A contradiction in terms, I know. One of those most common side-effects of the phenomenon I spoke about last Monday is the stereotype of feminists as being humorless, joyless and not being able to laugh at a joke. Usually, this refers not to the whole of comedy, but jokes that make fun of women, feminism, violence against women and rape that are just so funny, why can’t you see it? Oh, because you’re a feminist and therefore can’t take a joke. Comedy and laughter are some of those things that people always point to when thinking about those wonderful, ineffable things that make us human, and it would be a shame if feminists were somehow missing out on all that great humanness, so I’m going to try to deconstruct the debate by looking at different types of jokes, the effects they have and where the role of appropriate discretion comes in. If we can all just get over the irony of a humorless feminist dissecting humor into an oblivion, then we can move on. Keep in mind that there are exceptions to all of these ideas, and there is caveat at the end.
Joke Type 1: Making fun of feminism
“You want to hear a joke?” “What?” “The women’s rights movement”
HI-larious. I think it’s pretty clear that these are the most innocuous of the bunch. The jokes are poking fun at a political movement, not people and not awful situations. It seems like it’s the same as making fun of libertarians or socialists or democrats or republicans, which themselves are a motley mix of parties, movements and ideologies. In a free marketplace of ideas, ideas stand on their own merit and are in the public realm to be defended, criticized or made fun of. I’ve even seen it claimed that the test of whether something can be made fun of is a decent proxy to see if it’s a good idea or not (the underlying notion being that something that’s simply reasonable and appeals to our sense of obviousness is difficult to make fun of. “You think people should, all else equal, be nice to each other?!? HAHAHAha..ha..ha well I guess that’s not such a bad idea”). I don’t subscribe to this test, but it does support the fundamental concept, which is that we deal with the thousands of ideas we encounter by reacting to them, sometimes with happiness, sometimes with vitriol and sometimes with humor.
However, this is complicated by the fact that in general, the jokes I’ve seen don’t make fun of feminism for its failings or weaknesses. They make fun of the existence of feminism (e.g. the joke above). This is pretty odd when analyzed in reference to the comparisons made previously. No one (or almost no one) makes fun of the Republican party simply for being around, and no one except Ann Coulter makes jokes predicated on the inherent ridiculousness of the existence of liberals. They make fun of failures, contradictions or flawed policies. (“Republicans care about babies until they’re born; the parodying 10 commandments of socialism include “4. Do not believe in anything that can’t be proved through science. Except Socialism.” and “8. Thou shalt not take a basic economics course.”) But I have never seen a joke that ridicules feminism for its cissexism, or classism. The only exception to this is the jokes about the sometimes conflicting values of egalitarianism and social justice (“feminists say they want equality but based on their stances on paternal custody, rape shield laws and paternity leave, they’re clearly just sexist against men”). Any other examples welcome. Other than that, it seems like the joke is that there are people who call themselves feminists, who see problems in the world relating to gender injustice, who seek to remedy the weakness of women as a political body, and all of the other goals of feminism. That’s it. And it is so damn funny.
To me, that is a problem. It doesn’t incite violence, but it does promote the notion of women and women’s issues as secondary, unimportant and easily dismissed. Feminism is a fringe issue of no consequence. This is the kind of thinking that leads to the Left deciding that one kind of leftism is more important than another, and almost always, the latter ends up being feminism. See: Julian Assange rape accusations and Michael Moore/Keith Olbermann. It discourages women (and others) from describing themselves as feminists, from engaging in political activism relating to gender and sexuality and from complaining at all. It makes me wonder whether or not race activists in the 60s were treated in a similar way, because there were similar ideas floating around of inherent differences between groups of people (races or sexes/genders) making seeming injustices part of the natural order and therefore ridiculous to criticize.
With Type 1 Jokes then, it appears that while superficially harmless, they perpetuate the secondary status of women and their problems (women’s problems, not human problems or justice problems). So if you care about women having a voice and not being told one more time on top of the thousands of other subtle hints and messages that their problems are not important, this might not be the way to go (again, see my last post). (For stronger language, I’d refer you to Martha Nussbaum’s statement that those who actively deflect women from fighting for their rights in the political sphere are evil).
