Freedom of speech and expression is under threat, at least that’s what some comedians are currently saying. During his Humanity Netflix special, British comedian Ricky Gervais said that he found himself in a Twitter argument defending an alt-right creationist just because he too had the right to express his own thoughts.
And Gervais is not alone. Across the board, from Dave Chappelle and Iliza Shlesinger to Bill Burr and Tiffany Haddish, comedians are advocating for freedom of speech and against the type of ‘cancel culture’ that is blind to context and the very nature of humour. An artform they believe to be sacred.
Sure, there are racist comics out there that tell racist jokes. And yes, I can absolutely see why certain jokes might be tagged racist jokes or transphobic jokes if taken out of context, but to quote Chappelle as he accepts his Mark Twain Prize for American Humour in 2019: “there’s something so true about this genre, when done correctly, that I would fight anybody who gets in a true practitioner’s way,” adding: “I’m not talking about the content, I’m talking about the art form.”
Three years ago Brian Logan wrote an article for The Guardian where he ponders on the correctness of some comedians’ “Ironic Bigotry” as he calls it. The same irony that saw Dave Chappelle win an Emmy for his Sticks and Stones special. Logan questions whether Chappelle’s comments on gay and trans persons was his way of smashing taboos with a sledgehammer, “Or can it be that a comic revered for his contribution to racial discourse in the US, primarily via his sketch series Chappelle’s Show, may be insensitive to discrimination based on sexuality and gender?”
The real question here being, could it be that Chappelle, Gervais and Burr are each passing off discrimination and flat out racist jokes under the guise of woke comedy? I would argue that the answer is no. Not for the practitioners who do it right; who direct the joke to the right place. And I too would argue that we have to laugh when we can, about whatever it is that we want. Because the route from political correctness to outright censorship is short, and we have to fight for our right of expression. But yes, the line is fine here and easy to overstep.
Just at the end of 2019, Shane Gillis was fired from SNL after videos surfaced of him telling blithely racist Asian jokes not even hours after he signed his contract to join the hit American late night show. “We as a society are doomed unless male comedians can be racist without criticism or consequence!!!” wrote Kevin Fallon sarcastically for the Daily Beast. Adding that no critic, no fan or staff member is denying Gillis the right to tell the jokes—however lame they might have been. “But just because Gillis has a right to make those jokes doesn’t mean he has a right to a bigger platform from which to make them.”
In that same breath, gay jokes have also been a massive part of our culture, whether we’ve noticed them or not. Family Guy is just one example of this—and yes it may seem archaic, but the show only recently, like really really recently (end of 2019) publicly announced it will no longer be participating in the expression of gay jokes.
As Clemence Michallon writes so well in her article for The Independent Family Guy reverses its stance on ‘gay jokes’: why? “The way in which the decision was communicated, too, was worthy of attention. It started with a fictional Donald Trump telling Peter: ‘Many children have learned their favourite Jewish, black, and gay jokes by watching your show over the years’, to which Peter replied: ‘In fairness, we’ve been trying to phase out the gay stuff.’”
The key here is that racist jokes, gay jokes and trans jokes should never be OK to tell if the joke is to hurt, humiliate and undermine. Some jokes may feel too close to home, and for that we are allowed to switch off, to not engage. Gervais commented that not everything is for everyone, and that too is OK.
Most importantly, in art and creative expression as well as in comedy, there is a representative for each and every one of us out there. To quote Chappelle, “I don’t think there’s an opinion that isn’t represented by somebody. Each and every one of you has a champion in the room.”
People should not be quick to cancel Gervais or Chappelle only because they were offended by one of their jokes. Their aim is not to discriminate against a specific ethnicity, gender, or sexuality but more to do their job; to make fun of everything and everyone.
What happens when our thirst for clout takes over common sense? We end up cancelling the wrong people.
An incident occurred during the first week of New York Fashion Week Autumn Winter 2020. The Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) held its MFA fashion graduate show on the fourth day of New York Fashion Week and ended up making headlines for all the wrong reasons.
On that day, recent FIT graduate Junkai Huang showcased his own collection which featured models wearing plastic enlarged ears, bushy eyebrows, and giant red lips. These facial accessories were said to celebrate what society considered as “ugly features” but were seen as racially charged. The fact that this happened in the US accelerated the uproar as blackface has been historically performed there for too long. Many students protested against having those accessories in the collection while the African American model Amy Lefevre refused point-blank to wear them after being pressured to.
