Culture

If Your Political Punchline Is ‘You’re Gay’, Your Joke Sucks

Political satire should punch up. At the very least, it should know where it's punching.

Overnight, The New York Times posted a satirical animation called “Trump And Putin: A Love Story”, in which the two state leaders are shirtless and make out while riding a unicorn through pink skies.

The one-minute video is part of “Trump Bites”, a series of three cartoons by animator Bill Plympton. According to the Times, they combine Trump’s real audio clips with fantasy landscapes to “illustrate the president’s tumultuous inner life of paranoia, narcissism and xenophobia”.

But in this video, Trump’s paranoia, narcissism or xenophobia aren’t the punchline — the joke is a Cruel Intentions kiss between two men.

It’s clear the point is supposed to be that Trump has a fragile ego, and is dangerously desperate for the approval of a man who rules with an iron, bloody fist. Instead, the video positions the President’s potential collusion with Russia in the 2016 US election as the by-product of un-expressed homosexual desire. Hah!

As sexuality becomes a shorthand for corrupt politics, the satire’s bite — which wasn’t terribly insightful to begin with — is lost. It’s not exactly clear what we’re supposed to be laughing at, and so creeps in a suspicion of homophobia: is it supposed to be funny because they’re secretly gay?

It’s hardly the first or last time we’ve seen these kind of jokes — Trump and Putin have been called gay by everyone from Stephen Colbert to Bette Middler. Closer to home, two pro-same-sex marriage murals by Sydney artist Scott Marsh made news last year for depicting Tony Abbott getting gay married, and people lapped it up.

But why is depicting straight men as gay considered political satire?

Homophobia? I Hardly Even Know Her

Plympton’s cartoon is supposed to be a troll — the logic being that Trump and Putin would hate being called gay, so depicting their tongue hockey hits their fragile masculinity hard.

Therefore, the joke isn’t that they’re secretly gay: it’s a joke at the expense of their homophobia, a blistering commentary on Chechnya’s terrifying and violent purge of LGBTIQ citizens under Putin’s rule.

But insinuating someone is same-sex attracted because they’re homophobic isn’t activism: if anything, it’s entrenching the fear and disgust it supposedly attacks. To cause insult and irritation by calling someone gay only reinforces the connection between the two, providing an acceptable form to express discomfort over same-sex relations.

It’s also lazy. As John Paul Brammer writes for Them, “There’s nothing radical about using the LGBTQ+ community as the butt of your weak joke, at the precise time that LGBTQ+ people are being targeted because of the very stigma you’re perpetuating for a few retweets.”

So too with Marsh’s murals in Sydney’s inner west. The first, located in Redfern, appeared last September — during the height of the postal plebiscite debate — depicted two Abbotts in matrimony, one in suit, one in wedding dress.

At the time, it received national media attention, framed as a satire on the selfishness of Abbott’s stern ‘no’ vote. “I wanted to allude to Abbott’s ego, that he’s in love with himself yet he doesn’t support the right for people to marry who they want,” Marsh told The Daily Telegraph.

Which is a valid point, though things get a little murkier with Marsh’s celebratory follow-up in November at Newtown’s Botany View Hotel, where a dragged-up Abbott reaches into the speedos of a ripped Cardinal George Pell. It’s a ‘fuck you’, sure, but it’s a fuck you on Abbott’s terms, spoken in the language of his own warped worldview.

The biggest fuck you is one he can’t access: the joy of every single same-sex marriage and declaration of pride that’s taken place since.

A post shared by Scott Marsh (@scottie.marsh) on

For LGBTI community, these gap between punchline and joke is clear: the jokes betray the an inherent belief that gayness — and, more specifically, gay sex — is something to be laughed at, unnatural and odd.

Political satire should punch up. At the very least, it should know where it’s punching.

Jared Richards is a staff writer for Junkee, and co-host of Sleepless In Sydney on FBi Radio. He tweets @jrdjms.