Passenger Story: The Ellen Meme, Punching Down, and Personal Sensitivities

I’m pulled over in front of Delta of Venus– a hippie, LGBT-friendly cafe I spent much of my time at as an under-grad at UC Davis, inside of which funky music plays, vibrant paintings hang from multi-colored walls, and Queer Student Union dance parties occasionally infuse the space with life.

While waiting for passenger Chase* to arrive I gaze at its peaceful front patio, peppered with black circular tables and yellow-orange leaves fallen from the branches of surrounding trees. My mind is busy recreating the taste of their hearty breakfast burrito stuffed with potatoes and roasted bell peppers when Chase opens the back passenger door and gets in. 

As we drive back to his apartment in North Davis (he is headed there after a few hours studying at Delta), the person on the radio brings up the recent controversy over a meme that Ellen Degeneres posted wherein she rides the back of famous black Olympic runner Usain Bolt.

“This is how I’m running errands from now on!” she’d written, next to the picture below.

Many people interpreted the meme as racist. Chase thinks those people are overreacting.

“If I were the guy, I don’t think I’d have cared,” he comments with a shrug.

After he leaves the car, I park next to the tranquil winding paths of the North Davis Greenbelt and get out to walk around through the warm evening air.

As I stroll past a brass sculpture of a dog riding a bike– the greenbelt is filled with whimsicalities like these– I think more about the larger questions the controversy brings up for me:

What does ‘too sensitive’ mean? Where do we draw the line between free speech and causing harm to others? What role do our own personal experiences and sensitivities play in our reactions to content that we see on the Internet?

It occurs to me that Chase likely doesn’t have any relatives who were enslaved. I wonder how seeing that picture might have felt for him if he did though.

What kind of meme might trigger my own personal sensitivities? I also wonder, while passing a sculpture of human-sized climbable dominoes.

Sexism and minimization of my identity as a gay woman (particularly during my college years) come to mind. I think about the way my relationships with women at times weren’t respected or taken seriously. I think about the cat-calling and sexual harassment, present on my own but amplified times 1,000 when holding hands with another woman in a public.

One time in college for example, a girl had her arm around me on a public bench when a guy walked by with his friends and snapped a picture of us with his camera phone. Another time as a woman and I danced at a club, a man came up to us and asked for a kiss.

Still another time when my date and I told the approaching suitor we were on a date, rather than leave, he moved even closer.

Incidents and intrusions like these didn’t just happen a handful of times, but rather at least once if not more whenever a woman and I went out in public–which to me reflected something more systemic than merely annoying behavior from a few isolated rude men.

I wrote this, frustrated, at the age of 22:  When my straight guy friend and I hang out, no one bothers us. Other men respect and defer to his masculine presence. When I’m spending time with someone I’m actually romantically attracted to though, the opposite often happens—no matter the nonverbal signals I put out that we’re not open for company.

Did that really just happen??

Though it doesn’t bother me the way it used to—a combination of no longer experiencing it as often, learning to assert my boundaries when instances like these occur, and prioritizing my battles—to some extent it still remains a personal sensitivity due to past experiences.

When I think about a joke that might play on this particular sensitivity, a hypothetical scenario comes to mind wherein a short man goes to an Olympic soccer match. Once there, he finds that he cannot see any of the game; the tall bodies in front of him block his view of the action. Looking to his left, he spots two girls kissing amidst the sea of spectators, and turns his attention to them— as they are one type of “action” he can see.

Regardless of its intent, the joke would at the very least annoy me. Why? Because of the underlying belief that makes the punchline possible: that lesbianism is a behavior meant to turn men on rather than a valid identity on its own. 

Experiences like the ones I described above have wearied me. That said, similar to some people’s response to Ellen’s meme, mine would be rooted in my own personal history of having lived as a lesbian in our heteronormative, male-valuing society. 

The people who don’t share these experiences, therefore haven’t developed a similar sensitivity in response, may instead simply laugh when they see the hypothetical meme—either oblivious to or just not caring about the misogynistic implication.

