Saturday, 2 March 2013

Not at all funny, ever

Hello again! I’m out of hiding at last! Where I’ve been is boring, why I’m back is interesting so let’s skip the schedule slip self-flagellations (three cheers for alliteration) and dive straight back in. Full disclosure is that it’s been so long that I’ve sort of forgotten what I’ve already written about and when, so if any of this starts to sound familiar then I congratulate you for knowing my own blog better than I do, and maybe I’ll proof read some day and take out the repetitions. I’ve also been doing my thesis for far too long so I’m officially Bored With Referencing so if it ain’t coming straight out of my head, I’m probably not looking it up this evening. Which may make things more interesting. Let’s see.

Alright! Several months ago, I promised a man that if he took a time machine into the future, he would be able to read my post about sexist humour. Given my utmost faith that he does in fact own a time machine and did in fact take that trip, today is the day when I finally save the universe from any potential time paradoxes and write the post that I assume he read.

Let’s start by outlining some obvious facts. Fact number one is that feminists have no sense of humour. The one exception to this rule is the eternally infallible feminist icon Caitlin Moran, who as we all know has been single-handedly keeping feminism alive recently through her unique ability to simultaneously make people laugh and talk about women in a (uh, mostly) non-derogatory way. No other feminist laughs, or is funny. No exceptions.*

Women as a subject matter, on the other hand, are regularly quite funny. Perhaps the greatest monograph on the hilarious idiosyncrasies of women is this piece by one Biben Laikhuram in the Times of India, which I believe truly captures the essence of our existence in a way no other article could. Perhaps due to our status as half the human population of the planet, it seems that women are constantly involved in all sorts of interesting and amusing human interactions! So it’s no wonder that sometimes people want to make jokes that acknowledge the existence of women.

Taking these facts together, we arrive at one inevitable conclusion: it is impossible to Do Funny about women without being a sexist (unless you’re Caitlin). This is why women must exist with a constant flood of degrading and dehumanising jokes- the only other option would be cutting women out of humour altogether, and that would just be much worse. Plus, women make things classier, and sexier, so jokes about them are also always very classy and sexy. It’s all very simple, really. End of post.

…OK, so the above is pretty fanciful even for me. But you know, honestly, if some male humour authority came up to me and went “look, Adrienne, we see you are annoyed about sexist jokes, here’s how it is”, and then gave me that explanation? It would actually be a bit of a relief. Because at present, the only apologies for the flood of “hilarity” at the expense of women go along the lines of “hey, sorry, but it’s funny.”
And it honestly is a flood. I’ve been buried under a mountain of work and thesis and obsessively playing Mass Effect for the past month, and even then I’ve not been able to escape. Here’s a very brief list of things that have happened over the last few days that are funny if you’re a sexist**:

o   Selling t-shirts with slogans like “Keep calm and rape her” and other similar designs on

o   Opening the Oscars with a song about a man watching films with boobs in.

o   Calling 9-year-old Oscar nominee Quvenzhane Wallis a cunt.

o   The existence of Silvio Berlusconi (OK, to be fair his existence is not a thing that has happened over the last few days but there was an election last week so he gets special mention. What a man.)

o   My Mate Jim telling me nobody will like it if I do a future guest round about feminism at our pub quiz because all the questions will be boring and hard, and about a million other interpersonal incidents.

These aren’t all of equal severity, of course. When My Mate Jim tells me a sexist joke, the joke is that he’s saying something that he does not actually believe and knows is sexist because I am a feminist and it will annoy me. He also knows that I know this, and that my “annoyance” will be mostly performative and he will probably come out of the experience with limbs and friendship intact. And the whole thing usually happens without me having to perform an over-analytical game theory breakdown, because we are friends, I trust him***, and we can mutually and unconsciously negotiate boundaries on a regular basis. Of course, I’d rather exist in a world where it wouldn’t even make sense to say a sexist thing as a joke, but in the interim I’ll negotiate my intra-patriarchal friendships however I like, thank you very much.

Of course, this only holds true for people I know personally- a group of people which, happily, does not include the perpetrators of any of the other actions on that list. When we interact with telly programs and politics and adverts and with the rest of endless barrage of information that we process each day, for all we may be more “connected” these days, it’s still mostly a one-way street. Sure, I can e-mail or tweet at pretty much whoever I want to tell them I didn’t like something, but unless there’s a critical mass of other people complaining along with me, it’s unlikely to have any impact. We consume so much more information than we could ever hope to produce, every day- challenging everything becomes an impossible task. And if we don’t challenge it, it’s assumed we accept it.

She's nine years old and she has an INCREDIBLE collection of  handbags which are also stuffed dogs. Why would you ever say something that nasty about her even as a joke I can't even

And the horrible truth is that the more sexism our society consumes, every single day, the more it affects us, in both obvious and unconscious ways. The uncomfortable truth of our modern world is that, no matter how savvy or discerning or antiestablishment we think we are, our world is constantly being shaped beyond our knowledge by people who have made an art form out of knowing how to make us do what they want. And whilst us feminist types may (depressingly) be outside the curve enough to identify and fight against a lot of the sexist bullshit that is being reinforced****, it’s also scientifically proven that said sexist bullshit makes men behave in more sexist ways.

