Dr. Jillian T. Weiss

Humor Rights Watch: Rachel Rocks, Letterman Doesn't

Filed By Dr. Jillian T. Weiss | January 07, 2010 12:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Politics, Transgender & Intersex
Tags: Amanda Simpson, David Letterman, Rachel Maddow, transgender, transgender appointee, transgender appointment

The appointment of Amanda Simpson by President Obama to the Commerce Department is now making the rounds on the TV show circuit. Interestingly, as revealed last night by Rachel Maddow, she's not the first. Rachel also displayed her usual witty sense of humor in discussing culture war issues, making fun of the people who oppose the appointment despite Ms. Simpson's obvious qualifications for the job. Meanwhile, David Letterman also displayed his retrograde, 1970's, tin-ear sense of humor in using the same prejudice that leads to murderous hate crimes against trans people. Who's funny here?

It's not that I don't have a sense of humor. Kudos to Rachel for her humor in parodying the forces of hate. Shame on David Letterman for perpetuating the prejudices that require a Transgender Day of Remembrance every year to count up the dozens and hundreds of transgender people who are murdered because of that kind of thinking.

I was pleased to see the letters sent by GLAAD and HRC to Letterman specifically tying this type of "humor" to the prejudices that lead to hate crimes. Out & Equal's letter mentioned workplace prejudice, which is consistent with their role as workplace advocates, but I think something a bit stronger was called for.

People who are offended by humor are often accused of having no sense of humor. As if being "offended" is some kind of personal failing. Yes, I have a sense of humor. Yes, I am offended sometimes by humor that targets my friends and I who are subject to the sharp end of the stick, rarely experienced by media celebrities. We have to be careful about being ourselves, lest we be assaulted, raped and murdered. We have to accept under-employment as a way of life. We have to tolerate harassment and mocking laughter at work, on the streets, on public transportation, in a police station. Transgender people are targeted for murder in many countries, and the most recent major news story on this from Honduras is barely a month old.

I remember walking down the streets of New York City, not far from where Letterman's show is performed, and having people point at me and laugh, and encourage others to laugh, and having people threaten me with assault for my mere existence. I have had moments of terror where I genuinely thought a potential romantic partner was going to commit murder. I assure you that there was no humor present at these events.

Humor is a weapon. Rachel Maddow used it appropriately to skewer people who think that Amanda Simpson shouldn't have a job with the government because of their 1950s-style prejudices. David Letterman used it to target a vulnerable population with an extraordinarily high murder rate.

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Thank you for drawing attention to this contrast. It is important to remind people that we can live in a humorous world without endangering the most vulnerable among us.

Thanks for this, very well and bravely said. Posted and blasted.

Letterman's inane frat boy humor isn't the trans communities' worst problem but it's kind of pathetic he couldn't do better.

I love how right wingers are talking about Amanda Simpson as though she's somehow a token. Compare her educational/work experience to the that of the woman they nominated as the last Republican Vice Presidential Candidate (or to their last President, for that matter).

To have the Xtian right's imprimatur, Ms Simpson would have to possess degrees in biblical creation and the Book of Revelations

Unfortunately, Lettermen wasn't the only late night offender to make an inappropriate joke about the Simpson appointment.

Conan O'Brien included a joke in his monologue last night (Jan 6), something to the effect that Simpson "is the first appointee to the Executive Branch to have her executive branch removed." It wasn't totally hateful, but I thought it was both inappropriate and unnecessary.

Luckily, Max Weinberg botched the rimshot that went on the end of the joke --- and the poor delivery of the joke turned out to be a bigger joke than the joke itself.

I haven't been able to check the link below because I'm on a dial-up line --- but I think this is it. The link may expire after 17 days.

[Video Link Here]

Amanda Simpson does deserve better, she certainly has not placed herself in a position for this type of ridicule.

I do not expect late night comedians to be human rights poets or offer apologies. Especially Letterman who has made many cruel personal jokes to many individuals.

