On comedy and learning how to be an ally

People love to say that feminists and humour are like oil and water. Any feminist knows this is bullshit – in fact, as of late humour has become a key element of how many feminists aim to get their messages across. However, it’s important that we keep in mind our subjective position with relation to the topic when making or engaging with a joke. We need to be careful when creating humour that involves perspectives and life experiences we don’t share. I recently learned this the hard way, and wanted to share my experience with you.

Way back in September 2012, a friendly acquaintance asked me to act in a series of clips for his satirical web series, Propagator. As this acquaintance had done favours for me in the past, I agreed to participate. The first episode in which I appear lampoons the odious “ex-gay” movement and presents a gay-positive message – a message that, as a straight woman who tries to be an ally to the LGBTQ communities, I am more than happy to stand behind. I felt that participating in this effort would be a good way to show my support as an ally.

My clips (which will appear one-by-one over the course of three episodes – check out the first one) are parodies of pharmaceutical ads wherein I talk to the camera about a sense that something is not quite right in my idyllic-seeming life with a husband and children. I then take a drug that reduces repression and “psychotic denial”. Once the drug eliminates these factors, my character has the revelation that she is a lesbian. The message is ultimately an indictment of our society and the pressure it places on people to conform to heteronormative sexuality. It also bears noting that the production team has a number of queer people (all of them men, however).

At the time we shot it, I was comfortable with my involvement because I was comfortable with the overall message. However, in the eight months that have passed since the shoot, I have learned more (and continue to learn) about what it means to be an ally to a group of which I am not part. As a straight woman I have never gone through the experience of coming out and/or coming to terms with the fact that my sexuality does not conform to societal expectations. Had I done so, it’s possible I might take issue with the clip’s satirical representation of this experience. The idea, for example, that coming to terms with one’s sexuality is as easy as taking a pill, or the characterization of previous denial as “psychotic”.

On the other hand, were I a queer woman I might not take issue with any of it – who’s to say? But the bottom line is that I am not a queer woman. As a straight woman, I do not have the life experience necessary to judge the clip in context. I do not wish to condemn the clip outright (I don’t have the perspective to do so), but simply to express that I was not well-positioned to play that character. If I could go back in time, I would have chosen not to participate and instead recommended they get a queer woman to play the character.

I can’t go back in time, though. The first episode is slated for release on Wednesday, June 4th to align with the upcoming Pride festival. At this point in the game I felt it would be unfair to request that the producers remove my clips – after all, they may have developed other content for the episode that makes reference to the clips. There is also no way that we could adjust the content to make me more comfortable, because at the end of the day, we cannot change my sexual orientation, and changing the character’s would have a radical impact on the plot.

I did not want to upend the episode and greatly inconvenience the producers. So I simply requested that I not be credited, as I did not feel comfortable putting my name on the product. I made an effort to express to the producers that I did not wish to insult their work, and that many queer women may indeed have no problem with the clip, but that as a straight woman I didn’t feel equipped to make determinations about it.

My acquaintance was deeply insulted by my concerns and my request to not be credited. In turn he insulted me, called me a coward, accused me of turning my back on the queer community (which really confused me), and suggested that I feel I am “too famous” to work with the production team to adjust the content to my comfort level (which, as previously stated, would be impossible). He trotted out the fact that their production team includes queer people who took no issue with the clip (I repeat, however, that none of those team members are queer women). And finally, he said in a threatening tone that they had no intention of removing my name from the credits or promotional strategy for the episode: “Everyone will know the extent of your involvement.” He has already begun to tag me in promotions on social media.

That’s okay. I am willing to take responsibility for the fact that I shot these clips. I am willing to stand behind the fact that the ultimate message is positive, while acknowledging that the nuances of how that message was conveyed may have problems for some viewers. On a personal note, I apologize to anyone who felt that the clip belittled their experience. And if you’re a queer woman and had absolutely no problem with it? That’s awesome – there are a whole range of ways that we can interpret satire, and everyone’s experiences will position them differently in relation to it.

What I learned between the shoot and the impending release is that being an ally means more than supporting material with a positive intended message. In the future, I will not take part in any comedic efforts that depict a character whose life experiences are not represented in the production team. When engaging with subject matter that affects those who are oppressed in ways I am not, I will take a supportive role and cede to those who have experienced it directly. This is kind of “Ally 101” or even “Remedial Ally 101”. It’s one of those things I thought I already knew. But knowing something and really feeling its importance are two different things. I’m glad I had a chance to learn this lesson in practice, but more importantly, I apologize if I caused anyone pain in the process.

