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Wednesday, May 22, 2024

I don't watch much television, especially late-night shows. Conan, Letterman, the whole bunch - I just don't find them funny. But worse than all the others, in my mind, is Jay Leno. Though I shiver at the thought, I could sit through a Fall Out Boy concert in its entirety before I could do the same for "The Tonight Show." To top it off, Leno is so lacking in wit that his only apparent back-up is bigotry.

On March 20, Ryan Phillippe stopped by the set of "The Tonight Show" to promote his new film, "Stop-Loss." Leno's initial discussion with the actor revolved around earlier portions of his career, including his stint on the soap opera "One Life to Live" as the first gay teenage character on television.

I guess Jay just couldn't help himself from proceeding with what he thought was comedic gold. He asked Phillippe to give a camera his "gayest look," pretending it was his gay lover.

What I'm dying to know at this point is what exactly does Mr. Leno consider a "gay face"? A male one? An "effeminate" one? And while many in the gay and similar communities are in an uproar, what will the network do about it? My guess is probably nothing. But frankly, if ABC can refuse to renew Isaiah Washington's contract for an incident of prejudice on the set of "Grey's Anatomy," then NBC needs to get its act together.

The lack of public knowledge already says something to me. Incidents like this are exactly the kind of heteronormative reinforcement that we as a general public often let slide. Though he appeared uncomfortable and threatened to walk off the show (though somewhat jokingly), Ryan Phillippe remained to finish the rest of his interview. What we needed him to do was walk offstage.

There are plenty of people out there who will think I take this too seriously, but if we all just laugh it off, we become just as complicit in the ongoing oppression of Lesbian/ Gay/ Bisexual/ Transgender/ Queer/ Questioning/ individuals and their rights.

The late-night television hosts are the cream of the crop when it comes to people with privilege in this country - old, white American males who can seemingly make disgusting displays of bigotry into humorous monologues.

Jay Leno has about as much right to demand to see anyone's "gayest look" as he does to assign someone as talented as Kevin Eubanks to the role of a "token black guy who I require to laugh in response to the worthless drivel I spout."

Some might argue that humor is what brings the public's attention to sensitive social issues like these. Be real, folks: There is a huge difference between satire and plain old humor (neither of which Jay Leno exhibits successfully). Where satire proves a point through its disconcerting moments, garden-variety humor encourages amusement at the expense of someone else. Even people present in the audience that night who might have found themselves laughing uncomfortably at Leno's pressing request were still laughing, not thinking.

The fact that a mainstream entertainment source finds it acceptable to contribute so wholeheartedly to the ongoing intolerance of the Lesbian/ Gay/ Bisexual/ Transgender/ Queer/ Questioning community is my justification for watching as little television as I do. Allowing Leno to strengthen societal inequality without reprimand because "it's just a joke" is exactly how prejudiced attitudes and heterosexism get transmitted to future generations.

Chelsea Fiddyment is a student at the University of Illinois.

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