I'm not asking comedians to stop telling trans jokes. I'm asking them to stop telling *the same* trans jokes over and over.
How many variations on "I identify as..." do we need in this world?
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To be entirely honest, I didn’t know Dave Chappelle had a new stand-up special out until I started getting angry tweets in my feed about “cancel culture” and the rapper DaBaby for some reason. But, like any good cultural critic (or a person who writes a newsletter for a living and doesn’t have a real job), I took it upon myself to watch The Closer, his sixth Netflix special since 2017.
Of those six specials, four of them have extended segments devoted to trans people. I say this because you might hear that and think, “Wow, that’s a lot of material.” Unfortunately, it is not. Let’s review:
The first trans joke, from 2017’s Deep In The Heart Of Texas, is about being at a party where a trans woman was passing out. The joke here is that this woman’s friends were more concerned with correcting his use of pronouns than they were with the wellbeing of their friend.
In 2017’s Equanimity, he joked about how being trans is like claiming to be a different race a la Rachel Dolezal, the white woman who pretended to be black. After that, there was a joke about Caitlyn Jenner and another about being at a club in LA and unknowingly dancing with a trans woman.
In 2019’s Sticks & Stones, he joked about how being trans is like claiming to be a different race, this time comparing being trans would be like if he woke up and decided he was Chinese. He also does a bit about how the LGBTQ movement isn’t really a cohesive community and is much more like a group of people who don’t particularly like each other on a road trip. (Fair!) Also, there was a joke with the premise: what if LeBron James said he was a woman and decided to dominate the WNBA? (Donald Trump liked this argument so much that he decided to use it to oppose trans rights.)
So that brings us to The Closer, which includes Chappelle’s lengthiest trans segment yet (more than half an hour!). He rushes to J.K. Rowling’s defense, claiming that she was “canceled” for saying “gender was a fact.” That’s just not accurate. If you want to understand what the hubbub around her was about, I recommend checking out Zinnia Jones’ series of responses to her blog post on the issue.
From there, Chappelle cracks a joke about how he is “Team TERF,” saying that “trans people make up words to win arguments.” From his set:
TERF is an acronym. It stands for trans-exclusionary radical feminist. This is a real thing, this is a group of women that hate trans— they don’t hate transgender women, they just look at trans women the way we Blacks might look at blackface. It offends them like, “Oh, this b*tch is doing an impression of me.”
Two points here. First, that acronym was not coined by trans people. It was coined by a radical feminist (who is not trans) who wanted to find a way to differentiate between radical feminists who accepted and supported trans people from the ones who don’t. Second, maybe “they just look at trans women the way we Blacks might look at blackface” is kind of the issue. Most of us are just trying to live our lives, and it kind of sucks to have existence seen as inherently offensive.
At another point, he brings up a friend of his who died by suicide in 2019. Her name was Daphne, and she was trans. He gave her credit for “go[ing] against [her] tribe” by not being offended by his trans jokes. I wouldn’t say she was going against any “tribe” by doing that. To say that there’s a trans “tribe,” a cohesive set of people united behind a set of ideals… is probably a bit of a stretch. I’ve often said that it’s less a “community” than it is being stranded on the island of misfit toys with my fellow outcasts.
Then, at another point, he decided to weigh in on the hottest debate of… uh… 2015. Glamour, in an effort to sell magazines, listed Caitlyn Jenner as one of the “women of the year.” That year, it included Jenner, the entire U.S. women’s national soccer team, ballerina Misty Copeland, Planned Parenthood’s Cecile Richards, Theranos’ Elizabeth Holmes (lol), Victoria Beckham, actress Reese Witherspoon, a list of 50 “hometown heroes,” and five survivors of the Charleston Church shooting. It wasn’t so much an award as it was Glamour deciding to feature a bunch of women from various fields and backgrounds in its magazine like it does every year. He also incorrectly says that she was “voted woman of the year.”
That’s right. I’m team TERF. You have to look at it from a woman’s perspective. Look at it like this: Caitlyn Jenner, whom I have met, wonderful person. Caitlyn Jenner… was voted woman of the year. Her first year as a woman! Ain’t that something? Beat every b*tch in Detroit! She’s better than all of you. Never even had a period, ain’t that something? I’d be mad as sh*t if I was a woman. I’d be mad if I was me. If I was in the BET awards, sitting there and they’re like, “And the winner for n——— of the year… Eminem!” My man.
This is yet another variation on the same exact being-trans-is-the-same-thing-as-saying-you’re-a-different-race joke he’s told two times before.
