“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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8 responses to ““Feminists just can’t take a joke”

  • PinkMusings

    Another thing which is infuriating is the endless (and mindless) repetition of jokes that were perhaps funny the first time around but just not that funny the 345th time they were told! Yes, sure I can take a joke about my driving skills but its just not that funny the second time or the third time or the 400th time!

    • Feminist Menagerie

      I would argue that the driving jokes altogether need to come to an end. I mean, really, is anyone a good driver? Why do women get the brunt of driving jokes? Women do statistically get in more fender-benders than men but men are more likely to be in a fatal and/or high cost accident than women. Really both genders need to be more mindful of their driving habits!

      If someone is a bad driver and a joke needs to be made, it should be based on that individual, not on their gender.

      • PinkMusings

        I agree, they most definitely need to stop altogether. Like I said, it might have been funny the first time the joke was made, but now its so stereotypical that I doubt anyone finds it funny: its the obligatory joke that draws the obligatory laugh. The ‘women drivers’ bit is just one example of such jokes.

  • Ian Serna

    Talking about humor is always going to rattle some cages. I agree that jokes directed at demeaning people in the work place should be avoided. That can be difficult in a diverse work place. The thing about humor is, by it’s on nature the subject of the joke is intended to give the audience of the joke a sense of superiority over that subject. There is always a “victim” in a joke. If you dissect any joke you can find the “victim” weather that “victim” can express it’s offence or not there is one. Once you understand that this is how humor works you can make a joke about anything.
    The problem arises is when through an unconscious effort to feel superior to people they feel threatened by, people will make jokes with out even thinking of the ramifications.
    I am a strong believer in the “Everything is can be joke, nothing is off limits.” I am not a upper middle class, well to do, white guy. I am a Middle class, living paycheck to paycheck, Native American. I like to think that gives me the right to joke out even more stuff that the white guys joke about. The ability to display good humor chops though is to be aware of who your audience is. The subject matter of a joke is all about the audience. You wouldn’t go to Detroit and joke about how shitty the city looks now. You go to Detroit and say,

    “This city has looked better but Have you seen the Occupy camps? This is like a vacation after being near one of those things. Damn take a fucking shower. I mean the bums avoid that place, it was bring their image down.”

    The people who can’t read an audience in a work place shouldn’t not try and incorporate humor into their speeches.

    • Feminist Menagerie

      I don’t disagree, and I think someone like Daniel Tosh (who makes some of the most horribly racist and sexist jokes on the surface you can imagine) is perhaps a good illustration of intent and execution (though I think rather unfortunately a lot of his audience doesn’t understand that those jokes are more self-referential joking and are intended to make a mockery of the people who think they’re funny more than anything else).

      I don’t want to say “humor is best left to the professionals,” but I think that someone who has a grasp on social issues and rhetoric is more adept at making a joke at the expense of gender/sexuality/race in a way that isn’t inherently derogatory/humiliating/insensitive.

      And as much as I hate to be “that guy/gal,” I do think belonging to a group does entitle someone to make humor of that group in a way that isn’t appropriate for others. I can’t/wouldn’t make an American Indian joke like you can. I don’t have the requisite personal experience, it would neither be funny nor appropriate (even if someone did laugh).

  • “Check Your Privilege” Trolls | Marina Rose Martinez

    […] joking’ defense for sexist, racist, homophobic language have been gone over (and over, and over, and over) by much more articulate, less cunty people than me, so I leave that in their capable […]

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