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Equal Opportunity Offenders

Another response to the Stereotype of the Month entry on Howard Stern, Son of a Beach:

>> Howard makes _everyone_ look silly and childish, including himself (G!). <<

No, no, no. It's not possible to attack or insult all people equally. Everyone discriminates between potential targets. They must.

Let's dispose of this "equal opportunity offender" fallacy once and for all.

Take any kind of creative performance: an Animaniacs cartoon, a movie like There's Something Like Mary, or a Howard Stern routine. For every person or group they criticize, one can think of countless people or groups they don't criticize. Left-handers, people who bid on eBay, the Portuguese, dermatologists, mothers who lose children in drunk driving accidents, 42-year-olds, coma patients, Seattle Mariners fans, fishermen, William Rehnquist, tractor repair technicians, Hmong grandmothers, horticulturalists who can't spell, xylophone players with warts on their finger, and on and on and on and on and on.

Have performers like Howard Stern criticized these groups? Don't think so. If they have, I'll name you ten or 100 or 1,000 more they haven't. When someone like Stern criticizes women, gays, or minorities, he's making a choice. He's picking these particular targets out of a universe of targets.

Take Stern and one of his routines on women. Or blacks. Or gays. Please. If group identities are inherently funny, why doesn't he increase the yucks by satirizing New Zealanders? Or Ukrainians? Or African bushmen? Or Bermudans? Or the Ainu of Japan?

Why not? Because he thinks women, blacks, and gays deserve his criticism. He's singling them out for special attention.

Is this the only possible way to criticize or satirize people? No, not at all. A couple of examples should suffice.

Consider the nation's corps of political cartoonists. Do they attack whole groups like Stern does? Not normally. Instead, they aim at specific targets. Regardless of their political orientation, they tend to tackle events and issues in the news. Ronald Reagan or the "evil empire." Bill Clinton or Newt Gingrich. Elian's relatives or Janet Reno.

In other words, they react to the news. They don't invent excuses to parade their prejudices. Stern and his ilk react to events too, but they also take the offensive. When these people spend years developing a movie or months producing a TV show, they're no longer simply reacting. They're choosing whom to attack.

Consider late-night comedians Jay Leno, David Letterman, and Conan O'Brien. They're our national barometer of what merits attention. Like Howard Stern, they can choose whom to target. Like political cartoonists, they target people in the news.

Someone like Jay Leno is arguably an equal opportunity offender. You rarely if ever hear him say something about all blacks. He doesn't target blacks as a group, he targets particular blacks who exceed society's bounds: Jesse Jackson, the Rev. Al Sharpton, Don King. For every OJ, there's a John Wayne Bobbitt, a Joey Buttafuoco and Amy Fisher, a John and Patsy Ramsay. For every Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, or Puff Daddy, there's a Bill Gates, Hugh Hefner, Robert Downey Jr., John Rocker, or Monica Lewinsky.

Against this litany of newsworthy targets, which Native Americans have done anything worth satirizing? Native people make up only 1% of America's population. In the last ten years, you might satirize Dance with Wolves (the real target should be Kevin Costner as the great white chief) or Pocahontas. And that's about it. How does DreamWorks justify investing $100 million to make Mesoamericans look foolish? How does Stern justify investing hundreds of thousands to satirize Indians in his fourth Son of the Beach?

DreamWorks green-lights only a handful of movies a year. It hasn't made any musical comedies about the Holocaust or slavery, but it decided a movie spoofing Mesoamericans and Spaniards "equally" was a good investment. Money talks, and this money said, "We'll make more money offending Indians than we will offending ditch diggers, multiple sclerosis patients, or well-heeled media moguls (like Stern, Steven Spielberg, and Michael Eisner). The Spanish conquistadors are long gone, and who cares what a few Mesoamericans think about our distortions?"

This treatment of Native and European people is "equal" only if you blind yourself to the universe of potential victims. In choosing Amerindians as one of its handful of targets, DreamWorks discriminated against all other targets. Same with Howard Stern and his Son of the Beach episode. Discrimination based on race is called racism, and those who practice it are racists.

A letter to the editor
And again: Here's a letter I wrote to the LA Times in response to a column that ran 6/21/00:

When Tony Kornheiser writes, "Stereotypes are funny not because they are true, but because we recognize them to be untrue. They're ridiculous exaggerations of laughable prejudices," he has it wrong two ways:

1) Many Americans, perhaps a majority, don't recognize stereotypes as being untrue. Study after study shows the public thinks blacks are criminals and welfare cheats, Latinos are illegal baby machines, and Asians are stoic brains. If anyone needs further proof of this, try logging onto any Internet forum and saying racism is a problem. You'll be flamed by people telling you minorities are "whining" to make up for their mental and moral shortcomings, a stereotypical claim if there ever was one.

2) The idea of mocking the victims to satirize the victimizers is absurd if you think about it. Would anyone justify showing Amos 'n' Andy today because it reveals the broadcasters' prejudices? How about a movie portraying concentration-camp Jews as money-grubbing, promiscuous devils? That's what Nazis believed, so, according to Kornheiser, that would dramatize the Nazis' beliefs for our amusement, right?

I trust the stupidity of that is obvious. We've rightly made such ugly stereotypes as the Shylock Jew, the Uncle Tom black, and the dumb Pollack politically incorrect. Less obvious stereotypes—the ditzy blonde, the effeminate gay, the stoic Indian, the drunk Irishman, the Mafioso Italian—are still fair game.

If Kornheiser really has written several columns making fun of Italian Americans and none making fun of Armenian, Iranian, Vietnamese, Guatemalan, or Salvadoran Americans, readers should take note. That pattern would say more about Kornheiser than he imagines. Just because he denies being biased doesn't mean he isn't.

Another letter to the editor
And again: Here's a letter I wrote to the LA Times in response to an interview that ran 6/22/00:

The Times asked the Farrelly brothers (Me, Myself, and Irene) the following: "Some of 'Irene's' gags are aimed at, among others, a midget, an albino, lesbians and African Americans; few escape unscathed. You say you're not making fun of anybody but poking fun at everybody. What's the difference?"

My question is: Where's the "everybody" in this question? I don't see the Farrellys making fun of "everybody." I see them making fun of people who are different from them...who have an inferior status in society...who can't fight back. In a word, minorities.

Tony Kornheiser (Times, 6/21/00) rationalizes his insults against Italian Americans by saying he's making fun of the insulters, not the insultees. The Farrelly brothers rationalize their insults against the mentally ill and others by saying they really care about their victims. They're so sensitive that when their Dumb and Dumber script called for a snowball to hurt Lauren Holly badly enough to draw blood, they cut the blood. (After a test audience pointed out that a bleeding woman might not be the most sensitive portrayal, that is.)

Hello? No matter how you rationalize it, a rationalization is a rationalization. When the Farrellys make fun of themselves, their loved ones, and the people who financed their movies, then maybe they can talk about how they've spoofed "everyone." Until then, they're picking particular targets and we should call them on it.

Links for so-called "equal opportunity offenders"
Shanghai Noon
Howard Stern and Son of the Beach
The Road to El Dorado

Related links
"It's just a [fill in the blank]"

Readers respond
"Stern seems to be the original Equal Opportunity Offender."

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Original text and pictures © copyright 2007 by Robert Schmidt.

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