Monthly Archives: April 2014

The Conservative Logics of Gay Marriage

As I read a local paper, the Oregonian on an early morning flight from Portland to Madison in early March 2014, I came across an op-ed that reflects an increasingly common position that I have to admit still strikes even me (a snarky radical queer) as surprising when publicly stated. A representative from the Young Conservatives of Oregon, Xander Almeida, lamented a recent decision by one of Oregon’s leading gay and lesbian organizations to take the case of gay marriage through the courts instead of letting Oregonians vote on a measure in a popular referendum. While Almeida notes that Oregon approved a ban on same-sex marriage in 2004, and further suggests his worry about popular votes on civil rights matters, he believes that this time it is the right thing to do. He makes this claim based on two reasons. First, Oregonians, in line with the current trend around the United States, will vote for equality. Second, in choosing to take the more expedient route through the courts instead of the slower path of allowing the voice of the people to speak, gay and lesbian activists are adding more fodder to conservative fires against “activist judges” who legislate from their benches.

Almeida clearly notes a strong gesture of alliance that would be possible for gay marriage advocates to offer to conservatives if they followed the methods of democracy and not the courts. What is additionally interesting here is the very boldness of a conservative activist offering advice to a supposedly liberal cause, not in the spirit of sarcasm or snark, but in genuine sincerity. This article is just one example in a current rhetorical explosion of conservatives coming out on the side of gay marriage, in support of military integration of gays, lesbians and bisexuals, and in recognition of violence done to LGBT youth. Why the turn, or is it a turn at all?

In the realm of public discourse, conservative support of LGBT rights has historically been minimal. In fact, usually, the surest way to gain conservative enemies would have been to express support for LGBT rights. Only when pressed due to hypocrisy as in the case of someone like Dick Cheney who has a lesbian daughter, would conservatives admit their moderate support of LGBT people, and perhaps their rights. But, publicly this has changed. Republicans including Utah’s Jon Huntsman, Rob Portman from Ohio, and others have gone on the record affirming gay and lesbian rights. The public shift in rhetoric can, on the one hand, be attributed to the success of the calculated and strategic campaign of the national gay and lesbian rights movement, especially its argument for “marriage equality.”

This public shift could also reflect what queer activists and scholars, including my friend and collaborator Yasmin Nair have long contended: Gay Marriage IS a Conservative Cause.  As Nair argues in her essay of that name, “Nothing that the left, progressives, or liberals have stated in support of gay marriage has ever been anything but a profoundly conservative argument.  Gays and lesbians should be allowed to marry for healthcare?  That simply shores up the power of the neoliberal state, compelling people to marry and take on the burden for their own care, instead of creating, for instance, a system that grants life-saving benefits to everyone, regardless of marital status.  This is a matter of ‘simple equality?’  How is a system that systematically denies those same benefits to single people ever anything but fundamentally unequal?” Nair’s laments highlight the dangers of what Lisa Duggan has called “homonormativity” which describes how many relatively privileged (usually white, middle class, cisgender, US citizen, monogamously-coupled) gays and lesbians exist in a depoliticized realm as consumer citizens who simply want the same rights as straight people with whom they share all those other privileges. This is, in fact, what the infamous gay conservative Andrew Sullivan has argued for since the 1990s: marriage equality is a sure way to domesticate all those unruly queers.

If gay marriage is a conservative cause already, what makes this turn of interest to rhetoric scholars such as myself is that it is an interesting case to highlight the deeply conservative logics that undergird seemingly progressive movements in the United States, the limits of their strategies, and the plethora of questions they are not asking. Instead of registering as a victory, does conservative support of liberal causes like gay marriage suggest entrenched flaws with the approach of the mainstream movement? How will conservative support lead liberals to make even further conservative compromises in order to solidify such support? Who will be further abjected and made vulnerable by this domestication?

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Stephen Versus the Twitterverse: #CancelColbert and the Rhetoric of Bad Satire

This guest post was authored by Matthew Meier, a Ph.D. candidate in Media and Communication Studies at Bowling Green State University.

I have a sneaking suspicion that on Friday March 28, 2014, Comedy Central fired an intern. The day immediately prior, the following message was posted to twitter by the Comedy Central operated @ColbertReport twitter handle:


The tweet, which references the March 26 episode of The Colbert Report in which Colbert satirically criticizes Washington Redskins owner Dan Snyder for his dismissal of cries to rename the team something a little less racist, drew the ire of Asian American social media activist and freelance writer Suey Park.  In response to the @ColbertReport tweet, Park used her considerable network to get a new hashtag trending: #CancelColbert.


Her efforts created an avalanche of criticism of the show, its host, and its audience.  Amidst the cries of racism and white-liberal privilege, even Colbert decided to chime in from his personal handle.


