One in which I ponder social ethics

This post is going to be a deviation from my usual rants. It is going to reflect a rare moment of self-doubt (Ahem!) and I invite discussions from my readers and colleagues – in other words, let me know if I am wrong, somewhat wrong or totally wrong, wrong in the narrow context of the US or wrong globally.

Something came up in the news a few days back that I wanted to share with you all. The Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) is an admirable organization representing the voice of the LGBT community for over two decades, serving as a watchdog and advocate for that community. Their mission is [I quote] “empowering real people to share their stories, holding the media accountable for the words and images they present, and helping grassroots organizations communicate effectively” [End quote].

Recently, GLAAD has called for an apology from the makers of Saturday Night Live (SNL) and its host NBC for a skit about pre-operation transgender persons. The SNL skit was a faux commercial for a fictitious product Estro-Maxx, in which several pre-op transgender persons waxed eloquent about the “benefits” and ease of use of the product.

I don’t know if any of you have seen the advertisement-style video of the skit presentation. It can be found at the NBC website (I don’t know how long it’d remain available). [Caveat: some of you may find it objectionable; watch at your own risk]

According to the news report I linked above, GLAAD has termed the skit “a dangerous and blatantly anti-transgender segment” that has “degraded the lives and experiences of transgender women“; the organization has set up an online petition aimed at SNL producers and NBC to tell them that “transgender people deserve respect.

I am in three minds about it. First, I do understand GLAAD’s objection (at least, I think I do). The skit was probably not to the best of tastes, and was not very funny either, at least to me. And the most important thing is that the fact that transgender people are a vulnerable community; the prejudices, bigotry, bias and discrimination against them are very real. Therefore, any representation of such a vulnerable group should be sensitive to those issues.

On the other hand, it seems to me that people who are up in arms against the skit may be missing the point of the parody altogether. The skit was not so much mocking pre-op transgender women, as mocking the common practice of product advertising targeting a particular group — such as using darker skinned people (like Southeast Asians) to advertise a product that claims to lighten the skin tone and make the user “fairer”.

The third thing that is simultaneously bothering me is the larger question: when it is or may be acceptable to use humor involving disadvantaged, vulnerable, minority populations. Is it a line in the sand, or can it be cast in stone? For example:

  • Is it okay if a comedian from the same community does it – like a Black or Hispanic or Indian (Asian) comedian (there are so many of them) poking fun at themselves and at the stereotypes that exist, but not okay if someone outside that group does it?
  • Is there, or can there be, a limit to being sensitive about a group, particularly since people’s sensitivities vary greatly, and one person’s comedy will always likely be another’s rude, impolite insensitivity?
  • Can there be something like being too touchy or too sensitive – something will always remain until the discrimination and taboo in the society at large towards that issue are gone? Is any discriminatory practice ever totally gone, or is it repackaged and re-served?
  • Dark humor of the South Park variety (which, I shall freely admit, I don’t always get) is expected to push our boundaries and challenge our mental faculties beyond the comfort zone – perhaps that’s where we begin to examine the stereotypes critically, ultimately deciding to accept or reject them. But should they be muzzled instead?
  • There are all sorts of people who find South Park funny and all sorts of people who consider it incredibly offensive; I found the episodes with Mrs. Garrison and Richard Dawkins distasteful and needlessly obnoxious without any greater message behind it. But my reaction was to not watch that episode again, or to generally stop watching South Park altogether, barring a lay episode here and there. Should I have gone on to start an online petition, too? Coming to think of it, did GLAAD ever object to the portrayal of Mrs. Garrison, a post-op transgender woman with a male-pattern bald patch and staunchly creationist views? (I don’t know)

I don’t have an answer. A part of me feels ashamed that I may never be able to completely understand these issues because I am not one of the vulnerable people in the context. But another part of me argues that it is not necessary to be a part of a group to think about the issues surrounding it. One probably doesn’t need to be a criminal to understand the socio-economic and psychological issues surrounding crimes and criminal activity. But how do I know if my line of thinking is right? Is there, or can there be ever, a golden mean, a middle path for such contentious issues?

And if I go out of the context to a larger question: who or what sets the limits to what we can and cannot mock or laugh at (or even laugh with)? Do the atrocious “Yo Mamma” jokes —nevertheless liked and repeated by many— represent reprehensible misogyny? Would there be a day when we cannot —gasp!— mock creationism, flat-earth views, homeopathy and so forth? How exactly should social ethics apply to humor?

I now declare open season on this post. Please feel free to comment (or not); and if you don’t mind, please forward it to your friends requesting comment. Let’s initiate a discussion.


  1. Laura Wheeler

    Kausik thanks for this post, you have raised a controversial point.  I guess it can be tackled in two ways. The first thing is to think what the overall message of the skit was trying to portray.  If the genuine message behind the skit was to disrespect pre-operative transgender people, and degrade their lives, then I can completely understand the outcry of the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation.

    I would like to comment on the video, however as you suspected it has already been taken down by NBC.  Does anyone else have a link to the skit?

    In this particular case considering the GLAAD’s petition (and taking into account I have not seen the sketch) has already been signed by nearly 3,000, it is clear many people have been offended by the sketch.

    I think the second way to look at is there are lots of media outlets that joke about disadvantaged, vulnerable, minority populations. Surely if you exclude any type of group from jokes or humour on television this is worse.  As you mentioned South Park is a great example of a show where the lines between humour and ethics are blurry.

    Generally I do think that the line between acceptable humour and comedy that may be seen as humiliating is hazy and will always remain so. In this particular case you say the message of this sketch was not to mock pre-op transgender women, but rather the practice of product advertising directing at a particular groups of people.

