Comedy and cancel culture

Questioning liberal orthodoxy is a formidable prospect given the inevitability of outrage. But as we risk sliding into coercive ideological conformity, opening up space for debate is surely a matter of some urgency. Comedy is one place where such issues can be raised and explored in relative safety, and two recent instances, Leigh Stein’s satirical novel, Self Care, and Sam Jay’s Netflix stand-up special, 3 In The Morning, boldly investigate key aspects of the progressive ethos.

An astute satire on the wellness industry and corporate feminism, Self Care is preoccupied throughout with the dynamics of public outrage, and alert to the ways in which the drama of performing liberal correctness become all engrossing. Stein recognises, furthermore, that the ‘scorekeeping of identities’, and the satisfactions of moral righteousness can take precedence over all other forms of engagement. It’s always worth thinking about how comedy earns its license to investigate cultural tender spots – and in this case Stein routes her analysis through satire at the expense of the corporate world, a safe enough target for liberal contempt. The company in question is Richual, a wellness start-up (think Gwyneth Paltrow’s lifestyle company, Goop) which is trying to extend its reach. The development team suggests that, given the ‘conflict clusters around issues of microaggressions, lack of trigger warnings, ableist language, misgendering community members, and cultural appropriation’ (80), in order ‘to mobilise user engagement’ the focus should be on leveraging ‘controversy and outrage’ (81). A focus group demonstrates a representative case, with the catalyst a make-up tutorial video by a white woman referencing Native American imagery. In response, another Richual user, also white, says, “Can we stop appropriating Native culture in the name of looking ‘interesting’ at a shitty music festival?” And then another woman, with long brown hair, joins in, ‘I want to address the white folks who think that dressing up like Pocahontas is equivalent to wearing a Wonder Woman costume…indigenous people are still here. I’m not a character. And my friends and I aren’t dressing up like Jews in Auschwitz for any holidays. Like, who determines which genocides get featured at the Halloween costume emporium?”’ (80).

In the pile-on, a scene very familiar from any number of social media controversies, the remark by the first woman reads like pure snark, while the second woman’s comments are initially very reasonable, but her invocation of Jews in Auschwitz introduces a dubious equivalence that rachets up the emotional temperature of the debate. The defence is articulated by the slightly ditzy white intern, Chloe, bemused by the nature of the infraction, wondering if ‘the makeup girl’ gets to tell her side of the story, “I mean, like how she meant for it to not be disrespectful” (82). It’s a piece of archetypal white innocence, but, while Chloe is undoubtedly privileged, and her response is characterised by a naivety born out of that privilege, it is not unreasonable: ‘what if she just wanted to, like share her artistry and showcase the beauty of Native culture? And how do we know she isn’t an Indian? Aren’t a lot of people part Cherokee, like Elizabeth Warren?’ (83). Her references are perhaps indicative of a certain kind of newsfeed – with Pocahontas inevitably suggesting Elizabeth Warren – and her argument isn’t sophisticated, but Stein is allowing space for a perspective that doesn’t tow the party line. It feels indicative of the risk-averse moment we’re in that Stein’s ambivalent framing of the discussion – emphasising the competitive elements of outrage online and with no clarity about the correct stance – feels bold.

Stand-up Sam Jay is also not interested in towing the party line. In her special, 3 In The Morning, her casual iconoclasm is very evident, perhaps most especially in her take on transgender issues. But it’s a nonchalance that’s hard won. As the bit begins, she ventriloquises her opening salvo through the gruff voice of her ‘hommie’: “What do you do when you see a trans bitch beating up a regular bitch?” The starkly expressed dilemma is held at a safe remove through the hommie persona, and it’s kept light by the blunt naivety of the follow-up: “you know the answer cos you gay” (which also works to remind us of Jay’s liberal credentials). She’s already done the work of acclimatising the audience to ‘bitches’, an essential part of her vocabulary, but with this additional step into risk, she knows she’s pushing their tolerance, and sensing a collective tension at that word ‘regular’, she feels them “getting tight,” as she puts it. It’s one of few moments in the show when she resorts to a disclaimer: “First of all, he not gay, he did the best he could. He called everyone bitches so it was universal, chill out.” But then she returns to the question, “we really don’t have the answer … what are we gonna do when trans bitches beat regular bitches?” “As a regular bitch I’m a tad bit concerned … I’m not saying trans women aren’t women. That’s corny. Trans women are women, shut the fuck up. But when one of those women’s hands are big enough to palm a football and she’s caving the other woman’s chest in, we gotta make some notes. Maybe figure out a new approach. How we gonna work this shit out, to move on as a goddam society.” The bit continues with a segue into a celebration of ‘regular bitches’ having trans women “on our team” and with these “super bitches” on side, she imagines women powering through an NFL final.

Most jokes rely on tension and release, so Jay’s use of a controversial subject is partly strategic: she harvests the associated tension and then releases it through the silliness of the subsequent material, when the audience wants to laugh in order to relieve the “tightness”. But it’s interesting that, despite the upbeat fantasies of having trans women on side, the emphasis on the physical disparities between trans women and cis women remains in play throughout. That insistence on physical difference is at odds with the liberal orthodoxy, which finds it hard to accommodate. A recent initiative by Stonewall, for instance, decries as ‘exclusionary’ proposals from World Rugby to ban transgender women playing in women’s rugby. Clearly, transgender rights must be supported, but as Jay’s bit suggests, there are implications to the issue of physical difference that risk being ignored. One recent tweet by @antidependancy2 articulates the case graphically: ‘I’m a 6’2 former forward. If I announce I identify as a girl, stonewall says its OK for me to smash full tilt into a female fly half who weighs 4 or 5 stone less than me. When she has a life changing spinal injury because of it, thats fine, because no ones feelings got hurt….’ As might be imagined, this was hugely contentious, and when J K Rowling, who has effectively been cancelled in many respects, re-tweeted it, the debate became further personalised.

We seem to have arrived at a place where liberal doctrine can both close down the possibility of nuanced debate and sanction automatic outrage, even hate. The pursuit of racial and social justice is vital, but the restrictions on free speech demanded by ‘cancel culture’ are clearly problematic. As Stein’s novel and Jay’s stand-up show, comedy offers one way of opening things up, and of loosening the ‘tightness’ around controversial subjects.

Stein, Leigh. Self Care. New York: Penguin, 2020.

© Emma Sullivan 2020.

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