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.