Hey, guess what the latest misogynist attack on Michelle Obama is, everyone? Are you ready for this? It’s none other than that old transphobic, gender-enforcement standby, “THAT’S A MAAAAAAAN, BABY!”
The consistently amazing Monica Roberts of Trans Griot surfaced this clip of stand-up comedian and SNL vet Jay Mohr on Jim Rome’s sports radio talk show.
[at around 2:00 into the clip] Michelle Obama — that is a big dude. When Barack plays pick up games at the White House, you know he picks Michelle as at least his forward, maybe his [center] depending on who’s in Congress that day.
That has to be like being married to Elton Brand. She is a big dude. I like when she put her arm around the Queen of England and she put her in a headlock and told her, “I’ve been waiting 200 years to put my arms around you, lady.” I love that.
I like how she shaved off her eyebrows, and then drew them back way too high into an arch, and then straight back down, so she always looks super surprised. She kind of, Michelle Obama kind of looks like the Count on Sesame Street. One — hah hah hah — One Black President — hah hah hah.
Real classy way to treat the First Lady — but if you ask me, Jay Mohr has always been about as funny as a week-old sack of dead rats. He’s clearly whipping out his most tired material for Rome’s sports-radio army of clones, too. Scott Madin noted over at Shakesville that there are even more racist, transphobic jokes (somehow related to steroids and gynecomastia, I guess?) later on in the clip, at about 3:30.
But transphobic misogyny on talk radio is a dog-bites-man story, right? One of the more interesting angles here is how women in color are targeted by this kind of bullshit in very particular ways. White people’s bodies form an unquestioned “default” of normalcy and beauty, but the exoticized and demonized bodies of other peoples are scrutinized for difference — taller, wider, differently proportioned, associated with any number of stereotypes. Monica has touched on this subject in earlier posts as well, about particular ways black women have been subjected to the “you look like a tranny” insult, and about distorted, grotesque media portrayal of black trans women. I could write a whole essay about being an Asian-American trans woman, and what that means in the minefield of overlapping stereotypes. And really, how much doubt is there that race factors into Mohr’s insecure sniping at a “big black woman” with “scary vampire eyebrows?”
I want to explore something a little bit different for the rest of this post, however. What struck me about this clip was how Jay Mohr (and other misogynist assholes like Perez Hilton) have managed to sink so low that they’re making the same kinds of jokes as mainstream liberal bloggers. That’s right, liberal bloggers who feel fine about targeting Ann Coulter in exactly the same way: the “Mann Coulter” joke. Do we really need to explain why this isn’t OK? Apparently we still do. In the last month I’ve seen several “defenses” mounted for this kind of joke, even from people you’d never expect to be publicizing such deeply problematic humor. But maybe the equal-opportunity slagging of Michelle Obama for “mannishness” will open some eyes? One can only hope.
Given the way our overlords have been fighting the War on Terror, we ought to be keenly aware that the end doesn’t justify the means when choosing what kind of weapons to attack your enemies with. Ann Coulter could be the Worst Person in the World, drowning kittens for fun, but if you waterboarded her it would still be torture, and still against the Geneva Conventions. Misogynist, transphobic insults are certainly not torture, but they ARE open displays of bigotry that turn prejudiced attitudes into a mocking attack. Anyone who’s trying to justify that kind of tactic ought to be ashamed of themselves. Maybe not as ashamed as Dick Cheney ought to be for justifying torture for the American Way — but I’d really like to assume that liberal bloggers haven’t had their brains replaced with Demonic Death Computers like Cheney’s.
Forcing people to adhere to gender roles, evaluating their performance in those roles, and vilifying or mocking them for not living up to arbitrary gender standards is deeply oppressive. It’s a system that nobody who claims to care about social justice should be participating in. It’s a system that leads to the murder or suicide of kids who don’t live up to it. We’ve said it a hundred times in a hundred different posts: Gender Policing Hurts Kids, in small ways and large ones. It hurts the rest of us too, even if we’ve grown up and found some kind of niche for ourselves within the system.
When Jay Mohr calls Michelle Obama a “dude” for being tall — she’s a whole two inches taller than him, insecure much? — and for plucking her eyebrows the “wrong way,” he’s policing her gender. When Maureen Dowd or Republicans mock Obama and other Democratic men for being too feminine, that’s gender policing too. And when liberal bloggers choose to take potshots at Ann Coulter because they think she “looks like a man” or is failing in her project of being attractive and feminine, that’s gender policing. It’s all sexist, transphobic, and downright pathetic as a substitute for real bile, snark or criticism.
