Tuesday, April 13, 2010

The last acceptable target

One line of argument that really bugs me is when people say that a group in question is the "last acceptable target" for jokes. Most recently, someone claimed that poor white people were the last acceptable targets. I provided some alternate targets, and those targets "weren't the same" for reasons relating to Jeff Foxworthy's success in the mid nineties* and unrelated to his obscurity since.

One wonders if, in an ideal world, one would even have acceptable targets. As far as targets relating to race and culture go, we ideally probably shouldn't. At the same time, I don't particularly have a problem with having some cultural standards, though at times that leads us to cut some pretty fine distinctions. (I was telling theCSO yesterday that I don't judge "Bombshell" McGee because she dresses skankily, I judge her because she ACTS skankily, and yes, I judge Jesse James for the same thing.)

Anyway, TVtropes.com has made my day by compiling a list of acceptable targets of various varieties. Some of them might not be acceptable among your friends, but the site generally provides enough examples that I'm persuaded that people meeting that description are to some degree targeted. Also, there are plenty of groups (people with dwarfism come to mind) that my friends wouldn't tolerate snark about, but that I totally see are comically fetishized by the larger culture.

Acceptable Cultural Targets

Acceptable Ethnic Targets

Acceptable Hard Luck Targets

Acceptable Inevitable Targets

Acceptable Lifestyle Targets

Acceptable Hobby Targets

Acceptable Nationality Targets

Acceptable political targets

Acceptable Professional Targets

Acceptable Religious Targets

Acceptable Sexual Targets

I suspect that each of those lists contain at least one group I think my circle of friends would find it acceptable to make fun of and one group that I wouldn't. (E.g. I think I can safely say that for most of the people I hang out with, making jokes about Mexicans is not acceptable, making jokes about Canadians is. Similarly, making jokes about transsexuals is not ok, making jokes about furries is. Making fun of Mormons, not cool, making fun of scientologists, ok.) One could argue that part of the difference is that different sorts of jokes are made about Canadians and Mexicans, given that Canadians are usually mocked for their politeness in a way that half comes off as the joke-teller mocking America by implication. That distinction breaks down with the second example, though.

Anyway, no one group should ever consider itself the "last acceptable target."


*Any kid who grew up about when I did knows that about the time Jeff Foxworthy became famous for insulting poor whites, the least cool rich black guy of them all, Carlton Banks from Fresh Prince of Bel Air, was going off the air. Many people who were teenagers of the early 1990s can still rap the theme song. Some sociology student has quite the dissertation topic right there.


DairyStateDad said...

In your coda, did you mean "least cool" or "LAST cool"? [If you meant "Last Cool" you don't need to publish this comment...]

Chalicechick said...

Least cool. Fresh Prince was about a "cool" kid from West Philadelphia who moved in with his wealthy Aunt and Uncle in Bel Air.

Their son, Will's cousin Carlton, is a snobby, nerdy guy with a lot in common with Alex P. Keaton from Family Ties, though he is allowed less dignity than Alex usually got. He's the butt of lots of jokes and frequently ends up dancing badly to Tom Jones for reasons thinly related to the plot.

He becomes less of a target toward the end of the show when he becomes a little more street smart and a little less sheltered, but he is always intended to be a goofy foil for Will Smith's hipper character.

This show was still on, and still a hit, even as "You might be a redneck" jokes were becoming popular, so I've always found it odd that people (and the guy I had the recent discussion with is not the first) often cite "You might be a redneck" jokes as evidence that poor whites are in some special category for mockability.

At the least, Carlton was being mocked for being uncool and wearing preppy clothes and not liking popular music. Less charitably, he was being mocked for not living up to our cultural standards for who a black man is supposed to be. Either way, poor whites don't have a monopoly.


DairyStateDad said...

Ahh. Once again my pop-cultural ignorance gets the better of me. I knew about FP and Will Smith, but not about the cousin character. (I think I've only watched about half of one episode and that was long ago and far way...)

epilonious said...

I love you and your site... and hate what you have done to my productivity...

*must pull away from fascinating lists...*

Strange Attractor said...

Acceptability is regards to mocking certain groups is usually related to power. When women make jokes about how helpless their husbands are, few are offended, but make a dumb wife joke and it's "hey, that's not cool."

This is why Eddie Murphy can make fun of white people dancing, but white comics can't get away with making fun of black culture. The people who are in power are not threatened by the humor.

I have no rationale at all for why it is more acceptable to make fun of furries than other groups, but you're right and I am guilty.

Desmond Ravenstone said...

I would think a lot of this would have to do with who is telling what joke to whom.

Jews often crack Jewish jokes amongst themselves, for example. Not to mention blondes who make self-deprecating remarks about having a "blonde moment," gays and lesbians who poke fun at one another, et cetera.

Both the content and the context of these jokes are vastly different from those told by outsiders at the expense of the "target" group, either through insensitivity or outright malice.

The best humor is prophetic, in that it helps pull the veil on our own foibles. It's gently humbling to be able to laugh at oneself.

And... my favorite example is Chris Rock's observation on race, said during a standup routine in the Hollywood Bowl: "Ain't no white man want to trade places with me -- and I'm rich!

PG said...

When women make jokes about how helpless their husbands are, few are offended

I don't think that's true anymore. I certainly hear from a lot of men (and some feminist women) who are unhappy with the standard depiction of men in sitcoms (including animated ones like The Simpsons and Family Guy) as bumbling, childlike and incompetent.

Chalicechick said...

((((I think I've only watched about half of one episode and that was long ago and far way...))))

In my own defense, I think the show came on the air when I was about twelve and went off the air when I was seventeen. I won't say my tastes in television are sophisticated now, but I'm better off now than I was then.

who always thought Carlton was kinda cute, but that had more to do with the charms of the actor than of the character.

PG said...

It's funny that you mentioned Carlton; I hadn't thought about him for years, but yesterday I saw a free film screening of "Get Him To the Greek," in which P. Diddy has a supporting role as a record label head. At one point he's at some video shoot in a red leather jacket and is giving another guy a hard time about his pink polo shirt. The other guy says, "You better watch out, you're about five zippers from Michael Jackson." Diddy's character retorts, "Yeah, and you're rubbing up against Carlton Banks."

Anonymous said...

How odd that the acceptable ethnic stereotypes list left off Indians. It has always struck me that the character Apu on the SImpsons is a somewhat offensive stereotype. Maybe people from India are just more relaxed about these things, though. I have never heard of any complaints about him/

Chalicechick said...

Though I haven't seen every Simpsons episode ever, my general take is that Apu is rarely the actual butt of the joke. Far more often, other characters' intolerance and misunderstanding of an unusual religion is the real joke and Apu's good nature makes him more of a foil for other people's bad behavior.

It's sort of like what I said in my original post about how jokes about Canadians being too polite sometimes implicitly come off as jokes on the tellers -- Americans who find politeness both noteworthy and unusual.


PG said...

What CC said about Apu, which is also my take on Biden's infamous remarks about South Asian-Americans. It's still stereotyping, and stereotyping should be avoided, but I'm happier with positive stereotypes (South Asians are hard-working entrepreneurs) so long as they aren't hiding a way to ghettoize the group being stereotyped (Asians are good at math and science / because they are robotic "grinds" who can't think creatively).