They might instead interpret the punch-line as: “Two girls kissing! That’s not a real Olympic sport! Haha!”

Or they may insist that the point of the joke was not to objectify women but to poke fun at the man’s height (this would still be punching down though at another “culturally devalued” group that I belong to: short people lol).

Even though the meme still ended up hurting people, I don’t suspect that Ellen was directly or purposefully making fun of black people with it. Some comedians do intentionally take a shot at marginalized groups though, justifying it with It was only a joke–geez. This is known in the comedy world as punching down.

Some of you may have heard the joke, “Winning the special Olympics doesn’t count for anything because in the end you’re still retarded.” This is an example of punching down.

Punching up, on the other hand, means aiming jokes at people who are in positions of power or who have been known to cause harm. Comedian Kamau Bell describes it as humor that “only steps on the toes of the oppressor and not the oppressed.”

Or in the words of Sarah Pappalardo: “We want to make sure we’re making fun of the perpetrator and not the victim.” Robin Thelde says he “only makes fun of people who deserve it.”

Jokes that punch down at a marginalized group are in my mind never “just harmless jokes,” because they continue to spread misconceptions that prevent the understanding necessary for full humanization. In other words, they maintain prejudices rather than subverting or disproving them.

Yet some people (beyond comedians) argue that hyper-awareness of phrasing to ensure they are not punching down in their work requires too much energy. Comedic writers, for instance, may say that continually factoring in outlier experiences dilutes the message. The piece becomes so bloated that it stops really saying anything at all, or it sags under the weight of all that it’s trying to accomplish in addition to all the people it’s seeking to speak to and keep from alienating.

Comedian Kamau Bell describes intersectional humor as “only stepping on the toes of the oppressor and not the oppressed”

You try writing an entire book using the phrase ‘person with Autism’ over and over again. It’s clunky,” writes the author of To Siri with Love.

To that I’d say it’s all about degree. While I agree that it can take some amount of cognitive and emotional labor, I also think the general effort isn’t as big of an ordeal as some might imagine. Making tweaks and modifications doesn’t require sacrificing the entire message or compromising the tone of the piece. In my opinion the aim, rather than to police every single word and refrain from saying anything out of fear of upsetting someone, could be a more general mindfulness of the words we use and the impact they have. 

Ideally it would involve a willingness to reflect on them if someone has pointed out that they cause harm, rather than rush to defensiveness.

Doing internal work to chip away at some of our biases can also reduce the chance of making an offensive statement to begin with. The more internal work one does, the less vigilance will be required towards guarding against mistakes “slipping out”—because the supply of offensive content won’t be as great.

Also keep in mind how context and history of oppression play a key role.

Context and history of oppression are important–you hardly ever see this happening in our society.

For example a meme of Ellen atop a white man’s back would have been less triggering due to the fact that our country lacks a history of white men being enslaved by white women.

Similarly, an Olympic meme of a woman watching two men kissing would offend less because historically men have not been objectified by women and female-dominated institutions.

Try to keep in mind your own personal sensitivities, perhaps coming up with a hypothetical meme to fit your experiences. The Olympics meme comes to mine these days when I find myself about to judge another person’s response as too sensitive.

While I do believe in giving people the opportunity to self-reflect, share their own perspective, and perhaps make amends after being called out, I also think it’s equally important to hear where people are coming from when something we’ve said has caused them pain—regardless of whether we meant to or not.


**Check back in a couple of weeks for a batch of TOP 5 WILDEST LYFT RIDES

Published by esteph42190

A 30-year-old queer bilingual writer born and raised in the Bay Area, I’ve been writing since before I knew how to spell. Balancing my generative energy with a desire to inform, as a child I printed and distributed to classmates publications that included The News Newsletter and Health Digest (ironic considering I also ran an illicit candy business that landed me in the principal’s office several times). As a student at UC Davis I wrote for The California Aggie, with pieces ranging from an exploration of gender roles in the movie Tangled to my own weekly psychology column. After graduating I kept a bilingual blog of my 14 months living in Montevideo, Uruguay, and upon returning continued to blog about social issues and human psychology.

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