Rape Jokes, Censorship, and the Corporate Media

I have already stated my love of Totally Biased on this blog.  And the show continued to mix politics and comedy in a progressive way, up until the end of season one last week.  The show will be moving on to a new station called FXX, which seems to be FX, just more, and Bell and his crew will have a nightly show.  Yes, this increases the daily late night talk show glut to a tipping point, but at least you have options.  Lord, a lot of options.

In a recent episode, Bell entered the “rape joke” fray started last year by Comedy Central’s Daniel Tosh, host of the risible Tosh.O.  I don’t want to rehash this story too much–it’s old already and has been covered exhaustively (though not always in intelligent ways).  Almost everyone who stood up to defend Tosh was male, white, and straight, and they are in comedy, as in the real world, the loudest voices in the room.  If you want more on this battle, Jennifer Pozner has made some thoughtful and accurate statements on the topic here. But one of the first women to speak out on the subject was Jezebel contributor Lindy West.  West was invited by Bell to discuss the issue with comedian Jim Norton.  My sympathies are entirely with West, but Norton was a thoughtful-enough counterpoint, treating West with respect while also trying to defend his position on a comedian’s rights to make rape jokes.  Norton confuses the issue here, as do most people defending Tosh, by thinking that this is an issue of free speech.  It is not.

Most comedians seem to view the comedy club as a sacred space–one where anything and everything can be said and that nothing should be censored. There’s a certain logic there and certainly no one should be too afraid to push the envelope; stretching the boundaries of permissible speech is a worthy goal and sometimes ugly things can be said to great and even noble effect; that’s why we still read “A Modest Proposal” almost three centuries later. But not all offensiveness is useful or  productive, and sometimes the unintended consequences of our speech mean more than our best intentions.  Norton’s main argument (one also articulated by Patton Oswalt and others) is that the comedy club is a safe space, one where comedians make ugly comments in order to reveal the ugliness of the world and help us in turn survive and overcome.  That’s noble, though I’m deeply suspicious of a group of almost exclusively white straight men who take on the burden of helping our culture get over a topic as horrific as rape.  Has Norton or any other comedian worked for rape counseling services? Have they worked to take back the night? Is there only contribution to a world free of violence against women–sexual or otherwise–making rape jokes? It doesn’t seem like the most productive form of activism.

Norton wisely distanced himself from Tosh’s actual joke, while defending his right to make that joke. He was concerned that the backlash against Tosh was a violation of freedom of speech and a form of censorship.  And here Norton reveals a common failure of most Americans when it comes to understanding what “freedom of speech” actually is.  Here is the First Amendment:

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

Any cursory reading of the amendment makes clear that what is protected when it comes to speech is state intervention in speech–“Congress shall make no law…” This in no way protects people from being shouted down in a comedy club, called an “asshole” on a blog, or getting fired from a TV show for statements you have made  (in this regard, Paula Deen has shown a rare amount of wisdom by not claiming her freedom of speech).  When one speaks in public, you enter into a public conversation, where certain voices are louder and more powerful than others. Those voices still are overwhelmingly male, straight, white, and still find a lot of humor in racism, sexism, homophobia, etc.  When figures like Tosh and others (one also sees this regularly with right-wingers like Michelle Bachmann and Sarah Palin) claim their right to free speech has been inhibited by public criticism, they are simply wrong. What they mean to say is that they believe their speech is above consequences.

During the conversation, Norton made an interesting distinction.  He claimed there was nothing wrong with disagreeing or criticizing a comedian on a blog or other space.  But he drew the line at real consequences, stating “as long as somebody isn’t calling for someone to get in trouble for an opinion” and “as long as there’s not the asterisk, ‘you should get in trouble for doing that”‘ then he was fine with criticism.  But he held in especial contempt those who try to make material consequences for the offensive speech of performers, noting that “the market should dictate whether people enjoy you,” not the complaints of your detractors.  But a large group of people boycotting a network, a sponsor, or other financial supporter of someone like Tosh is precisely the “free market” at work. It is simply working in ways Norton and others don’t like.  Such comedians want to be both subversive (by shocking their audience) and inconsequential (reducing things to “just a joke”).

What has been absent from this conversation is in the corporate media that most people seem to be ignoring. Tosh is not working for a non-profit; he’s not giving out his comedy for free. Though this battle began at a small comedy club, Tosh is a pubic figure by virtue of Viacom, one of the largest media corporations in the United States. Here is a graph which shows you just how few corporations control almost all of the major television media.

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This is not a free speech zone.

Norton mentioned his work on the “Opie and Anthony” radio show, broadcast by Sirius and XM satellite radio, which rebroadcasts, and is partially owned by Clear Channel, the largest radio media corporation in our country.  Tosh and Norton (and I don’t mean to lump them together ideologically, just materially) work for two of our biggest media conglomerates–the “free speech” they ostensibly exercise comes not from the U.S. Constitution, but the sufferance of their corporate overlords. Very little media we consume can be understood in terms of free speech, from something as seemingly innocuous as stand-up comedy to the major news outlets.  When entertainers being paid by these corporations cry out for their freedom of speech, they are cloaking corporate sponsorship in libertarian discourse. And they are of course, quite wrong.  As we have seen with Paula Deen, sponsors and networks can cut you off whenever they feel your speech has crossed a line, and this can come from public outcries, low ratings, or even the whims of network executives.