Joke Type 2: Making fun of women
“Why can’t Hellen Keller drive? Because she’s a woman”
“Woman go make me a sandwich”
The problems with these are obvious, right? They make use of and perpetuate sexist tropes about women being bad drivers, being empty headed, subservient to men, keepers of the home, cooks, responsible for taking care of men, responsible for providing sex to men, only valuable for their sexual appeal, objects rather than people and generally inferior. Everyone knows that. But they’re funny enough that that doesn’t matter. Or, everyone in the room knows you’re joking. Now, this last argument actually deserves some attention, and that will be given later. But for the moment, it’s important to point out that reminding women of stereotypes about women has been shown to lower performance and confidence. These things affect outcomes and career choices. They can also make women feel very uncomfortable in a room or a culture where these jokes are common, as if they’ll never be taken seriously and treated as equals.
Overall though, I might agree that as annoying as these jokes generally are ,I’m willing to admit that there’s a silliness to these jokes that isn’t present in the previous type. This is probably because, despite all of the sexist possibilities that give the jokes material from which to draw, there is something about making fun of people that, while undoubtedly potentially harmful, seems more personal and lighthearted (at least from the perspective of the person telling the joke). It might not be nice, but it’s something that people do, and so I might be willing to categorize these jokes at least in some sense in the same way I would other ways that, say, middle schoolers rib and ridicule each other.
The other reason they appear to have less malice is that it is now taken as a given in most liberal, educated circles that women are equal to men in all relevant moral, political and economic senses (normatively, not descriptively), and so the joke is funny because it juxtaposes that reality with a previous one, not because women themselves are a joke. Because, and only because of this success of feminism, these jokes do less harm than they used to, and may be more acceptable. So perhaps feminism fosters funniness after all.
The predominant reason, though, that Type 2 jokes seem so much less damaging is that they feed into the pseudo-egalitarianism of the battle of the sexes, in which each side is caricatured into nonrecognition and characterized in all sorts of unfortunate and unpleasant ways. Jokes about men and jokes about women, the ones that have counterparts on the other side, are exceedingly common, and so there’s almost a sense in which these jokes promote solidarity within genders hurling insults across the breach. For every Bad Female Driver joke, there’s a Men are Too Stubborn to ask for Directions joke and for every Women are Only Good for Sex joke there’s a Bumbling Fool Driven by His Penis joke. Notta bene: I do not believe in the battle of the sexes (except evolutionarily speaking), nor do I believe in the gender binary, and nor do I think this is an example of healthy gender relations. It’s also the case that pure egalitarianism in a patriarchal society can still disadvantage women, and so this is hardly perfect. But it still seems more functional than Type 1 or Type 3 (below).
Joke Type 3: Jokes about violence against women and rape
“What do you tell a woman with two black eyes? Nothing; you already told her twice.”
This is where we get into what I consider Really Not Ok territory. Violence against women is…how to put this…not funny. It is a real problem across the world and in the United States. Women must fear the ever-present dangers of sexual harassment, assault, rape, domestic abuse at bars, at home, at school, on the street, at work and in their beds. They have abusers who are strangers, boyfriends, husbands, pimps, johns, friends, teachers and bosses. They get stared at, cat-called, followed, stalked and harassed. They have to think about what they’re wearing, whether to bring mace in their purses and how fast they can run in the shoes they have on.
But everyone knows those things. No one supports rape, or hitting women. It’s simply no longer acceptable to believe those things, and so those jokes can’t do harm. Except that triggering exists, hostile, damaging environments exist, and these are tangible harms.
Also, people do believe these things, some explicitly, some implicitly. Some people just think domestic abuse is a private matter and not to be interfered with by friends, even if they find out about it. Some women believe it and don’t report abuse, don’t bother to file a police report after an assault and don’t report rape because after all maybe they were asking for it. But the people who believe in more strongly than anyone else? Rapists. Rapists and abusers believe that all men are rapists and abusers, and jokes are a great way to convince them further that that’s true. And if the words coming out of your mouth are making rapists or potential rapists feel normal, that’s a problem. Furthermore, if actions make rapists comfortable and rape victims, survivors and other women uncomfortable, that’s a sad state of events.
All of this comes with a caveat, which is that this analysis is context-specific. Humor and laughter bring people together and are quite enjoyable parts of being human. Friends may have an understanding in which generally offensive humor is acceptable and even appropriate. Nevertheless, it’s important to weigh those benefits against the possibility that there is harm being done, for the girl in the room who feels awkward speaking up when she feels uncomfortable, for the friends that have never bothered to point out that the jokes are not really so funny and for all the damage done at a non-conscious level. It is a moral responsibility to be aware of these things, and to utilize and apply this awareness in a sensible way, so that our laughter doesn’t come, intentionally or otherwise, at the expense of others.