Italy’s “Best Gay Jokes”: The Queen Father, Selvaggia Lucarelli, and the Question of “Dignity”
A bit of background. About a week ago, an Italian scandal-sheet called Visto (the quality and journalistic integrity is about at the level of The Star or The Enquirer) published an issue that included—in about 5000 copies distributed on Italian newsstands—a “special bonus”: a cartoon booklet offering “the best gay jokes.” (Yeah, Italians still buy newspapers and magazines at the newsstand; they’re just quaint that way.)
And, as they say in Italian, “era subito polemica” – in other words, there was an instant uproar, especially on Twitter and Facebook. One popular blogger, who goes by the moniker The Queen Father, has been particularly instrumental in keeping the issue alive on social media (his latest post on the subject, “Laughing Bitter,” follows in translation).
TQF, whose name is Marco Platti-Newey, lives in London with his husband and their young son. Soon after their child was born, Platti-Newey left a successful career in fashion to become a full-time gay dad or, as he puts it on his blog: “Husband. Father. Gay. Housewife. The adventures of a gay dad bent on destroying world peace and traditional family values. But not really, guys. Come on.”
Featured in the Italian Vanity Fair and frequently called upon for media interviews, Platti-Newey is on his way to becoming a sort of Italian Dan Savage.
The Visto supplement in question was originally published as a stand-alone volume by PRS Mediagroup, which owns Visto and other magazines, in 2012. The Best Gay Jokes joined a series of similar books dedicated to (among others) the best jokes about couples, women, men, the carabinieri (the branch of the police force that is the butt of constant semi-affectionate humor in Italy), and Francesco Totti, one of Italy’s most famous (and famously dimwitted) soccer players. This summer, PRS decided to pull The Best Gay Jokes out of mothballs, bundle it with Visto, and try to move a few thousand copies.
When The Best Gay Jokes appeared on newsstands this August, there was plenty of reason to take offense. The vignette on the cover, for example – visible through the wrapping paper – depicts two gay men in conversation. “Want to play hide-and-seek?” asks one. “OK,” says the other. “If you find me, you can rape me. If you don’t find me … I’m in the closet.”
That’s a joke that bears a lot of dissection: the use of the verb “to rape” instead of a less chilling (but no less unfunny) choice like “if you find me, you can do me”; the idea that one of the guys is hiding “in the closet”; the notion that gay sex is essentially violent and victimizing.
But what’s perhaps most notable is how crude and moth-eaten the humor is – the kind of joke your Tea Partying great uncle Iggy might tell around the Thanksgiving table just to see if he could get a rise out of you.
But if the resulting protests by various members of the Italian gay community were somewhat predictable — including statements by the president of the Mario Mieli gay cultural association and by Anna Paola Concia, a lesbian activist, member of parliament, and national civil-rights spokesperson — so were the spirited defenses of Visto and The Best Gay Jokes. Federico Silvestri, for example, PRS’s CEO, defiantly declared, “I defend and take responsibility for the decision to distribute joke books on various subjects together with issues of Visto, including jokes about gays, which are no longer a taboo topic. The people who are engaged in real discrimination here are the ones who are criticizing us.”
Selvaggia Lucarelli, meanwhile, a 40-year-old Italian columnist, blogger, and TV and radio personality, chose to take up the “we’re-living-in-a-post-gay-world-and-gay-people-should-stop-being-offended-about-everything” cudgel. In an August 20, 2014 Facebook post she wrote,
If I were gay, I wouldn’t feel at all discriminated against (because of the Visto supplement). In fact, I’d think that equality meant this, too: Giving other people the right to include me in a book of lame jokes just like the ones with jokes about men or about women….
Gay people are known for their sense of humor. It’s one of their strengths. Not all gays, of course, or this would be just another generalization, but many of them are quite capable of being sarcastic and scathing not just with the world in general but especially and above all within their own world. They often do so in ways that heterosexuals would never be allowed to do. Amongst themselves, they often call each other “faggot” or use the term “fag hag” for women who like to hang around with gay men, and so on. I don’t see how they’re in any position to get indignant about (The Best Gay Jokes).
