The Emmy Awards ceremony is usually an evening of fun and frocks, during which some awards are also handed out. But this year’s ceremony in mid-September came under fire for starting things off with a comedy skit featuring former White House press secretary Sean Spicer. Some commentators argued that, in his former job, Spicer regularly defended his boss’ racist and xenophobic decisions, so they wanted to hear him apologize before they were willing to listen to him tell jokes. Others argued that it was just a comedy skit, and Spicer deserved a second chance – particularly since he was fired from the White House, rather than quitting – and that like any other disgraced public figure he should have the opportunity to rebuild his reputation.
My feelings lie toward more toward the “not ready for jokes yet” perspective. I’m a big fan of Stephen Colbert – and his principled and honest attitude toward his work – and I’m also a viewer of his show who really appreciates him calling out the ridiculousness of the actions of the Trump administration. So I was quite disappointed to learn that Colbert was apparently responsible for arranging Spicer’s Emmy appearance. There are likely larger issues of forgiveness and redemption going on in this situation that would take a very long time to pick apart here. But I’ll just say that, given Colbert’s insightful commentaries on the serious implications of Trump’s conduct, I would have thought that Colbert would have anticipated the potential for negative blowback from Spicer’s participation in the show.
What particularly troubles me about the decision to feature Spicer on the Emmys is how it demonstrates “normalization”. This is the phenomenon in which something or someone with a questionable history is presented in a particular context with the implication that everything is normal. In other words, the message underlying the appearance is “this is how things are”, and other information about the situation or person is ignored, or implicitly deemed to be irrelevant. In the context of the situation at the Emmys, the normalization is in how Spicer was presented as someone who used to be the subject of a very funny skit on Saturday Night Live. His reason for being the subject of that skit – as someone who defended the actions of a deeply dysfunctional and dangerous US president – is overlooked.
In some ways normalization is related to gaslighting, a phenomenon that’s been observed in studies of workplace bullying. As explained by fellow blogger David Yamada, gaslighting occurs when the target of bullying is subjected to ongoing behaviour that leaves them wondering if they are over-sensitive, or going crazy. In other words, a reality is created in which a worker is made to feel that their actions or perceptions are wrong or misguided, when in fact it’s their situation or their co-workers that are dysfunctional. As David points out, gaslighting can be “crazy-making”, particularly as it’s very difficult for the target to argue that things are a certain way when everyone else in their workplace is insisting that things are a different way. So gaslighting is a form of normalizing in that a set of norms or beliefs, albeit highly dysfunctional or misguided ones, are being presented as the version of normality or reality that everyone in the workplace is expected to accept without question.
Another high-profile example of normalization is Time magazine’s recent multimedia project Firsts, featuring 43 “women who are changing the world”. Each of the women profiled in the project is the first to achieve something, such as the first Asian-American woman to be elected to the US Senate, and the first woman to win the James Beard Award for Outstanding Chef. Clearly these are accomplishments to be celebrated – however, many of these women are not only the “first” but also the “only”. Focusing on what these specific women have attained may be inspirational, but it also overlooks the reality of the significant discrimination that many more women face throughout their lives and throughout their careers. There are now 32 women CEOs at the “Fortune 500” companies, but that’s still only 6.4% of those 500 CEOs. That imbalance in numbers of men and women “is in no way representative of the [numbers of men and women in the] wider population”. Similarly, the lack of gender diversity on boards of Canadian companies has led some commentators to argue that legislation is the only way to achieve better representation in board membership, since voluntary initiatives to encourage companies to diversify their boards are having little or no effect. So when women’s achievements as “the first” are celebrated, it normalizes the idea that women are making progress in society and in the workplace, when in fact the opposite may be the truth.
On another level, normalizing can also occur more quietly and gradually when problematic behaviour is implicitly accepted across time. Elizabeth Lehfeldt, who blogs at Tales Told Out Of School, recently provides an example of this when she described “superwoman” behaviour by university faculty members and administrators. Overwork becomes less “super” and more “normal” when people don’t take time off when they need to, or when they accept working conditions that have a negative impact on their non-working lives. Lehfeldt describes how she personally pushes back against this kind of normalization by, for example, leaving work at a regular hour and by not working on weekends (and, if that happens, taking time off during the week to compensate). She also points out that people in senior positions have the responsibility to model positive and productive norms of workplace behaviour, rather than normalizing damaging and dysfunctional work habits.
So, yeah, Sean Spicer was only part of a comedy skit on an awards show. But the discussion around normalization that was fueled by his appearance taps into much bigger and important issues. In a time when we have “fake news” as a textbook example of how dangerous misinformation is presented as truthful and “normal”, normalization in all its forms is something that it’s extra-important to be aware of and to resist.