Making it in show biz and in Hollywood can require pushing the boundaries to get attention. However, when it comes to pushing those boundaries you can go too far as well. I don’t know if Kathy Griffin did that when she used a lifelike recreation of Donald Trump‘s bloody and decapitated head or if the reactionists are just being too sensitive. However, Griffin has been the target of a lot of backlash as people divide themselves into both critics and supporters of her’s in the aftermath of her stunt.
Griffin posed with a fake Donald Trump head, one that was bloodied across the face. As a result she has seen a lot of work cancelled which lead to her declaring that her career is over: “I don’t think I will have a career after this. I’m going to be honest, (Trump) broke me,” she claimed recently. As a case in point Griffin, who claims she “crossed the line,” has lost some work with CNN. That Griffin herself now thinks that she went too far in what was supposed to be comedy perhaps shows that there’s no point in siding with her in a battle for free speech here: she basically admitted that she did something wrong.
However, Jim Carrey is one of Griffin’s supporters. He defended Griffin with an appeal to free speech and claimed that “comedians are the last voice of truth,” a statement that over-glorifies the role that they play in society (qtd. by Derek Lawrence at ew.com).
Carrey’s statement is one matter, but firstly what “truth” a severed head of a president represents is a question to consider. It could be taken as a symbol of a lot of things including the legal matters of impeachment and Trump disempowerment, topics of discussion that surround the Trump presidency and have since the moment he won the election.
However, the severed head could also be taken to mean that people should be killed for their political beliefs or that there should be a violent insurrection against the American government since Trump is the leader. These are symbolic gestures with the severed head that do cross a line when it comes to staying popular with the American public. Symbolism will always be ambiguous, and perhaps that’s why Griffin posing with a decapitated Trump head is a little too thoughtless: you can talk about her right to free speech, but if the head (<–bad pun) of a political party is depicted as dead then her comedy could be viewed as a symbol of political suppression.
When it comes to the backlash against Griffin, at least it’s not like she is being put in jail for her views as losing work is a far more trivial matter. However, getting back to Jim Carrey’s over-glorification of comedians, they are never really “the last voice of truth.” They’re people that can make a true point through humor, one that is often shallow, and then they usually move on. But the backdrop of comedy adds too much frivolousness for them to be considered “the last voice of truth” in society so let’s not put comedians in the same boat as someone like George Orwell here.
Looking back at the history books, maybe Griffin’s career isn’t over. Could be that she just suffered a setback in a certain political climate, a climate that will change over time. Politics is a tricky thing when it comes to rewards and punishment. Someone might feel safe doing something right now, believing that they are protected by those in power only to find the faces of those in power change down the road. Likewise, someone who is punished might find allies at a different point in time in the future.
Back in 1992, Irish singer Sinead O’Connor was flying high with her hit song “Nothing Compares to U” (written by the brilliant Prince), she decided to rip up a photo of the Pope during her live performance on Saturday Night Live. Her career never came back after that, and that’s one of the tricky things about freedom of speech. You’re free to share your opinions, but if you gauge wrongly on your public and fans, there’s a consequence. Most of the time it is about timing.
A week later Madonna did a similar stunt ripping a photo, but she chose then President George H. Bush when the country was not so supportive of him.
Young readers might not know about a comedy duo called the Smothers Brothers. But they were a politically left-leaning comedy duo from the late 1960s that both lampooned and criticized the President of the United States (Lyndon Johnson) and the war in Vietnam. They faced censorship as a result and, despite popularity, they had their show cancelled amidst political pressure. Over the long term they became heroes:
“The most innovative variety show on television shut down because of political pressure,” David Steinberg has said of their work. “But the Smothers Brothers got their revenge. Never giving up, they sued CBS — and they won. And they forever became prominent symbols in the fight for free speech” (Stein qtd. npr.org)
I wouldn’t equate the Griffin situation with the Smothers Brothers situation from a near half-century ago. However, there is the similarity of criticizing the president costing you dearly in your career. There’s something I don’t really like about that.
However, I don’t actually mind Griffin losing some work because she did make a mistake. My take on free speech is that exercising it shouldn’t cost you your life or freedom, but your public image will always be a part of the work you get when you are involved in show biz. From this point of view, Griffin miscalculated what showing a severed head of the president would do for her. That could be taken as a symbol of political intolerance that even people that don’t like the policies of Donald Trump’s Republican Party might not be comfortable with. I see her more as a victim of her own miscalculation than a victim of the iron fist of the state.
But my guess is that she’ll be back. She apologized and it’s a forgivable mistake. She might have to lay low for a while (ie. the Trump years….or months) and then maybe her apology will be accepted as anger dissipates in a different and future political climate.