Friday, March 25, 2011

When is a gay joke gay?

I woke up this morning to find a tweet to kick off this blog:

Rise to find @EvanHD on #r4todaytalking about an organisation called, apparently, Low Cock. May be a support group for small gay men.

What an amazing tweet """joke"""? It is presumably intended as a joke, because it has the formal properties of a pun: the delivery, the pace, the staged distancing from the word that suggests one is about to analysis it ("apparently"), the ersatz suggestion of an alternative meaning ("may be").

So, based on this, we'll decide it is a "joke". Now, "low cock" could have a number of easily-found puns: massive cocks that swing low would be my first thought, though I can see why small men have "low cocks". Clearly, a support group for men who have MASSIVE cocks is a much funnier idea than a support group for men who are small and whose cocks are therefore relatively low, but it would require a bit more irony, a bit of a lighter touch.

The issue, however, is whether it is a "gay" joke or a "homophobic" one. One's instinct is that one must defend against the "homophobic" charge, rather than begin from a position of the joke being "gay-friendly" for one simple reason: if you're going to talk about a support group called "low cock" with a pun on height, surely it would be a support group for gay dwarves. Not "small gay men". Gay dwarves. But Aaronovitch refuses to go there; he is being sensitive about how people describe themselves and avoiding pejorative terminology when it comes to stature, but he is willing to make it "gay". This suggests that he has some sense that the comedy may be pejorative, but he's going there anyway. He's going there.

Based on this analysis, we can see that he is being sensitive to the possibility of a pejorative connotation but, when it comes to gays, doesn't care. Fair enough? Now, here's the issue: why is "gay" there at all? Of course, small details make a joke come to life; we accept that. But the question remains. Why is "gay" there? There are at least a number of possible answers insinuated by Aaronovitch: Gay men are defined by their cocks, and so a support group for short men would never be called "low cock" unless those men are gay; or, gay men are interested in cock, and so a support group is really an opportunity to find more of it. In other words, to justify the "sexualization" of the support group as one that might be named "Low Cock" and to justify the "sexualization" of "Cock" itself, he slips in "Gay". Is this homophobic? Suggesting that gay identity is a sexualized one in this casual, probably stereotypical way, with the underlying belief that "man" is not a sexualized identity in this way, is not akin to queer-bashing, but it's a bit feeble, isn't it? Does it matter if Aaronovitch is gay or not? Actually yes: if he is gay, then this reference to gayness may be a _personal_ touch; if he is not, it is a depersonalizing touch.

What do you think?


Philipa said...

Aaronovitch has already published that he's 'a bit gay' which I think is like me saying I'm 'not quite a virgin' (I have two children - been there, done that).

He clearly delights in talking about sex, a LOT, and has no scruple in declaring himself a sexual being to the world, advertising his confused sexuality, his sexual preferences, many sexual fantasies and focusing on his groin in page after excrutiatingly tiresome page of what promised to be a travel book of the canals of Britain, and on Twitter. All this despite being married and with children on same.

Rather than wondering whether he is or is not a homosexual (which he's already declared) I think it more pertinent why he's so keen to talk about sex all the bloody time? Can it be that he's not getting it? And all that time he spends on Hampstead Heath. Poor bloke.

sw said...

It's hardly a sin to talk about sex, even a LOT (actually, it might be a sin, but anyway . . .), and having children or being married is no guarantor against "confused" sexualities (what other kinds are there?); nor am I wondering if he's actually gay or not, even 'a bit'. The question is how we understand his tweet, and why any of these things should matter when we look at something we are considering a joke.

Philipa said...

So sorry, I was clearly confused by this sentence:

"Does it matter if Aaronovitch is gay or not? Actually yes: if he is gay..."

My mistake.

But still in the spirit of trying to be helpful you asked "what other kinds are there?" - I'm straight. I like willies. In fact I'm really quite fond of big cocks, which I guess is why I like David Aaronovitch.

sw said...

No, quite - I really meant in the context of the joke, but the whole issue is fuzzy, which is the problem: a fundamental dynamic in comedy is the relationship between the presumed public and the presumed private. Why should it matter? Because it does.

And thank you for your description of your sexuality; I think it proves my point?

Philipa said...


sw said...

'Cause there's a nice tension between the paragraph kindly written in the spirit of being helpful and what you wrote in your first comment; 'cause you're deliberately confusing (that is, conflating) the name of the man with the Cock; 'cause there's an amusing dynamic in your use of language to describe the penis, gently beginning with the infantile, then thrusting into the salaciously desirable, then retreating into wry pejorative (at least that is how I understand your ambiguous line about liking David Aaronovitch, which at the very least implies He's a big cock as well as He has a big cock) These inconsistencies and switch-backs, these differences between the certain and the uncertain, these contradictions and dissonances are the markers of confused categories.

Don't think for a minute, Philipa, that I'm suggesting you are sitting at home agonizing over your desires or that you are somehow stewing about one specific domain of sexual identity. Rather, I'm just pointing out that sexualities -- as identities but also as ways of talking about ourselves, our bodies, our desires, our relationships, whatever -- are always already confused.

Philipa said...

Blimey you thought a lot about this.

But no, am not confused; I'm straight and like willies. So it seems does David Aaronovitch!

sw said...

At least there's something we all have in common!

Björn said...

I'm straight and I like cunts. I guess that's why I like David Aaronovitch?

sw said...

Yes, Björn, I feel you've been a touch heavy-handed, but I can't deny that the general trend of this conversation meant that somebody would eventually at least think that, if not actually find the need to write it.

Björn said...

If I don't write it, how do I know I thought it?

But I'm sort of hypnotized by it as a piece of formal "comedy"?

sw said...

Oh, I knew.

It does have the form of comedy: there's a statement of purported fact, followed by an additional detail that creates tension, leading to a resolution of sorts (a catharsis, perhaps) through an association of what before seemed incongruous. I don't think I need to show, using your example, how each part fits together in that scheme.

The hypnotic effect it has on you may not be shared by me or David Aaronovitch or many, many others, but the real challenge of understanding comedy is not in parsing out its formal properties, but rather in understanding the effects - whether hypnotic or hysterical or shared guffaws.

Björn said...

I don't know. It just gets better the more I look at it? Should I stop looking at it?

I'll stop?

sw said...

Your call.