The story broke out via Diet Prada, the Instagram page popular for calling out designers and fashion brands on various matters, ranging from plagiarism to social injustices. As soon as the page posted pictures of Huang’s collection, people started defaming the designer for his ignorance. According to Diet Prada, observers stated that Huang didn’t seem to understand the historical significance of his accessories’ features, and didn’t decide to use these himself, instead he was pushed by the chair of the MFA fashion design department, Jonathan Kyle Farmer.
Screen Shot spoke to Ryerson professor and former educator for Gucci, Parsons and Pratt, Kimberly Jenkins who further explained this story in its full context. As the founder of the Fashion and Race Database, Jenkins aims to expand the narrative of fashion history and challenge misrepresentation within the fashion system. Here’s why she decided to have a closer look at the FIT incident and what she found.
What made you want to be involved in this incident with FIT and Junkai Huang?
I hadn’t really planned to be involved initially and figured it was another case of cultural and historical ignorance. The twist was that there was indeed ignorance involved, and when I heard about what really happened, I wanted to speak out.
What was going through your mind when deciding to speak publicly about it?
I was just concerned about seeking and speaking the truth and supporting students and the model involved.
After this happened, what were your thoughts about call-out culture, social media and how it affects an individual?
I hadn’t fully formed my opinion or ‘final verdict’ on call-out and cancel culture just yet, but once this issue was exposed—and hit quite close to home—I wanted to be part of advocating for critical thinking and what I consider ‘slow information’. Slow information meaning, if we were to adopt the paradigm of ‘slow food’ and ‘slow fashion’, we care about the information we take in, we want the information to be nourishing, and, when possible, build a connection with it. That means we try to read stories in full, consume stories or engage in discussions that are generative and positive, and we try to understand both sides of the story.
FIT published an open letter stating its accountability for what happened. Do you think these steps would have taken place had it not been for social media, as well as your involvement, showcasing the fuller context of the situation?
I don’t think so. I think the new letter of accountability was influenced by social media posts (perhaps including mine) and the urgent, vocal statements put forth by the students at FIT.
Although Diet Prada was one of the first to break this story, what are your thoughts on media platforms telling ‘incomplete’ stories without full context?
Diet Prada has, in my eyes, become another news or media platform. The more powerful and visible they became in terms of followers, the more they have a persistent motivation to live up to their mission to call people out. This has led to fast and loose information—the very information style I do not advocate for—as it’s nearly impossible at this stage for an Instagram account with over a million followers to carefully follow-up on and revise past stories, even if it means damaging reputations and careers along the way.
What’s worse is that with a following that large, it’s nearly impossible to facilitate a productive discourse in the comment threads, you wind up with reactionary comments that respond to the latest thing Diet Prada saw or heard and questions left unanswered. The result is possible misinterpretation and misinformation that can run rampant, possibly inspiring real life aggressions that spread beyond the context. Meanwhile, Diet Prada moves on to the next story for you to worry about and you’ve already forgotten about the last one.
After this incident, what do you think is the future for higher education in fashion?
Radical change in terms of curricula and to re-examine what the educators and leaders know. As with any business or organization, we, unfortunately, cannot rely on leaders under fire to embrace a moral imperative (‘doing the right thing’) on their own. Oftentimes there needs to be a push for systemic change by the people impacted by a business or institution’s egregious oversights and complicity with the status quo.
Most people have focused on the obvious outrage caused by the accessories depicting blackface as well as on the model Amy Lefevre. Not many talked about Huang’s lack of awareness or the rest of his collection. This story was centred on him, yet the most important thing, which was the collection, did not get the recognition it deserves.
As a society it seems we value cancel culture more than fact-checked information. We’ve somehow started believing that we can act as social media vigilantes, and we’ve forgotten along the way the power that our words can have. As stories get churned out faster and faster, we don’t take the time needed to think and absorb the information being presented to us. We are so focused on releasing and consuming stories that we’re forgetting about slow information. We’re starting to forget, and probably have already forgotten, that there are people behind these clickbait headlines.
We have to remember that our words really do impact others and learn again that every story has two sides—the ones being highlighted may not always be the entire truth. Media sets the tone of who the public rally for and who they crucify. Next time one of these stories comes out we should all think twice before dragging someone’s name across the internet.