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Feminism Friday: Humour as a tool for shaming and silencing

Last week’s Feminism Friday post was on why Rape Jokes Just Aren’t Funny, based on a series from Melissa McEwan of Shakesville, and at the crosspost on Hoyden About Town Bernice made a telling comment.

Humour – the final frontier of colonialisation. You really now you’ve co-opted someone into the frame of dominance from which you work, when you can get them to laugh at jokes insensitive at the least, vicious in the usual. Which is why it’s so important to berate those humourless one who fail to laugh or worse still dare to complain – they’re obviously not with the programme.

Liss, via an extended photo-essay (warm up your scrolling finger), provides the hook for our Feminism Friday post again:

For the Discerning Gentleman: You, Too, Can Decorate Your Life With Disembodied Boobs

(Some pictures may be NSFW)

After the “fun” part, Liss gets down to the point, which echoes Bernice’s comment.

On that note, one of the most common themes among the emails I get is gratitude for expressing frustration or contempt or anger at something of which, women have been told in explicit or implicit ways, our jovial and uncomplaining acquiesce is expected. Thank you for saying it’s not funny. That something has always bothered me. It’s an expression of relief that someone has said publicly what they’ve felt privately—and maybe never said to anyone for fear of reprisal, for fear of being told they are humorless, hypersensitive, over-reactionary, boring.

For fear of hearing in those words, “Oh, you’re such a girl,” and feeling that thing, that awful thing, in your gut, the shame of being a girl—and then the twisting horror at the realization that you’ve let self-loathing grip you.

It’s a terribly effective silencing strategy, which is why the conveyance of patriarchal norms is so often closely associated with humor. Anyone who dares complain is just No Fun—hence, we find ourselves mired in a culture in which women who don’t laugh at seeing parts of their body routinely used as demeaning gags, and the men who are disgusted by such objectification of people they’re meant to love and respect, are the ones considered weird.

It can be really daunting to go up against all that, especially in one’s everyday life, on one’s own, just one woman against someone(s) equipped with such an effective institutionalized mechanism for shaming and silencing.

All this is, of course, why Lauredhel’s Anti-Feminist Bingo Card has the central “free” square as Can’t You Take A Joke? We’re meant to be shamed and silenced by the myth that jokes don’t matter, and Liss’ conclusion is worth memorising.

It’s so very girly to get all worked up about novelty boobs. Oh, you’re such a girl.

You’re fucking right I’m a girl.

I’m a girl with no sense of humor about anti-girl things—go figure.

I’m a girl with absolutely no interest in participating in my own subjugation, thank you very much.

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About tigtog

writer, singer, webwrangler, blogger, comedy tragic | about.me/vivsmythe

13 comments on “Feminism Friday: Humour as a tool for shaming and silencing

  1. [...] Comments tigtog on Suggestions, please!Feminism Friday: Hum… on Feminism Friday: Humour as a t…Feminism Friday: Hum… on Feminism Friday: More on how R…Latoya Peterson on Ask [...]

  2. I was recently invited to a trivia night at a local pub with a male friend. The host of the trivia night relied upon sexist, homophobic and racist “jokes” to get his audience in. And sure enough, he hit his target audience well. People laughed when he casually tossed in some stereotypical remarks about women for good measure or when he made racist statements such as he “can’t tell black women apart” . Part of the trivia involved writing your real answer in one column and a “funny” answer in another column. Sure enough, the “funny” answers involved women’s breasts, women’s bodies generally, or women’s sexuality (whether ‘prudent’ or ‘slut’). I confronted my male friend about this each time I was offended by the content of the idiot host’s humour. My friend seemed awkward then tried to distance himself from the remarks by pumping up his pro-feminist qualities (on which i am only partially sold so far). I commented that we should call our trivia team “we don’d find you funny”, so my friend wrote our name down as “my friend (ie, me) doesn’t find you funny”, with a subheading “we had some witty political name”. (I didn’t thank him for conveniently leaving himself off the title!) When the idiot host read this, he said over the microphone the name, followed by a comment inferring that I was a whore or a wacko. That’s right, he called me a “whore”/wacko. I was both pissed off and aboslutely speechless.

    The point of this story is that everyday misgyony is disguised in “humour” regularly and that such “jokes” circulate in the local pub, the workplace and the home in insidious and obvious ways. It is tricky to tackle precisely because, as the post above notes, women risk being referred to as humourless or boring if they point it out. Not to mention the fact that we are supposed to be in the “post” part of feminism now, which makes any politicisation of gender, especially feminism, already radical or deemed irrelevant.

    I joked with some friends recently that it would be great to make t-shirts and badges which say “I don’t find your misgyony funny.” Or that from now on when people ask me how I feel (at the supermarket or friends etc), instead of individualising the issue (“I’m good/Not too well” etc) I would name patriarchy as the source of my unwellness. “How are you today?”….”Yeah, not too great actually, the patriarchy is really gettin me down this week.”

