Like many Americans, I spent November 9th desperately trying to decipher how Donald J. Trump became the President-Elect of the United States. In many ways that question is a grope in the dark (pun intended), but I kept returning to one question: Was this Stephen Colbert’s fault? Had ‘Colbert,’ the beloved persona Stephen Colbert portrayed for nine years on The Colbert Report, desensitized Americans to fact-lessness and truthiness?[i] Did he numb us to the egomaniacal, xenophobic, misogynistic buffoonery? Did he train us to laugh at what should have terrified us? There is no data for any such claim. And Colbert certainly existed in an already crowded pantheon of political satirists, but what I can tell you is this, the #cancelcolbert tweet that rocked The Colbert Report world in 2014 had some merit.
Colbert is a white male who played a character arguably more white privileged than the actor. The character ‘Colbert’s’ buffoonery tricked us into ignoring the normativity, disenchantment, and positionality he presented. Colbert met every guest on the show out of character before the taping. He said, my character is “an idiot, so disabuse me of my ignorance.” But Colbert did not tell the audience that. He let the character, the persona, stand-in, be the fool, joke and play for satirical sake. As Colbert said himself on his Showtime Election Day show, “maybe we drank the poison, maybe we drank too much.” Maybe we should have recognized this sooner. Maybe we should have known. Todd Gitlan recently remarked that it was not an overdose of the political poison, but instead that we did not take “politics seriously enough.”[ii] According to Gitlan, Colbert’s remarks about unity disregard how African Americans, Muslims, Hispanics, and Jews feel in response to the legitimization of extremists, neo-Nazis, and alt-right white supremacists. Of course, this is the Colbert of a major network, not of The Colbert Report. Nevertheless, Colbert is a Catholic and while that is a historically marginalized group, his whiteness overshadows his marginalization. The jokes he makes do not come from a place of “other,” as evidenced by his ascent to the throne of CBS late night TV. White Catholic men continue to oppress other Americans and perhaps humor is not always the antidote we need.
Do not misunderstand – I am not against Colbert. I am not against satire’s place in American media. I am not arguing against infotainment. In fact, I highly advocate humor as a method of communication, teaching, and engagement. However, perhaps we’ve gone too far. Perhaps the audiences we expect are not as universal as we imagined. Perhaps smiles and laughs require more critical awareness. I am a proponent of digital media and I am a proponent of great, wonderful, hilarious satire. Satire and parody should encourage active thought. Satire, by nature, is predicated on the critique of the status quo. So why do I still feel that ‘Colbert’s’ truthiness betrayed us? Desensitized us? This is far too complicated for a short analysis, and of course there are nuances of culture, race, ethnicity, and class that will take decades to sort through. But perhaps focusing on this one incident – #cancelcolbert – will provide a different way to think about how Trump’s presidency came about, and critically question the role of satire in future political, cultural, and religious life.
Stephen Colbert is a white, Catholic man – a description most evident in March 2014. After a segment on the racist football mascot of the Washington Redskins, The Colbert Report posted a short excerpt of the script on its Twitter account. It read, “I am willing to show #Asian community I care by introducing the Ching-Chong Ding-Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals or Whatever.”[iii] Offensive and derogatory, especially out of context, it caused uproar among many in the Asian-American community. One woman, writer and activist who used the Twitter pseudonym Suey Park, tweeted a response into the ether, and to her 19,000 followers: “The Ching-Chong Ding-Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals has decided to call for #CancelColbert. Trend it.”[iv] Within minutes, the 23-year-old’s tweets spread like wildfire, akin to the success of one of her previous hashtags, #NotYourAsianSidekick.[v]
Fascinatingly, the #CancelColbert movement struck a chord on both sides of the political divide, including conservative, Filipino American blogger Michelle Malkin, who tweeted, “Co-sign! RT[re-tweet] @suey_park I’m sick of liberals hiding behind assumed ‘progressiveness’ #CancelColbert.” Another tweet focused on offensive language, “I am mindful of the words i [sic] use when talking about things or making jokes, it isnt [sic] much to ask colbert [sic] to do the same #cancelcolbert.”[vi] Conservatives and liberals confounded assumed arrangements by affiliating with their political and ideological “enemies” to conflate political-correctness and progressive politics with systematic racism. The bipartisan nature of #cancelcolbert demonstrates how complicated religion and politics truly are in America. Digital social media enabled individuals to respond to a television program and reform alliances all because of something that was just a joke.
