Monthly Archives: November 2011

“Feminists just can’t take a joke”

Early this fall I was speaking to a friend of mine who coaches women’s soccer at a co-ed college.  She expressed to me some difficulty she faced in the workplace with sexist comments and how she confronted the men making the remarks and she told me (quoted as best I can from memory), “they seemed to get it but they just made more jokes.  It’s like they can’t take feminism seriously because it makes them uncomfortable so they make jokes about it.”

This got me thinking – feminists have a long standing reputation for being “unable to take a joke,” particularly when said joke is overwhelmingly sexist or the question of workplace sexual harassment comes up.  I’ve never met a feminist that didn’t love to laugh; when George Carlin passed in 2008 I lamented the loss of a counterculture icon and favorite comedian of mine and certainly he had no shortage of bits that were less than feminist friendly.  So why are some jokes not at all funny?  Who gets to decide what is appropriate and what isn’t?  I’m not in favor of censorship, but I do believe hate speech and oppressive words should be called out as such (a right to say something does not make saying it morally or ethically just).  Some important questions I think are good to mull over before telling a sexist joke:

  • By telling this joke, what is the underlying message which I am trying to convey (women are less intelligent, women are deserving of rape, women’s sports deserve less respect than men’s, conversely a male’s value as a person is closely related to his penis size, et cetera)?
  • Why do I feel this sentiment is necessary to convey?
  • Do I genuinely believe this sentiment, and if not, why would I want someone to believe that I do?
  • If this sentiment were expressed about me personally, would I be offended?  Why do I expect a woman to not be offended by the implications I am making?

In a recent article titled Lighten Up, Ladies!  Sexual harassment, sexual shmarassment, right? columnist Tabatha Southey says, “It’s distracting. It hurts our productivity. Some of us will now sit in a meeting with a man, listening to him talk about, say, life-threatening safety violations in our own workplace, and be wondering if he thinks he’s doing a Seth Rogen impression and when in his speech we’re meant to start laughing. Sometimes we do start laughing. It’s a defensive move. We look insane! But insane is okay. Just never let it be said that we don’t have a sense of humour.”  Why has it now become a condition of employment that women need to take being offended in stride?  I’m no fan of those “he has a sports car/giant truck/hummer, he must be compensating for an undersized penis,” jokes, but would these same people say something like that to their boss that just purchased a new red Z3?  Why is it more acceptable to make jokes challenging a woman’s worth and abilities than it is a man’s?

I find it interesting that (at least in my experience), most of the people saying “anything can be funny, nothing is off-limits,” are white middle and upper class straight males.  Can someone in the position of ultimate privilege (white privilege, class privilege, male privilege, straight privilege) really be a fair and objective judge of what’s “funny” when the chance of that individual facing any real oppression or harassment in their life is nil?  Again, I’m not arguing for censorship, I’m just proposing that maybe the people making “jokes” in the workplace that disparage people based on their gender/race/sexual orientation should take responsibility for their words and realize that when they make the statement, “this joke is being told at the cost of your dignity, it’s funny, and if you don’t agree then you are the problem not me,” it is going to breed hostility in the workplace and it does in fact make them a bad person.  Nobody goes to work to feel humiliated.

What’s the appropriate response to rape jokes in the workplace?  Why is it acceptable to tell a woman who’s offended by a rape joke to “lighten up, it’s nothing serious,” and to drag her though the mud when she files a sexual harassment claim?  Is rape really something we as a society want to convey is funny?  I don’t understand at what point prison rape jokes and “she had it coming” humor became acceptable; I do understand that we use humor to diffuse uncomfortable situations but the line between softening the blow and making a mockery of victims of horrible personal violations has clearly been crossed (does anyone really believe that violent anal rape in prison is justified for minor drug crimes?).

Women love to laugh just as much as men do.  We just want you to laugh with us, not at us.

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Reading Between the Lines: Female Musicians in Rolling Stone Magazine

From time to time The Feminist Menagerie will feature an article by a guest author.  I’m excited to present the first guest piece, written by Kera Lovell, 2011 graduate of Purdue University’s American Studies Master’s program.  I had the pleasure of completing my undergraduate thesis at the same time as Kera and was first introduced to her research on women and the rock music industry at that time.  She’s recommended the books Electric Ladyland by Lisa Rhodes and Rock ‘n’ Roll Woman by Katherine Orloff for further reading.

