“We judge others by their behavior. We judge ourselves by our intentions.”
The battle of the sexes saw two interesting skirmishes this week. Both involved popular comedic celebrities and both blew up the Internet with angry words exchanged, offenses given and taken, and no real resolutions.
The first of these is the Daniel Tosh matter. In case you haven’t yet heard, the Tosh.0 host was performing at a comedy club called The Laugh Factory when, according to reports, he began a lengthy diatribe about rape jokes and their comedic value — basically saying that rape jokes are hilarious and the world could use more of them. Whether he was being ironic or moronic, it’s a sensitive subject that most comics — rightly so — wouldn’t cover in their acts. It is the rare comedian who can address such touchy subjects without incurring the wrath of the heavens (or at least the wrath of the audience), and Daniel Tosh is not that comedian.
One female audience member took umbrage at Tosh’s ham-fisted, ill-judged routine, answering his claim that rape jokes are always funny by calling up to the stage, saying “actually, rape jokes are never funny.” Tosh’s response to the woman? “Wouldn’t it be funny if that girl got raped by, like, five guys right now? Like right now? What if a bunch of guys just raped her…” Ouch.
The offended party walked out on the show, went home and blogged her discontent. There was no immediate response from the offender. Within a few days, word of his off-color attempt at silencing a … heckler?… was spreading, the anger snowballing as more people heard and them went and told their friends. Comedian Louis C.K. was caught up in the scandal when a badly timed tweet complimenting Tosh’s show was seen by many as a statement of support. On The Tonight Show, C.K. says the whole thing was a big, unfortunate coincidence. Whether that is the truth or not, C.K. clearly understood that Tosh’s wasn’t the side to be on in this case.
The next skirmish came about when writer/actor/geek demigod Simon Pegg sent out a series of tweets musing over his envy at those people attending San Diego’s Comic-Con, and then his appreciation for cosplay girls. To illustrate his point, he linked to a picture of a lineup of woman in slave Princess Leah gear who appeared in his film, Paul, and added a reference to a particular noise made by Homer Simpson in his slack-jawed, drooling, donut-inspired moments of desire.
These comments, because they were broadcast to his millions of followers in a public forum instead of being witnessed in a small club in front of a few dozen, were immediately addressed. One cosplay girl replied to his tweets saying, “Cosplayers do not exist to fulfill your sexual fantasies, “ and further claimed that statements like his objectify the women and discourage more girls from showing their geek side, going so far as to intimate that opinions like his make for an unsafe environment for women.
Within hours, the back and forth between Pegg and his angry fans had reached a crescendo, with Pegg finally saying that while there were interesting points raised on both sides of the argument, but to his mind people were not reading his posts with the spirit in which they were intended. She replied, “When the intention is not malicious, it still affects women and cosplayers!” At the end of the evening, after briefly contemplating quitting Twitter, Pegg asked that his fan base please lay off of the offended women, that they shouldn’t be harassed, and that everyone has a right to their own opinions. Fair point.
This whole affair made me think about South Park and that time it cracked a series of AIDS jokes. The premise was simple: Subway spokesperson Jared Fogle (remember him?) comes to South Park to talk about his weight loss. When asked how he managed it, Jared says he couldn’t have done it without aides. Of course, he means his personal trainer and dietician, but the cartoon populace hears AIDS. When he announces a plan to start the “Aides For Everyone Foundation,” the townspeople fly into a rage and go after Jared. The kids step in and save the day, explaining the aides/AIDS confusion, and everyone has a good laugh. Why can everybody laugh? Because “it’s been 22.3 years, so AIDS is finally funny.”
I remember watching the episode when it first aired and being alternately amused and unsure about whether it was okay to be amused. But then I came around to realize that it was not the virus or its sufferers that were being mocked but our views and reactions as individuals and as a country. We weren’t laughing at AIDS; we were laughing at our ourselves and our insecurities.
This is the difference I see in what Tosh said versus what Pegg said. Tosh’s comments were a direct assault on a member of his audience, a woman in a distinctly vulnerable position as he held the mic and people paid money to see what he would say. Whether her comments count as a heckle or not, his response was personal and severe. Pegg’s comments, as he alluded, came from a place of appreciation and genuine regard for the subjects of his tweet, however objectifying some saw them to be.
Some people will always be offended, some opinions will always be seen as offensive even when meant with respect. Tosh comes off as a violent, misogynist jerk, Pegg as someone whose words sparked some angry debate, but whose history shows him to be a respectful of women and who wouldn’t set out with the intention of offending his female fan base — even if that’s what ended up happening. We draw our own conclusions from debates like this, and intention often doesn’t matter as much as actions, but in this case I think the key is intention. I can still stand behind Pegg and support his work. Tosh? Never my cup of tea, but now I have an excuse.