Back before a person could get in real trouble for this kind of thing, I wrote the following joke for a comedy series I was producing:
The character that everyone loved to hate, the objectionable, amoral voice of the comic ensemble—every sitcom has one—is holding forth on the benefits of becoming an older and more emotionally mature male. “There’s a point,” he says, “when a guy gets tired of dating and one-night stands and short-term relationships and running away from commitment. And when that time comes, when you’re ready for the love and the caring and the sharing of a real long-term relationship, you do the mature thing and fly to the Philippines and buy yourself a wife.”
It wasn’t a killer laugh, I admit. But it was a fun on-the-way kind of joke, and because it came out of the mouth of the “bad” character in the series, we didn’t think twice—nor did the network—about sending it through the pipes and onto television screens nationwide.
The Media Action Network for Asian Americans, as you might expect from its name, did not take such a sanguine attitude toward the joke.
After about a page and a half of energetic reprimands, the How-dare-you? letter from the executive director of the organization wrapped up with this specific and stinging slap: “For your information,” he concluded, “the Philippine government outlawed mail-order brides in the early 1990s.”
For the record, the episode was broadcast in early 1995. So we were 18 months, at most, too late. Had we merely fiddled with the production schedule and raced the episode through the post-production process, it’s quite possible the episode would have aired weeks before the Fidel Ramos administration signed the relevant legislation, and the Media Action Network for Asian Americans would have been standing on wobbly ground.
Of course, this was a long time ago, before a simple joke could mushroom into a major cultural battle leaving careers and reputations in smoking piles along the war ground. In other words, I got away with it. Had I written the joke anytime in the past two years, I’d be out and gone, career over. I’d probably be writing these words during my union-mandated break from my job at a San Gabriel Valley Quizno’s Subs where I would not be known as the Hate-Speaking Former Television Writer, but rather the Sad Old Guy with the Baggies on His Hands Making My Turkey and Cheese. But that’s a whopping counterfactual, because I assure you there is no possible way I would write that joke these days, like, zero chance. Because I know that the Media Action Network for Asian Americans—and every other similar group—has a much bigger megaphone and a lot more power. And I also know that I am a privileged middle-aged white guy and I have a giant bull’s-eye on my back.
And, in a way, my acute sensitivity to my privilege and my status as a Fat Target keeps me safely tucked away, head down over my keyboard, out of range. When you know they’re out hunting for you and your kind, you tend to keep out of sight.
In 2019, it’s when you’re safe—or, when you think you’re safe—that you get into trouble. When Ralph Northam was elected Democratic governor of the Commonwealth of Virginia, the prevailing narrative among media pundits and news outlets was that this was an indication of the new, blue-state liberal Virginia. So when a little while later it was revealed that he appeared in blackface in his University of Virginia college yearbook, all the storylines got crisscrossed and tangled up. On the one hand, blackface is irredeemably racist. On the other hand, Ralph Northam is a Virginia Democrat. On the third hand, his lieutenant next-in-line has a complicated #metoo problem. On the fourth hand, maybe if we just sit quietly and hold very still, this will all blow over.
The fourth hand was the winning hand, and Ralph Northam remains the Democrat in charge of an even bluer Commonwealth of Virginia. But it was a close call.
RuPaul, the impresario of the cult-hit TV show, RuPaul’s Drag Race, would seem to have impeccable cultural credentials and an ironclad Get Out of Woke Jail Free card, but as the intersections of intersectionality get more complicated and overlapping, even RuPaul has been tripped up. The use of the word “tranny” to describe transexuals was, a few years ago, perfectly okay. Now it’s an unacceptable slur, though RuPaul was late to realize it. The drag icon was attacked for using the word—and for defending its use—but that was nothing compared with the controversy that erupted when the television host suggested that performers who are undergoing sex reassignment therapy—hormones and surgery, essentially—would probably be disqualified from future Drag Race seasons.
“You can identify as a woman and say you’re transitioning, but it changes once you start changing your body,” RuPaul said. “It takes on a different thing; it changes the whole concept of what we’re doing.”
That sentence may seem reasonable to some people, or at least the kind of people who understand all of those newly minted phrases. But it did not seem reasonable to a lot of people in the intersection of transgender rights, gay rights, queer theory, and gender fluidity, which are words I have randomly placed into the sentence to seem extremely up-to-date but do not entirely understand. They demanded—and got—an apology from RuPaul, from the person who more than anyone has made drag culture and transgendered performers mainstream stars, but who apparently still has a lot to learn.
Before we continue, I would like to draw your attention to the way I have masterfully avoided using any gender-based pronoun to describe RuPaul. Selecting the correct pronoun to describe a complicated figure like RuPaul is a minefield that has felled many middle-aged white men, and I’m proud that I have made it safely to the other side. It required a few tortured sentence constructions, but I think you have to admit it’s was a pretty sweet move on my part. Just because I am a fat target doesn’t mean I have to make it easy. If I just lie very still and make no sudden movements, they’ll continue going after their own.
And they will. Prediction: At some point in the future, somewhere near the intersection of RuPaul’s Drag Race and Ralph Northam’s blackface, it will occur to someone in the feminist community that drag is, when you get right down to it, blackface for girls. Men dressing up as extreme versions of “the oppressed other,” with elaborate makeup and more than a hint of cruel disdain for their subjects—where, exactly, is the distinction that makes one of these performance types culturally celebrated and television-show-worthy and the other a reason to recall a politician from office?
The radical feminists are already gearing up for battle. The specificity of the female sex—i.e., vaginas and stuff—is central to the feminist perspective. Trans-Exclusive Radical Feminists—or “Terfs,” as they style themselves—are right now sounding the alarms about transwomen (that is, women who used to be men and who in many cases still have male, um, attributes) claiming all sorts of traditionally feminist prerogatives. Unless you were born and raised as a female, the Terfs (reasonably, in my view) assert, you can’t really speak to the feminist experience. Gender is a construct, reply the transfolk. A baby with a penis is just a baby with a penis, it can be a girl baby or a boy baby or maybe some new kind of baby we haven’t thought of yet. Terfs, according to their trans opponents, are just privileged white lesbians with tenure.
All of this means that it is inevitable that the intersection of race, sex, trans, and class—the Four Highways of the American Intersectional Left—are about to collide. Maybe that’s why they call it intersectionality. People who hang out in intersections often get hit by trucks.
Notice who is absent from all of these bitter battles and career-ending wildfires? That’s right—me! I’m just here writing inoffensive jokes, minding my own business. Call me when the shootin’ is over.