Sex & Gender

is dave chappelle making fun of fragile masculinity, or enforcing it?

March 28, 2017

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve heard about Dave Chappelle’s two new comedy specials released on Netflix last Tuesday, marking the long-awaited return to stand up from the mastermind behind the game-changing Chappelle’s Show.

But not everyone is laughing. Controversy has erupted over how the specials –“The Age of Spin: Live at the Hollywood Palladium” and “Deep in the Heart of Texas: Live at Austin City Limits” – seem over-reliant on offensive low-blows to women and the LGBTQ community especially. In the first two minutes of the Austin special, for instance, Chappelle references “dykes” in flannel and jokes about jail rape. Perhaps not surprisingly, viewers took particular offense to another rape joke about Bill Cosby.

Others came to the comedian’s defense, noting that the jokes were part of the no-holds-barred brand that made Chappelle’s Show so revolutionary in the first place, and arguing that comedy should have more room to address controversial issues in unconventional ways.

Chappelle also responds to gay critics in the Austin special: “I’m your ally, motherfucker,” he says. “I ain’t trying to stop gay people. I got better shit to do.” Indeed, some might read Chappelle’s comedy as making fun of people like him and his ignorance around topics like rape and pronouns. Comedy can be one of those amorphous ways of communicating, and the line between laughing at and laughing with isn’t always clear.

However, when people are literally dying over the same type of views that dehumanize trans people into “it”s and make rape a laughing matter, it’s worth considering the critiques of those who live this experience and bear the consequences. No one is arguing that controversial topics can’t be funny, but they also should not reinforce the same type of thinking that lead to violence. When people respond to the dehumization of gay people, for example, it isn’t just the overt ways of trying to “stop” them, but also the ways that “having better shit to do” than unpack your participation in a world that is stopping them is complicity.

With violence against the transgender community remaining at epidemic levels, and even preeminent feminists struggling with the language to address the problem, Chappelle’s bits about the transgender community in particular seem to highlight a fragile attachment to masculinity that leads to this gendered violence against women and LGBTQ people. In one part of the show, Chappelle muses about coming across a transgender woman at a party and refers to her as “it.” When corrected for using the wrong pronoun, the comedian explains, “I support anyone’s right to be who they are inside, but to what degree do I have to participate in your self-image? Why do I have to switch up my pronoun game for this motherfucker?”

As Tiq Milan argues in his article “Dave Chappelle’s Jokes About Trans People Haven’t Aged Well“: “Cis people (have a) tendency to center themselves in the transgender experience. These aren’t your pronouns. They belong to the person you’re addressing. Using the correct pronouns isn’t meant to validate someone’s whimsical sense of self; it’s a basic courtesy and shows respect for who someone is. If Chappelle is clutch-my-pearls offended by incidents like this, it’s not because of our demand to be respected, but because of what that demand says about his own fragile gender identity. The one thing I’ve learned about masculinity as a transgender man is that its power and definition relies heavily on how well it performs away from femininity.”

If Chappelle is making fun of fragile masculinity, he would know that such fragility is evident an inability to engage with critiques. There is a way to make how men enforce gendered violence seem as ridiculous as the logic behind it, but it isn’t to hold onto that logic.

*Hari Ziyad is a New York based storyteller and writer for AFROPUNK. They are also the editor-in-chief of RaceBaitR, deputy editor of Black Youth Project, and assistant editor of Vinyl Poetry & Prose. You can follow them on Twitter @hariziyad.

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