The broadcast of the Super Bowl inspired hundreds of thousands of tweets on Twitter, and a few of them just got analyst Roland S. Martin suspended from CNN. The political commentator was criticized by the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) and others for tweets he posted (some of them during the game, some on earlier days) that they argued were homophobic. Among them:
If a dude at your Super Bowl party is hyped about David Beckham’s H&M underwear ad, smack the ish out of him! #superbowl
Ladies, if your man don’t like sports, send his azz back to the factory. He came to you defective! #rolandsrules
I’m sorry. I’m not down with seeing dudes walking around with bags on their shoulders that resemble women’s handbags. #helltothenaw
Who the hell was that New England Patriot they just showed in a head to toe pink suit? Oh, he needs a visit from #teamwhipdatass
After a few days of criticism, CNN Wednesday issued a statement:
Roland Martin’s tweets were regrettable and offensive. Language that demeans is inconsistent with the values and culture of our organization, and is not tolerated. We have been giving careful consideration to this matter, and Roland will not be appearing on our air for the time being.
OK, here’s where we’re all supposed to divide into Team Hell Yes, Fire That Homophobe and Team Come On, He Didn’t Say Anything Wrong. Go ahead, but first I have to say a few words for Team I Don’t Think People Always Have to Be Punished For Saying Things That Are Nonetheless Totally Obnoxious. (We’re a small and universally despised team. But we’re scrappy!)
First, I don’t believe CNN should have suspended Martin–just as I don’t think it should have fired Octavia Nasr and Rick Sanchez, or NPR should have cut Juan Williams. There’s a whole long casualty list by now of public figures cut loose over errant (and often dumb) public remarks, often on Twitter, and the only consistent rule behind it seems to be: “If you embarrass us enough and enough people make trouble for us, we’ll punish you.” Denounce the remarks, but as I’ve said before, I’d rather journalistic outlets, which are in the business of expression and ideas, err on the side of letting people screw up.
(Just to address the inevitable counterargument: Yes, CNN has the legal right to do whatever it wants with its employees and contractors. This is not a First Amendment issue.)
But that doesn’t make Martin’s tweets OK. They were obnoxious, small, stupid, and wrong. And if he has any sense of self-awareness, he’d recognize that and really apologize–not an “I’m sorry if you’re offended” apology–instead of going into defensive mode.
Maybe he didn’t have gay people specifically in mind when he talked about smacking up a dude for wearing pink or liking David Beckham’s underwear. I can’t read his mind. And I’ll take his word he wasn’t advocating literal, physical violence.
But so what? The problem with fixating on whether the comments were literally, deliberately, provably homophobic is that that implies that belittling someone for being “unmanly”–not liking football, having overly nice underwear, liking Broadway musicals, whatever–is fine as long as he’s straight. And it’s not. The real problem with remarks like Martin’s boneheaded comments is that they, and blatant homophobia, exist on a continuum that’s all about setting rules for masculinity and punishing anyone who’s outside them. It’s no good for gay men, or straight men, or women for that matter; the undertones of the tweets are as much about sexism—this stuff is for girls, this stuff is for boys—as about homophobia. Smacking up a straight guy for wearing pink may not be a hate crime, but I’d hope we’re not cool with it anyway. (Full disclosure: I am not a football fan, I carry a shoulder-bag and I own at least two items of clothing in persimmon.)
Of course, it is gay people who have been particularly singled out for getting (literally) smacked up for deviating from the norm, and–again if Martin has a lick of sense–he should see why someone wouldn’t see it as harmless fun for a CNN personality to sit on his couch on Super Sunday and crack about slapping “dudes” who like an underwear ad.
A while back, Martin defended Tracy Morgan when the comedian got in trouble for a routine in which Morgan said he’d stab his son if he came out as gay, and I suppose Martin might defend his remarks as being like those of an edgy comedian. And the fact is, “What does it mean to be male?” is a completely legitimate topic for jokes; look at sitcoms like New Girl, some of whose best material deals with the differences between heterosexual-but-metrosexual Schmidt and his male roomies.
The difference between making a joke and being a jerk is hard to quantify, but it’s all about attitude and relative power. If you’re a TV personality cracking tweets that are all about setting you up as the definer of manhood, laughing at dudes who wear pink and telling ladies to send their football-hating man back to the man factory–that are all about you pointing out people’s differences from the norm and setting yourself up as superior–you’re pretty safely in being-a-jerk territory.
A suspension, more than anything, is corporate damage control, and any apology it forces is likely to be perfunctory and insincere. (That is, more or less, the point; not changing any attitudes, but making a public statement and moving on.) What guys like Martin need above all is public shaming and mockery, like the comment from a Buzzfeed reader on Martin’s macho-fashion-arbiter tweets: “This coming from a man who wears ascots.”* He does (see picture, above); ironically, he even sells them, some of them in a shade of dare-I-say-it pink. You can see some of his line of neckwear here. I may never be able to pull that look off, but that doesn’t make me any more of a man.
*Update: Reader Irin Carmon took exception to this line on Twitter, saying, “I don’t think the response to genderbaiting should be more genderbaiting.” I don’t think Martin should be mocked for wearing ascots, which I think are frankly awesome, but for his hypocrisy—surely someone who rocks a dandyish fashion accessory should be able to recognize that there are all kinds of way to be correctly masculine. They’re no more inherently womanish than a shoulder bag or not caring about the NFL. I may not wear ascots, but let me be clear: I fully support them.