Saturday, September 1, 2012

In Defense of Frankie Boyle: Why You Should Make Fun of the Paralympics

I developed a sense of humour one day in October of 1996. This feat was achieved thanks to the following factors.
·      I was 13.
·      I was nearly 6 feet tall.
·      I was in a bright blue half body cast that forced my legs apart at 45 degree angles.
·      To achieve this angle, a wooden hockey stick had been casted between my legs, necessitating snaps in my underwear like the kind used in baby onesies.
·      I most often dressed in long peasant skirts (to avoid the need for snaps) topped with a series of T-shirts that proclaimed me to be a “Big Dog.” (The “Big Dog” shirts had no medical function, though they probably could have been used as a diagnostic tool for depression).
·      I had just started high school, and getting my wheelchair to class required the use lifts installed over the stairs. These lifts emitted warning chimes similar to those of an ice cream truck, which routinely caused stoner boys to sneak from their classrooms expecting a Fudgesicle, then look at me with an expression of deep, soul-crushing disappointment.
On that day, I was late for class and the lift was moving at a glacial speed down the stairway, chiming so loud that three teachers came out to see what the fuss was about. I was frustrated and embarrassed. I was dressed like a lady hobo. I had just started high school and would have to see all these people for 4 more years. There were snaps up my underwear. My cast itched and smelled. And suddenly, I looked down at the piece of wood forcing my legs apart and thought, “Oh my God. Even though it is impossible for me to close my legs, no one even wants to rape me.”
This is a truly awful thing to think, but I started to laugh. My whole perspective on my body had changed.
Since then, I have told many jokes about my disabled body, and very few of them have been kind. I make fun of the fact that I walk like a crack addict, or a zombie. When I was single, I often joked that since sex is one of the few things that alleviates my chronic pain, I should register myself as a non-profit organization so that I can issue tax receipts to men who fuck me.  I have been chided by (able-bodied) people for denigrating myself, but I see it differently: when you can make fun of something, it loses its power over you. I know for a fact that if I hadn't developed the capability to tell off-colour jokes about myself, I would not have survived. I would have wasted away into a ball of seething frustration and ironic T-shirts.
A few days ago, there was a furor over British comedian Frankie Boyle telling some Paralympic jokes on Twitter. (Here's an article on the controversy). I thought they were funny, but then again I also thought it was hilarious when I posted a video of wheelchair rugby heavy hits and someone commented that the hardest hit was the car crash most of them were in.
C4 has had some really interesting discussions on whether you can laugh at the Paralympics. I think you can -- and you should -- but that there are two questions every comic should ask him/herself when doing so.
1.     Is the joke funny? To me, that’s the standard on which any joke’s success should be judged. Does it have that element of surprise, of originality, of intelligence? The offensive Paralympic jokes I've seen have failed not because of their subject matter, but because they just weren't very good. If you're going to take on a taboo subject, you better bring your A game.
2.     Does the joke come from a place of respect or at least understanding? It’s very easy to tell when a comedian has bothered to understand and respect the target of his joke, or whether he is accidentally revealing prejudices. (Note that showing respect doesn't equate to being nice, but it does mean having a purpose other than petty mockery or perpetuating some shitty stereotype). That’s why people who do the “Chinaman” voice or the “person with a mental disability” voice are nearly uniformily unfunny. It’s also why Louis C.K. can tell a joke about sexual assault, but your rapey Uncle Steve can’t.
In fact, I would go so far as to say that jokes are the ultimate form of respect. When you put disability up on a pedestal and treat it as Serious Business, it becomes the elephant in the room. People with disabilities are cast as some “other” who must be treated differently than “normal” people. If Paralympic athletes want to be respected as the elite athletes they are, then they need to accept everything that comes along with it. David Beckham lives with people joking about his Mickey Mouse voice or calling him out if he has a bad game, and so should every Paralympian. (Boyle tweeted something similar to this, saying it was his job to make fun of the Paralympics just like it was his job to make fun of the Olympics, and I agree).

The narrative of a Paralympian as a heroic source of inspiration is boring. If journalists and fans are only allowed to talk about the Paralympics in one way -- if only one type of conversation is deemed politically correct -- then we will never get the well-rounded, nuanced coverage that the Paralympic movement needs. To get this nuanced coverage, we have to test (and keep testing) to see where the line is.
When done well, humour can be a force for change because it forces people to confront prejudices they didn't know they had. The best humour challenges the status quo and upsets the balance of power (see: joker characters in Shakespeare). Frankie Boyle is no Shakespeare, but I would pick someone telling a joke about "Taliban-inspired" Paralympic performances over someone approaching me on the street to praise me for my courage/inspiration/whatever any day.
The Brits are known for their great sense of humour, and I hope it’s on full display at the London 2012 Paralympics. In that spirit, I will be judging the success of these Paralympics based on whether there is a nod to the Ministry of Silly Walks sketch in the Closing Ceremonies.