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.