Reading Between the Lines: Female Musicians in Rolling Stone Magazine, 1975

Reflecting the massive changes initiated by the women’s liberation movement, women began to drastically challenge gender inequality in the music industry in the 1970s, with growing numbers of women as music journalists, vocalists, musicians, writers, and executives who helped support openly feminist musicians and organize feminist music festivals. Even at Rolling Stone, one of the most popular national music periodicals still today, the magazine began to hire more female journalists and editors, covered increasing amounts of women’s rights issues, and, in 1975, dedicated a record number of cover stories to female artists. In spite of all the successes of Second-Wave feminism, it doesn’t take a genius to crack a 1975 issue of Rolling Stone and expect to find rampant sexual objectification of women. You can flip to almost any page and find it—the variety of pornographic magazine advertisements and nude album cover promo ads are just the tip of the iceberg. To say the least, this was a very difficult time in the history of female musicians who attempted to negotiate a space within the hypermasculine music industry.

Rolling Stone exemplified how even Leftist, counterculturally-rooted organizations negatively reacted to feminism. The magazine repetitively denigrated the Women’s Movement and “women libbers,” and more often than not, sexually objectified women by including articles on female pornography stars, female sensual massages, and political sex scandals. While Rolling Stone claimed to support progressive politics, readers can clearly see by reading between the lines that women are portrayed as sexual objects and subordinate to men. Not only were men sexually objectifying women in the advertisements, articles, and images in Rolling Stone, but female musicians ultimately mirrored this sexual objectification by over-sexualizing themselves to win over the patriarchal world of rock ‘n’ roll.

Women’s own self-sexualization surprised me most when investigating the magazine’s 1975 volume for my senior thesis at Agnes Scott College a few years ago.  Although there had been female musicians on Rolling Stone covers since the magazine was first published in 1967, cover stories of women had been few and far between. These numbers are pretty grim, with no female musicians on covers in 1972 or 1973. There were, however, eight women on Rolling Stone covers in 1972: four prostitutes, a nude woman receiving a massage, Sally Struthers, and Jane Fonda. 1975 began a drastic jump in female coverage with six covers devoted entirely to female musicians. This volume also shows a wide range of female musicians, including blues-rock artist Bonnie Raitt, hard rock artist Suzi Quatro, the African American glam rock group Labelle, Jewish jazz and rock artist Phoebe Snow, pop and later country sensation Linda Ronstadt, and pop rock artist Carly Simon.

Even though it might appear that these women were gaining greater respect and recognition through increased publicity, women began to take a lead from male journalists and sexualized themselves during their interviews, possibly to attract more male fans. Other than Raitt, who attempted to maintain a disinterest in sex, all of the cover stories on female musicians included the artist’s discussion of her orgasms. Patti Labelle compared her onstage ecstasy to being married to a million men and women: “And when I’m married to a person, I give all I have. It’s like a climax, and when the audience does it like they did last night in Atlanta, I come…Yes…I wear Pampers onstage.”1 Fellow band member Sarah Dash added, “It’s like letting a million people see you in bed with whomever you love…and being naked and having sex with your music…but I don’t wear tampons because if it ran down my leg, that’s what you see and that’s what you git. We told our band; ‘Now we like to reach orgasms onstage, and they thought we were from out there somewhere.’”2 Not only do these accounts reveal the lasting boom of the sexual revolution, but show how female musicians were expected to perform onstage and in articles. Journalists exhibited no surprise at these artists’ sexual revelations. Rock ‘n’ roll sold sex and women who were candid about their sexuality were successful entrepreneurs. In the heat of the revolution, many women wanted to embrace their sexuality, while other women felt that flaunting a sexual image only resulted in more sexism in the music industry. According to Terry Garthwaite, member of the band The Joy of Cooking, women were expected to be what she calls “chicky-poo”: “ultrafeminine and…submissive in their attitude,” while at the same time being what fellow band member Toni Brown defined as a “sexpot”: “a doll-like figure” “playing a flirtsy-cutesy role” (Orloff 59, 34). Male journalists consistently portrayed women as vulnerable and weak, yet sexually feisty women. Yet women were treated this way by all factors of the music industry, encouraging women to wear low-cut gowns rather than produce their own projects. Rather than feeling pressure to sacrifice their femininity to be “one of the boys,” women were often led to be passive and sexual. In Rock ‘N Roll Woman , her 1974 collection of interviews with female musicians, Katherine Orloff discussed how Ronstadt perpetuated the stereotype of a ditsy showgirl which many female musicians had to fight:

It seems she has been pigeonholed to such an extent that she is often given little credit for having any brains…Linda likes to feel sexy onstage and the message is communicated as much through her clothes, a wardrobe which includes tight pants and filmy blouses, as through her movements, suggestive comments, and generally friendly attitude. In this way, she sometimes seems to perpetuate her own stereotype (123).

On that note, have you cracked an issue of Rolling Stone since 1975? Things haven’t change much, except perhaps the self-sexualization and sexual objectification of women has gotten a little worse.

1 Art Harris, “Labelle: Comin’ Comin’ Comin’ to Getcha!” Rolling Stone, July 3, 1975, 42. Note how even the article’s title is a play on the article’s orgasm banter.

2 Harris, “Labelle,” 42.


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