Monday, March 28, 2011

Why feminists have no sense of humor.

I'm a feminist, or at least a believer in sexual freedom and equality who uses the label "feminist" because that takes less syllables and means the same goddamn thing dammit. And I think I have a sense of humor. I enjoy comedy and sometimes write it, and if I haven't got the knack of creating laugh-till-you-fall-over material entirely consistently, I know it when I see it. For example, the following clip, while being completely idiotic, consistently makes me laugh until I'm leaking bodily fluids: NWS dialogue and also terminally nerdy.

But there's two kinds of jokes out there:
1) Jokes which hinge on absurdity. "Ha ha, that could never happen!" A horse walks into a bar...
2) Jokes which hinge on recognizability. "Ha ha, that always happens!" What's the deal with airline peanuts...

The first kind is pretty reliably inoffensive, at least to me. There are no crypto-patriarchal implications to robot boners. It's also why I'm generally okay with dead baby humor and "The Aristocrats"--the content may be offensive, but the real joke is that nobody wants to kill babies and nobody would put on a show like that, so it's ridiculous to even consider.

The second kind, well, it depends what you're positing as the "always happens." If your joke is only funny in a universe where women are shallow/stupid/sexless/etc., and you think your joke is funny... then yes, you actually are accountable for believing that. The fact that it had a setup and a punchline doesn't mean it exists in some parallel Joke Universe where nobody is responsible for anything they say about anything.

The same joke can be either kind, depending on the person telling them. This can cause some hurt feelings when I understand that my friend isn't really sexist and thinks it's absurd to say that about women, but someone else doesn't know him and thinks he really means it. This is the reason that we have the "it's only okay to tell that joke if you're in the group it's mocking" rule, too.

Funny thing, though; people who tell offensive jokes don't usually use the "I was saying it's absurd to think that!" defense when they're called out on it. Instead they're usually quite willing to say "c'mon, you know it's true." And the next thing, of course: "don't you have a sense of humor?"

I have a great sense of humor! That's why I have a pretty good sense of when something's funny, and when it's not.

I feel bad that this post, ironically, wasn't funny. Here, have some genuinely funny jokes about rape! (NWS dialogue, but definitely not the "rape jokes" you're thinking of.)


  1. Very well put.

    I think part of the reason that those depends-on-how-you-tell-it jokes work is that they traffic in taboos. Not that nearing a taboo is essentially funny, but it does provide extra emotional power.

    And that's part of what makes those jokes worth exploring, really. There's an excellent book on improvisational theater called "Truth in Comedy", and a major theme is that much of the best comedy comes out of the things that are deeply true, but still not fully glimpsed.

    To my mind, the reason a sexist telling sexist jokes is pretty weak comedy is that the truth they're going after is similarly weak. There are deeper truths that they're covering up because it's convenient for them. The much funnier stuff comes when you start examining the orthodoxy and figuring out what's behind that.

  2. ...some of the fellas came by...

  3. For the second kind of jokes, I think that choosing the audience is the really important thing.

    I eat dinner with a good friend of mine as often as we can find time, she happens to be feminist. When I'm with her I'm more than willing to tell a blatantly sexist joke - she knows me, and knows that it's a joke. If I'm in public, I'm going to keep back o that kind of thing, even if a wonderful snappy joke is right on my lips, because I can't be sure of my audience.

  4. "The first kind is pretty reliably inoffensive, at least to me. It's also why I'm generally okay with dead baby humor and "The Aristocrats"--the content may be offensive, but the real joke is that nobody wants to kill babies"

    Yeah, that's why I find rape jokes so fucking hilarious. I mean, no one actually wants to rape women.

  5. Okay, that doesn't make sense on any level whatsoever.

    Yes, babies have been murdered in real life, but I feel fairly confident that both the teller and audience of dead baby jokes are definitely completely anti-baby murder. Rape jokes don't always give me this confidence.

  6. "the real joke is that nobody wants to kill babies"

    I'm sure that will be very comforting to parents who've just lost a child. Maybe very few people want to murder babies, but babies dying is still a thing that happens with some frequency.

    Also...I dunno. I usually find Wanda Sykes funny, but that routine makes me feel a bit ill. Yup, it's absurd, nobody can really detach their genitalia. But it seems to throw light on the scenario that if a girl *could* and some guy jumped out of the bushes to rape her and found she was missing the bits he was expecting? He might kill her.

    It's empowering to think of being a woman separate from my genitalia, but wow, that routine opens up the whole can of worms of if you split yourself in half like that, which half would become more important. And which half do you think a lot of men would think that would be?

    Yeah, literally having a vagina exist without being attached to a person? That could never happen. Add just the tiniest bit of metaphoricalness in though and WHOA. That bit about "the fellas came by" gave me chills because it's only too easy to imagine that happening to a vagina that IS attached to a person whose thoughts and feelings are just deemed unimportant.

    I guess I'm a humorless feminist though.

  7. ...Are robot boners still okay with everyone?

  8. An enjoyable and thought-provoking post, thank you.

    I do think, however, that jokes in the first category you listed can be very offensive. Particularly when people claim something as an absurdity that isn't actually absurd.

    For instance the "kick a ginger day" joke. The amusement is supposed to come from the absurdity of claiming that people with red hair have no souls... but as a society we have regularly used and continue to use people's appearance to justify a claim that someone is less than human.

    "Haha! It's funny because it could never happen!" style jokes can be a tool for bringing the awesomeness of robot boners into our lives, but it can also be a very effective tool for erasure.

