I worship Sarah Silverman. I’m bummed I missed her local performance this week at Palace of the Fine Arts where she was promoting her hilarious new book The Bedwetter: Stories of Courage, Redemption, and Pee.
I had jury duty the same day as Silverman’s show and brought her book with me down to McAllister Street. Little did I know having three small kids would excuse me after 2 1/2 hours. I was worried because every time I have jury duty, they pick me which always shocks me because I’m kind of opinionated and judgmental, but nevertheless, that’s the California justice system at work. I was pretty psyched, actually, to get almost three hours of quiet reading time, something that almost never happens with 3 kids, causing me to now add jury duty to a list of events I used to dread, but now enjoy including long plane rides (more quiet reading time) and dentists visits (drugs and DVDs.)
While I was doing my civic duty, I was unable to put Silverman’s book down or stop cracking up, even during the (impossibly long) jury duty orientation video. Thinking I was rude or crazy, maybe contributed to why they excused me so fast this time. But I couldn’t help it, the book is so funny.
I’ve been following Silverman’s career for about 10 years. The first time I saw her, I was struck both by how funny and how pretty she was. Ten years ago, before Tina Fey and Chelsea Handler became household names, with Phyllis Diller and Joan Rivers as comedienne icons, it was rare to see a woman be allowed to be funny and attractive all at once. Even when it comes to boys, a sense of humor is usually high on a girl’s wish list for what makes him appealing, but for girls, being funny has been more like a subtraction factor in the sexuality equation. I seriously look at the progress female comedians have made in the last decade, with their own TV shows, books, and a little tiny bit in movies, and being able to go beyond jokes about how ugly or fat they are or how much plastic surgery they’ve had, as one the biggest advances for women in media in my lifetime. Silverman jokes frequently about how cute she is and thinks she is, and just that too, a woman joking about her attractiveness instead of unattractiveness (so sick of the ubiquitous supermodel quote about how ugly she always felt) is a radical change.
Unfortunately, a lot of people don’t get Silverman and are offended by her “rape” jokes and “racist” jokes. I don’t understand this at all. Silverman usually plays a character that is incredibly ignorant and incredibly arrogant– the all too common human characteristics that create racism. When Silverman says silly, stupid things (her jokes) her character “misses the point” completely, an obvious point, thereby illuminating, as many comics do, all kinds of biases in our society we too often take for granted. Silverman’s jokes are not perpetuating racism or sexism but calling it out. Get the difference? It’s like the show “Mad Men” is about sexism, but it’s not sexist.
In Bedwetter, Silverman elaborates on some controversies of her career, for example the infamous joke she told on Conan O’Brien:
Here’s the joke (which, remember, I was reading while at jury duty):
I got a jury duty form in the mail, and I don’t wanna do jury duty. So my friend said, “Write something really racist on the form so they won’t pick you, like ‘I hate niggers.’ I was like Jeez- I don’t want people to think I’m a racist, I just want to get out of jury duty. So I filled out the form and wrote, ‘I love niggers.”
Silverman writes in The Bedwetter:
Conan O’Brien’s segment producer says I can’t say ‘nigger’ on the show even though it’s obviously not a racist joke. It’s a joke about an idiot–me– but no way would that word be uttered on NBC.
Silverman asked to say “chink.”
Frank said no, she could say “spic.”
Silverman said it didn’t make any sense that she could say spic but not chink. Chink was a funnier word than spic. She would say chink. The producer says OK.
Vanity Fair cover 2008
Silverman tells the joke and thus begins her war with NBC and Guy Aoki of the Media Action Network for Asian Americans. Aoki complained about her joke the next day, Silverman saw the complaint on the internet, and immediately wrote Aoki an apology. She apologized for any hurt she caused and wrote she wanted to address it. “The joke is satirical and the intended point of view is to underline the ignorance people demonstrate when they employ racial epithets.”
Silverman then meets with her agent who tells her NBC issued a formal apology to Aoki stating that the joke should’ve been edited out by their standards and practices department. NBC wrote it would cut the joke from all re-runs of the show. Silverman’s agent told her she was no longer wanted on any current NBC shows including the low-level, all comedian “Fear Factor.”
Guy would have thrived in the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s. A man like him, with moderate intelligence and maybe a good helping of courage and tenacity, could have made a name for himself attacking the networks and studios who delivered Stephen Fetchit, Amos and Andy, and Al Johnson to American audiences. But in recent decades, an effective cultural crusader requires a more nuanced perception of irony and context.
I grew up watching Archie Bunker, the ignorant racist character created by Norman Lear, who was, himself, famously devoted to advancing racial tolerance and progressive cultural values. Archie Bunker’s racism was Lear’s vessel for delivering comedy with a social message. Had Guy Aoki been operating in the 70s, he might have attacked Lear as a racist. The bad news for guys like Aoki is that not only are the progressive messages out there today more refined and sense-of-irony dependent, but racist messages are more oblique, too. Right-wing Americans who appear in mainstream media are not calling black people niggers or saying “the Klan has good ideas.” Instead, they’re questioning the legitimacy of Obama’s presidency, by accusing him of being born in Africa, or of being a Muslim. They’re having “tea parties” and calling Obama a communist and a Nazi. The entire Fox News Channel is a 24 hour racism engine, but its all coded, all implied. Lou Dobbs used to scream about immigration not the “filthy Mexicans.” I suspect the racist messages about Asians that permeate the media are even subtler and harder to combat.
I relate to Silverman’s struggle and frustration. I feel like I spend much of my time trying to show people where sexism exists, how sometimes it’s become so “normal” we’re blind to it and accepting of it.
