasons. Some of those jokes are bad ones, and it does affect my ability to enjoy the show as whole.

But Natalie, I wanted you to know that I heard you, you got me thinking, and to say thanks for speaking up.

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4 Responses to Thresholds and the hierarchy of media criticism: Arrested Development and Stefon Edition

  1. It’s so interesting that you posted this because I when I was getting my haircut last week, my hairdresser and I were discussing Friends and how we both love it, compared favorite episodes and agreed that a lot of the anti-gay material is glaringly obvious/awkward when watching reruns.
    Oh wait, this whole thing wasn’t about Friends, was it…

    • mkpheartsnyc says:

      Ha – but I rewatch Friends all the time (I may own the DVDs…) and it’s so annoying that these people I love so much keep doing obnoxious things like objectifying the girls and making fun of how fat Monica was. So would not rewatching make me a better ally? I’m pretty sure not being a fat-shaming homophobe is what makes me a good queer fat person myself and a good ally to others so. Lemme watch what I want!

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