As Colbert’s own admission suggests, the initial tweet from @ColbertReport was decidedly racist and, therefore, Park’s outrage is warranted.  What is interesting about this twitter storm (twitternado?) against The Report is that it started, I think, not because the tweet uses racial stereotypes, but because it does not clearly identify a target and, quite frankly, it isn’t funny.  Colbert’s character regularly makes bombastic, outrageous jokes that are intended to be understood ironically—that is, as the opposite of what they appear to be—and satirically critical.  When those jokes get laughs and make their targets clear, they are powerful tools for social and cultural criticism.  When they fail on either account, they can be equally powerful in reinforcing the stereotypes of the status quo.

In this case, the tweet fails in both respects.  This is partially the result of attempting to convert a complicated parodic performance into 140 characters, but that explanation seems overly simplistic.  A careful examination of the bit from which the tweet was extracted offers more nuance and, arguably, indicated that the tweet was doomed from the start.  The bit presents a satirical critique by analogy wherein Colbert’s character attempts to play the foil to Dan Snyder by sending up his half-hearted attempts to atone for the racism he perpetuates by refusing to even consider changing his football team’s logo.  In context, it’s reasonably clear that Colbert’s aim is to underscore the racist absurdity of Snyder’s actions by offering “Ching-Chong Ding-Dong” as an equally absurd parodic analogy to the Redskins mascot that Snyder so ardently defends.  Thus, the bit swings on Colbert’s attempt to equate his “Ching-Chong Ding-Dong Foundation” to Snyder’s “Washington Redskins Original Americans Foundation,” highlighting the latent racism in the football magnate’s charity by comparing it to an overtly racist, though perhaps in some ways silly, parody.  What’s more, because Colbert always performs under a veil of irony, his critique of Snyder’s organization also stands as a critique of his own.  That is, by ironically advocating for the use of Asian stereotypes instead of Native American stereotypes, his comparison reveals the ways in which each should be troubling for his audience.

In referencing the bit in context, it is clear(ish) that the joke’s intended target was Dan Snyder.  The tweet, divorced from its larger context, implies no such connection to Snyder and therefore any audience unfamiliar with the original context is left to attempt to identify a target from the text of tweet itself in order to make sense of the joke.  Arguably, the blue highlighted text of the “#Asian community” hyperlink offers the strongest indication of the tweeted joke’s target.  In this way, reducing the satire to a tweet shifts the target from a wealthy, white racist to a marginalized community and drastically alters its critical potential.  As many a satirist and scholar suggest, laughter directed at the powerful can be subversive, but laughter directed at the powerless tends to be oppressive.[1]  Twitterizing Colbert’s extended bit into a one-liner transforms the joke’s critique of white privilege into an actual example of the racism that such privilege perpetuates in action.

The misrepresentation of the joke’s target, however, tells only half of the story.  Even before it was presented in twitter-friendly format, the joke wasn’t funny.  The bit contains a few satirical gems such as a doctored image of Native Americans wearing Washington Redskins coats donated by the charity and a jab at Snyder for only providing a portion of funds to purchase equipment because paying the full amount would require selling “a beer and a soft pretzel.”  However, the bit also relies heavily on stereotypical caricatures to generate much of the laughter.  This latter strategy not only directs the audience’s laughter at the wrong target, but it also overshadows the satirical critique because it earns a much bigger laugh.  In fact, by the time Colbert actually delivers the soon to be infamous joke, his studio audience’s laughter has been replaced by bursts of applause.  This response, known to comics as “clapture,” suggests that the audience “gets” the joke, but that it isn’t that funny.  In this way, even in a larger context the joke doesn’t work because the laugh happens before the stereotypical caricature is revealed to be satirical critique.  Given that the joke didn’t actually work in context, its out of context failure is unsurprising.

In sum, Colbert’s twitter debacle reveals two key requirements of rhetorically successful satire—a powerful target and well timed laughter.  When satire lacks either of these qualities, as the tweet most certainly did, it turns its subversive potential into oppressive reinforcement of the status quo.  Park’s cry to #CancelColbert is an important reminder that when satire fails, it hurts and, from a rhetorical standpoint, that the things that we laugh about are just as important as the things that we talk about.

[1] See, Alison Dagnes, A Conservative Walks into a Bar or Paul Provensa, iSatiristas! for more.