  9. Okay, I'm not going to bat for dead baby jokes. That's not the point of this post. I'm just trying to give an example, and maybe I didn't pick so well, of how humor can be dark without being hateful.

    I think Wanda Sykes pretty effectively defuses the potential horror of "the fellas came by" by making it clear that the woman couldn't feel anything, she's more annoyed than hurt, and that the vagina will be fine after a run through the dryer. It's not really a "downside" but yet another fantasy about being perfectly safe in the face of otherwise horrifying situations.

  10. I think dark humor is always a YMMV kind of thing. Humor in general, for that matter, which is why it's a good thing to be aware of your audience.

    The rule of thumb that I read somewhere (specifically about rape jokes, but it probably applies to any kind of dark humor) is, "Is this more likely to be funny to the victims, or the perpetrators?" If it's the latter, then it might be worth re-thinking what's so funny.

    I did think 11:14 was hilarious, though...

  11. *giggles* Robot boners.

    *puts on her "I'm not a 14 year old boy, I swear" hat*
    To be fair, you never really know who your audience is. I've told "offensive" jokes before where the whole table was losing it except for that one person who quietly says, "that's not funny. That happened to me." It usually ruins the night for that one person, but I think in the end that one person also understands that you're their friend, and that you'll move on to another joke, and that you didn't say it intentionally to call them out.

  12. As a penisless robot, I have to say I find robot boner jokes Not Funny At All. :|

  13. To be fair, you never really know who your audience is. I've told "offensive" jokes before where the whole table was losing it except for that one person who quietly says, "that's not funny. That happened to me." It usually ruins the night for that one person, but I think in the end that one person also understands that you're their friend, and that you'll move on to another joke, and that you didn't say it intentionally to call them out.

    Jennifer, that's not cool.

    I've been raped (under horrific and not-so-horrific circumstances), and have PTSD as a result. If someone makes a rape joke, it can go farther than ruining my night, it can ruin my entire week, or even my entire month. I have had week-long flashbacks I can't escape because someone made a flippant rape joke.

    And you know what? People who care more about making others laugh than making sure one person isn't relieving some of the worst moments of the life? They're not friends.

  14. ...That should be "reliving" not "relieving". Stupid autocorrect.

  15. minuteye,

    (Stick around for the punchline!)

  16. Also, I really agree with whoever said the stuff about jokes that are funnier to the perpetrators than the victims.

  17. Anonymous 2:39,

    That definitely made me giggle. Thanks for sharing.

  18. I'm confused on the concept of trigger warnings. I understand what they are but really... almost everything is a trigger to someone.

    I was raped too but discussing rape isn't a trigger for me. Airbrakes and Old Spice cologne are mine. Do I ask the world to stop using trucks and discontinue Old Spice?

  19. Everyone has one or more sacred cows, and may not find humor when it's their sacred cow that is under the magnifying glass, but more often than not it's open season on non-sacred cows. Kinda like how Isaac Hayes had no problem making fun of everything under the sun until it came time to poke fun at L. Ron Hubbard's mongrel religion that happens to be his sacred cow.

  20. @Anon 8:43

    Discussing rape isn't a trigger for me. Being blindsided by someone who thinks what happened to me is totally fucking hilarious IS upsetting, and causes flashbacks because that's exactly the attitude I was fighting against during the period in which I was regularly raped.

    Discussing rape in a political context is totally different from using it as a metaphor or as the punchline to a joke. In the prior, it's talking about a serious problem and (usually) looking for ways to solve that problem or mitigate the damage. In the latter, it is saying, either explicitly or implicitly, that what happened wasn't really bad, or was exactly like other [mundane thing]. That is a critical part of rape culture, which continually devalues survivor's experiences, and in turn makes it harder for people to take rape seriously as a problem.

    To use your examples, my friends know I've been raped. Telling a rape joke around me because they don't care that it will upset me would be like someone spraying Old Spice on you to watch you freak out. It ruins your day, and anyone who does that isn't your friend.

  21. @Latining - Internet semantics. Sorry. I agree with you - people who exploit your weaknesses for humor aren't your friends. What happened to you is shitty, and somebody making fun of it is even shittier. I kind of smushed two arguments into one sentence, and that's my fault.

  22. "people who exploit your weaknesses for humor aren't your friends. "

    Thanks, mom.

  23. get over it. it's a goddamn joke. don't matter if you agree with something someone said, whether it's a joke about women or a joke about religion, or if it's a joke at all. it is what it is, and people will be who they are. Kind of like how homosexual people push gay rights and have gay pride day. I do not care if the person is gay, I truly don't, and I wouldn't judge them for it. But don't throw a fucking parade about it and rub it in my face. If they get a gay pride parade, I get a straight pride parade, or a white pride, or a southern pride, or a man pride, or you could have a woman pride. People think they're owed something, and you're not. as an acquaintance once wrote in a song, "we all are forgiven, but we're all damned to hell". We all die in the end, and you and I are the least of the worries.

  24. Get over it. It's a goddamn blog post.

    If you don't care if people are gay, why do you care if you hear about it?

    Gay pride came about as an antidote to gay people being shamed and having to keep their lives secret. When you're living in fear of letting people know you have an opposite-sex partner, you can have a parade.

  25. What about gallows-humor?

    It's my favorite kind of humor sometimes, especially if I can tie to something that has happened to me, or that will happen to me.

    It's sometimes the most effective when it hits close enough to home that I feel a little bit nauseous and shaken.

    But it's not for everyone. I know that. I don't know if it's a depressive thing or just morbid tendencies. Sometimes I repeat these things though.

    How does gallows humor fit into this? Less a "dead baby joke" than a "my dead baby" joke.