Look, I know most of you already know this. I’m bringing it up again, and repeating it in relation to Mohr’s mockery of Michelle Obama, because of quotes like these:
Look. I totally sympathize with the transgendered that they would not want to be associated with Coulter. I certainly don’t want to be associated with Rush. But you’re comparing apples and oranges.
Coulter dresses for “fan service” – that is, she knows a significant percentage of her fans find her attractive and she uses that to her advantage (her photo gallery being one notable example). The fact that she’s not particularly feminine becomes an obvious point of ridicule.
Does that mean the message is “Ha ha, Ann Coulter is a transsexual and transgendered people suck”? No, the message is “Ha ha, Ann Coulter is trying to flaunt her stuff with so very little to flaunt.” Juvenile? Yes. “Transphobic?” No. — Raptavio
This excuse is so astonishingly short-sighted that it makes me want to take the whole blogosphere to get its eyeglass prescription checked. The first, elementary-level objection to the Mann Coulter shtick is that you shouldn’t mock Evil Person A by likening them to Vilified Population B, even if you “really don’t mean it.” You just can’t get away with doing that without participating in the vilification of population B. That much should be obvious.
The astonishing thing is that the explanation of “what this joke is really trying to do” actually gets even more misogynist and transphobic. She’s not “particularly feminine” and she has “very little to flaunt.” In other words, she gets a failing grade, from a series of random (and objective?) liberal observers, at being an attractive feminine woman. Of course, this failure is what makes her comparable to a trans woman, because we’re known for that failure. Yes, kids, that is transphobic. It’s also misogynistic. It partakes very deeply in what Julia Serano calls oppositional sexism, another way of describing gender policing that ties it in with homophobia, transphobia, and heteronormativity.
Bitch PhD, who I hope has realized by now just how badly she stepped in it, had a slightly more nuanced excuse:
Well yeah, the whole Coulter-as-trans thing is of course insulting to trans people (in more than one way. I mean *Coulter*?!) The problem, though, is that Coulter herself makes a bfd out of how “attractive” she is. And, well, she isn’t. And it’s weird that she’s kinda mannish given how hyper-femme she is.
I’m perfectly aware that everyone has decided that calling Coulter a cunt–or saying she looks mannish–is terribly sexist. I don’t buy it. As I said in the thread, her shtick is *founded* on the whole “I’m so feminine and pretty” crap. She makes comments about how democrats and lefties generally are ugly. Her self-presentation is high-femme. Underlying the “she’s a maaaaan, baby” reactions, I think, is a critique of her invocation of rigid gender norms to market herself. Is it the most sophisticated critique? Not usually. Is it often a critique that’s completely uncritical of those gender norms? Yes, but not always [...]
The spin may sound a little more self-aware, but ultimately I think this excuse falls down as well. It’s built on two ideas: that you can trust that some people “really do know better” when they make these jokes, and that it’s ok to give someone a failing grade at gender if they’re trying to be “hyper-femme.” The first point is debatable at best. As I tried to say in the comments section to that post, you can’t just context-switch a joke that’s in questionable taste, take it to a much wider public circle like the blogosphere, and expect the meaning to stay unsullied. (Pro comedians are rarely successful at this either; witness the abdication of Dave Chapelle when his jokes were co-opted by racist frat boys.)
On top of that, the tactic in question has been spread all over the internet and been used by all sorts of random anti-Coulter jerks. These jokes, in and of themselves, are barbs that use gender policing to try and degrade and mock people through gender. I don’t care whether you’re Jack Bauer, a Marxist guerilla, or Stalin; torturing your vile enemies is still torture. On a much more trivial level than sticks and stones and waterboards, these jokes are still shitty, shitty asshole tactics. Wash your hands of them, people.
Underneath the first level of explanation, there’s still a deeper problem. You can’t criticize Coulter or Obama for being “mannish,” for “not having much to flaunt,” or for failing at the game of being “pretty and feminine” without buying into the idea that you can and should grade people on these matters. For fuck’s sake, some of this “criticism” is about the shape of individual women’s skeletons: her jaw’s too square, she’s too tall and she shows off her arms! This is Feminism 101: the whole system of evaluation stinks to high heaven in the first place. If you choose to wield it as a weapon, and you won’t acknowledge the inherent problems even when you think your target is An Awful Person, well… you’re in the company of geniuses like Jay Mohr. Enjoy the gutter.
One last note, thanks to pear_shaped_Sara in comments at Shakesville: here’s what Michelle Obama’s eyebrows looked like when she was a kid.
Jay Mohr’s Stupid Assumptions: 0.
Insanely Awesome Eyebrows: 1.
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