I Didn’t Miss The Punch Line, You’re Just Not Funny

There was a boy in my high school who strongly disliked me.  When I graduated, he signed my yearbook with the following  message:

I hope you drop out of college and find your rightful place in the kitchen.

And when my sister decided, in her government class, to say something about how women still aren’t treated equally to men, one of the boys in her class replied, “Stop whining and go make me a sandwich”.

For all the guys out there who think “kitchen jokes” and “sandwich jokes” are funny…I have news for you.  We’re not laughing.

In American society, humor is all too often used as a tool to reinforce oppression.  It’s a subtle form of oppression, one that people find is easier to make excuses for, but for this exact reason, it has become a particularly prevalent problem for us.  This is in NO WAY limited to the issue of jokes about women.  We see the exact same problem with jokes about ethnic and racial minorities such as Jews and African Americans, as well as other minorities such as the LGBTQ community.  So while I am going to primarily focus on sexist jokes, I may also reference other derogatory humor to help illustrate my points.

The making of a joke about a subordinate group BY a member of the dominant group is problematic in that it dismisses the experiences of the subordinate group as unimportant, insignificant, worthy of mockery.  I discuss this a bit in my post “Rape is Not a Joke”, but will continue that discussion here.  Humor is a way in which the dominant group reminds the subordinate group that they are inferior, that no one takes their problems seriously.  This in turn makes it harder for the subordinate group to advocate on their own behalves, because society has already dismissed the problem as unworthy of their attention.

We see this with feminism itself in many cases.  Jokes about feminists being crazy manhaters make it easier for society to dismiss both feminists and the issues they want to discussion.  The use of straw feminists, which I discussed here, is a perfect example of this: the portrayal of feminists as absolute lunatics deters potential advocates from identifying with the feminist cause and results in the issues that feminists want to discuss being brushed aside.

**I want to add a note here that,  it is very different for, say, a Jew to make a Jew joke to other Jews than for a non-Jew to make a Jew joke.  The oppression has to be coming from the outside** (see Source B)

An article I found in Bitch Magazine online summed up the problem beautifully: “Laughter aimed at an oppressed person because of their oppression intensifies and isolates the victim, and emphasizes their status as an outsider”.

When it come to sexist jokes, however, there is another element that should be considered.  Women jokes reinforce the idea of the gender binary.  They remind both men AND women that they should have very distinct roles (regardless of whether or not it is true that they should).  They are a “joking” reminder that women ought be “put in their place”, that they should not be overly ambitious, that their jobs are as mommies and homemakers.  That they are here to serve men. And this is of course absolute nonsense, but it reinforces this idea in a way that society for whatever reason continues to accept.

Now, you might make the argument that women don’t believe this, that society KNOWS women do things other than make sandwiches.  But do they really?  Only 1 in 5 girls believes that she has the necessary skills to become a leader.  Most girls also recognize that though they can move up in a company, they are unlikely to ever reach the top.  And the statistics from our current array of women “leaders” seems to back them up: only 3% of Fortune 500 CEOs are women, and only 17% of Congress and 6 governors throughout the US are female as well.  Girls continue to drop out of potentially high-paying STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields (more on this to come), and some research indicates that simply reminding girls that they ARE girls and that girls are “not supposed to be good at math/science”, it will hurt their performances in these subjects.  (Source C) (Source D)

If this is the case, then humor that belittles women DOES have some potentially real repercussions.  It hurts women’s self esteem, it reinforces problems with body image, and in some cases serves as a constant reminder of the barriers that stand between a girl and her ability to pursue her dreams.

Don’t accept the “it’s just a joke” excuse.  It’s not funny.  Humor is simply another way that oppression manifests itself so that society has a harder time recognizing it for what it is.  And in a society that prides itself on the principle of equality, it is unacceptable that men continue to get away with belittling women.

And besides, it’s about time they learned to make their own darn sandwiches.  We have better things to do.

Sources:

A) Bitch Magazine Online, How Can Jokes Both Show and Fight Oppression?, available at http://bitchmagazine.org/post/televism-how-can-jokes-both-show-and-fight-oppression

B) LaFollette, Hugh and Niall Shanks (1993).  Belief and the Basis of Humor, available at http://www.hughlafollette.com/papers/humor.htm

C) To Get Her There, http://www.togetherthere.org/

D) Conversation with S. Dumont, a student researcher with CUNY Baruch, about ongoing research on deterrents to female pursuance of STEM careers

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~ by Randi Saunders on May 30, 2012.

2 Responses to “I Didn’t Miss The Punch Line, You’re Just Not Funny”

  1. […] a previous post, I started to discuss the perceptions women have of themselves and how this holds them back from […]

  2. […] I Didn’t Miss the Punch Line, You’re Just Not Funny […]

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