“It’s just a joke.”
“I thought it was funny.”
“It’s sparking conversations. It was approved by network Standards and Practices and it uses humor to illustrate the point about how powerful a combination ‘sexy’ and ‘smart’ are. Personally, I think it’s hilarious.”
To a lot of us who have been on the wrong side of a joke, these statements are virtually interchangeable. It may be your friend, your brother, your professor, Daniel Tosh, the CEO of GoDaddy.com- but find yourself brave enough to speak up when you find a “joke” harmful and suddenly you’re about as conspicuous as Carrie starting her period for the first time in the girls’ locker room.
Don’t get me wrong, I love to laugh as much as the next guy. Those that know me well would say I’m a pretty humorous person. I’m not bad at Apples to Apples, I know how to make people smile, how to make them pick my card as the best one. Oscar Wilde quotes thrill me to no end.
But what isn’t funny to me is how humor has been twisted and manipulated into a weapon used by those in power to beat back those who aren’t. Humor has become a way to act out aggression, then turn right around and use that violent act as a shield against blame and responsibility. The twisting of the arm, followed by the abrupt “you’re overreacting” that sounds a lot and functions a lot like victim blaming- the rape culture we live and breathe and eat our breakfast in.
In a world where satire has devolved into sarcasm (and sarcasm has even further spiraled downward into snark), where irony has dissolved into ignorance, comedy has become warped and gnarled beyond recognition. Though in the past a tool for the betterment of society (anyone remember our good, baby-eating friend Jonathon Swift of the 17th century?), humor wreaks havoc- and just plain bad jokes- on the American masses all too often in the hands of a triple threat (white, male, and straight) majority. We don’t educate the public with humor anymore; we browbeat an increasingly vocal minority into silent submission with it instead. And we do so without lifting a single finger! How ingenious of us. But abuse, I’m afraid, is still abuse. Punches and punch lines are thrown around simply because someone is different.
Wanna hear a joke? Women’s rights.
What have women and condoms got in common? If they’re not on your dick they’re in your wallet.
What do you do when your dishwasher stops working? Tell her to get back to work.
These aren’t just jokes I googled, found offensive and put into this post- these are a small sample of the things I’ve heard in my life (don’t even get me started on sandwich jokes). But what if we went deeper than these poorly done and overtly not okay jokes? What if we looked at Superbowl commercials like GoDaddy’s latest and look at it, God forbid, like the ignorant and cheap power play that it is, a vulgar gag that reinforces the worst of stereotypes for men and women? What if we spit in the face of men like GoDaddy’s CEO Blake Irving when they hide behind their vicious brands of humor to claim that they “personally” thought it was funny, that they’re “not going to apologize” and that garbage like this is “sparking conversations?”
[You better believe it's sparking conversations. Conversations like, well, this post. Conversations that start a lot like "why on earth are we still having this conversation? Can we quit sparking it?" Can we care about people who are offended who very well may have a legitimate point, and can we apologize because they're actually hurt at what's being portrayed? I come to this conversation not fresh, not even embittered or intensely passionate, but exhausted. I am done with all this. I am tired of it.]
Maybe you think I’m overreacting. That is an incredibly valid response. Seen as one commercial, one bad joke, my reaction is harsh and overblown. But this commercial wasn’t aired in a vacuum- it’s one arrow in a volley of one of many volleys in the culture wars. I hear it and see it all the time.
And maybe asking you to take the leap of faith to this point of view, to believing that these jokes are an act of violence, is naive. Fair enough. Meet me in the middle. I won’t ask you to take the leap, but I will ask you to start asking yourself and others why. When someone makes a joke at another person’s expense, ask- “why is this funny?” Try and answer it. People tell you that explaining ruins a joke, but that’s only true if the joke wasn’t that good in the first place. Why is everyone laughing? And if you don’t like the answer, maybe you’re starting to introduce your ethics to your sense of humor.
(This tactic, by the way, is also a good one if you happen to already agree with me. Yelling that you think the joke is offensive and then stomping off may make you feel better, but what good does it do for the comedian who just told the joke? Give them the benefit of the doubt, ask the question, “I don’t get it, why is it funny?” and see the brows furrow- a more satisfying and better delivered punch line than storming off anyway.)
I’m not saying we know better. Often, we don’t. This is the world in which we are raised, these are the people we are encouraged to be. But that doesn’t mean I can’t believe that we can do and be better. When did punch lines start holding precedence over people?
We were in an uproar, briefly, over those students who raped their unconscious peer repeatedly, who filmed it then tweeted and laughed about it. How horrible! We say. Those monsters! We say. Yet how can we be surprised? We tell jokes like that every day. We laugh at jokes like that every day. Comedian Daniel Tosh tells his male viewers to grope random women in the streets and film it, and we watch him on our television sets and guffaw. And we’re surprised when a group of boys rapes a woman repeatedly, publicizes it, and laughs it up? How can we be?
This is not a fluke. These boys did heinous things and should be punished for their crimes, but they are not monsters. Their actions are symptomatic of a system in which we abuse and belittle people in word and deed, all for the sake of a laugh, of being accepted by our peers. I can honestly say that I’d rather not live in a world where belittling any human being gets me brownie points.
We’re better than that world. Let’s do something about it.