After saturating my brain reading the online discussions of Seth MacFarlane’s juvenile and unfunny performance at the Oscars I have been thinking about the politics of representation more than I usually have the occasion to. As many his critics have already pointed out, MacFarlane’s humor relied on some of the more banal (and therefore more pernicious) forms of racism and misogyny. I am specifically worried about, and interested in, his use of the LA Gay Men’s Chorus as an ironic framing device to mitigate or obfuscate the misogyny of the opening number “We Saw Your Boobs.” MacFarlane uses homosexuality here as an ingredient in a recipe for a brand of combinatory humor that relies on the simplest juxtapositions of stereotypes and expectations (e.g. gay men aren’t supposed to care about boobs; film as high art shouldn’t be viewed for adolescent titillation, etc.) without ever challenging the fundamental assumption of a white middle class straight male addressee for his jokes. I find this humor depressingly lazy; it never displaces the stereotypes it relies on, even as it exposes their artificiality and stupidity. It relies on layers of ironic framing (William Shatner warning MacFarlane that the song is offensive; the mortified responses of the actresses mentioned in the song) to situate MacFarlane himself as the butt of the joke. One might argue that MacFarlane uses this ironic framing to disculpate his audience from enjoying a hegemonic (white middle class straight) brand of humor that they are no longer “allowed” to enjoy by taking the guilt on himself.

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It worried me that The Advocate (an LGBT-interest magazine) was so quick to celebrate the performance as some kind of boon for the LGBT community without being more attentive to questions of context, framing, authorial intent, and audience, that would lead a more careful reader to conclude that gay men, if not the butt of the joke, were not its intended audience either. Among other things, my response to MacFarlane’s use of gay men in his jokes was to conclude that authorship matters even more in comedy. “We Saw Your Boobs” sung by the LA Gay Men’s Chorus might have taken on an entirely different meaning if Ellen DeGeneres or Anderson Cooper (or better yet, Wanda Sykes) had been the host.

This reflection on homosexuality as an ingredient in humor that targets a largely straight male audience recalled my initial response to Zimmerman’s and Severin’s 2003 reprisal of the Rawhide Kid as a gay Western hero. The comic relies on a similar (but slightly more sophisticated) brand of humor to MacFarlane’s, juxtaposing expectations about heroic comic book masculinity with heavily stereotype-reliant humor about gay men. And, like MacFarlane, Zimmerman uses the screen of a gay male character to express misogynistic sentiment (specifically towards the presumably lesbian character Catastrophe Jen). The Rawhide Kid’s homosexuality is a gleefully deliberate anachronism. Every single joke in the comic concerns the Rawhide Kid’s vanity, fashion sense, cleanliness, gym-perfect body, etc. The unkempt western ruffians he encounters are as much in awe with his sense of style and physical perfection as they are with his sharp-shooting skills. At the same time, as fellow PPP 22310blogger, Frank Bramlett, writes in a clever essay on the Rawhide Kid, the inclusion of a primal scene in which the protagonist’s abusive homophobic bully of a father provides the motivation for his heroic enterprises (to counter bullying and defend sissy male subjectivity) opens up the possibility for a more generous interpretation. Frank’s interpretation of the Rawhide Kid is far more nuanced than my own, and I highly recommend you read his essay, but I do want to challenge him on the question of authorship. Does it matter, for example, that Ron Zimmerman is an associate and occasional writer for the notoriously chauvinistic shock jock Howard Stern? Or that his television writing credits include such heteronormative shows as Charles in Charge, Good Sports, My Wife and Kids, and Disney Channel’s Shake it Up? What would be a more acceptable way for straight male comedians and humorists to use gay men as ingredients in their jokes? (Louis C.K. might be a positive model in this regard). Are there forms of comedy where authorship matters less? What argument might be used to defend comedians/humorists like MacFarlane and Zimmerman for their use of gay men as objects of humor?

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About Michael A. Johnson

Michael A. Johnson is an Assistant Professor of French at Central Washington University where he teaches courses on French language and culture and Franco-Belgian comics. His research centers largely on questions of gender and sexuality, rhetoric, pedagogy, and psychoanalysis. With one published article on Fabrice Neaud's Journal ("Placing/Facing Fabrice Neaud") and another essay in the works on Lefèvre's and Guibert's The Photographer ("How Not to Orientalize the Afghan") his focus in comics so far has been on questions of autobiography, the ethics of alterity, and the face. He also keeps a food blog (http://letthespiceflow.blogspot.com) and is interested in the growing phenomenon of comics cook books and comics food blogs in the francophone world. His recently finished manuscript, The Medieval Erotics of Grammar, is currently under review.

One response »

  1. Hi Michael,
    You have given me a lot to think about regarding MacFarlane, the Oscars, Zimmerman, and the Rawhide Kid. I didn’t watch the Oscars this year, and I only found out about the controversy surrounding the broadcast by reading two or three editorials, one of which firmly and roundly dismissed the show as perpetuating all the old problems of racism, sexism, heterosexism, anti-gay bias, etc. I also read the editorial on the Advocate that you mentioned. I don’t want to write anything about that because I didn’t watch the show.

    But I do have some opinions about authorship!🙂 And I appreciate the challenge that you raise. In my scholarship, I regularly exclude questions of authorship, and I do so purposefully. I am much more interested in understanding the text itself, including the kinds of choices the author has made. I take this stance from discourse studies in linguistics but also–and especially–conversation analysis. In a nutshell, I don’t want to try to guess what an author was thinking. I don’t want to speculate about what may or may not have been a conscious choice about what to put into a text. In conversation analysis, there is some disagreement about this, but many CA practitioners argue that we can only comment on what speakers have oriented to in their talk. If the interlocutors have not brought up gender or have not oriented to gender, then it is best not to include gender in the analysis. On the other hand, some scholars would argue that if, for example, gender is missing from the conversation, then that absence may be taken as important, perhaps reflective of ideologies that the speaker operates by. In other words, although gender may not always be relevant to an interaction between speakers, it is always potentially relevant, as is sexuality.

    When I wrote the article about the Rawhide Kid, I was trying to understand the very powerful conflict in the story. How could it be that such a brave, successful hero could also be someone who clearly violates heteronormativity and, particularly, heteromasculinity? How could such a ‘girly man’ also be a traditional hero of a Western comic? To answer that question, I concerned myself with the comic, not with who wrote the comic. Regardless of what Zimmerman thought, I wanted to understand what he had produced (along with what Severin drew).

    I actually agree with critics of the Rawhide Kid when they complain that it perpetuates some dangerous stereotypes about gay men and lesbians. But very importantly, the comic takes a step forward in that it creates a world where it is POSSIBLE for a gay man to be a hero. I don’t know much about Zimmerman. Maybe he is homophobic. Maybe he is racist and sexist. But his Rawhide Kid story, for all of its flaws, created a space in Marvel’s catalogue for other gay characters to live and to prosper. (Well, that’s my opinion of his 2003 story arc. The 2010 story arc I don’t think should have seen the light of an editor’s lamp much less have been printed.)

    Is authorship important? You bet. But I don’t think we always have to consider authorship when we engage in analysis. I’m glad that there are scholars who do.

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