The Problem with Poehler and Fey’s Golden Globes Cosby Joke
In what is perhaps the most French thing to ever happen, a handsome, stubble-faced marcher wearing a manscarf at the Charlie Hebdo rally was photographed holding a sign that said: “I’m marching, but I’m aware of the confusion and hypocrisy of the situation.” I love this guy because this is precisely how I feel about a great many political and social things and most recently, the 2015 Golden Globes.
By now we’ve all heard that Tina Fey and Amy Poehler went in on Bill Cosby in their opening monologue (dialogue?). This is a good thing for anyone who is generally against people being raped and their attackers being shielded from consequence by fame, wealth, and patriarchy. And yet, even as a person who is very happy to make Bill Cosby suffer, despite his status as my childhood hero, I did not feel relieved. The second joke made me uncomfortable and sad. While others were laughing, I’m pretty sure I looked more like Don Cheadle in this reaction pic. He’s…um…easy to spot.
The fact that the joke hinged on an imitation of Cosby’s voice was one problem for me. Any time a white person derisively imitates a black person’s voice, no matter the context, it just kind of gives me the heebie jeebies. I grew up in a fairly racist environment around fairly racist white people who loved imitating black voices for kicks, which, to put it mildly, hurt. But I’m not the only one. Our entire nation has had that experience. America has such a long and painful history of black imitation that it’s damn near impossible for a white person to do so in a way that doesn’t send chills down the spine of anyone that has actually been face to face with white violent aggression masquerading as “just a joke.”
Understandably, not everyone saw a racial tinge to the joke. In a twitter convo I had with New Yorker TV Critic Emily Nussbaum (who proved pretty good at being open minded), she pointed out that it didn’t come across as racial for her. This, to me, is kind of the point. Part of being Black is experiencing race where others don’t. I would imagine this holds true for any long-suffering group. This does not make others racist or wrong for not getting it. (It’s highly doubtful to me that Tina Fey and Amy Poehler were like “Finally! A joke that lets us take down a rapist AND offend those PESKY BLACKS!” ) It simply speaks to nature of the disconnection between oppressed groups and their allies. It’s more about tone deafness. Ignorance. The disappointment for me is not that these two women whose work I love, whose success gives me inspiration, are racist. It’s that they just sort of forgot about my history in their enthusiastic takedown.
One common way to misinterpret any criticism of of Fey and Poehler is to somehow cast it in the camp of “Black people defending Bill Cosby.” No one at this keyboard is doing anything like that. Sure, he’s innocent until proven guilty, but in the meantime it’s my belief that Cosby should be dragged over the coals and through the mud with gleeful abandon. Black Twitter has no problem doing so. And neither do I. It’s really a question about how to lambast Cosby without the side-effect of inadvertently making innocent people feel like shit.
And this leads to the second problem. We talk about Fey and Poehler’s joke being important. Which it was. But in doing so we lose track of the fact that it wasn’t actually funny. I don’t mean in a “dude, that’s not funny.” way. I mean from a purely comedic perspective. The Bill-Cosby-Pudding-Voice Imitation hasn’t been a quality punchline since about 1997, and also has zero to do with rape, so it made for a disappointing denouement to what was, in the Cinderella joke, a decent warm up. There must have been a thousand witty quips that emerged when the best comedic writers in Hollywood were in a room preparing to roast Cosby. By which logic did saying “I raped people” in a hackneyed Cosby voice emerge as the wittiest? Why not a joke about the frequency of rape sexual coersion in Hollywood? Why not a joke that rapists are probably in the room? This creates a bigger problem than just comedy nerdery. It makes me wonder what it must feel like to be one of Cosby’s victims hearing celebrities make a poor-to-mediocre joke, low on wit and high on goofiness. Would I feel relieved? Vindicated? Or would it feel like my dignity and experience had been ridiculed and minimized on some half-assed Hollywood bullshit? If someone is going to take a swipe at my attacker, I’d want them to do with with a very, very sharp blade, and not the comedy equivalent of those giant Q-tips from American Gladiator. The “pills-in-the-people” joke highlights Cosby’s silliness. I’d want one that highlights his monstrosity. That, to me, would be the right kind of rape joke.
Speaking of monstrosity, you know who else I wonder about? Woody Allen. There were no jokes about him at all and I am definitely not the first to notice this double standard. It impacts the way I see the Cosby jokes. Allen received a lifetime achievement award at last year’s Golden Globes, and on that occasion Poehler and Fey, who also hosted, were noticeably quiet about his child rape allegations. One has to wonder why. Is it because child rape is still too scary and frightening to approach? Is it because Woody Allen, Poehler, and Fey operate in overlapping professional circles? Is it because Allen still wields political power over projects which Fey and Poehler could be involved? Or is there another reason? Whatever it is, this silence is difficult to ignore and casts further shadow on the Cosby joke.
In America, we have a habit of dismissing things that are too complex or nuanced. I find this to be relatively true on both sides of the political aisle. But the thing about intersectionality is that it is complex and nuanced. And for us to succeed at grasping it we have to become very good at seeing and understanding when things have multiple dimensions. We have to be able to hold competing ideas in our heads at the same time, like that Charlie Hebdo protester. So I don’t want to piss on anyone’s snow cone here, but it makes me sad when a moment that is fraught and confusing and tinged with ugliness is held up by allies as an unequivocal victory. I’d rather see it hailed as a moment in progress, but one that proves we have further to go. The parallel movements against misogyny and racism should not compete. We should not have to be offended racially at the precise moment when two talented, successful and heroic women are making a stand. I want white feminists to win. I don’t want it to mean that we have to lose.
Carvell Wallace is a father, writer and tech founder. He fears only scrambled eggs and The Babadook. He tweets at @carvellwallace.