On Monday, May 2nd, Stephen Colbert let loose a remarkable tirade of insults on President Trump. The host of The Late Show used his nightly monologue to respond to the president over his glib treatment of fellow CBS host John Dickerson. Colbert’s rant culminated in the following, “Sir, you attract more skinheads than free Rogaine. You have more people marching against you than cancer. You talk like a sign language gorilla that got hit in the head. In fact, the only thing your mouth is good for is being Vladimir Putin’s cock holster.”
Though his studio audience laughed heartily at the remarks, the backlash on social media was almost immediate, with the hashtag #FireColbert trending over the next few days. The focus of the criticism was on Colbert’s use of the term ‘cock holster,' deriding the joke as homophobic.
The backlash culminated in the establishment of a Twitter account @FireColbert and corollary website, FireColbert.com. Though the website makes no mention of Colbert’s purportedly homophobic remarks, it does say that “His obscene comments about President Trump are inexcusable.” It goes on to urge visitors to the site to write to CBS and lodge formal complaints with the FCC under their obscenity policy. The site then bizarrely links to Trump’s White House page, as well as #FireColbert merchandise and Amazon links to his books which are “full of HATRED towards America.”
Trying to parse who might be responsible for the initiative is purely speculative at this point, although the hamfisted execution and incongruous sale of merchandise reek of Trump cronyism.
While I admit that Colbert’s remarks were undoubtedly obscene, they fail to meet the FCC’s criteria for a complete obscenity complaint. FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said in an interview with Newsmax TV, “It’s a free country. People are willing and able to say just about anything these days.”
So, it is unlikely that Colbert will receive any kind of formal reprimand over his remarks. Which brings me to the continuing allegations of homophobia – a kind of appeal to principle that could see Colbert’s viewership decline or advertisers pull out. In the wake of the O’Reilly scandal, this seems to be the preferred methodology when attacking a pundit, the key difference here being that O’Reilly had committed real transgressions.
Colbert’s remarks, though crass, do not represent a homophobic outlook, here’s why.
The joke hinges on the notion that Putin is sexually dominant over the President – in joke writing terms we call this hyperbole. For those of you who are not English nerds, hyperbole is the use of an exaggerated, non-literal example to illustrate an underlying point. In Colbert’s remarks, the hyperbole is that Putin’s authority over the President extends to the sexual sphere, that Trump is so in the service of the Russian president that he is used as a sex slave.
The joke is funny because we imagine Trump as the submissive partner, something that we already believe in geopolitical terms but that Colbert has made funny by moving it into bedroom terms. The joke is not funny because the implication is that both Putin and the President are gay men, but because it reflects a larger dominant-submissive relationship we already suspect they have- that Putin can basically do whatever he wants to Trump, up to and including holstering his penis in the President’s mouth.
The accusations of homophobia are a reflection of the accuser, not of Colbert. If you think this joke is homophobic, it’s because you suspect people are laughing at the notion of homosexuality, not at the relationship dynamic between Trump and Putin.
If Colbert had insinuated in any way that two men having sex together was the lowest insult he could think of, that would be an entirely different matter, but the joke itself makes no statement at all on homosexuality. In fact, if Trump were perceived to be under the thumb of a female world leader and the joke were about his mouth being a clit-holster (or something funnier, I’m not a comedian) I doubt we would have heard the cry of misogyny from Colbert’s critics. That’s because the anatomy of the joke depends on power dynamics, on painting Trump as a hapless servant of Putin, not on any kind of genuine homosexual attraction existing between the two men.
What people are actually mad about on this one is that a late-night host, a position formerly reserved for semi-racy observations on daily events and saccharine interviews, has wandered into the territory of open war with a sitting President. Whether Colbert should have more respect for the office or whether his comments were legitimately indecent is for each viewer to decide themselves, but their decision should not be couched in a false notion of righteous indignation that Colbert has insulted the gay community. He hasn’t. He insulted the President, and last time I checked, he’s well within his rights to do so.