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Tuesday, 6 March 2012

Funny Because it’s Wrong or Wrong Because It’s Funny?

The internet has encouraged a new generation of people who complain. Whereas to complain in the past actually involved writing a letter, getting an envelope, going to a postbox and so on, the “Angry from Amersham” brigade can now register utter disgust about anything on twitter and on chatrooms almost instantaneously. So we’re definitely seeing more bursts of spontaneous outrage about various matters in the public domain. I have to be very careful as a blog poster, then, not to fall into that trap quickly and yet I have to be allowed to register discomfort at something as well.

This week a journalist found a tag in the boxer shorts of her partner and registered her disgust online. In case you can't see the picture clearly, the washing instructions tell the man what to do before adding "Or give it to your woman - it's her job." Responses seem to generally fall between two camps – ‘it’s just a joke’ or ‘it’s not funny at all.’ The “it’s just a joke” comment reminds me rather of David Cameron’s “calm down, dear,” comment (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-13207256). In other words, it’s a joke by men for men at the expense of women who really shouldn’t complain because it’s not their (male-defined) place to do so.

I have to admit that when I first saw this, I laughed out loud and then I felt bad for doing so, in much the same way as my reaction to comedians like Jimmy Carr. I laugh at such things because I’m shocked and then I think “the normal reaction to shock should be shock,” not laughter.

What concerns me is that there does seem to be a growing trend of clothing companies manufacturing items that have deliberately sexist messages. A new blokes’ culture seems to be developing which makes completely inappropriate jokes and then says, “calm down, dear, it’s just humour.” The bloke-dominated language of communal discourse – even extending to the horrible facebook term of “fraping” which is somehow meant to be an amusing way of referring to taking over someone’s account while somehow injecting humour with a reference to the obviously horrific practice of rape – seems to be growing, not declining. We seem to be reverting to the normalisation of sexism, made most evident by allowing sexism to be funny again.

If our society were actually equal, if religious discourse were fully egalitarian, if women were paid the same as men, if women had the same access to jobs as men, then we might be in a place to reflect on some post-sexist humour. But, of course, society is nowhere near there. Were this a post-modernist comment on sexism or something similar, perhaps with an equitable tag in girl’s knickers saying “give to boyfriend to beat with club” then it might have been funnier because it would have transcended sexism and would instead have become about gender stereotypes. But it wasn’t – it was a blokes’ gag about women.

Ultimately, I think that I initially found it funny because it was wrong and then found it wrong because it was funny. In a world where we can take things way too seriously, I’m aware that it’s just a joke. But if in the deep south of America the same thing had happened but with the words “Give it to your negroe servant,” which is as possessive as “your woman” (with the emphasis on the possessive “your”), then I don’t think anyone would have found that funny at all. Where, indeed, does it end? A joke about the Jews perhaps? “Calm down, Jew, it’s only a joke.” Being sexist or racist ironically is still being sexist or racist, just doing it with a patronising and dominating smile. Some jokes, ultimately, aren’t funny, they’re just reinforcing symbols of dominating structures that should long have been abolished.

Ultimately, I think this is just cynical consumerism at its best. I’m sure the hope is for the company to shock people, to get them to talk about the product and therefore to mention the company as much as possible with the understanding that there’s no such thing as bad publicity. And that’s why I didn’t even mention the name of the company because I wouldn’t give them that satisfaction.

Since this blog focuses on baby, bible and biodiversity, this post falls under the first category. I want to raise my baby in a world in which she acknowledges that sexism was once a part of society and that it held society back from achieving its full potential. As much as I went to a boys’ school and learned many unbelievably sexist jokes which were funny to me at the time, I don’t want my child to be raised in a society like that. Sexism, in the end, isn’t funny, it’s domination, it’s unjust and it’s unbecoming. I think we’re better than this and I know of many better jokes than this.