A satire, a protest, then an apology
Satire is a deadly weapon.
THE LOS ANGELES TIMES
February 8, 2003
In the hands of the semiskilled, it has a tendency to misfire. And when that
happens, there's often a lot of collateral damage.
That's what the editors of Vanity Fair magazine discovered, when an
ill-conceived item in the current issue's comedic advice column set off a
firestorm of Latino cyber-protest so powerful that by week's end, the Conde Nast
publication was in full retreat.
The exchange that launched a thousand e-mails appears deep within the magazine's
February issue as part of "Vanities," a section devoted to ostensibly
lighthearted amusements. Among its regular features is a fictional advice
column, Ask Dame Edna, written by the Australian comedian and actor Barry
Humphries, who plays his signature character -- the clueless Dame Edna Everage
-- in drag. The offending letter and response go like this:
"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 at least a few books worth reading, or, if you're an
American, try English."
Humphries, of course, mines an old vein of particularly British humor in which
xenophobic, vaguely upper-class twits are held up to ridicule by dramatizing
their pathological aversion to foreign food, manners and morals. In this genre,
even those parts of the Home Counties overly distant from St. James or the Lords
Cricket Grounds are objects of suspicion.
It takes a skillful comic and an audience conversant with the convention to make
this particular shtick play as humor.
The Vanity Fair item had neither. Shortly after the issue appeared on
newsstands, Wendy Maldonado, a management consultant from Jackson Heights, N.Y.,
had begun circulating -- via the Internet -- a letter of protest demanding that
Vanity Fair and Humphries apologize or face a boycott.
"Dame Edna could have chosen any number of amusing responses," the letter says,
"however, she responded using cheap, two-dimensional stereotypes of Latinos and
Latin Americans, revealing not only her racism, but also her profound ignorance
of who we are." The letter noted the striking dissonance between Dame Edna's
response and the same issue's cover story, a fawning profile of Mexican actress
Salma Hayek, whom Vanity Fair's headline writers celebrate for drawing "on her
heritage to produce and star in 'Frida,' the hit biopic about Mexico's iconic
artist, Frida Kahlo."
Maldonado's letter spread across the Internet with a speed born of fat address
books. "I've gotten e-mails from New Jersey to Argentina, China and Hawaii," she
told reporters. "I'm now getting stuff every two seconds." By midweek, versions
of the letter were circulating along all sorts of cyber networks. There were
different copies signed by scores of architects, by physicians, by academics, by
artists and filmmakers.
Elias Nahmias, who heads the Mexican Assn. of Filmmakers in L.A., said he
received his copy from "a Chicana musician. I read it, saw the last name was a
producer and I added my name. By then, I'd looked at the magazine and I couldn't
believe it. One of my friends said it was a joke. I don't know whether it's a
joke or not, but when I read it, I felt insulted and hurt."
On Thursday, a call to Vanity Fair's editor, Graydon Carter, was referred to a
spokeswoman, who said the following "apology" would appear in the April issue
along with a selection of letters:
"Vanity Fair regrets that certain remarks in our February issue by the
entertainer and author Barry Humphries, in the guise of his fictional character
Dame Edna, have caused offense to our readers and others. In the role of Dame
Edna, Humphries practices a long comedic tradition of making statements that are
tasteless, wrongheaded, or taboo with an eye toward exposing hypocrisies or
who has seen Dame Edna's over-the-top performances on TV or in the theater knows
that she is an equal-opportunity distributor of insults, and her patently absurd
comments about Spanish literature and Spanish speakers were offered in the
spirit of outrageous comedy and were never intended to be taken to heart."
In moral theology, sin is in the intention; in journalism, it's in the
Successful satire is aimed at powerful individuals or social attitudes. It is
understood by its audience for what it is and it has literary merit. (Think
Swift, Twain and Orwell.) Vanity Fair's item failed on all three counts: It was
hurtful, bound to be misunderstood and, quite obviously, lacked literary value.
It's hard to say what Dame Edna and his/her editors know about leaf blowers, but
they certainly understand now, as Californios and Floridians say in Spanglish:
Hacer enojar a muchos Latinos con laptops puede ser peligroso.
(In consideration of the Palm Beach Romantic's neglected education -- must be
inherited money -- that means: Ticking off a bunch of Latinos with laptops can
be a dangerous thing.)