Lady Looks Like a Dude

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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30 comments for “Lady Looks Like a Dude

  1. May 22, 2009 at 4:26 pm

    Yes yes yes!

  2. May 22, 2009 at 4:36 pm

    Holly, thanks for the link love and the blog shout out.

  3. evil_fizz
    May 22, 2009 at 5:14 pm

    Jay Mohr has spent most of his career wishing he could be Matthew Mcconaughey. Nice to see he views his talent as an actor and as a comedian similiarly: aim low, fall lower.

  4. madeleine
    May 22, 2009 at 5:26 pm

    The end of this post is super awesome. She’s the cutest kid.

  5. NancyP
    May 22, 2009 at 5:33 pm

    For the shock-jocks and their listeners, all Democratic women are ugly* and all Republican women are hawt. It’s really that simple. I am surprised that I haven’t heard some young Republican man call Phyllis Schlafly hot at age 84.

    *Age counts if the woman is Democratic – and few models and actresses will out themselves as Democratic until they have established a career and name recognition. Until that point, they try to satisfy everyone and offend no-one.

  6. Jesse
    May 22, 2009 at 5:38 pm

    Yes, yes, a million times yes. Being part of a movement that is supposed to be making the rest of the world understand that there is a whole lot more to “woman” than what the popular standard seems to be, and then turning around and ridiculing a person for not fitting that same ridiculous standard is very hypocritical. Likening her to trans people is even worse for those who are trans, not because they are being likened to Ann Coulter (although perhaps for some/most/all that would sting a fair amount, I don’t know personally as I am cissexual) but because of what you wrote: “this failure is what makes her comparable to a trans woman, because we’re known for that failure.” I mean, not all trans women “fail” at appearing feminine, not all cis women “pass” at appearing feminine. Regardless of these things though they all look like women (even when more butch/masculine) because that is what they are. We are.
    I may be a cis woman (and this means my life experience is in no way comparable to a trans woman’s life experience) but some of my physical features are far from typically “femme,” such as a square jaw, broad shoulders, small chest in proportion to my body, and (before I started caring enough to pluck them) thick dark eyebrows with little to no arch. I like to dress femme most of the time and have slowly become better at it over the years, but even when I did and do “fail” it doesn’t mean I deserve to be ridiculed for it. Dressing up more andro or butch than I do normally, to the point that some mistake me for a man, doesn’t mean they are seeing a man. They are still seeing a woman, and I am what a woman looks like no matter how I choose to dress or do my hair.
    There would seem to be plenty of people who find her attractive despite this societal standard that says some of her physical features are “mannish.” Is there something -wrong- with being a more andro or masculine looking person in make-up, heels, and a dress? Are people who look that way only “allowed” to dress a certain way and act a certain way? And think a certain way about their appearance? Because that smells like bullshit to me.

  7. drydock
    May 22, 2009 at 6:13 pm

    Perhaps demanding time on Rome’s radio station for a rebuttal might be an effective counteraction.

  8. May 22, 2009 at 6:19 pm

    God. Thank YOU

  9. May 22, 2009 at 7:54 pm

    funny as a week-old sack of dead rats

    Holly, I am stealing that line at my earliest opportunity!

    The tradeswomen in my Local have a phrase for that—“sportscar syndrome”, as in: the strength of a man’s masculinity construct is in inverse proportion to how expensive his car is. It’s always the dudes that are insecure in their masculinity who are so damned worried about policing the level of femininity in women. Stereotype sure, but no less true.

  10. Jet
    May 22, 2009 at 9:14 pm

    YES. Thank you.

  11. May 22, 2009 at 10:57 pm

    You hit the nail on the head with this whole post, Holly. My neck is sore from nodding, seriously.