Lucarelli also opined that “books of jokes about carabinieri have existed for a thousand years. No carabinere has ever complained, even though those jokes make them look like hopeless idiots.” (To which one might well ask, as did many people on FB and Twitter, how many carabinieri have been beaten up or fired from their jobs just because they were carabinieri.)
Lucarelli, of course, is arguing the tiresome and clueless “why aren’t white people allowed to say ‘nigger’” position and defending the idea that, where humor is concerned, nothing is off-limits. Whether she knows it or not, she’s also an acolyte of the puerile and cretinous Daniel “Rape Joke” Tosh (see, e.g., Wouldn’t It Be Funny If Daniel Tosh Got Raped Right Now?).
There’s an all-too-familiar concept in Lucarelli’s knee-jerk neoliberalism: the idea that gay people are no big deal and “nobody really cares” all that much about the issue anymore. It’s like arguments about how the United States is “post-racial.” And then Ferguson, Missouri, happens.
But it also comes with an all-too-familiar ignorance. Though Lucarelli would probably argue that gays are “just like everybody else,” the reality is that Platti-Newey could not have married his husband in Italy and they could not both be legal parents of their son in Italy. Italian law makes that impossible. So Lucarelli’s “equality” starts to ring a little hollow.
There are discourses of power here as well: who holds power, who wields it, who is in a position to make others the subject of humor and in what context, and who the audience for that humor is presumed to be. If that doesn’t make sense to you, consider this: A white male comedian whose routine is a run of jokes about lazy black people, heavy on the watermelon and fried chicken. Not funny, right? On the other hand, Katt Williams. Funny. Why? It’s about power. It’s about — not to put too fine a point on it — whose humor is subaltern political commentary and whose humor is a restatement of deep, historic hatreds and violent fantasies.
That’s the kind of analysis Platti-Newey is getting at in “Laughing Bitter.” It’s not something Selvaggia Lucarelli and her army of Dittohead Twitterati would understand.
Laughing Bitter | The Queen Father | 25 August 2014
How could I not dedicate a blog post to the issue of the Visto “gay jokes” supplement that continues to provoke so much debate and conflict on the web.
I was particularly struck by a Tweet by Selvaggia Lucarelli. In it, she offers this perspective: Why have we gays gotten so bent out of shape over a collection of gay jokes, while the carabinieri (who are also a target of public mockery) have not?
What followed her Tweet was a tidal wave of comments, retweets, insults, and black masses. The LGBTQ community got pissed off. Then other people got pissed because the LGBTQ community was pissed off. Then some other people got pissed off at the people who were pissed off at the LGBTQ community because it got pissed off.
In other words: bedlam.
Some people say that expressing outrage when things like this are published is an undeniable right. Others are amazed that so many gay people (including me) have made such a big deal out of a collection of stale jokes that aren’t even all that funny.
What those people tell us is that this is a good time to pull out our famous ability to make fun of ourselves. “Just laugh it off!” they suggest. “This is what it means to be normal,” they remind us. “If you want to talk about being offended, just think what the carabinieri, Jews, black people, and women could say!”
There’s nothing to be so upset about, they reassure us firmly. Stop behaving as though you belonged to some protected category.
Lucarelli went further in an “explanatory” post on Facebook (because she hadn’t made her position entirely clear in 140 characters). She wrote:
“Humor legitimizes. Humor requires the ability to engage in self-parody. Humor is a great leveler and puts us all on the same playing field. Gay people are not some endangered species. They are not helpless, defenseless, different. They’re not made of glass. Gays aren’t children with Down’s syndrome or Jews sent to concentration camps; it’s not like they’re dying of some terminal illness. They still experience discrimination, even today, at the hands of backward people, but the same thing happens to women and to all sorts of other groups who don’t consider that a reason to be offended by jokes at their expense. And seeing the humor in gay life doesn’t require anyone to be politically incorrect. Quite the contrary. People with the natural and spontaneous ability to see the humor in the defects, the limits, the weaknesses of gay people are likely also intelligent enough to recognize their strengths. And I’m convinced that intelligent gay people are well aware of this fact.”
