It is approaching two years since Donald Trump was sworn into office, which means it’s been two years of Russia “collusion” talk and parsing of his relationship with Vladimir Putin. It’s been endless, and exhausting.
That means we are also approaching two years of jokes about the two presidents fucking.
That, too, has been endless, and exhausting—and lazy, and ignorant, and offensive, and base-level, and baseless, and homophobic, and, well, not really a joke at all.
The most recent example happened during this weekend’s episode of Saturday Night Live, as part of a recurring bit that exists to test your eye-roll reflex: Alec Baldwin’s Trump and Beck Bennett’s always-shirtless Putin making light of their close ties by winking at a homosexual relationship.
The brief bit was part of the episode’s cold open, in which Trump is awake in the middle of the night, despondent about the Robert Mueller probe while at the G20 Summit in Argentina. He’s visited by a revolving door of his shady cronies, including, at one point, Putin.
“Honey, why you still up?” Bennett’s Putin says, emerging from a hotel room door bare-chested with a randy, horny smirk. He seductively pats the small of Baldwin’s Trump’s back. “Come back to bed, babe!”
Trump feigns jealousy over Putin’s bewildering, jolly handshake with the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia. Putin gets defensive over how it means nothing to him: “I’m not, like, bros with him or anything.” Further calming his political paramour down, he continues, “You’re not my sidepiece. You’re, like, my main girlfriend. This Saudi guy is just a random hookup.”
It’s a lover’s tiff! Get it?
Maybe it didn’t even register to you, you’re so accustomed to the tenor of the humor. Maybe you thought nothing of it because you simply found it funny, which is fair. (Also gross and upsetting.) Truth be told, we’re so conditioned to these gags—not only on SNL, but all across pop culture, social media, and punditry—that we remember letting out little more than an aggrieved sigh while sleepily watching late on Saturday night.
It wasn’t until after that we were reminded that the routine nature of it all shouldn’t necessitate complacency, and that, in this case, some righteous indignation would be in order.
Writer John Levenstein picked up someone’s clipping of that brief part of the segment, maddeningly captioned “spot on,” and tweeted, “Someone at SNL has got to stand up and say it’s not funny to suggest Trump and Putin are lovers. It’s stupid and homophobic and I can’t find the joke.”
Levenstein is right. What is the joke here?
Is it the insinuation that all villains are gay? (Which is irresponsible and offensive.) Is it that assigning the Trump-Putin dealings sexual innuendo somehow makes the maniacal seem more palatable through the implied lunacy of a gay relationship? (Which is irresponsible and offensive)
Is it the idea that outing a powerful political leader is the greatest way to bring him shame? (Which is irresponsible and offensive.) Is it that suggesting that Trump is somehow demeaning himself by submitting to gay sexual acts is the most effective way to mock how beholden he is to Putin’s control? (Which is irresponsible and offensive.)
Or is it that there is nothing worse we can think of to say about a “masculine” straight man than that he fucks other dudes? (Which is… yep, irresponsible and offensive.)
Basically, I think, the joke isn’t a joke at all—at least not one particularly tailored to these two political leaders or with any sort of perspective on the situation. The baseline idea here is that guys in love is inherently funny. No other observation or “take” needs to exist to elicit a laugh; it’s simply funny because they’re dudes. Dudes in love. Dudes who have sex together. Ha! (?)
Just as this weekend’s SNL bit could hardly be called clever or particularly fresh, the frustration over this omnipresent, homophobic punchline isn’t new either.
A pre-election episode of SNL contrasted Trump’s debate claims of having no ties with Putin with a quick cameo from Bennett’s character asking Baldwin’s Donald if he needs anything from the store, to which Trump replies, “I’m good. Thanks, sweetie,” and gives him a kiss on the lips. (The extra-fun layer here: their homosexual relationship is even funnier because it’s closeted!)
There’s the time Frank Bruni wrote an entire column for The New York Times, titled “Donnie and Vlad: A Love Story.” Speaking of the Times, there’s the animated video the publication published that featured the pair out on a date, holding hands, French-kissing, and riding a unicorn through a rainbow-covered sky. There’s the time Stephen Colbert was made to apologize for calling Trump Putin’s “cock holster.” There’s the mural of the two kissing that went viral. Many sites have culled dozens of the likely thousands of social-media posts assigning sexual (gay) depravity to their relationship, in the name of Twitter comedy.
More than a year ago in a piece for Slate, titled “Liberals Have Turned Trump Into a Gay Villain Because Our Worst Villains Must Be Gay,” Andrew Kahn warned against the trope.
It is “hammered like a schoolyard taunt, with a smug assurance that Trump has been duly ‘trolled,’” he wrote. “Like a lot of liberal comedy right now, it serves a fantasy of resistance through snark… Sexual politics aside, our glee in calling Trump gay says more about us than it does about him.”
To that end, what’s interesting is to look at the comments to Levenstein’s tweet about this weekend’s SNL bit. Many of them dismiss his critique entirely. Some encourage him to “lighten up.” In the most cynical of cases, the commenters don’t necessarily dispute his claim and simply offer up “who cares.”
“If a SNL skit bothers you I really feel bad for you” encapsulates that resounding sentiment.
But that’s the thing. It’s not the SNL skit. Or the Colbert joke. Or the Bruni column. Or the Times cartoon. Or, really, any of the angry tweeters annoyed that someone pointed out that a sketch they may have found funny was actually problematic.
It’s not that we think the people making these jokes are homophobic themselves, or mean any harm.
It’s the fact that we’ve somehow agreed by consensus that this comedy “take” is acceptable because it’s partly meant to fight its target’s bigotry. It’s that we’ve forgotten the intrinsic harm of using gayness as pejorative, excusing it because it’s being weaponized against someone we agree should be attacked. It’s that we’ve become so complacent in the idea that “these guys are gay for each other!” is a joke that we’ve stopped questioning whether there is any sort of actual punchline or perspective there at all.