Opinionista Sisonke Msimang 25 September 2013

Tim Modise needs a breakfast shake: gay jokes aren’t funny

A monkey in silk is a monkey no less, and homophobia dressed as reasonable debate is homophobia no less. It’s time the Power Breakfast took a long, hard look at what it’s dishing up.

A few mornings in the past few weeks, I have tuned into Tim Modise, Ferial Carelse and Thabiso Mosia on the Power Breakfast. On a number of occasions the talk has turned to issues of homosexuality and gender identity. Invariably, Modise plays the fatherly naïf, wide-eyed with wonder at what the youth of today are up to in their sexual relationships. He bumbles around, not sure which words to use, ermming and ahhing, and generally hamming up his state of surprise, while Carelse takes him on with the tenacity of a pit bull.

Modise often responds by purposely evading the logic of her arguments. Mosia backs him up, asking pointed questions with more of an edge than his older co-host; his youth and aggression playing off the flummoxed persona Modise adopts when it comes to matters of sexuality and gender identity.

Each time one of these discussions takes place, I find myself wanting to bang my head on the steering wheel in frustration. Modise seems to want to go far enough to express his baffled disgust, but not far enough to get a call from the ombudsman.

The callers, egged on by his ‘my generation doesn’t get it’ tone, dial in to defend the positions that he will not openly take. A typical caller will say, ‘I think what Bra Tim is trying to say is that this thing just doesn’t make sense.’

The seasoned broadcaster gets to say what he means without having to say it. Modise is sophisticated enough to know that gay-bashing is not appropriate for radio, but he also knows that he can indicate his disagreement with homosexuality through pleading ignorance and by making tired jokes. He gets to disavow gay people by asking endless ‘questions of clarification’ and by acting as though he is confused.

Behind the questions is the panicked heterosexual male anxiety. It’s a sound that all women will know and a sound that gay and trans people will also recognise.  It is a sound that is familiar to boys and men who don’t quite fit the heterosexual norm that oozes from Modise’s rich baritone.

Modise gets to play the ‘common-sense good guy’, while actually defending a position that is deeply embedded in sexism and fear. In an environment in which non-gender conforming people continue to be thrown out of their homes, bullied in schools, harassed by the police – and with alarming regularity – murdered, Modise’s mockery – wearing the grim mask of jocularity– simply isn’t funny.

Interestingly, the Power Breakfast morning shtick relies on Carelse playing the bad cop who polices the wink-wink homo and transphobia of Modise and Mosia, while coming across as strident. In other words, the only person in the group who regularly stands up for the Constitution gets cast as a sourpuss.

The banter offends gay people but Modise and the Power FM management would do well to recognise that it is also likely to offend a large number of other South Africans. It certainly offends those of us whose relatives and friends are openly gay and have struggled with painful coming out stories. It must offend those of us who are seen as too independent and therefore ‘mannish’ just as it would offend those of us who reject machismo and are therefore seen as too ‘womanish.’

The unfunny jokes are situated firmly on the continuum of the kind of hetero-normative privilege that makes it okay for women like Zandile Mpanza to be assaulted for wearing pants, and that inspire men to strip girls of their mini-skirts at taxi ranks.  Mpanza was stripped naked for having the audacity to wear trousers in Umlazi’s T-section in 2007.  She was not the first woman who was terrorized for breaking the sartorial rules set by men in the community. She was forced to move for having the audacity to question those who enforce the rules, those who lay down the law about what women get to do and what men get to do.

At root, Modise’s passive-aggressive bullying suggests that people must be either one or the other; they cannot be both. Gay people are defined as both, as are trans people. The nuance that sexual orientation and gender identity are separate issues seems lost on Modise. In part because it serves his position to fold these issues into one another.

Of course Tim Modise is not the only joker out there.  Far too many make the jokes or laugh along. But it really isn’t funny.  In the words of Spectra, a “queer masculine ‘in-betweener,’” not conforming to gender rules comes with its risks.

She suggests that “I have never experienced physical aggression from the world to the degree that I do now. From constantly dodging men who take it upon themselves to ‘put me in my place’ to being ignored by women who’ve subconsciously decided that I’ve chosen ‘the other side,’ I’ve never felt less safe and more in need of protecting.”

In a real-life context in which people are attacked for daring to be who they are, the Power Breakfast can do better than serving up the trite fare that has been on offer of late. DM



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