I want to take a moment to reflect on this last part, which is Lucarelli’s attempt to offer an alibi for a position that has no justification. I’ve underlined the key phrases because they are so emblematic of Lucarelli’s arrogance and blindness.
Definitely. If you make fun of gay people—naturally, spontaneously—you probably also possess the intelligence necessary to appreciate their strengths. And if you don’t understand that, then you must not be a very smart gay person. Who could argue with that?
So there it is.
Go explain that to those people who, in their completely natural spontaneity, consider a gay man to be a fag, a queen, or an ass-bandit—and be sure to keep your heterosexual sphincter clamped good and tight just in case. The completely natural spontaneity with which such people express their opinions comes not from a mental elasticity that allows them to navigate cultures and mores but from the terrifying narrow-mindedness that produces homophobia, racism, anti-Semitism, and sexism.
Personally, I can’t believe someone would defend such a vulgar position.
Such people see NOTHING BUT defects, amplified by their own paranoia and ignorance. Certain kinds of jokes aren’t meant to give them a nice, intelligent laugh. All they do is reinforce prejudices they already hold.
The holy skill of self-parody (which, when combined with sensitivity and being supercreative when it comes to mixing and matching colors, apparently constitute the Three Theological Virtues of gay people) is not yet a luxury we can afford.
In fact, I’m deeply convinced that “self-parody” and “dignity” are inextricably linked and that the first, in its strictest sense, cannot exist without the second.
The ability to engage in self-parody presupposes an enormous sense of security both within yourself and in the environment you live in.
If you’ve lived looking for a way to survive the times when you felt something was wrong with you or that you were inferior and different, if you’ve lived trying to carve out some space for yourself in a tough and suspicious culture—such an existence has not prepared you for self-parody by instilling in you a strong conviction of your value as a person. Of your dignity.
Instead, such an existence has prepared you for combat, for distrust, for resentment.
Self-parody without dignity is nothing other than self-disparagement. Self-parody without dignity comes not from comfort in your own skin but rather from a deep sense of discomfort, from a sense of being inadequate and wrong.
“Laugh at yourself before other people do. That way, it won’t hurt as much.”
Speaking of dignity.
I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the meaning of that word and about whether dignity is an innate quality or whether it is something bestowed upon you.
Let me explain what I mean.
A human being does not experience dignity because of behavior that exempts him from criticism or judgment. Rather, dignity comes from being endowed with a set of inalienable rights that form the basis of humanity. There’s no point leaving the house with your head held high if, in the course of your daily life, you’re treated like a second-class citizen. There’s no point trying to find a space for yourself in this world if, despite that imperturbable expression on your face, the system keeps crapping on your head.
You can use your dignity to clean yourself up and get on with your life, but you’re still covered in shit, whether or not you choose to be philosophical about it.
Expecting gay people to “laugh it off” and to use their proficiency at self-parody when they are confronted with a magazine supplement that mocks them—that’s a slap in the face. A big one. If we were accorded respect when we needed it most (during childhood and adolescence, e.g.) and if our dignity were not under constant attack, diminished by those who seek to deny us our rights, perhaps we’d be able to laugh things off the way Lucarelli wants—her and all those like her who believe that normality means being held up to public ridicule.
If our culture treated us differently, we might be able to laugh at our defects, secure in the knowledge that we had no need to prove our strengths to anyone and surer still that the impact of certain kinds of “humor” wasn’t simply to fan the flames of attitudes that are already hostile.
Asking a gay man or lesbian to “laugh off” bullshit like The Best Gay Jokes is an insult. Just like it would be if you asked us to dress up in “gayface” and put on a show.