Here’s another subversive thing Silverman did. When Sarah’s character on the “Sarah Silverman Program” is told on the show by her sister that she was born with a penis and a vagina, Sarah’s line is:
“Were the penis and vagina in separate peices, or was it like the penis itself was the vagina, but split down the middle with labia?”http://stopthecap.com/
According to the censor, “labia” in this instance was too graphic and we were asked to remove it. We can say “penis” and “balls” until the cows come home, but labia?” I asked our censor if this is what she wanted to teach young girls– that penis is fine and balls is fine but labia– your own body part– is dirty. I expressed these views to the censor and prepared to dig in for a long battle. But to my surprise, she saw my point and acknowledged that she had grown up in catholic school where female sexual organs are viewed as taboo. I was s impressed by her willingness to admit that her upbringing was clouding her judgment. So congratulations, womankind: Nancy Pelosi is Speaker of the House and by the time this book is published, ‘labia will have been in prime time.”
So Silverman’s being kind of sarcastic there, but also she isn’t. She’s taking on the catholic church, no small foe, and also the human id. She’s insisting on speaking up and staying in control of what she says. It drives me crazy when people want to censor the wrong things. This misguided intention is why I started my blog ReelGirl, to rate kids media, because G-rated kids movies are some of the most offensive things out there, often perpetuating the worst kinds of stereotypes for kids. I mean, has anyone seen Disney’s “Peter Pan?” Where the lost boys hunt the redskins? And Wendy, a kid, just wants to be a perfect “good mom” to all those boys, and she and Tinkerbell hate each other over Peter? And, no, I don’t think Disney is that much better today, just more subtle and ingrained sexism, as Silverman says.
The same kind of misguided censorship that happened to Silverman also happens when white guys get all upset about the sexism in hip-hop. White guys who normally don’t seem to care much about the status of women or do anything to improve things suddenly get all riled up about rap music. I’ve never seen anything like it. I wish these guys would show the same kind of furor about getting women and men equal pay for equal work. Here’s something I wrote about censoring hip-hop music for the Chronicle, back when Eminem was offending people.
Wednesday, July 12, 2000
I LIKE hip-hop music. I know I’m not supposed to because so many of the songs have horrifyingly violent, sexist or homophobic lyrics.
Hip-hop is also the most innovative thing to happen to music in a long time.
When you compare hip-hop to its biggest rival for domination of the music charts – the corporate-created Backstreet Boys and N’sync, and pop-pincess clones Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera – rappers/ producers like Dr. Dre and Method Man are infinitely more talented. Hip-hop is captivating precisely because it tells a story, overlaying lyrics on top of familiar backbeats, creating songs that are at once new and familiar.
The story hip-hop tells may be disturbing or degrading, but that’s no reason to shun it. As art has always done, hip-hop describes our times, exposing a sometimes ugly world- of drugs, sexism, poverty and violence- that middle-class America may prefer to hide away.
In the ’60s, Bob Dylan enraged those who upheld the status quo. Today, we have a whole new slew of musical poets.
Just like they did with Dylan, the older generation asks, “How can you listen to this awful music? There’s no melody! And those lyrics!”
Baby boomers protest that THEIR songs were about peace and love, while hip-hop celebrates killing and humiliates women.
But surely rock ‘n’ roll stars have never been known for their kindness to women. The Rolling Stones cranked out hits like “Under My Thumb,” “Brown Sugar” and “Little T & A,” sneered through lyrics like “You make a dead man come” and glorified violence in songs like “Midnight Rambler.”
Sexual violence in lyrics wasn’t limited to bad boy bands either. Old peaceniks Jerry Garcia and Neil Young sang songs like “Down by the River” about murdering a lover. Ever since Elvis shook his pelvis, music has shocked, and the older generation just didn’t get it.
Critics charge that hip-hop crosses a line, most recently fingering rap sensation Eminem, who sings about raping his mother and slicing up his wife in front of their daughter.
But Freudians would tell you Eminem’s mother rage and sexual fantasies are pure id, the uncensored subconscious struggling for self expression. The views of Sigmund Freud, of course, are infamous for his distorted views on women, though that doesn’t stop us from studying him in our best educational institutions. Nor should it.
Hip-hop may be more shocking and graphic than your run-of-the-mill shapers of Western thought, but I prefer my misogyny straight up. Movies like “Pretty Woman,” in which Julia Roberts plays a prostitute with a heart of gold, may be prettier packaging, but if you think women are “hos,” just tell me so.
Tales of sex and violence aren’t limited to male artists. “Goodbye Earl” by the Dixie Chicks and Macy Gray’s “I Committed Murder,” two recent hits by women artists, both detail violent killings with unrestrained glee. Angry young women muttering obscenities include Alanis Morissette, Courtney Love and Ani DiFranco.
Nor is disdain for men by women artists a new fad. Sylvia Plath, the late poet and darling of English lit majors, famously compared male genitalia to turkey necks and gizzards. Never one to shy away from sex or violence, she once said she “eats men like air.”
The difference, of course, is when women say these things, it really is just art. Because men are the guys with power, their expressions of domination, violence and sexual exploitation contribute to a culture where women really are forced into limited categories of queens or hos, where masculinity is defined by how many babes you score, and where women often are left powerless and exploited.
But sanitizing music is just shooting the messenger; it can’t transform a sexist culture. Warning stickers on CD covers are no protection from the deeply entrenched social realities that hip-hop pushes right in your face.
Women won’t feel threatened by lyrics when they overcome real inequities and get real power. Women will then be too busy making art and making deals to waste time wondering if they should side with the radical right, clamoring to keep obscenities out of Wal-Mart.