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Of all the issues one could have with his trans jokes, it’s this: he’s not actually doing new jokes at all.
And if you’re going to tell jokes about trans people, try to keep it fresh.
Now, I’m sure some people are getting ready to huff and puff and fire off an angry email to me right now to tell me that I just don’t “get” the jokes, but I absolutely do.
More than 16 years ago, South Park released “Mr. Garrison’s Fancy New Vagina,” the first episode of the show’s ninth season. The premise is, as Wikipedia explains it: “In the episode, Mr. Garrison undergoes a sex change after feeling that he is a "woman trapped in a man's body". Garrison's operation inspires Kyle and his father Gerald to undergo cosmetic surgery themselves.”
In the episode, Kyle undergoes surgeries to make himself tall and Black. His dad Gerald undergoes surgeries to make himself into a dolphin. For real. Get it? Because being trans is just like wanting to be a different race or even species! What a funny, insightful bit of humor. Right? Right? [Ed. note: As I typed this paragraph, I did it with my eyes rolled as far back as humanly possible.]
The “I identify as…” jokes are lazy. True lowest common denominator stuff. Boring. Played out. It’s the same joke Ricky Gervais told at the beginning of his 2018 Netflix special Humanity about going to the doctor and being turned into a chimp.
These are funny guys! Big name, legendary comics! So why are they busy rehashing the old “Lol, I identify as an attack helicopter” line? See also: searching the words “I identify as” on Twitter. There’s an entire subreddit devoted to the “one joke” that (usually) conservative people make online: r/onejoke.
Comedian James Acaster did a great bit about this.
I’m not angry. I’m bored.
Trans jokes tend to fall into just a handful of categories:
The “tricked by a trans woman/ew gross” genre. (See: Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, The 40-Year-Old Virgin, The Hangover Part 2, Dude Where’s My Car?)
The “I identify as…” genre. (See: above)
At The Guardian, trans comic Dahlia Belle pushed back on the tired tropes and the misleading “gotcha” questions. For instance:
On behalf of the trans community, I’ll go ahead and address your weakest defenses. How much do you have to participate in my self-image? Not at all. I just want you to shut up. You said: “You shouldn’t discuss this in front of Black people.” Why, Dave? Why shouldn’t you discuss this in front of Black people? Did you once again imagine all trans people are white, or do you assume there is some inherent danger awaiting us among the larger Black community? And why might that be? Regardless, neither explanation sits well with me.
You asked: “Why is it easier for Bruce Jenner to change his gender than it is for Cassius Clay to change his name?” That’s because Muhammad Ali changed his name in 1964, whereas Caitlyn Jenner changed her gender in 2015. Other factors in Jenner’s favor include living in California, and, most importantly, being rich and famous, just like you, Kevin Hart and DaBaby, who no one references as Jonathan Kirk. You’re basically comparing apples and interstellar spacecraft.
“As a trans comic, it’s really frustrating seeing [Chappelle] make jokes about trans women using urinals. I never realized I could just steal jokes from Reddit,” Sophie Connell told The Guardian.
“Each time I hear that Dave Chappelle has a new special, I feel sad. Not because I know the trans jokes are coming, but because I know the same trans jokes are coming,” said trans comic Jeffrey Jay, also in The Guardian.
People say that trans folks are overly sensitive, but we’re nothing compared to the fanboys who freak out if anyone criticizes their favorite comedian.
I tried to think of the most harmless criticism possible. It’s not that the special was “bad” or “offensive” or whatever. It’s that the special was, in my view, a boring rehash of the same jokes that get posted in my Twitter mentions virtually every day. My only contribution to that discourse came when I tweeted this:
My big take on the whole Dave Chappelle thing is just… you okay, man?
This is the fourth stand-up special of his since 2017 that has a lengthy bit about trans people in it. I don’t get it. It’s such a bizarre fixation. (Deep in the Heart of Texas, Equanimity, Sticks & Stones, and The Closer, in case you were wondering.)
But for real, it’s not something worth being angry or even disappointed with. For me, at least. I just don’t understand why the subject plays such a *huge* role in his work.
Pretty chill, right? I didn’t say I was offended, didn’t come off as angry, etc. I just asked why that topic plays such a huge role in his work.
As far as criticism goes, it’s extremely gentle. It was bait, and his fanboys took it.
Here are some direct quotes from the replies and quote tweets of my post (I’ll censor out some letters of some of the words just for the sake of this not getting sent to everyone’s spam folder):
“So you're pretending we don't have trans issues shoved in our faces all the f*cking time? That assh*le tried to get that guy fired from Sonic like 5 days ago over this same stupid sh*t.” (Ed. note: I don’t know what on earth this person is talking about re: Sonic)
“How can people not understand why people would constantly discuss (and even joke about) this topic? Do you really not understand how significant the transgender movement is in terms of defining our entire modern society?”
