When I was young, about 10 or 11, one of the few ways I was able to bond with my father came in the form of several Netflix comedy specials by Jeff Dunham. Jeff Dunham, one of the most popular and successful comedians in the United States, made his brand of comedy through ventriloquism. Each show, he would bring out several puppets with distinct and crowd pleasing personalities, bringing audiences to tears with laughter. I was no different. I loved him, partly because he was the first comedian I had ever watched and partly because I saw that my father loved him, and that was a signal to me that I should do the same. My brother and I were constantly left gasping for air, clutching our sore stomachs out of amusement. Watching those specials with my brother and father were some incredibly fond memories in an otherwise panicked and tumultuous childhood. That fond feeling changed when I revisited Jeff Dunham and his comedy a few years later, when I knew much more about not only the world, but also myself. I had walked into the living room when my father and brother were watching it, just catching a particular joke Dunham and one of his puppets were making about the puppet’s wife’s period and how it turns her into an evil, monstrous, supervillain that the puppet regularly has to defeat:
Dunham: Does your wife have any powers?
Melvin the Superhero Guy (Puppet): Yes, really, uh-huh.
Dunham: What are they?
Melvin the Superhero Guy: Well, once a month... she becomes "evil!" And I cannot defeat her! Our children run in terror! Our big dog cowers under the couch!
Dunham and the puppet went on after this to make more jokes about the puppet’s wife. When watching this clip again as a young teen who knew a lot more not only about the body but about the ways in which people with periods are further marginalized for the natural yet tumultuous process of menstruation, I felt humiliated. Especially when watching the audience’s reaction and seeing them consumed with laughter.
Now that I could actually understand the meaning of his jokes, I didn’t find him funny anymore, and I haven’t watched his specials since. When I recall his humor now, I’m unsettled by the fact that I once laughed at his jokes and am even more unsettled by my family jumping to defend his humor the minute I was no longer interested. This isn’t unique to my family. Every time a comedian is criticized for their “humor,” which often consists of the most offensive “jokes” about marginalized communities, someone always interjects, “That’s what comedy is all about, taking risks!” I don’t know if that’s how I would define comedy–laughing at the expense of others’ hardship. But the question remains, why are we as a society so quick to defend comedians “punching down” in their acts? And why does it seem to be the only kind of humor that most male comedians can conceptualize?
This brings us to Chris Rock, a comedian who I was first introduced to through the “Grownups” movies and Happy Madison franchise, though I’m sure others know him from his comedy specials or even his documentary “Good Hair.” Oh yes, the history between Chris Rock and his commentary on Black women’s hair is much longer than we think. “Good Hair” is an exploration of Black women’s relationship and history to and with their hair. It asks the question: What is “good hair” and what does it mean to strive for it? It’s a compelling question in a world that punishes Black women for their hair in nearly all forms: afros, dreads, braids, and more. But the documentary fails to have a nuanced conversation about the complicated history and cultural significance of Black hair; instead, it attacks Black women for making the choice to relax their hair. To Rock, Black women who don’t want to style their natural hair “want to be white.” The problems I have with this statement alone would take up another entry entirely; let’s leave it at the fact that Rock is in no place to judge the actions of Black women, who are some of the most targeted people in society, and whose physical expression and femininity is a constant source of scrutiny in contrast to eurocentric beauty standards.
Rock’s criticism of Black women’s physical expression, beauty, and individual choices continues still, as he chose to spend his limited time on the Oscars stage joking about the choice Jada Pinkett Smith was forced to make due to an autoimmune disease. Pinkett Smith’s reflections on this decision to cut her hair are hard-hitting: “And my hair has been a big part of me. Taking care of my hair has been a beautiful ritual, you know? And having the choice to have hair or not, and then one day to be like, ‘Oh, my God, I might not have the choice.’” (US Weekly) It’s clear Pinkett Smith did not make the choice to shave her head lightly. Rock’s “joke” in which he compared Pinkett Smith to G.I. Jane, a character who exists in an extremely masculine environment and is afforded no femininine attributes, is reflective of a broader issue: the masculinization of Black women. Society sees whiteness, and by extension, white womanhood, as the ideal, gold standard of femininity, purity, and innocence. In contrast, Black women, especially darker-skinned Black women, are either hypersexualized or masculinized; they’re stripped of their womanhood in order to justify mistreatment. By comparing Pinkett Smith to G.I. Jane, it’s clear that Rock’s “joke” was grounded in nothing but misogynoir, ableism, and texturism.
Personally, my decision to buzz all my hair off in August 2020–without an autoimmune disease prompting me to make that decision–was unbelievably difficult. Many people expressed, either through judgemental stares or harsh words, that I was uglier for it. It was hard not to feel like maybe they were right. My hair holds great personal and cultural significance, but still with my privilege as a light-skinned individual and someone without an autoimmune disease, I would never have experienced the criticism and public spectacle Pinkett Smith was confronted with. I can only imagine what it must have been like for her to face insult after insult. I can only imagine how it must have felt to be in that room, being hyper-aware of all of the cameras televising Rock’s joke and having to watch as the world erupts into an argument of Team Will v.s. Team Chris, while she, the real victim of the attack, is overlooked. I can only imagine how it must have felt to have a man who has repeatedly shown his disrespect for Black women make a joke out of her struggle and treat her body as though he has a right to laugh at it. Rep. Ayanna Pressley said it best herself in response to Rock’s joke:
“Our bodies are not public domain. They are not a line in a joke–especially when the transformation is not of our choosing. I’m a survivor of violence. I’m a proud Alopecian. The psychological toll we carry daily is real. Team Jada always.” - Ayanna Pressley
People who experience gender marginalization, and especially those who are further marginalized by multiple systems of oppression, like white supremacy, capitalism, and ableism, are humiliated over and over again for the purpose of a joke. Our bodies, words, and passions are picked apart, simplified, sexualized, and treated with disdain and disrespect. This is especially true when we do something that goes against the expectations and standards of the patriarchy. Pinkett Smith made the difficult decision to shave her head in order to free herself from the weight her disease was placing on her shoulders. In turn, Rock–among others–punished her for it.
What we learn here (if the rest of the world hasn’t taught it to us already) is that men will jump at the opportunity to laugh at and make fun of any woman they can, especially when they are in any state that they deem as flawed. When I think of Dunham’s amusement at the belittling of women and the delighted response of his audience, I ask myself: What’s the solution? Is there even a solution that isn’t the complete dissolution of the patriarchy, something that will only come with the dissolution of all other systems of oppression, something we will not even see in our lifetime? What is possible? The closest thing I have to a plan is to surround myself with the people I know share and will respect my identities. I will remember that in order to see beginnings of change in these communities, mutual aid, education, and communal support are vital. And one thing’s for sure: I won’t watch or go to shows by male comedians until the culture shifts.