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dear dame edna ... oh, dear

February 26, 2003

Excerpt, Vanity Fair (February 2003), p. 116, Ask Dame Edna:
     Dear Dame Edna,
     I would very much like to learn a foreign language, preferably French or Italian, but every time I mention this, people tell me to learn Spanish instead. They say, "Everyone is going to be speaking Spanish in 10 years. George W. Bush speaks Spanish." Could this be true? Are we all going to have to speak Spanish?
     Torn Romantic, Palm Beach

Dear Torn:
     Forget Spanish. There's nothing in that language worth reading except Don Quixote, and a quick listen to the CD of Man of La Mancha will take care of that. There was a poet named Garcia Lorca, but I'd leave him on the intellectual back burner if I were you. As for everyone's speaking it, what twaddle! Who speaks it that you are really desperate to talk to? The help? Your leaf blower? Study French or German, where there are a t least a few books worth reading, or, if you're American, try English.
     Dame Edna

Poynter Online - Dreams of Dame Edna: ..... Dame Edna has me tossing and turning in bed. As most of you know, the haughty Dame -- a fictional character played by Australian actor Barry Humphries -- wrote a nasty little item in her advice column for February's Vanity Fair. In the column, a reader asks whether we are all going to have to learn Spanish. Dame Edna replies that there's nothing worth reading in Spanish except Don Quixote, and that the poet Garcia Lorca should be left on the intellectual back burner. "As for everyone's speaking it, what twaddle!" she says. "Who speaks it that you are really desperate to talk to? The help? Your leaf blower?"
     Petitions from angry Latinos and others have circulated on the Internet, demanding an apology from Vanity Fair and Mr. Humphries. The editorial director of Latina magazine wrote to Dame Edna, suggesting that she familiarize herself with Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Carlos Fuentes, and Jose Luis Borges, among others.
     Vanity Fair said it "regretted" the offense, but then tried to explain: "In the role of Dame Edna, Barry Humphries practices a long comedic tradition of making statements that are tasteless, wrongheaded, or taboo with an eye toward exposing hypocrisies or prejudices. Her patently absurd comments ... were offered in the spirit of outrageous comedy and were never intended to be taken to heart."
     But groups like the National Association of Hispanic Journalists aren't buying that argument. In a letter to Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter, NAHJ raised a good question: "So Dame Edna gets to spout off such bigotry, and we're not supposed to say anything about it because the character is a clown and the column is satire? We disagree. Humor and satire are not safe hiding places for ignorance and bigotry."
     Which is why I am having late night thoughts about Dame Edna. Is it possible, in this irony-challenged day and age, to comment on ignorance and bigotry through humor and satire?

You know ... I really don't think it IS possible any more. We do seem to be quite the humor-challenged culture, these days. Not that there isn't humor, of course. It's everywhere. We have funny papers, we have standup comics, we have sitcoms galore ...

The distinction seems to be that we don't allow pointed satire and irony in writing any more. The ability to distinguish between that which is seriously meant, and that which is twaddle, seems to have disappeared from this country somehow. (I mean, really. How seriously can you take someone who writes elsewhere, "I am back on my 'Tourette' syndrome visiting some of your little cities that remain amongst the world’s best-kept secrets. I started last week in Portland Maine, in one of the most gorgeous theatres I have ever played. Needless to say, it wasn’t built as a convention centre, and no acoustic engineers had anything to do with it, so the sound was perfect. [...] I wrenched myself away to come to Washington DC, a city which occasionally gets a little paragraph on page 10 of the European and Australian press, but is otherwise, except for the White House, a big secret. I adore it, though it’s very cold and I have to wear my humanely culled simulated wombat fur underthings. It must be horrid for President Bush who comes from the south to live in such a frigid zone. No wonder he wears that constant look of perplexity, poor mite."

(It's the weather? Really. My. I just thought he was constantly perplexed. But I digress.)

We seem to be able to take satire and irony when it's physical -- that is, when there's an actual person being tasteless and ironical in our actual faces. (Better able to take it, anyway.) After all, where would "Absolutely Fabulous" ever have been in this country if we couldn't take politically incorrect comedy? (Although it may be noteworthy that it didn't originate here, and the American version failed miserably.) But when it's written down, and we lose the physical context, our ability to deal seems to go right out the window.

The other problem is, of course, that an outsider hit one of our nerves. It is an undeniable fact that minorities make up a fair percentage of the lower-income and menial jobs in this country. Is it fair? No. Is it just? No. Should things be this way? No. But they are what they are, and having an outsider say these things at all, let alone in print, rankles.

It would be interesting to find out exactly where that ability to take written humor went. Given the declining literacy rate in this country, probably out with the ability to read.

Ask Dame Edna -- What happened to humor?: ..... That the line was not greeted with screaming laughter, however, was perhaps due to the fact that Dame Edna had unwittingly captured the tone of Vanity Fair magazine and attitude of many of its readers so closely. Though soon e-mails flitted back and forth among Spanish-speaking readers of Vanity Fair -- an interesting sociological group in itself. Soon, there were hot petitions of protest against blue-rinsed Dame Edna. Letters of complaint to Graydon Carter (the editor whose hair, etc.): "I am a thirty year old Latina marketing executive with three graduate degrees..." During a week of heightened code-orange alerts in New York City and elsewhere, there were code-magenta bomb threats received at the offices of Condé Nast. An apology was not long in coming. Now that we are a nation of sufferers and victims, the Puritans have won the day. [...] For a magazine so confused in its purpose, it is perhaps not so very surprising that Vanity Fair didn't see the Hispanic furor coming. Each month the magazine's predictions about what's going to be "hot" next month -- Fabergé, Frida Kahlo, A.S. Byatt, Georgia O'Keefe -- are invariably not. [...] But there are other prophesies from Vanity Fair's editor. Graydon Carter (whose hair, etc.) was widely quoted by media types in New York, after Sept. 11, saying that irony is dead.
     It's truer to say that humor is having a hard time of it in America these days when we can't tell the difference between a joke and the deadly serious.

I have to admit, had I been the editor of Vanity Fair, I think my reaction would have been: "Oh, grow UP!"

Posted by iain at February 26, 2003 12:45 PM


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