Just a joke. That was the implicit statement from Stephen Colbert, the actor, as presented through his Twitter handle @StephenAtHome. The character, ‘Colbert,’ does not have a twitter handle and exists solely in connection to The Colbert Report. Amazingly, the distinction had not been so thoroughly invoked or delineated in the previous nine years of The Colbert Report.[vii] But what does it mean to be separate from his show – to be Stephen at home? Both persona and actor inhabit the same body and present themselves similarly in the world as white, heterosexual, Catholic men. Because of the confusion between persona and actor, surely audience members did not see the distinction as so stark. In fact, viewers interacted with both Colbert(s), often assuming they were the same entity. Colbert made a statement from his personal Twitter account the day after the initial tweet had been removed:
— Stephen Colbert (@StephenAtHome) March 28, 2014
The link in Colbert’s tweet connected to the Comedy Central website with the entire segment, providing context for the joke itself. Colbert subtly argued that the context was part of the satire, that he was in fact mocking racism by being an overly racist pundit. ‘Colbert’ was the poison, and Colbert thought the parody was the antidote.
Many disagreed with those sentiments. Jonathan Frandzone (@NotAllBhas) tweeted, “#CancelColbert because these ‘jokes’ once justified exclusionary acts, internment camps, atom bombs, napalm, and the murder of Vincent Chin.” He placed Colbert’s satire in the same historical trajectory as colonialist, violent, and racist language that held real implications in American life. Still others tweeted messages that linked the racism they saw in the tweets to other exclusionary language and phobias. Just Jo (@grimalkinrn) tweeted, “There is a line between satire & offense that @StephenatHome cannot dance over. He tramples it. For transphobia & racism, #cancelcolbert,” while Christopher Carbone (@christocarbone) implicated the Colbert Nation as heteronormative and racist, “You think that Colbert’s satire is OK? Um, no. It’s disgusting & devalues the lives of Asian & trans folks. #cancelcolbert.”[viii]
While some were outraged about Colbert hiding behind satire and comedy, others defended Colbert with the hashtag #IStandWithColbert. Those responses were often relatively benign, “#istandwithColbert for being a comedian, doing what comedians do,” or “#IStandWithColbert because he’s brilliant, hilarious, and essential. Period.”[ix] Others were more confrontational: “if you’ve ever tweeted #CancelColbert, you’re a faggot.”[x]
Some of the outrage went beyond siding with Colbert and became incendiary and referenced violence – most of it directed at the first tweet from Suey Park. Suey Park is a pseudonym, but unlike white, Catholic, male ‘Colbert,’ an Asian woman, such as Park, does not get to distinguish herself publically in the same manner. She recalled in a later interview, “I really did think that there was a chance that I could die,” because of the threats she received on 4chan and Reddit.[xi] She received death threats, had to leave her Chicago home, and stepped back from social media. As Park described in an interview, the initial tweet was hyperbolic and “intentionally extremist,” supposedly mocking in the same style as Colbert. However, she was not connected with the official television networks. And as a young, female, Asian American woman, the results could not be more different.[xii]
Not as large a part of the story was Park’s own religious identity. “Christianity is part of who I am,” Park said in an interview, “I’m culturally Presbyterian…because I can just be a part of things.”[xiii] Park says she likes Presbyterians because the congregants are more open to “the idea of Christian anti-oppression politics,” and she started the hashtag #NotMyChristianLeader to critique Christian feminists who ignore the interests of women of color.[xiv] She mixes her activism with her Christianity. Park co-founded Killjoy Prophets, a Christian organization whose goal is to give voice to women of color in a variety of Christian settings.[xv] In 2015, Park tweeted that she was “joining the welcoming and insightful students” at McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago.[xvi] Her Christianity does not protect her in the same way that Colbert’s Catholicism protects him.
The threats against her are real and without institutional support from a television network or adoring fans, her hyperbolic tone was not authorized by the American public. Just like Colbert, she filters her identity through digital media, but her positionality did not grant her the same leniency or protection. Instead of subverting the system through satire, Colbert and ‘Colbert’ perpetuated the power over women, people of color, and marginalized groups.
Park and her hashtag received enormous media attention, as Julia Carrie Wong notes, “Writers at The Wall Street Journal, Slate, Salon, the Washington Post, Time, the Daily Beast, Jezebel, CNN, USA Today, Huffington Post, the BBC, Mediaite, Entertainment Weekly, and many, many more have all weighed in. Almost without exception … these articles, essays and blog posts agree that Suey Park and the hashtag she spawned are misguided, ill-informed, unable to take a joke, unaware of the meaning of satire and/or just plain stupid.”[xvii] Another blogger, Arthur Chu, apologized to Park for piling on to the inundation of tweets, but claimed, “there was a ton of pressure on Asians in general to ‘take a side’ on that issue, with the sense that taking the ‘wrong’ side meant making an enemy of Stephen Colbert and all his fans forever.”[xviii]
On The Colbert Report, Colbert himself often explained that he took no side, that he is just a comedian playing it for laughs. This becomes an easy escape for moments when he pushed buttons or critiqued something seen as sacred in American life. When the humor borders on the profane for audiences, Colbert justifies his humor, but that does not go far enough for some and too far for others. The Colbert Report’s tweet became a site of racial and ethnic negotiation beyond that of most television programs. Religious rationales undergirded both sides: to cancel Colbert or to stand with Colbert. These tweets blurred the lines of partisanship and complicated the boundaries of religion and politics, with conservative and liberal activists on each side of the Twitter debates.
