I did something stupid yesterday. As I sat down to deal with the huge pile of work I had to do for my various other jobs that pay my rent, I took a minute to comb the headlines and found myself opening The Daily Beast’s interview with Whitney Cummings about her new special, now streaming on OnlyFans TV. I should really know better by now.
I wrote a few weeks ago of a bad habit endemic among comics, a tendency to view everything through the lens of how to joke about it. Reality, no matter how raw or bloody, becomes an abstraction through this lens, a series of premises and angles. A few days after I made this argument, I encountered a somewhat more concise version published almost eight decades ago. In his new history of the culture wars, Outrageous, the comedy historian Kliph Nesteroff cites an editorial Variety ran in 1945, in the midst of a decade rife with debates about racist comedy in vaudeville and on the radio:
Comedians persist in being among the worst offenders against racial minorities. This is not because comedians are biased, but because so many are thoughtless of consequences. Anything for a giggle. Moreover, a comedian’s habit of thinking exclusively in terms of gags . . . often makes him unwilling to admit—when challenged—that much of what used to be innocent fun is now vicious political propaganda . . . They do not acknowledge the offense, protest good intention, or indicate a disposition to watch more carefully in the future. Instead they counter-attack.
I’ll have more to say about Outrageous when it comes out later this month. For now, let’s keep this passage in mind as we read Whitney Cummings explain “Why she wanted to tackle the transgender issue from a female perspective”:
I’ve always made fun of everyone, which is our job as comedians. To go, “I’m not gonna make fun of this group,” that to me feels patronizing and like you can’t handle it, and you’re made of glass, and it’s accusing people of not being smart enough to understand nuance and have a sense of humor. I have a lot of trans friends. They have some of the best senses of humor. You have to have a sense of humor if you’re trans and you go through life being ridiculed and having to defend yourself and getting bullied. I also found it very weird that it was all men weighing in on it, too, because I was like, they’re taking our trophies. They’re taking our sports. If someone’s going to be mad, it should be us. So I thought it was an interesting way to do some commentary around that with an angle that I hadn’t seen. If I couldn’t find an angle that no one had seen, it would just feel exploitative and like trying to talk about something popular or something incendiary for no reason.
The first thing that stands out to me here is Cummings’ argument that it’s the comedian’s job to make fun of everyone: not true, but a telling and popular attitude reminiscent of the myth of objectivity in media, where powerful news publications insist on a view from nowhere that affords equal consideration to the public health expert and the anti-vaxxer, the trans person and the transphobe. Perhaps it is often the comedian’s job to make fun of people, but the comedian who makes fun of everyone is the comedian with no conscience of their own. Which is probably why the folks who claim this philosophy never seem to go after any of the groups persecuting the minorities they so desperately long to make fun of. (Or the sex criminals they work with, or the club owners who exploit them, or…)
The second thing that sticks out to me is Cummings’ bizarre suggestion that theres’s some sort of gender disparity in transphobia: it’s “all men weighing in on it.” Both a Google search and basic logic reveal that the moral panic over trans athletes in women’s sports, to use her example, obviously involves other women athletes. Zooming out, the panics over gender affirming care, drag queen story hours, and discussions of gender identity in public schools also involve a great many cis women, for instance the hate group Moms 4 Liberty and the powerful anti-trans activist JK Rowling. I can only conclude that Cummings is thinking specifically of other comedians weighing in on the issue, like Dave Chappelle, whose transphobic jokes she extols elsewhere in the interview and in her special itself. (Maybe this is the intuitive reading, but it’s just… so ludicrous I can’t handle it.) This all leads me to suspect that her knowledge of trans issues is filtered through the meta layer of transphobic discourse in and around comedy, rather than any meaningful interest in the issues themselves.
Let's see what her novel, non-exploitative angle on the subject reveals. I want to discuss one section from the interminably long portion of Cummings’ hour devoted to trans people. (As much as it pains me, I’ll skip the bit where she says it’s “rich person shit” to refuse to assign your newborn baby a gender, which she doesn’t understand because she grew up poor.) It’s a bit of a long passage, but I think it encapsulates the heart of her approach—complaining about trans people, but from a woman's POV!—and gets to some of the beliefs animating it. As you read, note where she connects her opinion of trans people to their tolerance for jokes about them, and where she dismisses the discrimination trans women face by conflating it with the discrimination cis women face:
But when you know enough trans people, you know, some of 'em are cool and some of them are annoying. Just like any group of people, you know. Like, I know tons of cool trans people, but like, I know this one really annoying trans woman. She's always trying to get on my podcast. She'll call me, she'll be like, "I need to come on and talk about how hard it is to be trans." I'm like, "Gimme an example." She's like, "Well, today on Instagram, this guy I don't even know called me a lying unfuckable whore.”
I was like, "Congratulations, your transition is complete. You're one of us now. Welcome. Get used to that. Also maybe lose the stiletto heels. Women don't dress like that anymore. We dress like bull dykes now. Catch up. If you wanna transition to a woman in this day and age, you're gonna have to dress like one of the boys from Stranger Things. So how about you go back to Costco and get yourself a maroon hoodie and then I'll be able to understand what I'm looking at. Why do you look like Jessica Rabbit? We're at Chipotle. I dunno. Maybe lose the cat ears."
She's like, "Whitney, that's not funny. You can't make fun of us. It's been a hard year. Dave Chappelle made fun of us."
Okay, Dave Chappelle, he's one of the best comedians in the world. Okay? He can say what he wants. Also, if you're upset about what Dave Chappelle said about trans women, wait till you hear what he's been saying about women for the past 30 years. You're gonna lose your shit.