Why the trans community at large asks for apologies ( Amanda Simpson deserves an apology, not us) or links this to hate crimes seems a bit of a leap. If that argument is to be made then the many portrayals of guns, assault, destruction and harm to human life in the media may as well fall under the umbrella of being inappropriate, deserving of an apology and leading to imitated violence from those who observe such imagery.

First off, I've seen much worse on late night TV before. Maybe it's that my skin has hardened, but I'm less bothered by this. But the linking of "jokes" in this line to hate crimes is right on. It's not a 1-1 relationship. Telling a dehumanizing joke is not as bad as committing a hate crime, for sure. But there is a relationship that shouldn't be ignored.

There's a difference between dehumanizing trans people with "it," "shemale," and portrayals of us as violators and simply having violence on TV. But if violence also dehumanizes a regularly dehumanized minority population then I'd agree with you. It's a problem when movies have rape scenes just to be edgy while quietly blaming the victim, sending the message that she deserved it, that she wanted it, or that it was otherwise reasonable behavior. It's a problem when TV and movies portray Arabs solely as terrorists who can't be reasoned with, where the only logical response is to kill them before they kill you. It's a problem when cop shows depict people of color as thugs and criminals who can only be dealt with through physical force and being locked up.

And each of those are areas where people (and organizations) have complained about the dehumanization and the problems with it. Trans folks are entitled to lodge the same complaint. And allowing the minor instances of dehumanizing jokes to remain uncriticized fosters an environment where more serious instances of dehumanization are more likely to occur.

Angela Brightfeather | January 7, 2010 3:11 PM

How totally inappropriate for the person who had his own butt saved by the dalliances of Tiger Woods, lest the media would still be talking about the Lettergate admission of infidelity admitted to by good old Dave, that made him look like a frat boy with a raging libido, straight out of Porky's or Animal House.

Woods may have taken the limelight of Big Dave, but it's obvious that he is still looking to shine the light away from his blighted and pitiful character by demeaning others who do't come close to his inappropriatness.

As for me and many others who witnessed this so called humor, I guess that enough is enough and come to think about it, I always liked Jay better anyways and I gain a full hour of sleep by watching him instead of Letterman.

It would be nice though if we could find some way to get the message to Letterman that once again, he is resuurecting his reputation for being an unconscious ass and losing viewers in the process. I'm sure that a few emails to his show or company will never find their way to his desk, so is there anyone out there who might know his home address in the Hamptons? I'd sure like to drop him a line and tell him what I think about his humor lately.

Thank you Jillian! I wonder if Letterman will ever issue some kind of statement. It would be nice if he would at least explain the context he meant in the skit and then tell his viewers about the reason it can offend the transexual community and perhaps educate people a bit. I doubt we will get anything but fingers crossed.

There was a discussion of the Letterman affair on Michelangelo Signorile's show yesterday evening. It was dispiriting to hear the number of gay callers trying to make allowances for Letterman's antics. I'm not even going to call it a joke or an attempt at humor, because it was none of those things.

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I don't accept the charge of pompous elitism, Michelle. Firstly, even though Jacques Lacan may have invented the term, it's used by lots of people. If you do a search of blogs, it's a term used in lots of places, and they're not scholars. It so happens that I am scholar, and I am pleased to be one. I had to work long and hard to get here, and there were plenty of people who told me that a transsexual would never be hired as a college professor, let alone get tenure. After I transitioned, I worked as a secretary for years despite my law degree and years of legal experience, and I was damn happy to get the job. I was homeless for a while before I got that job. I intentionally use the term "Dr." before my name because I want people to know that a transsexual can be a "Dr." I remember going to a conference where there were trans activists from Latin America who were shocked to meet a transsexual professor. In their country, they say, transsexuals could only be hairdressers or prostitutes. So I understand that it could come across as pompous and elitist, like I'm trying to say I'm better than you. I'm trying to say that we are human beings and we can be accomplished in the world. We're not just hairdressers and prostitutes, although I have friends who are both, and they are worthy human beings too.

