It’s a terrible day to wake up and see that someone you admired, a woman whose hard work you really thought was good, is completely insulated and ignorant of how her actions affect others – or worse, she is just another racist.
It’s a worse day when you realize that your paranoia over being a concerned white woman feminist is also valid.
With everything that’s been happening over the past couple of years (as far as mainstream reporting goes, activism, and the very real conversations in the intersectional feminist communities regarding how to be an ally to women and people of color), I’ve had countless conversations with friends, families, and anyone else who I think I can learn from.
At The Flounce, we’ve discussed how to talk about events like Ferguson, #BlackLivesMatter, the horrific deaths of black lives at the hands of the police, #SayHerName and the rash of black church burnings across the South going unreported in the news. I won’t speak for anyone else, but the conclusion I tend to draw is I am ill-equipped to talk about these issues in depth beyond news reports because I’m not African-American. To create an analytical piece of writing regarding these matters is to explain how people are feeling, when I haven’t the first clue. White feminists tend to do this a lot, though, to the point that black feminists use the phrase “whitesplaining” — a nice way of saying that intersectionality can only lead you so far. Unless you actually have lived the experience, your viewpoint is going to be limited.
I say all of that to lead up to the reason I am writing this today, and to apologize if I’m clumsy, but I think that this is important enough to discuss on both sides of the fence — and I’m sorry, but our concerned white woman feminism is the reason why Lena Dunham gets forgiven for being horrible, and the reason why, when a black woman writes about Amy Poehler’s show featuring a tasteless joke about the sexual assault of a toddler, it’s explained away in the comments below — just as predicted by the blogger.
The show I am referring to is Difficult People, on Hulu. It stars Billy Eichner and Julie Klausner as embittered, barely-making-it comedians based in New York City. It also depicts them as unapologetically horrible people. Klausner explains that “Billy and Julie think they’re rational, but they’re incredibly blunt and self-centered. They put their careers above their romances, their families and serious societal issues.” The show is “basically [them] against the world.”
I don’t have an issue with women being depicted outside traditional gender roles, or “women being people,” as Klausner puts it. I love that women get to do whatever they want, and it’s becoming more and more common to see women in roles outside of the hot wife to the doughy male lead, or the quirky girl moving in with three hot guys. Some of my favorite women that I’ve performed with are truly assholes. I have had more conversations than I care to admit about the fact that I am seen as “too straightforward,” “uncaring because of your directness” and “too Northern” in regards to my communication style when I work in the South. Seriously: Women in the South complain because I don’t speak in platitudes. But this isn’t about a blunt conversation gone bad.
Klausner’s character in the pilot wrote a tweet about Blue Ivy (who is three), and the fact that she “can’t wait till she’s old enough to get pissed on by R. Kelly.” Throughout the episode, the “joke” is that Julie is so self-obsessed that she is unaware of the issues behind the tweet — insinuating that a joke about pedophilia is funny, that it’s okay to joke about the sexual assault of a child, and that R. Kelly is a pedophile — and only takes down the tweet because people were mad at her.
In real life, Klausner blocks anyone on Twitter that tries to talk about this with her, which says to me that she knows that this was fucked up and she can’t stand behind it. I’ve reached out to her representation with no response. I’ve also reached out to Hulu and Amy Poehler’s representation as well. As of this printing, no one has made any public statements, or tried to talk about it. Only white knighting apologists are trying to explain it away as overreaction.
Sure, R. Kelly is a convenient punching bag. We could even stretch the fact that it’s pointing out the double standard for men involved in sex scandals. R. Kelly is a pedophile, but he’s still worshiped as a superstar. He puts out new music constantly. Aziz Ansari repeatedly discusses the singer in his act, in an extremely positive and worshipful light. Bill Cosby was defended until finally court documents were released to confirm rape allegations. Chris Brown smashed in Rihanna’s face and yet, to this day, people are convinced that Rihanna did something to deserve it. Dr. Dre’s new movie glosses over the fact that he savagely beat a woman because “she deserved it.”
We could say that this is a subtle commentary on the fact that no one cares what happens to black women at the hands of black male celebrities, but that’s not what this was.
Flat-out, this was inappropriate. A room full of 11 writers and the best they could come up with to prove that Julie is self-absorbed is a pedophilie joke?
Klausner has made it clear that Poehler was deeply involved in the script writing and creating the lines. With Poehler’s dedication to empowering young girls through her Smart Girls campaign and her unabashed feminism, it’s stunning that she would approve this joke with her name on it. There’s plenty of black humor that doesn’t capitalize on the sexualization of young girls — not to mention young girls of color — that could have made this point.
And even worse is the fact that it was Blue Ivy. Regardless of how you feel about Jay-Z and Beyonce, that baby is just a baby. And while white girls suffer molestation and sexual assault as youths, it’s often done secretly and shamefully, usually behind closed doors and not talked about. Black girls go through childhood and then suddenly, they are women and subject to sexual touching, catcalling, and other forms of assault while they are walking home from school. During conversations with my friends, my heart has repeatedly broken as they described the experiences similar to LaSha’s growing up. (Seriously, this is the second time I’ve linked to this post. Please read it.)
I can’t imagine walking through the neighborhood where the day before I had played as a child and suddenly, I’m fair game to be examined like meat.
The problem that we’re having, though, is that we’re reacting like LaSha predicted: Several commentators have “explained” that these (black) women don’t get the “joke”. It’s a plot device. The coded language behind these comments implies that by thinking it was offensive, black women just aren’t smart enough to understand “White Woman” humor.
Unfortunately, these people that comment are the problem with “white” feminism. Intersectionality is the ability to try to empathize with an experience that you’ve never had in order to understand an issue and find common ground, or to be able to admit your ignorance and inability to find the common ground and ask for help, listen to the conversation, observe the actions, or bow out altogether.
There’s nothing wrong with bowing out, especially if the best you have to offer the conversation are excuses that minimize the actions of someone who was in a position to change a joke and chose not to. Someone as self-aware as Poehler appears to be should have realized that this was going too far. Black girls don’t get to be girls. White people have a long, horrible history of fetishizing their bodies and sexually assaulting them. We’ve made up myths about black women and how they are savage, sexual animals. We even lauded Kim Kardashian for recreating a pose from one of the worst offenders of that sexual racism — and why? In the name of women being powerful?
What IS powerful is looking within our own culture for these examples. As white people, we have numerous failings and there are plenty of white criminals. If it has to be a pedophile joke, why not Gary Glitter? Is it because, if we made a joke about a white child being urinated on, we would burn everything related to Difficult People to the ground, instead of a community that makes statements like, “No way that girl’s only 12 — she looks grown”? Why not make a crack about waiting for Vivienne Pitt-Jolie to be old enough to shoot up a movie theater? Is it that we’re afraid of picking on a white celebrity couple’s child because it’s seen as a low-blow?
If these are the answers to those hypotheticals, then we really need to reexamine ourselves. The adage that you must treat others how you wish to be treated has never been more true, especially in this time of racial tension. I think that we, as white people, have made black people the butt of our jokes long enough. To further stereotypes and laugh at the “minstrel show” of black culture (because that’s what we keep doing here) is disgusting — and it’s fucking racist.
At time of publication, no response to our request for comment from Klausner’s, Poheler’s or Smart Girl’s representation has been replied to. In fairness, they haven’t responded to anyone else’s request for comment, either.