“Kind of like how y’all fixate on controlling black people, but especially black men?” (Ed. note: Once again, I do not understand the criticism here.)
“It's almost like he's a comedian who delivers humorous commentary on current social topics and that the trans issue is not the niche subject it was before but something that is omnipresent in popular media the past 5 years”
“Chappelle has always made jokes about everything and all different types of people. It’s just the trans community is extremely sensitive& thought they could cancel him but they can’t. If a bunch of ppl are claiming I’m transphobic then I’m gonna publicly speak on it.”
“The fixation is about truth. Especially truth that gets pushed under the rug to fit whatever agenda the media wants to push to our society, including our children. Freedom of speech is still a thing.”
“People like this bother me why make statements like such & then turn your comments to limited to people ??? Stand in your sh*t @ParkerMolloy who ever tf you are ! We know Dave whooo tf are you sir !”
“it’s never bizarre to fixate on the fact that in less than a decade the entire establishment media has made it an iron clad rule that you’re no longer allowed to speak the truth that the emperor is naked. saying “THAT’S A MAN” when it’s very obviously a man is now a crime”
“The art of comedy exists within the parallax between what people are supposed to think and what they're privately thinking. And there is no greater disparity between those two points of reference than on the elite political fad of transgender identity politics.”
“I mean aren't you trans? Of course you're probably not going to get the joke.” (Ed. note: How good is your joke if the people who know the most about a topic are “probably not going to get the joke?”)
“The best thing about all these people losing their minds about Chappelle is he'll never hear any of it. He literally said he doesn't care about Twitter in his special and it's not real life. All these people are screaming into the void.”
(I turned off the replies on that post because I wasn’t trying to start a “conversation” or “debate” anything. The people who quote tweeted their replies did not like this!)
I find it really interesting that anything less than total praise (I didn’t even say that I didn’t like the special! I only questioned why there was so much of it devoted to trans people and trans issues) is lumped together in this “You’re trying to get him canceled! How DARE YOU!?!?!?” kind of space. “Cancel culture” now means you can’t express a negative or neutral opinion about a piece of work, it seems. Nothing but praise allowed. There’s some massive irony in all of this. These are people angry about people (supposedly) being angry. Very meta!
I don’t think Dave Chappelle is transphobic.
I put that as a header because I’m sure I’ll get more than a few “How dare you call him transphobic!?!?!?” messages from people. No, no. I don’t think he’s transphobic.
Are some of the people who replied to that tweet of mine transphobic? 100%. Look at the people who replied with things about how “we’re all required to be fixated on [trans issues],” and “The art of comedy exists within the parallax between what people are supposed to think and what they're privately thinking. And there is no greater disparity between those two points of reference than on the elite political fad of transgender identity politics,” and “it’s never bizarre to fixate on the fact that in less than a decade the entire establishment media has made it an iron-clad rule that you’re no longer allowed to speak the truth that the emperor is naked. saying ‘THAT’S A MAN’ when it’s very obviously a man is now a crime.” They don’t care about comedy. They’re just angry about trans people.
Those people don’t care about comedy. They just want someone to give them “permission” to hate on trans people. But the truth is that there are very, very, very few personal or professional consequences to being transphobic. In fact, for all the complaining about how these random Twitter users are “forced” to accept trans people or “forced” to think about trans issues, I really want to remind them that the overwhelming majority of media coverage of trans issues comes from right-wing media. For real. Personally, as a trans person, I’d be content if people just stopped talking about trans issues entirely, but guys like Tucker Carlson won’t let that happen.
But here’s why I don’t think that Chappelle is transphobic: to the extent that he understands trans people, he understands that things like efforts to pass laws to make it illegal for trans people to use the bathroom that corresponds to their gender are wrong. He called North Carolina’s HB2 “a bad law.” I think the problem is that he doesn’t really understand trans people beyond surface-level “trapped in the wrong body” stereotypes. When that’s the basis for your jokes, it’s easy to see how you might end up going down the “I identify as…” rabbit hole.
I don’t want Dave Chappelle “canceled.” I want him to succeed in every way possible. I want him to sell out stadiums. I want him to do whatever he wants. I do hope, in the event that he goes back on his plan to stop telling trans jokes, that he comes up with something truly unique and insightful that goes beyond hackneyed bits originally posted by edgelords on Reddit.