  12. ryan
    May 22, 2009 at 11:11 pm

    Rebecca Schoenkopf (aka Commie Girl) of the OC Weekly was all over this guy a while back…it sounds like he was awful and stale as far back as 1999, when she wrote this:

    “I was unprepared for the innocuous-looking blond to be such a meanspirited little man when I saw him at the Brea Improv. If former Governor-and don’t we miss him?-Pete Wilson were a standup comic, he would be Jay Mohr. “Do you know what the No. 1 name in the state of California was last year?” he asked like an arrogant frat boy. “Jose. Jose! What the fuck happened?” He then went on to denounce people who give directions in foreign languages, a joke that clearly had to be modified from its “foreign cabbie” origins for use with a West Coast audience; ATMs that ask, “What language shall we speak?” (“How about the language that’s printed on the fucking money!” was the righteous answer); fat chicks, like that “white whale” Ricki Lake; trailer trash on Jerry Springer; and the funny names black folks are giving their children these days-a bit that’s so hackneyed even Saturday Night Live has done it. He did do some wonderful pratfalls, though, and he made good professional use of local landmarks, like asking directions to Edison International Field. Traveling comics really don’t need to pretend they’re familiar with our area; wasn’t it sweet of him to try to fake it? His best material was Hanson-based-and if that doesn’t tell you something about how outre his comedy is, then you need to go see some Jim-from-Taxi impressions.” “Hating Everyone,” OC Weekly, February 4, 1999, at http://www.ocweekly.com/1999-02-04/columns/hating-everyone/

  13. May 23, 2009 at 1:16 am

    I wanna see Jay Mohr say that shit with the Secret Service around. I mean, that prick is damn lucky he’s talking about a woman who is too damn busy to listen to the radio — cause if she had heard that, shit, if Barack had heard that, that douche would be half-way to Gitmo by now. (Okay, not really, but you get my meaning.)

  14. May 23, 2009 at 6:17 am

    Yes.

    And: 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.

    YES.

    Bitch PhD, who I hope has realized by now just how badly she stepped in it

    No, she has not.

  15. sophonisba
    May 23, 2009 at 8:03 am

    Calling Counter “mannish” is just precious, because what must “mannish” then mean, on a woman? If Coulter is the standard, it means tall and thin and wiry with strong, defined features.

    And we know how much admiration women command when they are round, fleshy, fat, weak-featured and soft-faced, don’t we? Oh yes. The compliments just never stop flowing for the physically “womanish” among us.

    BitchPhD isn’t even dumb, that’s the tragedy of it.

  16. sophonisba
    May 23, 2009 at 8:20 am

    Meanwhile, Michelle Obama has as classic an hourglass shape as a woman can have, a pretty face, dresses in tailored skirts and dresses much of the time, and has long, salon-treated “feminine” hair. Even inasmuch as traditional femininity is defined by white stylistic norms, she even lives up to those when she chooses. What is masculine about her? Visual evidence of strength, and being tall enough to look men in the eyes. The end.

    I don’t mean that she would be more masculine in “reality” if she had a thicker waist, shorter hair, or stumpier legs, obviously not, but her resounding success at traditional beauty draws a big neon frame around what the Jay Mohrs of the world think womanhood consists of, which is weakness–simple, literal weakness–and the absence of all human qualities. His stinging insult is supposed to be that her husband would want to play basketball with her! Can you imagine? Next thing you know he’ll want to go to movies with her or eat dinner with her, and who the hell would want to do that with a woman when there’s men available? What an extremely masculine woman she must be, to be capable of such normal human activities.

  17. Rosasharn
    May 23, 2009 at 9:47 am

    I agree with sophonisba. This would be inappropriate/sexist even if Michelle was masculine in appearance but she’s not, at all. She wears dresses and pearls in most of the photos I’ve seen of her, she wears make-up and has a classic feminine hair style, and fashion blogs/magazines seem to do nothing but talk about how great she looks, but because she’s tall and has muscular arms she looks like a dude?

    Of course, as a 5’10” female, my favorite conservative quote is Phyllis Schaffly saying that women shouldn’t be in the army because they won’t be able to see over the edges of convey trucks, so the conservative movement definitely has some issues with tall women.

