CN: discussion of transphobia in media
A common defense of comedies and comedians that people resort to whenever attempts at comedy cause a backlash is that said comedy or comedian is an “equal opportunity offender.” The idea here is that since their comedy offends people of virtually every group, it is somehow above being critiqued for the offense it causes. This defense is intellectually dishonest and misrepresents the issue.
The biggest problem with this defense is that it completely disregards the distinction between punching up and punching down. There is an enormous difference between mocking privileged groups and mocking marginalized groups. Making fun of privileged groups doesn’t reinforce structural oppression. Instead, it has the potential to call it out and challenge oppression. This is why I don’t take offense when jokes make fun of white people (though this does NOT automatically make me one of the good ones). White people have been oppressing everyone who isn’t white for a very long time so we have no cause to complain when someone from the groups we have oppressed tell jokes at our expense.
Punching down however, reinforces oppression and harms marginalized groups. For example, transphobic jokes in the media are a big part of why I took until my late 20s to come out as trans. The jokes about how trans people are allegedly inherently disgusting lead me to believe that I would be wrong to live as the person I so badly needed to be. I’ve already discussed on this site and on the It’s a Frickin Moon Facebook page how depictions like the one in Ace Ventura have adversely impacted me, but in some ways South Park’s portrayal of transness was even more damaging. In South Park, the teacher of the main characters transitions. Her transition is portrayed as disgusting and unable to make her a “real” woman. When she finds out she can’t get pregnant (which a trans woman in real life would have already known before transitioning), she calls herself “just a man with a mutilated penis” and quickly regrets her transition (in real life transition regrets are very rare and don’t typically happen for the reasons cis people tend to think). In the episode she transitions (the show inaccurately portrays medical transition as quick), another character is surgically altered to resemble a dolphin and this is portrayed as similar to transness. A few seasons later, she detransitions. This entire arc sent extremely damaging messages to my closeted self, causing me to repress myself even further than I had been doing before.
Yes, virtually everything is offensive to someone. However, not all instances of offensiveness are equivalent in the nature of their impact. Those who create comedy should be mindful of who their jokes impact and how those jokes impact them.