The Representation Problem in Political Satire

Nathan Young questions the legitimacy of political satire that illustrates powerful figures of the same sex performing sexual acts, demeaning LGBTQ+ people in the process. Recently, the BBC satirical show The Mash Report showed a cartoon of Piers Morgan literally brown-nosing the President of the United States, Donald Trump. Piers Morgan, who was rather pleased with himself for what he thought was quite a challenging interview, took offence and vented on Twitter about what he saw as a “double standard.” He was so annoyed that he retweeted the image three separate times. Perhaps accurately, he pointed out that if it had been a female journalist interviewing Theresa May, there would have been outrage. Even some liberal commentators came to his side, all of whom clarified that this was a once off, and that they would normally never defend Piers Morgan.Perhaps he has a point, or at least the makings of a point. While it would seem outrageous to most liberals to illustrate women performing sexual acts as a way of humiliating them, it is still a common trope to show a man performing a sexual act on another man as a way of humiliating him. If one searches “Trump Putin cartoon” on Google they will get a slew of images featuring both Russian hacking and homoeroticism. While it can be assumed that the artists for most of these cartoons did not set out to attack gay men, the punchline is often a less-than subtle inference that to be gay is inherently funny.
Another interesting point about these cartoons is that they are mostly from the liberal side of the culture wars. Socially conservative cartoonists mocking gay and other queer people are open and aware that that is what they are doing; they are honest about the kind of reaction they intend to provoke. The artists of these cartoons believe that as those depicted are heterosexual in real life, heterosexual conservatives are the victims.This does not victimise Piers Morgan. He is rude and crude enough in his own time to have sacrificed his right to bitch about such insults, and more importantly is a prominent heterosexual. The unfair victims of these jokes, if there are any, are clearly men who have sex with men. Many men think that they are less gay, and that that is an inherently good quality, if they are ‘the top.’ Others deplore the fact that their fellow homosexuals can be so ‘flamboyant.’ Grindr is full of closeted men who are ‘discreet,’ and of those who are out of the closet, a great many are straight-acting, or present as more masculine.
It might seem odd, believing it is less gay if one party in a pairing is the top, or if there is no romance involved, or whatever other excuse is used. Clearly these are not well thought-out arguments against queer identity, but the mental gymnastics required to avoid being the butt of a joke, or be identified as an emasculated and feminised man. It would be ridiculous to believe that these cartoons are the sauce of all this internalised homophobia. The soft and often unintentional message of much of media, especially media aimed at children, is heteronormative. Gay films receive age ratings that are often much higher than equally explicit heterosexual scenes, and there are practically no openly queer figures in children’s media. That having gay sex is portrayed as inherently funny in supposedly liberal media is worrying. For many people, it can be easy to dismiss the blatant homophobia of people whose mean-spirited message is easy to mock. When it is less blatant, from supposed allies for example, it is harder to dismiss.Perhaps this should not be taken too seriously. Jokes need to be able to push boundaries. Piers Morgan being annoyed that a joke made fun of him seems to be a joke hitting its target directly, and it was actually quite a funny cartoon. The brown-nosing metaphor used in relation to oral sex is not a new invention by any means. On top of this, this strain of cartoon could be more effective than most, as it has been made clear that people like Putin and Trump find jokes targeting their sexual orientation far more distasteful than jokes about their cruelty or policies. If cartoonists sought to avoid offending anyone at all, they would probably also fail to ever make anyone laugh ever again. What is probably needed, therefore, is a more tasteful awareness in how to be less tasteful. Satire must offend and hurt its thin-skinned and powerful targets, but it would be more effective and inclusive if it could do so without implying that the sex and love of gay men is demeaning and funny.