Look, we're never going to get everything right when it comes to race, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity and other sensitive areas, in part because we're all imperfect and a product of various biases, but also in part because there is no consensus within each group as to what matters.
And because there are always going to be people out there who want us to always be wrong.
For example, a lot of writers (including myself) are not buying Kevin Hart's apology regarding his past homophobic statements and homophobic jokes, but I would guess that the majority of people polled find this a non-issue, and I would also bet — maybe less money, but I'd still bet — that a majority of gay people are more likely to think that yeah, what he said was bad, but let's get over it. I accept that.
This unscientific nature of what qualifies as offensive — blackface is duh-obvious, but Native American headdresses have been addressed and yet many seem to ignore the drive to stop using them carelessly, etc. — is frustrating, and I think it leads to people who are prone to analyze to overanalyze while it leads people who are prone to be more instinctive to shut down and paint every complaint, heartfelt or not, as utter P.C. B.S.
We all have a right to try to suss out which is at play on a case-by-case basis.
A new micro-scandal that erupted this week centers on drag queen Manila Luzon, who did a pretty uncreative Barbra Streisand impersonation on RuPaul's Drag Race Season 4, yet who won for her efforts because everyone else stank. A very small contingent of commenters on social media took offense, not as Barbra Stans (some can't spell her first name, which to me is the real blood libel …), but because they felt Manila's prosthetic nose was anti-Semitic, a relic of the ways in which Jews have been shamed for countless years.
When I first read this, I — who am often on board with objections to pop cultural occurrences that some of my friends roll their eyes at — was flabbergasted. This was nothing at all like the vicious stereotypes of Nazi Germany, this was a parody of a woman's infamously large nose. It's not like someone decided to parody Joan Rivers with a beak; she didn't have a big nose, so doing so would be more obviously offensive. I didn't get it.
The most prominent voice criticizing Manila, Jewish feminist Rafaella Gunz, disagreed, focusing on her perception that the prosthetic nose did not match the shape of Streisand's schnoz, therefore, it looked like an anti-Semitic caricature, ignoring that the nose actually does look like Streisand's, especially when one is attempting to do a send-up spur of the moment for a performance.
So to review, a caricature, in order to be respectful and not beyond the pale, must be proportionate. Which is the exact opposite of what a caricature is.
Of course, Manila took the bait and in her reply, which has since been deleted, she defended herself as not being anti-Semitic. And of course, this is never really the point. The point of Gunz's piece is not for readers to conclude that Manila is anti-Semitic; the point of her piece is to persuade people that what Manila did was anti-Semitic, which is a far more important thing to worry about, because if people agree Gunz was right to take offense and that non-anti-Semitic Manila had accidentally done something anti-Semitic, then people might think twice before donning fake noses when lampooning entertainers who happen to be Jewish, and Gunz's goal would be realized.
My take is not about Manila not being anti-Semitic, which seems obvious, but that what she did was not, in fact, anti-Semitic. When I argued that to Gunz, she wrote to me without missing a beat that the point of view of anyone who is not Jewish is “not valid” here.
On the one hand, I understand that if you're a member of a group and you're offended by something, you don't exactly want to hear from members of another group telling you your feelings have no merit. But if the thoughts of others are not valid, then why should they care whether you're offended? How can they understand why you're offended? It strikes me as being similar to straight men pretending they can't even tell whether another man is considered attractive. We all know they can, and we all should know that even members of unaffected groups should be mentally capable of grasping why racism and homophobia and anti-Semitism and sexism wound, and the various ways in which they do.
In a new piece, Gunz writes:
I can’t imagine people making similar comments if a black person was offended by a queen in blackface, for instance. There was also a lot of ‘whataboutism’ when it came to other problematic things on the show, such as Trinity’s impersonation of Caitlyn Jenner. Of course things like that (as well as Gia’s Asian stereotype) offended me, too. But I am not trans nor Asian. When writing opinion pieces, I try to stay in my lane — and anti-Semitism is in my lane.
This is dangerously myopic. She's acknowledging she watches a show that offends her with is Asian and trans stereotypes, but because she is not of those groups, she sticks to her own lane. That's got to be seen as isolationst and unhelpful.
Anyway, I have spent my life analyzing words and social interactions, and I don't take kindly to anyone blithely writing my thoughts off as not valid.This isn't my particular fight? Fine, but it is a fight from which I can extrapolate useful information, and it is a fight whose conclusions can be used to apply to other cases, so for my part, I think attacking Manila's impersonation as anti-Semitic is hopelessly misguided, even ridiculous in light of the fact that it occurred during a drag show. I asked Gunz if drag itself were not misogyistic, and she replied that some radical feminists think so, but she does not.
But why? If Manila is being anti-Semitic by wearing a too-large nose to parody the large-nosed Barbra Streisand, why is Manila not being misogynistic by wearing too-large boobs to approximate a woman?
Gunz's admission that feminists do not agree on the topic of drag being misogynistic is similar to the fact that Jewish people are not going to agree whether Manila's prosthetic nose was anti-Semitic; Jewish RDR contestants Alexis Michelle and Pandora Boxx blew off Gunz's comments with Boxx calling her article clickbait.
So how can Gunz feel she has a valid point when — let's commission a poll, I'm confident of the findings — in all likelihood, most Jewish people wouldn't bat an eye at what Manila did? (Unlike the poll that would undoubtedly find most black people P.O.ed at examples of blackface.)
I don't think it's clickbait, I think Gunz is sincere, I just think she's wrong, and I also think there is an excitement in deciding that a public figure is “problematic,” a laughable word (worse: “Do better!” — the go-to of all humorless scolds), just as there is comfort is identifying reasons to “cancel” people in the public eye. Are there people, good and bad, who do and say outrageously offensive things? Of course! RuPaul's comments on trans girls doing drag were seriously misguided. Let's call that stuff out, but not in this passive-aggressive, subjectively interpretive, virtue-signalling way.
“I don't expect drag queens to be the arbiters of morality by any means,” Gunz haughtily writes in her Gay Star News piece — try substituting any other group in that smug sentence. Take from it what she's accidentally revealing, that she sees herself as an arbiter of morality, one who does not need most Jewish people to see her POV. When you see that, you see clearly why “problematic” and “do better!” sound so familiar — they are the language of prudes and control freaks, not freedom fighters who are engaging in good-faith efforts to make the world more tolerant.
P.S. Gunz ends her latest piece (that's what they call it online these days when people manufacture outrage then cobble tweets and DMs together into a post) by saying she feels unwelcome as a queer woman who watches RDR. Got news for you, Rafaella — all the RDR public events I've covered for my blog are saturated with queer women. It might just be you.