I understand your point that jokes about getting high shouldn't be criticized as mocking drug addiction. But I disagree. It depends on context. If someone just died from a drug overdose, and I got up and made jokes about it, it could properly be criticized. When the first Presidential appointment of a transgender person is made, and the jokes are about how she deceived someone in order to have sex with them, I say I don't like it. If you like it, fine, but I have a right to say not good.

As far as this being an attempt on my part to exert power and control by being judgmental, well, I suppose it is. A fruitless attempt, but I would not like to see others imitating David Letterman on this.

I'm surprised that you larded your comments with such invective and venom. You had a good point to make - why show yourself to be an angry nut?

"I'm surprised that you larded your comments with such invective and venom. You had a good point to make - why show yourself to be an angry nutjob?"

i'm not.

the idea that trans people have any kind of "power and control" is ludicrous. (oh i'm sorry, i'll use the word "stupid" just in case the 'ol on-line dictionary isn't fired up yet.)

i'm pretty tired of trying to deal rationally with the trans-haters. they wont change until they find that somebody they love is trans, and perhaps then they *have* to try to understand... but i despair of them trying even then.

jillian, i can see why you have to waste bandwidth on them, but it really has gotten tiresome lately. i have seen more trans hatred in here than i have *ever* seen out in the world.

it is trotted out as "free speech" or to "start a dialogue" but you cant tell me that i dont know shit when i am standing in it. sometimes knee deep in it.

there will always be those who hate us for who we are. i think its time we stop squandering our time trying to convince them of something they refuse to understand. its not that they are incapable, some of them are very intelligent -- they are simply unwilling.

and that is just sad.

I used no epithets, made no threats, stayed on topic, and while my comment was bluntly worded, it didn't deserve to be erased. Erasure of non-PC views seems to be the rule around here, so I am going to stop visiting and commenting. You can have the echo chamber you desire.

Before I leave you all, I just wanted to note the hypocrisy of TPB's spiking my comment, but allowing yours, which refers to me as a "nutjob". Apparently, the TOS apply to some, but not others. Also, great way to smear those suffering mental illness, doctor.


That was me, Michelle. A half dozen readers complained about your comment and brought it to our attention. The Ed Team held a vote on it; it was unanimous.

Your comment was on topic, but was deemed a personal attack and abusive. See: "a pompous elitist so insecure about her intellectual superiority" and "it really is never about arguments with the trans activist, is it? It is always about power and control" as two examples of crossing the line.

Which is sad since you had a pretty good point - you just chose to belittle Jillian instead of actually sticking with the issue. You can be as controversial as you'd like, but you can also attack an idea without attacking a person.

Thanks Bil!!! I commented before to sticking to the topic, no backstabbing or personal attacks on commenters so we can have an adult discussion on very sensitive topics. Some day!!!

Letterman's jokes suck, Jay Leno rocks!!!

What's this about rightwingers? I'm just a little to the right of Attila the Hun and transgender. Not a fundie idiot!!!!!

Sue Lefkowitz | January 9, 2010 10:30 AM

TV pundits call Jay more "middle-american" than Letterman. I think Jay has always been funnier and I hope he gets a successful time slot. Does anybody remember when Rachel was interviewing some congressman from South Carolina who addressed her as "sir"? Rachel told him not to worry cause it happens a lot.

Interestingly, Rachel Maddow appeared on Letterman a few nights ago and said nothing about the incident of Letterman's skit about Simpson. Here's an interesting take on that incident, and a poll on the question. http://thenewcivilrightsmovement.com/should-rachel-maddow-have-appeared-on-david-letterman/discrimination/2010/01/08/6660

I think the author of this piece is being completely unrealistic, Jillian. Rachel is going on Letterman's show to not only help score him ratings but also to promote her own show. Letterman is the host, she's the guest.

It's not Rachel's place nor is it advisable for her to go after Dave on his own show. First of all, she's there to be interviewed, to answer questions, not to ask them. Second, if she does something like that in front of Letterman's audience it will inevitably be Rachel who ends up looking bad.

All that said, if it were the other way around, if it were Letterman who were appearing on Rachel's show as a guest, then the topic would be fair game because then it's Rachel who's asking the questions and controlling the agenda.