This level of censorship, happening at reaches of almost monopolistic power, should be far more distressing to comedians, and anyone in the entertainment industry, than the organic, grass-roots outcry of women who aren’t interested in having sexual violence trivialized. Those calling for the firing of Tosh, Deen, Don Imus, or other public figures who have crossed a line are not engaging in censorship or limiting a person’s freedom of speech.  They are enacting freedom of speech collectively, and trying to bring a hint of accountability to a media structure with almost zero public input or influence. Someone you like might get taken down in one of these rare and uncommon cases, but your enemy is not a vocal public, and turning your ire on those people leaves Viacom and other corporations off the hook for the work they make billions from.

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Austerity TV: “Tabatha Takes Over”

Tabatha Coffey has to be one of the oddest reality stars in town with one of the oddest reality shows on TV.

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Coffey began her career on the Bravo reality show Shear Genius, which she parlayed into the show Tabatha Takes Over, also on BravoA hairstylist by training, TTO features Coffey intervening in struggling business, providing a brief and intense makeover of the business. In its first seasons (as Tabatha’s Salon Takeover) she focused her skills  specifically on salons.  But in the past couple of years she has extended her brand to restaurants, bars, and other small businesses within the service-sector. Coffey is a tough customer–hard on failing business owners and their often times dysfunctional staff.  She’s also an out Australian lesbian with amazing fashion sense and pretty good sexual politics.  It’s hard not to like her, and it’s easy to dislike the incompetent small business owners that she berates on their way to fiscal solvency.

If 24 and Homeland represent television’s most interesting responses to our post-9/11 world, then TTO might be our best window into life following the 2008 economic collapse. Coffey’s desire to help failing small business owners is admirable, but the undercurrent of the show represents our own popular misunderstandings and myths about money, power, and business in the age of austerity.

Let me lay out the show’s formula: a small business owner contacts Tabatha over the state of her troubled business (I use “her” both universally and particularly, as most of the owners featured are women). Tabatha pays a “surprise visit” to the owner, revealing that she has had secret camera’s in her business for the past several days.  These cameras generally reveal incompetence, uncleanliness, poor managerial skills, and an overall lack of vision.  In discussing her findings, Tabatha always gets the owner to reveal how much money they have lost on their ventures, and this leads to the show’s first money shot: the debt reveal.  The owner (sometimes in tears) admits they are thousands of dollars in debt, often times in excess of $100,000.  This is when Tabatha claims she is “fed up” and that she’s “taking over.”  From here, Tabatha enters the business, giving each employee lessons in their respective skills, effective management, and often provides the business with a much-needed makeover. Though she threatens that some employees might be fired, they rarely are (though each time the threat is highlighted with thunderous musical cues).  In the end, she leaves each business in better shape, and each owner slavishly thankful for her no-nonsense intervention.

The show’s gender politics are intriguing. As Tabatha focuses on the service economy (more on that later), and especially beauty and cosmetic businesses, many of her takeovers involve female owners. This reflects both the long-standing nature of these businesses and the new reality of women in the workforce. Though Tabatha never plays maternal or sentimental, one can see her as a lesbian success story imparting her wisdom on women and gay men (who show up with some regularity), those often times excluded implicitly or explicitly from the world of money, business training, etc. In this way she bears some resemblance to Suze Orman, another platinum blond lesbian offering tough-talking advice about financial survival to those often times out of the loop.

But Tabatha really enjoys a good shaming. Before she provides rescue, she must deal out a stern rebuke of the business owner for their personal, even moral, failures at running a business. Tabatha’s contempt is withering.  And in dressing down the failing owner before providing rescue, she mirrors the discourse used about the housing-market crash of 2008, and which still reverberates today in discussions about debt. Many commentators, particularly on the right wing, saw the failures of the housing market not in terms of predatory lending, but in the moral failure of home owners whose greed lead them into risky mortgages for homes they should have never hoped to own in the first place.  The structural issues of banks making predatory loans to uniformed consumers got pushed aside for an almost puritanical narrative of punishment for the greedy.  Though Tabatha attempts to bail businesses out (which we essentially refused to do for homeowners), she must first remind them of their failures, to make sure that the duly chastened business owner is aware that it is only her benign intervention that keeps them from bankruptcy.  This is where the debt-reveal is so important–that figure is meant to both startle the viewer (pleasurably, I believe) and make Tabatha’s mercy all the greater.

But like the housing crisis, Tabatha’s moralistic language belies what might really be going on in these businesses.  Don’t get me wrong; some of these people seem downright incompetent and some seem to have zero experience in their chosen business.  This week’s episode “Manikir Royale” features an African American woman who owns a struggling nail salon.  When asked about her prior experience, the owner reveals that she used to work in Human Resources and knew nothing about nail salons. Tabatha looks sternly at her for getting in over her head (and 60K in debt), but the question of how this woman got a small business loan is tellingly absent.  The restorative drama of Tabatha Takes Over can’t exist if the complexities of the economy and lending creep into the picture.  Instead, bootstrappery is imposed, and Tabatha, with drill-sergeant like severity, whips each business into shape. Each business is almost instantly improved, and in this regard other elements of the economy go unquestioned–with high unemployment, massive personal debt, and litle job security, some people just might not want a mani/pedi. But not in Tabatha’s world; if you run it efficiently, they will come.

The U.S. economy continues to sputter along with almost zero real growth. One of the only sectors to experience such growth is the service-sector, usually in the form of lower-paying work such as in restaurants and hospitality.  In this regard, TTO‘s focus on small business could prove a minor antidote to growing corporate consolidation, while playing into the long-standing conservative reverence for the small-business owner. But Tabatha Takes Over stands at a nexus of race, gender, sexuality, and capitalism like few shows on television, none I can think of really.  And though I can’t expect the show to be a treatise on the economy, I can still be troubled by the capitalist fantasia it presumes, and the schadenfreude of an audience who likes to see failing business owners get their benevolent comeuppance from Tabatha.