I just think the cool trans people, you don't hear from them. They're not on Twitter yelling at everyone. Like, I have a girl friend, super cool trans chick, and I didn't know she was trans when I met her. She doesn't like bring it up. You would actually never know she was trans. But every now and then you just, like, know. Like we went to the mall to return some Christmas gifts and she backed into a parking space. Nailed it. Nailed it. Like, bitch, I fucking saw that. Your balls are showing. Do you want me to tell you? You don't just keep all the things that were cool about being a guy.
Let's fast forward through another minute or so of Cummings ragging on her friend…
She's cool. Like, she lets me joke with her. She has a sense of humor. We don't see that a lot. And I joke a lot about—I think we should be able to joke about anything. This is America. But I also don't wanna be ignorant, you know? And then also, anytime I do get facts about this issue, none of it adds up. So I've just started going to my friends to try to educate myself. I'll go to my friends that are suspicious of trans people. I'll be like, "Hey, can you please educate me? Why should I be on your side? What's the problem with trans people?" They'll be like, "Well, they're fast." That seems to be the main issue at the moment, they're just like fast as shit. Which is a little spooky.
I go to my trans friends and I'll be like, "Educate me. Why should I be on your side?" They're like, "We get murdered disproportionately in the street." So you guys, are they fast or not?
Listen, I was talking about that on stage recently in a different comedy club, and I was walking to my car and I hear behind me, "Whitney, you think it's funny that we get murdered?" And I'm like, "Here we go." Have to get my ass kicked by a trans bitch. I turn around, she's waiting for me. Betty Boop, ready to fight me. She's like, "You think it's funny that we get murdered?"
And I felt awful. Like I felt terrible. For the first time—I've been doing comedy 20 years, for the first time in my career, I apologized for a joke, dead serious. I was like, "I'm so sorry. I'm a comedian. I just want you to get everything that you have worked so hard for. I hope you get your heteronormative dream and find a straight man to marry you and move into a house and get murdered by your husband in 30 years, like the rest of us. Either way, you're getting murdered. Like, that's kind of, you're getting murdered. I'm so sorry you have to find out this way. If he can't have you, no one can.”
There’s a lot going on here. Again, it’s interesting how much of her attitude towards trans people is framed through the lens of discourse: cool trans people don’t bring up their identity; they’re not arguing online; her one trans friend is cool because not only does she never bring it up, she even lets Cummings joke about it. (This happens so often: comics can’t understand why joking about something with friends is very different than joking about it for a mass audience of strangers.) Most revealing to me, though, is that misdirection at the end, where she briefly pretends to be concerned about the epidemic of violence against trans people, then twists it: actually, cis women get murdered too, you're not special. Perhaps it’s well-intentioned, but it’s ultimately the same rhetorical move as “All Lives Matter,” flattening the distinct violence against a particular group into a shared struggle where the speaker’s solidarity is already a given—how unreasonable, then, to ask for more. (I don’t have the wherewithal to get into the assumption this punchline seems to rest on, that all trans women are straight and dream of straight relationships, or its erasure of trans men. Like I said, lots going on.)
I want to be clear that I don’t think this is the worst joke in the world. It’s certainly not as heartless as Chappelle’s rants (although Cummings is clearly not bothered by those) or any of the countless transphobic tirades you can find in the popular comedy podcasts of our day. What interests me is the way it exposes the limited perspective that afflicts so many comedians of Cummings’ stature. The only form of oppression they seem to be able to wrap their heads around is the imaginary one affecting them: a perceived wave of censorship punishing comics who say the wrong things. Even if this threat were real, it would be a much smaller threat than the actual physical violence and legislation targeting trans people. It takes only a basic grasp of context and proportionality to see this. For those without this grasp, the fake threat becomes an animating philosophy. It consumes them, it shapes everything else they see and do. In this inverted reality, Cummings and Chappelle and others like them seem to treat jokes about trans people as liberatory acts—for themselves. Never mind the comparative social positions of the teller and their subject.
“People always talk about censorship,” Cummings told The Daily Beast:
But there’s also a lot of self-censorship that happens just because we’re scared. And I take the stance of, if comedians are scared, we’re in trouble. It’s our job to be fearless. It’s our job to push back and sometimes say things that we don’t mean or say things that we know are wrong and offensive, just to make sure that we’re not turning into some totalitarian country.
Allow me to offer an opposing view: you should be scared. For instance, you should be scared that in your quest to push back and say things that are wrong, you might admit that you condition your respect for trans people on whether they ask you to give a shit about their problems. You should be scared of mocking a real human being's legitimate fear for their life. You should be scared of admitting you seek input on a minority group from friends prejudiced against it; you should be scared of admitting you have these friends. You should be especially scared of the world finding out that your barometer for a country’s descent into totalitarianism is whether you can make fun of a minority group without blowback—as opposed to, say, whether there’s an ongoing political effort to eliminate that group.
You should be scared of these things not because they will get you cancelled or because words are violence, but because they reveal you to be a shallow narcissist with no values, not even the ones you profess. Fear is good. Fear helps us use what powers we have responsibly, effectively, without doing unnecessary harm to others or ourselves. Fear may not always be our friend, but sometimes it understands what the cognitive faculties have not yet perceived: that it might not be such a bad idea to change course. “Self-censorship,” after all, is often just another word for “rewriting.”
It’s a little funny. In her Daily Beast interview, Cummings points out that a number of so-called “canceled” comics—Chappelle, Louis CK, Shane Gillis, Joe Rogan—benefited substantially from their cancellations. Her fear of censorship is transparently at odds with her belief that backlash is good for sales; there’s no principle here, just a desperate attempt to reverse-engineer some sort of moral framework for her desire to joke about trans people. It’s the same reactionary pose described by Variety in 1945—no good-faith engagement with the criticism, no self-reflection, just a counter-attack. She might think she’s unbiased, but she’s picked a side all the same.