“It’s Just A Joke” and Other Things People Say to Defend Prejudice

UPDATE: After writing this post last week, yet another example–one that dovetails with my other interest, technology–came to light. Adria Richards, an employee of SendGrid, was fired from her job after hackers took down her company’s website because she had the guts to report jokes as sexist at a recent tech conference. The backlash (most of it blatantly sexist and often violent) against Richards for being too sensitive about what was “just a joke” is particularly telling, and serves as more evidence that these types of jokes and behavior have to be called out. The fact that there is so much sexist and violent backlash illustrates the ways that the “jokes” are part of a larger culture of misogyny and violent attitudes towards women who are “not in their place.”

Over the last few weeks, my comp II students have been working on evaluation arguments. As a whole, these essays have been really smart critiques of pop culture artifacts from The Help to MMO RPGs and more. One of my students wrote his essay about the television sitcom The New Normal and the writer’s claim that he is an “equal opportunity offender” who feels entitled to make offensive or prejudiced jokes (most often racially offensive) because he himself is a gay man and understands oppression. My student, a white male, confided that sometimes he cannot tell if a joke is prejudiced because the laugh track on the show makes all of the jokes seem equally funny to the audience. The advice I gave him was to consider the punchline. If the punchline of a joke is “Hahaha aren’t [insert identity group here] funny/weird/different/stupid/lame/ridiculous”, then you are probably hearing a prejudiced joke. It is all too common that comedians sometimes substitute prejudice for a witty punchline. A few good examples include the controversy Daniel Tosh inspired when he suggested that his audience gang rape an alleged female heckler because she had the audacity to suggest that rape is never funny; another example would be when Tracy Morgan said in a stand-up routine that he would murder his son if he were gay. Both of these incidents inspired a conversation about whether or not comedians should be censored or apologize for what some saw as only “off color” jokes. [To be perfectly clear, I think these comedians are entitled to say whatever they want, but they are not entitled to be paid for it or to have people accept it without criticism.] But like I told my student, these jokes use prejudice against an identity group as a substitute for a punchline. “Haha gang rape” and “Haha violence against gay people” are not only offensive, they’re not good jokes. In this discussion with my student, and in all my classes, I talked about how my feminist perspective informs my cultural criticism of comedy and the ways in which humor and irony are sometimes used as an alibi for outright prejudice. Feminism, I shared with him, is very important to me because it helps me to read culture in a way that analyzes not only when something is prejudiced, but why and how. We talked about how even when the intent of a joke seems okay, the context and effect of it are also equally important for cultural critics.

And then there was this blog post about The Onion‘s Oscar tweet calling Quevenzhan√© Wallis the c-word. I’m not a person who thinks feminism is or should be a homogeneous movement where everyone shares the same perspectives or feelings about everything. However, I do think that feminism as a methodology requires rhetorical listening and response. In particular, it requires the serious consideration of other feminists who have a different perspective than you do, especially when that perspective comes from a personal and social history of oppression. The author of the post, Maryann Johnson, insisted that the purpose and intent of the tweet was to use irony in order to critique the emphasis on women’s appearance in Oscar coverage; to point out that the way women are talked about, objectified, and insulted in the popular media is a major cultural problem. I will not weigh in on that intent, because as I said above, cultural critics are also interested in context and effects. Whatever the intent of the tweet, the effect of it was offensive, and many feminists criticized the tweet for participating in a historical and social context that hypersexualizes young black women. In the comments section of Johnson’s blog, many feminists of color made this point, and continually tried to demonstrate that no matter the intent, the effect of the “joke” was bigger than the immediate situation in which it occurred. Johnson repeatedly insisted that the intent was important and in fact, feminist, despite these critiques and questions about why she was so invested in defending The Onion in the first place. Johnson’s refusal to accept and validate the viewpoints of feminists of color based on their own theory and social experiences of oppression highlights a troubling problem in cultural theory and criticism about how irony and humor work. What stuck in my mind when reading this post was a frustration with Johnson for undermining what I had just discussed with my student earlier that day about prejudiced jokes and made it seem as if the project of feminism is in part to rehabilitate racism and misogyny–intentional or not–in the name of irony.

At a colloquium in graduate school when I was presenting a paper about masculine violence in texts that operated under the guise of “irony,” a senior male faculty member told me that my essay was exemplary of an old saying–“Women and revolutionaries do not understand irony.” And here we come to the problem. Many people seem to think that “irony” covers all sins and that feminists are just humorless harpies who “don’t get it.” Feminists, and women by extension, are “too sensitive” to appreciate good jokes. This sentiment is of course belied by my own personal experience with a great number of truly hilarious feminists, but it is a stereotype that nonetheless persists. Not only that, but Johnson’s post draws a line between cool feminists “who get it” and those who are hypersensitive to any “perceived slight.” As a feminist professor, I find it is important to work against this stereotype and talk to my students about the importance of understanding context and effect when evaluating cultural texts. Irony and humor have historically been and continue to be important tools for identifying and pushing back against oppression and prejudice. But the best and most effective uses of irony and humor draw attention to context and the effects of language or stereotypes without reenacting or displacing histories of oppression. In my courses I try to expose my students to feminist texts that exemplify this principle–and digital media like Feministing and Bitch Magazine make these types of texts readily available. “Coolness” and “irony”, however, should not be used–especially by feminists whose interest must be in social justice–in order to dismiss legitimate critique, and a joke with no punchline is not funny.

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