Both Park and Colbert appear to use their religious identities and ideologies through satire and digital media to address concerns about life in America. Park focuses on racial and gendered injustices, which Colbert, as a heterosexual, white, upper-middle-class male often ignores. Park and Colbert invoke a comical persona when they were tweeting, but being part of a mass media conglomerate authorized Colbert’s character. Both use wit to get readers/viewers to think, but his humor is granted a special place due to his celebrity status and, perhaps, his presentation as a white male. Park does not have the luxury of being able to satirize without harsh retribution. Park is an activist and Colbert is an entertainer.
But perhaps that entertainer contributed to our desensitization and acclimation to America’s approval of buffoonery. We trusted Colbert, we legitimized his humor, and we authorized him as an influential figure. Supporters claim Trump does not mean everything he said on the campaign trail; that he will not do half of the abhorrent things he spewed. But do they believe that in part because our comedians, the funny, ironic truth-tellers were for so long invested in perpetuating truthiness?
Stephanie Brehm is a PhD candidate in the Department of Religious Studies at Northwestern University. She researches religion, politics, and comedy in twenty-first century American life. In particular, her dissertation interprets Stephen Colbert’s rhetoric as a case study for American Catholic humor and mass media influence.
[i] For the purposes of this article, I refer to the actor Stephen Colbert without quotations and the fake-news pundit character ‘Stephen Colbert’ with quotations.
[ii] Todd Gitlan, “What’s the Matter with Stephen Colbert?,” BillMoyers.com, November 14, 2016, http://billmoyers.com/story/whats-matter-stephen-colbert/.
[iii] While the original tweet has been removed, the quote was from a “Sport Report” segment, see “Sport Report – Professional Soccer Toddler, Golf Innovations & Washington Redskins Charm Offensive,” The Colbert Report (Comedy Central, March 26, 2014), http://www.cc.com/video-clips/b6cwb3/the-colbert-report-sport-report—professional-soccer-toddler–golf-innovations—washington-redskins-charm-offensive.
[iv] Julia Carrie Wong, “Who’s Afraid of Suey Park?,” The Nation, March 31, 2014, http://www.thenation.com/article/whos-afraid-suey-park/.
[v] Elizabeth Bruenig, “Why Won’t Twitter Forgive Suey Park?,” New Republic, May 20, 2015, https://newrepublic.com/article/121861/suey-parkof-cancelcolbert-fame-has-stopped-fighting-twitter.
[vi] Alex Stedman, “Stephen Colbert Accused of Racism With #CancelColbert Campaign,” Variety, March 27, 2014, http://variety.com/2014/tv/news/stephen-colbert-accused-of-racism-with-cancelcolbert-campaign-1201149494/.
[vii] Twitter and ‘Colbert’ flourished at the same times – the social media company beginning in 2006.
[viii] Stedman, “Stephen Colbert Accused of Racism With #CancelColbert Campaign.”
[ix] The most recent tweet with this hashtag is from April 4, 2014. “#IStandWithColbert – Twitter Search,” accessed March 18, 2016, https://twitter.com/search?q=%23IStandWithColbert&src=hash.
[x] “#CancelColbert – Twitter Search,” n.d., https://twitter.com/search?q=%23CancelColbert.
[xi] Angela Watercutter, “Here’s What Happened to the Woman Who Started #CancelColbert,” Wired, February 22, 2016, http://www.wired.com/2016/02/cancelcolbert-what-happened/.
[xii] Arthur Chu, “Suey Park And Arthur Chu: A Dialogue Between Two Hashtag Warriors,” Thought Catalog, November 12, 2015, http://thoughtcatalog.com/arthur-chu/2015/11/suey-park-and-arthur-chu-a-dialogue-between-two-hashtag-warriors/.
[xiii] Bruenig, “Why Won’t Twitter Forgive Suey Park?”
[xv] “Killjoy Prophets – GoGetFunding | GoGetFunding,” accessed March 18, 2016, http://gogetfunding.com/killjoy-prophets-1/.
[xvi] Mary Elizabeth Williams, “The Redemption of #CancelColbert’s Suey Park: Can Twitter Forgive and Forget?,” Salon, May 22, 2015, http://www.salon.com/2015/05/22/the_redemption_of_cancelcolberts_suey_park_can_twitter_forgive_and_forget/.
[xvii] Wong, “Who’s Afraid of Suey Park?”
[xviii] Chu, “Suey Park And Arthur Chu.”