5 thoughts on “On comedy and learning how to be an ally

  1. I am not a queer woman either, but when I read the plot I didn’t take the medication part as a commentary on the process of denial or coming out, I took it as a commentary on American TVs advertisements on drugging your way to happiness. It made me stop and think about depression and the many causes and maybe a pill isn’t really what’s needed but being true to yourself.

    The thing is everyone who’s been through a traumatic experience will handle it differently. Some people with a visible disability like being approached about it and informing people about the condition. Others hate having it acknowledged (I bet very often those two are the same person on different days!). I’m sure you can think of millions of examples of feminists having conflicting experiences.

    One of humanity’s greatest traits is empathy, one we don’t always use often enough, and I really worry about the idea of groups denying outsiders the right to use their empathy. Of course you don’t know what it’s like to go through the process, but even if you did, you would have no idea what it was like for everyone else. The point is that you care, that you listen, that you have taken in the messages that for some people this clip will be funny, for others it will be upsetting. I think also trying to say that the gay men couldn’t know what it’s like for a woman is also a bit troubling. Certainly there will be gay men who are also offended by the pill attitude. Coming out can be just as traumatic for them!

    I don’t think that being in this clip means you’re saying you *know* what it’s like, I think it means you’re saying you *care* what it’s like. I hope that to people who might not like the clip itself, they would find this post and respect you for the learning process it started within you and the great way you were able to share this perspective with others. That’s what really matters and you should be proud to have your name on it!

    • Thanks so much for your reflections on this, Kensie. Your interpretation of the plot is pretty much exactly how I interpreted it (and I think it was the intended meaning of the producers). Your point about everything handling their experiences differently is so true – this is why I didn’t feel like my interpretation and/or response was necessarily the only valid one. Your point about gay men understanding what it’s like is duly noted; I guess I just meant that the intersectional experience of being a gay woman differs from being a gay man (though of course there are many differences within those groups as well). I am okay with being part of the episode, provided I had an opportunity to express my reservations about it and what I learned through the experience. That’s why I wrote this post. I hope, as you suggest, it can serve as a good companion piece to the episode (which I’ll link to as soon as it goes live!).

  2. I also agree that you should be proud to have your name on this. It is a skit and a satire at that, correct? Satire isn’t out of necessity meant to be funny, but it should be thought provoking. I suspect the outcome is exactly that.

    The process of coming out is different and feels different for everyone who goes through it. There is no single valid point of view or representation of the process. That being said, letting going of repressed feelings and breaking through the shell of denial (perhaps even mildly psychotic in some cases) is, in reality, something that many queer people have to experience. For myself, personally, these are things I dealt with for many years. The process of coming out was not easy for me, but now I am happily married to a woman I love very much. I consider myself lucky. Being Canadian, I was able to do so without fear of persecution. I cannot imagine what it must feel like for those who live in countries where they do not have the freedom to do so.

    I have not seen the clips, but from how you’ve described it, I don’t think it serves to suggest “that coming to terms with one’s sexuality is as easy as taking a pill.” If anything, as a satire, it may be ridiculing that exact premise. In either case, what I see as important here are the ideas that are being explored. True, you are not a queer woman and you have not experienced directly “what it is like,” but you are more than capable of empathizing with those that do know.

    • Thanks for your perspective on this, Nicole. I’ll be sure to share a link to the episode once it’s up. And yes, I definitely have empathy to offer in spades!!

  3. I also agree that you should be proud to have your name on this. It is a skit and a satire at that, correct? Satire isn’t out of necessity meant to be funny, but it should be thought provoking. I suspect the outcome is exactly that.

    The process of coming out is different and feels different for everyone who goes through it. There is no single valid point of view or representation of the process. That being said, letting going of repressed feelings and breaking through the shell of denial (perhaps even mildly psychotic in some cases) is, in reality, something that many queer people have to experience. For myself, personally, these are things I dealt with for many years. The process of coming out was not easy for me, but now I am happily married to a woman I love very much. I consider myself lucky. Being Canadian, I was able to do so without fear of persecution. I cannot imagine what it must feel like for those who live in countries where they do not have the freedom to do so.

    I have not seen the clips, but from how you’ve described it, I don’t think it serves to suggest “that coming to terms with one’s sexuality is as easy as taking a pill.” If anything, as a satire, it may be ridiculing that exact premise. In either case, what I see as important here are the ideas that are being explored. True, you are not a queer woman and you have not experienced directly “what it is like,” but you are more than capable of empathizing with those that do know.

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