The Rise of the Fun Police

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A decade ago, “Saturday Night Live” began running a series of skits featuring “Debbie Downer,” a character who could single-handedly destroy fun of any kind with the world’s most depressing remarks. In her inaugural appearance on the show, Debbie, played by the amazing Rachel Dratch, manages to annihilate the good moods of her entire family while dining at Mickey’s Breakfast Jamboree in Disney World.

“Oh, hey Pluto, hi,” Debbie croaks in monotone, standing ram-rod straight while the famous Disney dog fruitlessly attempts to hug her.

“Boy, it must be fun to work here. … Although the biggest drawback to working at a theme park is that you must live under constant fear of deadly terrorist attacks.” (Insert the sound of a sad, slow trombone—wah wah waaaah—while the camera zooms in on Debbie’s face. Poor Pluto, meanwhile, runs away.)

“With that costume on,” Debbie adds, staring blankly at the back of the fleeing cartoon character, “he’s probably in the early stages of heat stroke.” Pause. “Speaking of heat, if this greenhouse effect keeps up, we’ll all be living underwater.” Pause. “By the way, it’s official: I can’t have children.”

The world got a taste of a real-world Debbie Downer last week, courtesy of earnest one-named MSNBC host Touré. After his television roundtable colleagues spent a few too many minutes of their East Coast blizzard coverage happily reminiscing about childhood and the pure joy of playing in the snow, Touré broke in. “I’m sorry,” he huffed. “I can only do so many fun, awe-struck stories about the weather and the extraordinary weather events without saying this is because of climate change. … When we act like all this is fun, you know what we are doing? We’re dancing on the deck of the Titanic.”

“I can only,” he added in dramatic conclusion, “do this fun so many times.” Unfortunately for us all, a depressing-yet-comic horn did not sound at this particular point in time.

If you look around, you can see Debbie Downers—or, as I like to call them, the fun police—everywhere. They’ve banned Happy Meal Toys in San Francisco. They’ve banned large sodas in New York. In Los Angeles, they recently attempted to ban Frisbee playing on public beaches. In California as a whole, thanks to a law called Proposition 65, they slap vague and alarming warning labels on everything from hotels to cars. (On a recent trip to Santa Barbara, we decided to splurge on lunch at the Four Seasons, which is a lovely hotel overlooking the beach—and which also, as a large, prominent sign posted next to the hotel’s front doors helpfully informed me, may or may not have traces of hazardous and toxic chemicals buried deep inside its walls. It was very romantic.)

In the world of the fun police, there’s never enough oppression to go around, and there are never enough deadly-serious labels—gay, straight, half-white, half-black, one-quarter Cambodian, three-quarters Asian transgender student-athlete, and on and on—with which to dissect various injustices.

When I was in college, I always found it vaguely amusing to shout “OPPRESSION!” when there was something going on I didn’t like. Despite the insistence of some of my professors, I was, of course, nowhere near oppressed. None of my friends, of many races, colors, and creeds, were anywhere near oppressed, either, and even the most delusional among us knew that this was the case.

This is probably why none of us grew up to be producers for National Public Radio. In just the past few days, the fun police at NPR have aired the following not-so-gut-wrenching, label-oriented tales of woe: “People Assumed I Was a Tech Whiz Because I’m Asian,” “Growing Up ‘White,’ Transracial Adoptee Learned to Be Black,” “Is the Color of Hockey Changing?” and, my personal favorite, “‘Hispanic’ or ‘Latino’? Polls Say It Doesn’t Matter—Usually.” (As another “Saturday Night Live” character, the hearing-impaired Emily Litella, might say: “NEVER MIND.”)

To the fun police, everything is political. Going to an art museum? Too bad—those old masters really excluded everyday women from their paintings, unless they happened to be everyday women who were also oppressed, and also naked. Going to an awards show? There will certainly be some demographic not well represented—or, even worse, there might also be an excruciatingly terrible rapper named Mackelmore who gets a Grammy because he happened to release a song about marriage equality in 2013, which has been recently declared “the gayest year ever.”

Watching a Disney movie with the kids? It’s likely racist, “gendered,” or retrograde—or, in the assessment of CNN host Sally Kohn, it just doesn’t go far enough. After watching Disney’s latest hit, “Frozen,” Kohn tweeted the following: “Watching Frozen, it’s awesome. But come on @DisneyPictures, ain’t it finally time for a kid’s film where the princess marries a princess?!” (You know what’s coming next: “Wah. Wah. Waaaaaah.”)

The fun police are consumed with the trivial, but incredibly blasé about the momentous. They love pot to death—actually, these days, it’s hard to find anyone who isn’t wild about legalizing marijuana—but in cities like New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles, they’re going after e-cigarettes, which release an odorless steam that may emit a tiny trace of nicotine into the air. Intriguingly, in their world of hyper-restriction, certain “freedoms” are declared in the oddest places: In California, as of January 1, public school children as young as kindergarten can literally choose which gender they want to be, depending on how they feel. They can choose to use either the boys or girls bathroom, join the soccer team of either sex, and, apparently, shower in either the boys or girls locker room. I don’t know about you, but I suspect the Golden State might end up with more than a few mighty stinky, slightly terrified, non-showered kids after gym class.

And here’s where the fun police really start to ruin the party. They love sexual freedom—in a sense. Sex, in their view, should be no big deal. It should be open, and it should be everywhere, lest we oppress or “shame” someone. (By the way, don’t get the fun police started on the wide and various forms of “shaming.” You will be there all day.) But in a recent and excellent piece for New York magazine, in which feminist Naomi Wolf dissects our nation’s pornified culture, the conclusion seems to suggest otherwise. Talking with a young college student who prefers to have sex right away in a relationship—“You know it’s going to happen anyway, and it gets rid of the tension,” he says—a disappointed Wolf suggests that perhaps he’s ruining a bit of the mystery in the whole thing, a bit of the fun.

“Mystery?” he replies, giving her a blank look. “I don’t know what you’re talking about. Sex has no mystery.” He’s right: It doesn’t, at least not anymore. At colleges across the nation, instead of mystery, you’ll find a strange celebration of empty promiscuity mixed with a fierce doctrine of legalism and litigiousness. It certainly doesn’t seem very fun. In fact, it’s kind of a downer.

At this point, we all know whom to thank. I’ll let you imagine your own sad horn. 

Heather Wilhelm is a writer based in Austin,Texas. Her work can be found at and her Twitter handle is @heatherwilhelm.

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