    Surely therefore  when you ask “How exactly should social ethics apply to humour” there is no answer, and the answer is merely you don’t, you just have to be careful and sensitive to others feelings- script writers, comedians etc need to empathise more with minority groups.  Either that or those who are offended need to be less sensitive and more realistic – everyone from all aspects of life are made fun of some how, at some point- and extracting particular groups from comedy circuits will further detach them from the so called ‘norm.’

    What do other people think, what is the best way to approach the ethics of humour?

  2. Kausik Datta

    Thank you for your note, Laura. Just a quick info: I tried to access the video at the website just now and it was still up there, albeit after a 13 second commercial. You are based in NYC, right? You shouldn’t have problems accessing it. Perhaps you could try again in a little while?

  3. Laura Wheeler

    I am based in London…this is probably why.  Would love to see it so that i can make my own judgement …

  4. Mike Fowler

    Not available in Spain, either, so I can’t comment on the content. Generally, SNL is not as funny as it thinks it is though, or as it was in the 70’s and 80’s when Aykroyd, Belushi et al were strutting their stuff. But we Brits are lucky to have high standards for low-brow comedy.

    Humour can certainly be made into a complex issue. There are laws in place and being developed that cover ‘hate speech’ and ‘inciting violence’, which can be  vague, but should prevent minority groups suffering. I don’t know how often this is done.

    Having said that, I’m in favour of free speech. Politicians are a minority group and suffer plenty at the hands or mouths of comedians. Celebrities and sportspeople likewise. But these professions are choices. LGBTs differ in this sense.

    But it can also be made simple. If you don’t like what you see on the TV, change the channel, make sure you know what your kids are watching and look at the night sky instead.  And boycot SNL, NBC and their advertisers if you really want them to take notice.

  5. Lee Turnpenny

    You might find this interesting.

    A good read for one such as I, an admirer of Coogan who can’t abide Clarkson and his ilk and their cheap colonial stereotyping. But Clarkson is very popular; and has guested on QI, hosted by Stephen Fry, who I’m a big fan of, and who has just provoked a stink.

    If I’m making any point here, it’s that what we are likely to find funny depends on whether who says/writes it is already funny to us, or whether we are, perhaps, ‘conditioned’ to laugh at certain types of humour or subject matter, whether or not we are actually prejudiced. And there’s a lot of overlap. But should the unacceptable be disallowed by edict? Absolutely not. I choose not to watch Top Gear.

  6. Cath Ennis

    Y’know, I watched the SNL skit in question and was bothered by it at the time. I thought it was definitely saying that the process of gender reassignment is inherently funny – while the skit did follow the format of many direct-to-consumer drug adverts, its focus was on laughing at the "disorder" itself rather than on spoofing the format. Watching it made me feel rather uneasy (and I didn’t laugh – I agree that most SNL skits are just not very funny, this one included, and seem to be written more for the enjoyment of the cast than of the audience. But it’s still worth watching for the occasional gem, e.g. Tina Fey’s Palin impersonations!).

    On balance, I think asking for an apology is justified. I’m not convinced that one will be given, though.

    IMO South Park does a much better job than SNL of using this kind of humour to poke fun at societal attitudes rather than things like homphobia, racism etc. I thought the Dawkins episodes were pretty damn funny, especially the militant sea otters!

  7. Mike Fowler

    Funnily*, I came across this editorial, this morning. Written by a comedian (I think, never heard of him), concerning what it means for an comic to be offensive or an audience offended. This topic has been broached on NN before, following perceived slights in comments threads. But, for reasons detailed below, I can’t be arsed finding links.

    *Pun may, or may not be intended. I haven’t had coffee yet, so it’s too early to decide.

  8. Kausik Datta

    Thank you all for generously commenting. More about my take on this later in the a.m. Keep discussing, folks! 🙂

  9. Kausik Datta

    Of the issue we discuss, I confess I have only incomplete understanding. Thank you all for helping me learn.

    Perhaps my question about this entire issue hinges on the difference between "humor" and "mockery". I admit readily that the difference between humor and mockery is not always clear to me. I grew up in a culture which places a great premium on reverence towards tradition and religion, and therefore, those two were not to be considered as subjects of humor, let alone mockery. But as I grew up, I became more conscious of the inherent irrationalities in them, the superstitions, the myths, the discriminatory practices. As a result, my reverence towards them decreased considerably – and the seriousness, with which many people regard them, itself became funny to me.

    I have come to realize that I quite enjoy irreverent humor (okay, Cath; some episodes of South Park still fly over my head!). Is that irreverence mockery? I can’t always tell. But I also know that it is my ethical and human obligation to be mindful of, and sensitive towards, vulnerable populations. Perhaps it has to do with the definition and quantification of harm that may befall such populations? Perhaps there needs to be a balance between sensitivity and actual harm? I don’t know.

    Perhaps truly fair-minded people can tell the difference between such mockery and humor, so that even those with a deep and abiding belief in freedom of creative expression know how to separate the grain from the chaff. Which can only mean I am not one of them. Sigh. I hope I can learn enough with time.

    A friend of mine pointed out another program in CBS, the "Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson", which apparently involved extreme mockery of transitioning women in a very obnoxious fashion. I haven’t seen the CBS sketch, but from what I read about it in the above link (also contains the video clip), it is certainly of a very poor taste. I couldn’t see the point of that particular portrayal; to me, that was needless, and therefore, contemptible, mockery.

    Apologies may be appropriate in above circumstances, but as Cath said – they may or may not be forthcoming. But I would agree wholeheartedly with Mike Fowler and Lee Turnpenny – if I don’t like what is being shown, I would certainly not see it. Is an edict (what some may even see as a ‘fatwah’) forbidding such display required, effective or even desirable? My inclination is to say, ‘No.’

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.