Op-ed: Stephen Colbert Showed Piers Morgan How It's Done
For the first time in The Colbert Report's nine-year run, the show hosted its first openly transgender guest, the ever-awesome Janet Mock, on Tuesday.
I've criticized both Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart for relying on cheap, transphobic jokes in the past, as have other critics. Following a particularly hurtful deceptive-transsexual joke during a "The Word" segment last October, I authored a petition requesting that Stewart and Colbert stop employing transphobic jokes on their shows, and make a commitment to respect gender identity. Almost 6,000 people have signed the petition, and many have left thoughtful (and sometimes heartbreaking) comments explaining why they felt compelled to sign.
The Daily Show and The Colbert Report are watched by more than one tenth of Americans, and they are important news sources for many young people. Stewart and Colbert claim to simply be comedians, but their programs are influential; their themes parallel society's move toward support for marriage equality so closely that it can be hard to tell if they are following or leading.
Both shows utilize satiric humor to skewer the powerful and the bigoted. Colbert is particularly adept at satire, and effortlessly affects the attitude and delivery of an archetypal right-wing pundit. However, the line between satire and bad taste can be subtle, and transgender-related jokes delivered by both comedians in the past have lacked the vocal and visual cues that would identify them as satiric. Instead, these jokes come across straight, with transgender people, rather than bigots, as the butt of the jokes.
As a progressive, transgender person, Stewart and Colbert’s transphobic jokes stung me. However, what hurt most was their unwillingness to sincerely acknowledge their transphobia, or to host any of the many interesting, relevant, transgender celebrities that have ascended in the last few years. I mean, Laverne Cox, obviously, but also Carmen Carrera, Jenna Talackova, Candis Cayne, B. Scott, Leah T, Chaz Bono, and so on — plenty to pick from! Additionally, there has been an absence of sympathetic coverage of the Transgender Day of Remembrance, or of stories around Chelsea Manning, Cassidy Lynn Campbell, CeCe McDonald, or Jewyles Gutierrez.
The media usually fails to recognize the humanity of transgender people, and often sensationalize transgender stories. Similarly, the entertainment industry, while well-meaning, often just doesn’t get it. For example, while multifaceted transgender characters and actors have received more screen time recently, controversy has arisen when cisgender actors have played transgender characters on screen (e.g., Jared Leto in Dallas Buyers Club, or Jeffrey Tambor in Transparent).
My own cynicism had been reinforced by the horrid treatment received by transgender celebrities during other recent interviews, so I was not filled with optimism when I learned that Mock was going to appear on The Colbert Report to discuss her new book, Redefining Realness, and the Piers Morgan Live interview. I expected a short segment that was essentially an extended big hands/Adam’s apple joke.
I was wrong.
Colbert’s first segment addressed three important, timely, transgender stories: the Katie Couric interview of Laverne Cox and Carmen Carrera; the Piers Morgan interview of Janet Mock; and the recent Facebook gender identity policy change that now allows a user to choose from more than 50 options to describe their gender. The writing was on point and delivered perfectly. Unlike ever before, it was clear that the jokes were designed to make the audience laugh with transfolk while also tearing down bigotry. For example, Colbert deftly commented on transphobia and wage inequality by saying, “I put in 49 years of working at being a dude, then some Joanie-Come-Lately says she’s a Johnny, and suddenly I have to pay her the same as a man?” To be fair, the Facebook-gender-list joke did go a bit long, but it was clear from the delivery and the audience response that the intent was not to diminish the validity of the various identities, but to simply remark that there are a lot of them and that it may take some time and effort for those who are not well-versed in transgender issues to learn to use the terminology properly.
The interview with Janet Mock was excellent; she rocked it! Colbert used most of his lines to poke fun at Piers Morgan, and enabled Mock to clearly and coherently discuss important issues like proper pronoun use, her support for the Facebook gender policy change, and the relatable banality of transgender lives. The importance of this interview is hard to overstate; positive portrayals in popular media have the potential to influence public opinion, which in turn can influence public policy. So, does this excellent example of trans-friendliness excuse Stewart and Colbert of their past sins?
Well, no. We have yet to hear from Stewart, and neither Stewart nor Colbert have actually apologized for their transphobia in the past (and some of those jokes were truly disgusting). The Mock interview does set a great precedent, but it is only one instance. However, there is cause for optimism. I don’t speak for all transgender people, but I think it is reasonable to expect that if Stewart and Colbert can acknowledge the error of their ways and make a commitment to respect gender identity, then some real forward progress can be made. It also wouldn’t hurt to bring on more transgender activists and celebrities. Besides, the premiere of the second season of Orange is the New Black is right around the corner…
Many of the commenters on the petition noted that “good satire punches up, not down.” With the Janet Mock interview, Colbert has demonstrated that he is capable of using his talent, his writers’ skills, and the power of his platform to advance positive change.
Watch video of the interview and a related segment from the show below:
Andé Morgan is a freelance writer and blogger. Andé writes for No Accommodation and is a columnist for The Rainbow Hub, covering topics in popular culture, politics, race, and LGBTQ issues. As a staff writer for Bitch Flicks, Andé reviews films from a feminist perspective.