Thursday, April 7, 2011

About a Boy

A few days ago, we discussed a Frankie Boyle joke and, under closer scrutiny, a BBC news report about this joke. I want to thank those who commented on the post for pushing a few points, and I want to return to the joke and what was said in the BBC news report. Underlying this return is the same question that I asked in the post: how do we . . . make sense of offensive jokes?

If you don't have the patience to scroll way past the enormous photograph and down a few posts, I'll provide a brief synopsis. Katie Price, also known as Jordan, has a son with septo-optic dysplasia and autism. In a routine on his television show, Frankie Boyle said:

I have a theory about the reason Jordan married a cagefighter. She needed a man strong enough to stop Harvey from fucking her.
Let's leave aside the joke for a moment and recall the responses, as reported in the BBC article.

Ofcom. In the article's opening paragraph, we learn that Ofcom censured Channel 4 for the joke because it was "offensive"; the article concludes by noting that Ofcom refused to censure another television show for jokes deemed offensive because "to restrict humour only to material which does not cause offence would be an unnecessary restriction of freedom of expression." We could spend hours on the wild inconsistency between the moral obligation of the body to censure what is offensive and the social obligation to prevent restriction of freedom of expression; we could spend hours on the concept of "unnecessary" in their statement; we could spend hours on whether any comedic material would be left if humour were restricted to jokes that could never cause offence; we could spend minutes on whether their statement should have used "that" instead of "which".

What Ofcom fails to realise is that Sick jokes are, fundamentally, jokes at the expense of (moral, aesthetic) judgement. That is what they do. That is how they work their magic. They root their way into the nooks and crannies of offence and expose the act of judgement at its hinge: either you laugh, rejecting the disapproving judgement of silence, or you remain silent, rejecting the approving judgement of laughter. But, crucially, that is not all. There remains ambiguity: in laughing, are you rejecting the disapproval of silence or are you rejecting the disapproval of the joke; that is, are you rejecting judgement or suspending judgement? We can rephrase it for silence: are you not laughing because you disapprove or are you not laughing because you think it is not funny? I would argue that these are not all wholly the same thing, although another layer of ambiguity spreads an opacity over the proceedings: if you disapprove of the joke, you are unlikely to find it funny; if you find it funny, you are unlikely to disapprove of the joke--at least at first. We could go on like this, so let me make this point about Ofcom's contradictory stance: if you are only going to address an offensive/sick joke as a moral matter of censure or a social matter of freedom of expression, you are going to get caught in the wild inconsistency we see on display; if you fail to see how one essential function in offensive jokes is to create an ambiguity out of the twin contradictory certainties, you will end up looking like fools. That is what happened to Ofcom. They literally don't know what they are talking about.

Channel 4. I am reminded of Senator Inhofe: when speaking about "Iraqi prisoner abuse"/torture, he was famously more outraged by the outrage. I find myself more outraged by Channel 4's official response than by the joke. As I pointed out in the previous post, Channel 4's bullshit slides by because neither the journalist nor Ofcom (nor, I would assume, the reader) is making any sense of the joke. Channel 4 says the joke is "wholly justified in the context", and they get away with it because nobody is interrogating what they mean by "context" (much less how any context can wholly justify anything). They say it was "not intended as a slur on any particular community" and that "everyone is fair game in Frankie's eyes", and they get away with it, even though they're having their cake and eating it too: a revocation of intent to slur and a justification of slurring anybody Frankie chooses to slur on the basis of some phony egalitarianism. To make sense of offensive jokes, we need to think about their multiple contexts, particularly the overarching "comic context" and how offensive jokes are secure in the heart of the "comic context" but also always testing the boundaries of that context; to make sense of offensive jokes, we need to reckon with how they target vulnerability, not leak platitudes about valuing "communities" or egalitarianism.

But then Channel 4 really begins to insult our intelligence. They call it "simply absurdist satire" and then say that the joke was a socially-complex, targeted, and significant critique of celebrity, maternity, and attachment: i.e., making fun of Price's "exploitation of her children for publicity purposes...her behavior as a mother and her cavalier attitude towards relationships." I was initially pissed off that they would think we are so stupid about comedy that they could throw this rotted contradiction out and we'd lap it up like it was fresh cream. But then, thanks to the comments made to the original post, I thought about it some more and became outraged. After a comedian cracks a joke about a woman's son, Channel 4 comes out and insults this woman in horrible ways, humourlessly and viciously maligning her as a mother and as a person. Now, I'm as tempted as the next person to despise and deride trashy celebrities, but to let myself get caught up in Channel 4's assumptions about this woman on account of her "celebrity" has really made me quite ashamed. I know vanishingly little about Katie Price, but if some anonymous spokesperson tells me that a celebrity is a slut and a shitty mother, I basically believe them? That's feeble on my part, and insidious on theirs. Katie Price knows this: she asks if Ofcom would have come to the same decision not to demand an apology from Channel 4 "if Harvey was the child of a well-known politician?" And, as pointed out in the comments section to the original post, saying that the joke is about her and not about the boy is as disingenuous, as consciously misleading, as a pickpocket saying "look up there" and pointing to the sky with one hand while his other hand is in your pocket, stealing your integrity.

