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Hey, Amigos: Chill About Dame Edna
By Myriam Marquez
February 13, 2003
The first time I caught Dame Edna on the tube I had to chuckle at the audacity of the Aussie humorist's drag schtick. Nothing is sacred to Dame Edna.
Clearly, she -- well, more precisely, a guy whose real name is Barry Humphries -- is way over the top in the good taste department. One can't take the Dame seriously because the character's whole point of being is to poke fun at blue bloods by saying outlandish things about everybody else, those little "possums" as she calls her never-good-enough admirers.
In a tongue-in-cheek advice column Humphries writes for Vanity Fair, the Dame, responding to a fictional reader who asked if it's important to learn Spanish, wrote in the February issue:
"Forget Spanish. There's nothing in that language worth reading except Don Quixote, and a quick listen to the CD of Man of La Mancha will take care of that. Who speaks it that you are really desperate to talk to? The help? Your leaf blower? Study French or German, where there are at least a few books worth reading, or if you're American, try English."
Seldom is satire respectful. It can be hurtful. But, ideally, it exposes the underbelly of human nature. Not a pretty picture that -- in fact, it looks a lot like the pudgy guy who is Dame Edna.
Maybe it's because, after more than 15 years of writing commentary, I've received my share of insults from readers who take my opinions way too personally. I know the danger in satire, believe you me. Once I wrote about how white guys needed to stop complaining about being picked on because, when all was said and done, they still run things, whether on Wall Street or on Pennsylvania Avenue. Well, you would have thought I said, "Your mama."
That taught me a lesson. Learn to let hurtful comments slide. Pick your battles, and know when to laugh. A lot.
I just can't get all hot and bothered about the Dame's biases. The backlash from Latino groups, including the National Council of La Raza and the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, of which I'm a member, seems to miss what satire is supposed to be about, even as both groups acknowledge that Humphries is a humorist.
"We understand that Dame Edna prides herself on her manners, her provincialism, and on the fact that she is not an American. And perhaps, it may be that bookstores in Australia do not carry the untold number of acclaimed and prize-winning literature the Spanish language has produced over the centuries. However, we would like to inform her that in this country, where Latinos are more than 37 million strong and now the nation's largest minority group, such disrespect and disparagement of our fellow Americans is not just bad manners, it is offensive to us all," NCLR's Lisa Navarrete said.
The irony is that Mexican-born Salma Hayek graced the cover of the same issue that carried the Dame's schtick about Spanish. Hey, this is America. Free speech.
This whole thing reminds me of the flap that a few Hispanic political activists tried to fabricate a few years ago about the Taco Bell chihuahua ad campaign.
I'm not saying Dame Edna's comments weren't hurtful to many of us. I'm not implying that she made any kind of educated assessment of Spanish literature or even came close to the truth about the millions of Latino professionals, doctors, lawyers and educators in this country.
But don't we Latinos have more important issues to pursue -- like ensuring that our children are not left behind in school as too many are today? Or fighting real discrimination on the job or in housing?
Let's not waste political capital on a guy who dresses up as an old lady and makes a living poking fun at everyone in an effort to tear down society's hypocrisies and hurtful prejudices.
Were Dame Edna a politician, a business leader, an educator or someone else who has any real authority, I would be leading the charge against such bias. But when the outlandish statements come from a guy who dresses up like a campy old lady of leisure, that should offer us a clue.
Don't buy a ticket to any of the Dame's performances to signal your disapproval. Change the channel if the Dame comes on. But let's not go overboard, mis amigos, because we squander our energies and look like hypersensitive crybabies.