    It is exhausting fighting misgyony in all its guises. I am not going to pretend that sexism is funny and nor am I going to silence myself in front of male or anti-feminist female company on the issue. But it has taken me a few years to get to this point of strength. Thank you for posting on this issue, I think it requires a great deal of attention.

  3. Thanks for commenting, dredgirl. I like the idea of the “I don’t find your misogyny funny” T-shirt.

  4. I remember being the only one saying “That’s not funny, that’s sexist because….” in situations like that.

    In the past I’ve found myself having to explain the feminist view to skeptical women who are saying “it’s just a joke”. A very difficult (and strange) position to be in. I get very conscious of my unwanted male privilege in *those* conversations, because it’s an outright hazard to communication (if people feel forced to listen, they tune it out.)

    It does get exhausting encountering it all the time, doesn’t it? One keeps thinking “Well, I don’t have to fight it and explain why I think it’s wrong this time, do I? Yes I do, I’ll hate myself if I don’t.” (I’ve been in a more sheltered pro-feminist environment lately, but I remember being in the “real world”.)

  5. I just responded to an e-mail my father sent out which had sexist overtones, about generalizing men and women in a stereotypical way. I hit “Reply All” and wrote back to my dad and his audience that although we might laugh at it, someone out there takes it seriously.

    My dad and aunt wrote back, telling me not to “take it so seriously” and both of them implied that I was humourless because I was “young and idealistic”, not “cynical and wicked which comes with age.” I had to deal with them separately, and it’s really deflating having to explain to people that jokes normalize hurtful behaviour and attitudes, but this post’s main message: that jokes DO matter, is something I didn’t cover as clearly as I could have.

  6. The idea that feminists have no sense of humor is–I was about to say “silly,” but that’s dismissive–wrong, but I can see where it comes from. People who say it never hear (except possibly in the bare audiological sense) feminists make jokes, they only hear condemnations of jokes they themselves make.

  7. I was recently on YouTube, and I saw videos involving psychological child abuse. After expressing my outrage, I got mixed replies. People either agreed with more or told me, “It’s just a joke!” (I left out the atrocious grammar and churlishly juxtaposed expletives). I have yet to hear an intelligent apologist response; I am most often called bitch or cunt or, of course, humorless.

  8. I just got chastised recently for commenting on how I didn’t find a South Park episode funny because it made light of the plight of transgendered individuals. The guy launched into a rant about how “you’re the reason why people see liberals and feminists as not having a sense of humor- you’re the reason why that stereotype exists.”

    As someone who values humor highly, it is frustrating to hear that I am humorless. Fuck that, I’m one of the funniest people I know. I try not to be self-righteous about it (that tends to be counter-productive), but apparently not laughing and explaining why you don’t think something is funny is inherently self-righteous. I suppose I must learn to accept that I am going to make people uncomfortable just by not joining in with them.

  9. I’ve taken to saying “Ha! It’s funny because [women are stupid!/women don't matter as much as men!/black people all look the same!/poor people aren't people!/she only has one leg!/etc]” in a deadpan voice.

    Some people look at me like I’m insane, but I feel it’s worthwhile to enunciate what makes a harmful joke “funny” — it is founded on the assumption that some people are less than people, so we totally get to laugh at them and it’s cool ’cause it’s so true! It’s a good way to point out the problem without it being as easy to accuse me of being “humourless”. (Not that people don’t, but it does stop some of them, or at least make them feel awkward — which is a tiny tiny part of what the group they’re mocking feels every day.)

  10. Simply put, people who make those types of jokes are sorely lacking in creativity (not to mention intelligence).

    AS IF it’s some major challenge to be funny without disparaging someone of an underprivileged social class.

    A truly good joke is something that everyone finds amusing, but I guess that’s just too tall of an order for the bigot clan.

  11. I admire Dave Chappelle a lot for stopping his show when people began laughing, as he put it, “for the wrong reasons.” I wish others who make jokes that rely on stereotypes could realize that, even if they’re trying to be “ironic,” there are some whose reaction to sexist/racist/homophobic/etc. jokes is not exactly “ironic,” who think they’re funny because they believe wholeheartedly in the stereotypes they reinforce. You have to have some accountability to that, I think, if you make offensive jokes. You have to realize that you may be (however unintentionally) making the haters feel that their hate is welcome, by appearing to reinforce it.

  12. If you think about it, only people who DO have a sense of humor can be able to recognize that something like that isn’t funny. A lot of people assume that “sense of humor” means “laughing at every single joke anyone ever tells, no matter how unfunny or repulsive it is” when it really means “having a sense of what is funny and what isn’t”. A good comedian knows the difference between being witty and just being a bully, and the respected comedians are the ones who used jokes to deflate the powerful, not marginalize the already-marginalized.

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