May 02, 2017

Insults, homophobic and otherwise

Vox's German Lopez wrote today that Stephen Colbert, in the course of an insult-rant directed at President Trump, leaned on one in particular that was homophobic. Here is the monologue; the relevant portion kicks off near the end around 11m00, with the specific insult at 11m45.

The offending line was where Colbert said "the only thing [Trump's] mouth is good for is being Vladimir Putin's cock holster." Lopez's specific claim:

It’s now pretty popular among progressives to paint the US and Russian presidents as being gay for each other. But the only way this works as a joke is by demeaning gay people. The underlying implication here is that gay relationships are somehow extra funny — that Trump engaging in sexual acts with Putin is hilarious because it’s gay. ... The suggestion is that the worst thing that could happen for these men is if they engaged in homosexual acts together, as if that devalues them as men, makes them submissive, or emasculates them.

I'd like to disagree, and to draw an important distinction. It's very important that this is not primarily about the presidents being gay; it's about, as Lopez says, "being gay for each other". Indeed, it's not at all about either one of them being gay per se, but about Trump being in a position of servicing Putin sexually as well as, impliedly, politically.

I think the criticism would be right on if the insult had been that Trump's mouth was only good for "being a cock holster". Such an insult, and the other example in the article (an incident involving Alec Baldwin), would be purely meant to demean by implying homosexual inclinations or actions—a clear, clean example of a homophobic insult. We've all heard them and I don't need to catalogue them here.

But I'll argue that it's important that this is about the relationship specifically between Putin and Trump. I think a similar insult might be levelled at a female head of state, with similar import, and crucially I think that an analogous insult could be (under different circumstances) thrown at a male or female head of state being submissive to a powerful female head of state. Flip around a few important world variables and you could imagine someone insulting President Hillary Clinton with an accusation of sexually servicing Putin, or insulting Trump with an accusation of sexually servicing Angela Merkel, or myriad variations on these themes. The fact that more or less the same insult works more or less the same way in all these situations indicates that it may be problematic—in its attitude towards sex generally, and the implication of inherent violence or abuse in a sexual relationship, or various other ways—but that the problem here isn't homophobia.

I was long a critic of the fact that one of Jon Stewart's go-to insults was to call someone a "pussy"—always targeted at men, clearly meant as an insult, and it's only an insult if you start with the presupposition that women are inferior in various relevant ways. Calling a person or item or event "gay" ("ugh, that's so gay") is a manifestation of homophobia because it only works as an insult if you're presupposing that "gay" people and things are inferior, so using it as an insult reinforces that. But Colbert's insult, and the whole genre of Trump/Putin insults and jokes that it references, carries its shock value not primarily from the fact that it's another man but that it implies that Trump is submissive to Putin and colluding with Putin and deeply compromised by his relationship to Putin.

It's possible that you could make a case that even with the specific context, such Trump-Putin insults are homophobic. But I think that case requires a heavier lift than Lopez is making in his article.

"The trouble with quotes on the Internet is that you can never know if they are genuine." --Abraham Lincoln

Posted by blahedo at 11:02pm on 2 May 2017
I've been thinking this ever since I saw the criticism of Colbert. It did not strike me as either homophobic or misogynistic when I first read and the saw Colbert's monologue. I thought the use of "holster" was interesting as it echoes the sheath etymology of the word vagina. Also it doesn't imply action or skill. Cocksucking is a skill and am action, and the passive "holster" seems to indicate that it may be beyond Trump's competence, much like just about everything else. Posted by lee at 2:07am on 3 May 2017
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