Here’s a different way of thinking about things. I want to concentrate for a bit on Quvenzhane Wallis and the completely reprehensible tweet the Onion published about her during Oscar night- a tweet which they apologised for, only to then post an article satirising their own apology, meaning now I frankly don’t know what to think.

I’ve got two points to make here. One is that, to me, this is by far the most awful and inexcusable thing on that list. She’s a nine-year-old girl, whoever thought it would be in any way acceptable to call her the most misogynistic and sexualised slur in the English language (at least from an American perspective) as a “joke” needs to have a serious think about their lives. I mean, do you remember what it felt like to be nine? If you were a bit of a weirdo like me, here is a reminder.

OK, so that’s a rather over-emotive video (and I am reliably informed the bit about depression and medication is very poorly researched and not very good at all), but you get the point. Unlike adults, who are well-equipped with a whole host of ways to try to brush off and rationalise and explain away the negative things that happen to us, even when they don’t feel right, when we're kids, we know about how the small things matter, and that they matter regardless of intent or context or how wonderful the person saying them might be to everybody else. When you insult a nine-year-old, by calling her a cunt- or, before then, with the numerous “hey, the alphabet called” jokes which were more ambiguously on the line between “just silly” and “pretty damn racist”- you’re sending those insults towards a child who, no matter how unfazed she seems in the public eye, is going to process them in a different way to how an adult would. And on top of the fact you just bullied a kid, you’re also going to throw sexism into the mix? Wow. Classy.

Point number two is more general. See, when I grew out of my weird nine-year-old phase and into my weird teenager phase, hanging out in a big comprehensive school with a group of similarly weird friends, the way insults were traded around the playground changed. People rose to the very top who were exclusively male, very charismatic and constantly making offensive remarks about everyone around them. They were smart enough that they could get enough other people onside to stay in general favour, and manipulative enough to be able to gaslight or  if you did try to respond.

And my god, it worked for them. So much so that even if you were sometimes a victim, you still spent the rest of the time laughing at their jokes- because, as long as it’s not me, it’s OK right?***** So you would be complicit in whatever persecution they were involved in at any particular moment, despite a constant sense of fear that at any second, you might end up in the firing line again for any reason whatsoever. They were never, ever actually your friends, but pretending you were OK with them was usually better than the alternative.

Too often, that’s what it feels like to consume mainstream media as a woman. In fact, it pretty much sums up my feelings for consuming media as a fat person as well, and I’ve no doubt it’s the same or worse for those who identify with other minority (or “minority”) groups. Living in a world of pervasive sexist humour, where women and our troubles are things to be laughed at whenever the charismatic, manipulative man at the top decides its our turn to suffer for everyone else’s amusement, means you never quite get rid of the feeling at the back of your mind that, however entertained you are by something, it might turn unpleasant at any moment. It’s why, no matter how many arguments I hear for why shows like South Park or Family Guy are good, I just can’t get behind the idea that “equal opportunities insulting” can ever really be done right- particularly not when it’s just being done by rich white American men. Ironically, until this, the Onion was probably the only example of doing “equal opportunities insulting” that I would have completely supported. That they apologised- and apologised well, until yesterday's article at least- is something, but that’s still a lot of trust to lose.

What these people say matters to our societies far more than it should, given that we can’t actually make the personal connections necessary to be able to really understand their intent. But we can, as a society, hold our humour to some basic moral standards- yes, even if also find the thing funny. I know a world in which it’s unthinkable to joke about a nine-year-old being a “cunt” may sound like a humourless feminist dystopia, but bear with us. There are still one or two things to laugh about that don’t involve oppression.

*FEMINIST NOTE: I’m afraid this means that if you have ever laughed whilst reading this blog, or found it amusing in any way, you have negated my identity as a feminist (and possibly also your own). For shame.

**LOGICIAN NOTE: this is “if” you’re a sexist not “if and only if” you’re a sexist. Actually I can’t prove that every sexist finds all these jokes funny either, but rhetoric > logic, yo.

***To all mutual friends who just raised an eyebrow at that: shush. I would trust the man with my life. Perhaps not with small animals though.

****Usually as a means to an end, I might add. I’m not yet cynical enough to think that media are sexist purely because the people in charge hate women; they just want you to keep buying certain things, metaphorically and literally.

*****On a tangent, this is also why it’s scary that the Onion has been defended by other feminist writers who appear to think that we can only focus on a certain number of sexist Oscars incidents and that being angry about the boob song is more important.****** So now we’re laughing along as long as it’s just one black nine-year-old in the firing line and not us Empowered Mature Feminist Types? I don’t care how you personally feel about the boob song or the word cunt, being complicit in this is a shitty position to take.

****** Honestly, I watched the boob song and I was more baffled than anything. Was it just funny because he said “boobs” a lot and that’s a naughty word? To me the depressing bit was that they added prerecorded footage of the actors looking humiliated, as if they needed to reinforce the fact that the joke was at the expense of women, rather than including them. If they’d started from the assumption that Naomi Watts and Charlize Theron would also want to celebrate their boobs, it’s plausible they could have arrived at something, er, not stupid. Think about it, Oscars people!