  18. Tiktaalik
    May 23, 2009 at 2:22 pm

    “She kind of, Michelle Obama kind of looks like the Count on Sesame Street. One — hah hah hah — One Black President — hah hah hah.”
    Am I the only one to notice this part. This doesn’t even make sense (and why the Count, of all things?)…

  19. Aleisha
    May 23, 2009 at 3:16 pm

    “Even if she was” is a backdoor to reinforcing the same gender essentialism, and a slippery slope. I think we all have a pretty good idea of what kinds of bodies are culturally idealized, restating those points doesn’t feel like clarification as much as it feels like reinforcement. Is the point more ridiculous because she does live up to these standards we say don’t actually matter but we keep pointing out?

    The Ann Coulter thing has been pissing me off for years, and whenever I call out other queers or “progressive” people for using it I get backpedaling, defensiveness, or ignored. What is even worse is when people have obviously never even considered how offensive that would be to a trans woman. That we see prominent bloggers defending their use of this bigoted slur, and so aggressively, it makes me sad for the state of most queer and progressive communities, and so much more thankful for the cis people who actually get it.

  20. May 23, 2009 at 3:18 pm

    @sophonisba

    Meanwhile, Michelle Obama has as classic an hourglass shape as a woman can have, a pretty face, dresses in tailored skirts and dresses much of the time, and has long, salon-treated “feminine” hair. Even inasmuch as traditional femininity is defined by white stylistic norms, she even lives up to those when she chooses.

    Okay I get where you were going with this but even in quotation marks the “feminine hair” routine is problematic. Black hair that is untreated is just as feminine and desirable; it is whiteness that has chosen to see difference as less than.

  21. May 23, 2009 at 3:44 pm

    Policing the boundaries of gender: a beloved feminist passtime.

    We are spending our time telling people they don’t conform well enough to society’s standards of gender presentation. This is, of course, a totally worthwhile endeavor for someone committed to gender justice.

    It sure is funny when a person tries to pretend to be something they’re not!

    You know, because Ann Coulter is really a MAN but is pathetically trying to look female.

    What does this say about how we really think of transfolk? What are you “really”? Do we really support your right to self-determination if we’re busy using your image as a weapon against people we find distasteful?

  22. sophonisba
    May 23, 2009 at 8:09 pm

    Renee: I absolutely agree that mainstream American femininity is a rigged and racist game; sorry I didn’t convey it well but that’s what I meant to imply, that there is nothing meaningfully feminine about long hair, straight hair, straightened hair, or white women’s hair.

    I used the word in scare quotes because femininity as it is applied to immutable physical characteristics isn’t real; it’s not even a meaningful cultural construct the way silks and velvets and the color pink can be said to be feminine–when people talk about naturally occurring bodies and hair types being feminine, rather than female, all they’re doing is extending or withdrawing the patronizing hand of patriarchal approval. It’s only about power, not aesthetics, whatever they claim. So I sometimes feel like stressing how white women aren’t any more feminine than anybody else lends a false legitimacy to the very concept of the physical feminine, which I do not like to do. But I nevertheless see that you are right.

  23. r.
    May 24, 2009 at 8:56 pm

    It’s always the dudes that are insecure in their masculinity who are so damned worried about policing the level of femininity in women.

    … or otherwise it’s the women who enjoy that they may benefit from putting down others for not coming up to par femininity-wise.

    Stereotype sure, but no less true.

    yes, even if they’re stereotypes, they illuminate the basic mechanism at work here: these kinds of “jokes” are all about people choosing to perpetuate a gender dynamic that’s fucked up. even when they’re aware it’s fucked up, people collude with it all the time. and if we ever wonder how that happens, this, right here, is an example.

  24. wiggles
    May 25, 2009 at 6:44 pm

    Sort of OT but have any of y’all seen Jay Mohr’s stand-up? I watched a special he had on Comedy Central once and OMG what an idiot! Like he calls English guys (all of them) sissies for having English accents. He’s that much of a tool.
    He also says Budweiser is better than Guinness. I mean seriously.

  25. Mark Temporis
    May 26, 2009 at 11:43 pm

    Budweiser better than Guinness? Really?
    We shouldn’t make fun; he’s obviously delusional.

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