Channel 4 takes us for fools; they talk gibberish about comedy and we nod and rub our chins.

Katie Price. You live by the media, you die by the media. Because I know nothing about Katie Price, I can't really make much sense of Ofcom's warbling Solomonic justice in giving censure but not demanding an apology, a decision possibly arrived at in part because Katie Price and her ex-husbands "consciously exposed their and their children's lives to the media" and (now citing the BBC article) "must expect to be the targets of humour and criticism." Though, typically, Ofcom goes on to say that there is not "unlimited licence to broadcast comedy that targets humour at such a child's expense" and, weirdly, that the child "had not himself chosen to be in the public eye": so there is licence but it's not unlimited; and, children in the public eye should be expected to be targets of humour and criticism but not if they haven't chosen to be in the public eye? Why can't they make up their minds? (Answer: because they haven't thought about what they're doing; they're using cut-and-paste ethical fragments and putting them together in the hopes that we won't notice). But back to Katie Price. Wait. This actually isn't about Katie Price. It's about a boy.

About a Boy. The boy has septo-optic dysplasia and autism. I argued, in the comments, that Boyle's joke plays on notions of physical strength and sexual incontinence in the mentally retarded - cf Of Mice and Men (I won't repeat my John Terry joke here). I should have made clear then, and will make clear now, neither septo-optic dysplasia nor autism are synonymous with mental retardation: however specific and detailed Frankie Boyle's joke is - the new step-dad's profession ("a cage-fighter"), the boy's name, his mother's celebrity - my interpretation of the joke is just that: an interpretation. An interpretation means an assumption of shared meaning (I will defend this statement to the death). I think I'm getting the joke because I think I know what Boyle is referring to, what the joke means. A joke is always interpreted (now that's a controversial statement, but I will stick to it even though I happen to believe it is controversial because, as I hew to my party-line, I insist that comedy is always ambiguous, even cognitively: is it interpreted, an active process, or do we get it, a passive one? Both.) Why is any of this relevant? First of all, if the joke must be interpreted, then there must be a declaration of shared meaning. Channel 4 lied about the shared meaning ("it's about the boy's mum"); Ofcom deferred (that's the whole point! In cutting-and-pasting ethical boilerplate, they're deferring interpretation, and that is why they are contradicting themselves); Katie Price says it's about her son. In the comments, another interpretation is given: apparently Harvey is large. I don't think that is sufficient to explain the joke: there is, I think, some broader implication about disability and physical strength, sexual rapacity, and lack of cognitive and psychological orientation in the joke. But the comment is spot on to point out that it only makes it that much more obvious the joke is about the boy.

What is the relationship of the boy to septo-optic dysplasia and autism? What is the relationship of the boy to his mother? What is the relationship of people with neurodevelopmental disorders to aggression, sexual expression? The sick joke relays between "communities" and individuals, between deep assumptions about people in general and specific characters, between assumed characteristics and stereotypes; the act of interpretation, of assuming (the mantle of) a shared meaning, is incriminating (if you laugh, you've agreed in some way with the material) or judging (if you do not laugh, you stand outside in judgement). If you want to make sense of a sick joke, you need to linger with it, to state your assumptions, to expose yourself to judgement; the boy (the one being accused of blindly raping his mother) is innocent, but he is used to incriminate us all - Ofcom, Channel 4, me, even his own mother.

Frankie Boyle. How cruel is his joke? How mean-spirited? You don't need me to answer that for you. But Frankie Boyle stood up there and made the joke; in my eyes, however cruel and however mean-spirited the joke was, Boyle takes responsibility for it, which is more than I can say for either Ofcom or Channel 4.


As a coda, I want to mention Nick Hornby. I assume at some point during this post you got the "About a Boy" reference? Nick Hornby has a son with autism. About a decade ago, he edited a book of short stories called Speaking with the Angel, whose contributors included a round-up of the usual suspects (Smith, Welsh, Eggers, Doyle, Fielding, Marber) and a ringer or two (Colin Fi-Fi-Fi-Firth); the proceeds of which went to TreeHouse, a school for autistic children. Now, I have very little patience for short stories that aren't written by masters of the craft; bad theatre, bad films, bad paintings and bad sculpture are usually at least interesting and/or amusing; bad novels can be put down; but bad short stories steal something from me. I don't remember if any of the stories were really good or really bad or how much of my soul was taken from me by Patrick Marber or Zadie Smith; maybe not much? But I do remember the introduction: it's one of the best written pieces about raising a child with autism I've ever read. It's really Hornby at his best.
So if you feel a bit dirty about this whole sordid sick joke Frankie Boyle affair, get a copy of Speaking with the Angel.

Plus, face it, you now really want to read a sh-short story wr-wr-written by C-C-C-Colin I-uh-I-uh-I-uh . . . HAVE! . . . a-a-a-A. . . Osc-Osc-Osc-OSCAR!!! Fi-Fi-Fi-FUCK!-Firth.

(And yes, dear readers, unlike Colin Firth, I actually am a stutterer, I don't just play one in the muh-muh-muh-movies).

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