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Making ‘Em Squeal: Joni Ernst’s “Dangerous” Political Femininity

With November’s midterm congressional elections approaching, most states are currently in the midst of primary campaigns. While these local-level contests usually don’t attract much attention beyond state borders, the possibilities of viral video circulation occasionally introduce a particularly memorable candidate to the rest of the nation. While her five-way senatorial primary is still a close race, Iowa State Senator Joni Ernst recently caught the attention of the national media with a new video ad. The Republican candidate makes a lasting impression – one that could propel her to political meme fame akin to that of former Delaware senatorial candidate Christine O’Donnell – by opening the TV spot with a sensational statement: “I’m Joni Ernst. I grew up castrating hogs on an Iowa farm, so when I get to Washington, I’ll know how to cut pork.”

Given the backlash amongst Iowa voters to Democratic candidate Bruce Braley’s recent statement that current Senator Charles Grassley is just “a farmer from Iowa who never went to law school,” Ernst’s appeal to the state’s agricultural base could spell out success, at least in the short-term. The ad’s playful tone demonstrates that the campaign embraces Ernst’s experiences on a hog farm, projecting them as the quintessential characteristics of Iowan life that make the state’s voters and political climate unique. Indeed, it’s unlikely that candidates from other states would include their own blend of Pork Rub in their online campaign store.

Far from the Hawkeye state, however, national media outlets have picked up Ernst’s ad. Notably, it has received play on The Colbert Report and The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon. Fallon reacts with visible disbelief and disgust, stammering that “I don’t know what she’s running for but let’s just give her the job” and parodying her with, “Hi I’m Joni Ernst, and I grew up throwing battery acid in people’s faces.” Colbert, never breaking character, gives Ernst the kind of treatment that his program spares no guest, topic, or controversy. Running with a theme of castration jokes, he imagines Ernst’s girlhood as uniquely shaped by her involvement with the family hog farm, suggesting that she never read Charlotte’s Web and only failed to operate on Ken dolls because of the toys’ pre-existing lack of genitalia. Further, he addresses male anxieties surrounding castration, noting that “Ernst already got Mitt Romney’s endorsement, and she can have mine too if she comes nowhere near me.”

While Fallon and Colbert are, of course, primarily concerned with landing a joke that will resonate with their audiences, I think that the responses of these male TV personalities offer a point of entry into an important discussion of gender and electoral politics. Ernst’s ad is undeniably quirky, and has successfully garnered attention for her campaign, but will likely be grouped alongside both ads and gaffes from other Republican women like O’Donnell, Sarah Palin, and Michele Bachmann. While these candidates cannot be called feminists, the prevailing expectation of their incompetency is indicative of masculinist views on political strength, capability, and subjectivity. What separates Ernst from some of her fellow Republican women is that she has not yet failed; in fact, a campaign that focuses its energy and resources on appealing to the agricultural base in Iowa could be successful. Thus, while the ad is undeniably sensationalist, it takes the work of male comedians to equate Ernst’s statements about castrating hogs with a sense that she threatens masculinity.

Fallon’s comparison of the common farm practice Ernst references to throwing acid at people not only signals the disconnect that has long existed between urban and rural or agricultural voters, but also betrays a sense that women who are willing to participate in such agricultural work do not fit within comfortable, safe gender boundaries. Likewise, the Des Moines Register reported that one political operative has joked that Ernst’s Secret Service codename would be “Lorena Bobbit,” further demonstrating the discomfort that Ernst has caused. And while it may be unlikely that a male candidate would make such a joke in campaign materials, Ernst’s womanhood and willingness to cross boundaries are proving threatening to some parts of established political authority.

While Colbert’s jokes hint at similar responses, they might also leave space for a critique of ‘proper’ girlhood activities even while parodying the ad’s shock-value. In satirically suggesting that Ernst’s childhood involvement in farm work was not a part of ‘normal’ girlhood, Colbert gestures to the need for a re-evaluation of traditional femininity in politics. For Ernst’s agricultural background to suggest that she is not fit for office exposes the thin line that female candidates must walk, maintaining a desirable feminine appearance and demeanor while demonstrating that she possesses the competence, rationality, and focus that are required to participate in what is still very much an old boys’ club.

Constraints on female politicians are frequently up for discussion in the contemporary United States, amongst voters, analysts, pundits, and policy makers alike. Many voters on both sides of the aisle can agree that female candidates as ideologically distinct as Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin have faced extra obstacles to elected office by virtue of their gender and expectations of femininity and skepticism of a woman’s qualifications, even before she has the chance to demonstrate them. Ernst’s platform is inconsistent with contemporary feminisms, but her ad offers an intervention into particular dominant, masculinist logics operating in Congress, providing a critique that might leave space for much more radical interpretation and citation than Ernst could have ever intended. While I won’t join Mitt Romney and Sarah Palin in giving my endorsement to Ernst, I do applaud her willingness to run this ad – she shows that women in politics don’t need to be ‘ballsy’ to be brave.

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