As a werewolf who believes in treating human beings with basic decency, I don’t feel like I should have to explain this.
However, there seems to be an unfilled niche for people willing to explain this particular issue patiently and politely, so I’ll attempt to do so. For the benefit of people reading this, I would like to provide a CONTENT WARNING for the following topics: racism, racial slurs, racial caricature, homophobia, transphobia, discussion of genitals and, of course, these dumb attack helicopter jokes.
To explain why this joke is offensive, we first need to examine stereotyping and caricature.
Stereotypes Are Bad
There is an old adage that says “stereotypes usually exist for a reason,” which is in its most literal sense true, since there’s a reason for everything, but it neglects to mention that stereotypes rarely exist for a good reason. Consider these two statements:
- “In the United States, incidence of new HIV cases is highest among homosexual men.”
- “Gay men are filthy and disease-ridden, and the fact that they get HIV the most proves it.”
The first statement is a factual statistic and contains no obvious judgement; although please note that depending on the context, stating it can convey a subtle one.
The second statement conveys a judgement that is both unsupported by facts or statistics and ignores a significant degree of information. It ignores, for example, the fact that during the 1980s, the Reagan administration persistently ignored the HIV epidemic despite repeated pleas for the Centres for Disease Control or the National Institute for Health to investigate it. It ignores the United States’ history of poor sexual education. It ignores the fact that the pervasive homophobia of that time period drove gay men to seek unsafe clandestine encounters and to avoid disclosing their behaviour at sexual health clinics. It ignores the fact that these issues continue to affect today’s culture.
It also ignores the simple fact that a sexually transmitted disease whose primary victims are a group defined by their sexuality will tend to remain within that group; gay men mostly have sex only with other men, and most of the men willing to have sex with a man will themselves be gay. It seems obvious, but it’s worth pointing out in this context.
Stereotypes present perceptions as facts, which is harmful because it represents faulty information. A person assuming that a stereotype represents reality will draw incorrect conclusions. A person operating under the assumption that gay men are filthy and disease-ridden will be more likely not only to treat them negatively, but to themselves perpetuate the idea that gay men are filthy and disease-ridden.
Blackface is Bad
Historically, blackface as we would understand it probably started around the mid-18th century with Charles Dibdin’s The Padlock, which tells the story of a “heavy drinking, money-grubbing” black servant from the West Indies, who is usually toadying around white people, but is moved to moments of insolence by drink.
Nowadays there is a general agreement in society that blackface is racially offensive, and with good reason: it presents a deeply stereotypical caricature of the appearance, speech and behaviour of African people. The exaggerated and unflattering physical characteristics, the strong association with vice – usually drink, gambling and adultery – and the tendency to portray African people as deeply gullible, directionless and unintelligent is, in the current day, seen as an absurd and very uncomfortable aspect of our culture’s past.
The thing is, it seems absurd only with the benefit of hindsight. Blackface as a tradition persisted from the 1760s until well into the 1950s, and in some cases as late as the 1980s, and it is important to remember that for the majority of that time it would often be the only exposure to African identity – or even a twisted caricature of it – that most white people would have. Blackface was not merely offensive in the way that it portrayed people of colour, but also harmful to society in that it shaped people’s personal understanding of people of colour.
It was bad not only because it represented what people thought Africans were actually like, but also because it spread those ideas to other people. It did this so well, in fact, that some people still believe in them and spread them today.
The “Joke” Is A Caricature
So this brings us to “I sexually identify as an attack helicopter.”
On the face of it, it’s an absurd statement – but that’s the point. The punchline of the joke is the concept of gender identity itself. The idea is to make the statement “I identify as a woman” appear equal to “I identify as a toaster” or “I identify as a firework” in absurdity. It presupposes that the very idea that someone could “identify as” anything other than their assigned sex & gender at birth is absurd.
It’s not just an attack on binary transgender people – that is, people who identify with the opposite gender to the one they were born with. We’ve seen this in a thousand other tired jokes that mock the idea that a man – with a penis, of all things – could ever become a woman, often accompanied by misleadingly vivid descriptions of said penis being removed. Lots of these jokes tend to revolve around how ugly trans individuals are, or how they obviously look like their birth gender (i.e. they do not “pass”). This is actually far more sinister.
This joke mocks the very idea of “identifying,” and so constitutes an attack not only on the validity of transgender people but on the idea of their existence, and also of non-binary people – that is, people who do not identify as wholy male or female at all. It carries the unspoken (and false) implication that identifying is merely a “choice,” and if you can “choose” to identify as a woman, why not an attack helicopter? If “identifying” is a meaningless absurdity, there are no trans or non-binary people – just people being ridiculous about themselves.
The joke’s whimsical nature is excellent for this purpose, since it not only allows the teller to claim, if challenged, that they’re just being absurd, but to actively project that absurdity onto the people they’re mocking. Indeed, given that it is a joke, it has easy deniability – all the stuff I just told you can (and, I guarantee you, will) be dismissed by saying “it’s just a joke. You’re taking it too seriously.”
The problem is that, as previously mentioned, this joke perpetuates harmful stereotypes, and comedy doesn’t get a free pass on doing that. Blackface was once a form of entertainment, but it helped spread harmful stereotypes about people of colour without in any way challenging them, which inevitably shaped people’s opinions of what people of colour were actually like, which in turn led people to treat people of colour poorly based on those opinions. It wasn’t directly responsible for the racist behaviour of other people, but it was responsible for the underlying beliefs that shaped that racism.
By perpetuating stereotypes about gender-nonconforming people, you do precisely the same thing. The belief that gender identification is a frivolous choice or a mental illness directly hurts transgender and non-binary people in society, just the same as the belief that gay men are disease-ridden or that people of colour are lazy and addicted to vice. When marginalised people are used as the punchline to a joke, it only serves their marginalisation.