Words by Anisa Tasmin
The internet was recently provoked into cries of indignation over Kathy Griffin’s latest controversial ‘joke’ – a decapitated mask of President Trump. Public consensus highlights the distasteful nature of the photoshoot, despite a vast majority of the general public often expressing their deep contempt for America’s newly inaugurated President.
So, what was it about Griffin’s ‘joke’ that rubbed people the wrong way?
It could be that, unlike Griffin, the public saw this particular joke as crossing the line. The image which featured blood dripping from the makeshift president’s face was a gruesome offender on her part. Given the recent political climate, it is understandable that the image more than likely stirred emotions due to its close reminiscence of Islamic State’s (ISIS) series of viral beheadings; for example, U.S. journalist James Foley in 2014.
Griffin appears to have noticed the error of her actions, having mentioned on a few occasions since how she wishes she had used a blow-up doll as opposed to the dummy head. To her, the shock of the realistic prop would not have disparaged the lines between a real beheading and a false one.
However, this is not the first time that Griffin’s jokes have brought her into criticism. In 2005, Griffin was fired as a red-carpet commentator on E! Network after joking at the Golden Globe Awards that child actress Dakota Fanning had been checked into rehab.
Yet, in the words of Jerry Seinfeld, there are good jokes and there are bad jokes. Unfortunately for Griffin, her photoshoot was “another bad joke”. Notably, Springer condemns writing off Griffin’s actions as unforgivable and making her a pariah. To him, all comedians make jokes – some are winners, some are not. Consequently, the stunt has not only cost Griffin her advertising deal with ‘Squatty Potty’, but has provoked CNN to cancel her annual appearance on the New Year’s Eve broadcast.
Griffin has apologised for the violent nature of the picture, a violence that she ensures us she did not wish to convey. Yet, distasteful jokes appear to be a recurring problem. Comedians, as part of their role, seem detached from the collective emotions of the public whom their jokes often target and hurt. Arguably it is because of this that comedians seem to have free reign over what they say; especially in culturally sensitive moments.
For example, Bill Maher, who has come out in support of Griffin, experienced backlash for the use of the culturally insensitive ‘N- word’ on HBO ‘Real Time’ in early of June. Maher’s use of the term was poorly timed against the political background of the 21st century Black Lives Matter movement.
This leads to one important question: what would the reception of the image have been if it hadn’t come from a comedian? If it had been art, what would the reaction have been?
The photographer working with Griffin Tyler Shields said in an interview with ‘Entertainment Weekly’ that he saw the shoot as an artistic statement. Rather than being about Trump, the shoot was a symbol which “[reflected] some people’s ideals and they reflect the opposite of some other people’s ideals”. Shields’ aim was for people to make draw their own interpretations from the artistic statement, not necessarily to take it as a literal statement that Trump should be beheaded.
An integral part of a democratic world, and the artistic world, is freedom of speech. This is necessary for all creative outlets or else all art would cease to exist. Opposition against the President from the electorate is healthy and a true feature of democracy, but it seems like Trump is punishing against those who dare to speak out against him. Intimidating citizens and the press into silence. This is incredibly hypocritical as Trump regularly comes under fire for his discriminative statements, including the scandal in which he proudly claimed on tape that he grabs women “by the p*ssy” without their consent.
Should comedians be punished for crossing the line? Jokes with a political layer bring light to current situations and for some viewers, are the only way to keep them aware and interested in current affairs. However, freedom of speech also comes with its flaws, and the feelings of many should be considered if we are to coexist comfortably within a multicultural society.