Wednesday, 11 April 2012

In defence of humour (and feminism)


I'm really sick of being told off for being funny when I'm actually being funny. There's this girl I know who's bisexual and reads this magazine called DIVA, which is the only national magazine for queer women in the UK. And she's always complaining about it, be it the fact that they fucked her over for an internship, or that they allegedly write articles hating on bisexual women. Actually, it might not be the only magazine catering to her demographic, but when I asked her why she reads the magazine despite always complaining about it, she replied somewhat sarcastically with the following:"Because there are just so many other magazines for queer women in the UK, yeah." (I love it when a chat happens on Facebook because you can quote them directly.)

Taken aback as I was by this (sarcasm is the lowest form of wit after all), it sort of amused me how her reply sort of took it for granted that she needed a magazine to read, as if it was somewhere on Maslow's hierarchy of needs. Food, shelter, DIVA magazine. I thought it was funny, so I wrote "what is it with women and magazines".

This was clearly sexist. It was suggesting there's an unholy relationship between magazines and women that doesn't happen with men. It was also, shock horror, a joke. It was a comment so throwaway that it didn't even have any punctuation attached. This isn't actually because I typed it so fast that I forgot to properly complete the interrogative, it's more that recently in text messages or online communications I've developed a habit of 'forgetting' the question mark because I like the way it looks and it adds a slighlty gormless or exasperated tone of voice to otherwise boring questions - "where are you", "why are you 10 minutes late", "why can't you just be on time", for example. Omitting the punctuation adds little something extra to these ungrammatical sentences and I'm not entirely sure why.

The backlash I subsequently received was hardly severe enough to warrant as many paragraphs as I am thus devoting to it, but a word that struck me as out of place was 'misogynist'. This isn't fair. I was not being a misogynist. Another gem was "the point stands that he made an assumption and then used it to be prejudicial" - the he in question was me, and yes I made an assumption. The assumption I made was that the circulation figures for "women's magazines" are way higher than for "men's magazines" (unless you wanna include the sort of hobby magazine that might have a slightly more male-oriented audience, like a magazine about fishing). I've not actually done any research on this but if you look in any newsagents the women's magazines take up at least two-thirds of the space, and this is a conservative estimate (I'm ignoring the 80% figure that my heart tells me must be so - I don't want to risk exaggerating). And while I'm sure that a sizeable proportion of the people reading celebrity-focussed ones like Heat Magazine are in fact gay men, there's no way there's enough gay men in this country to make up the difference, unless perhaps if we all subscribed to every women's magazine there is.

As a gay man I am incredibly lucky to have a choice of two national magazines specifically targeted at me, the GT and Attitude. (There might be others but I've never heard of them.) But, ya know, I'd rather not read either. Personally I find magazines a bit frivolous and the kind of men who buy magazines tend to be a bit thick. If you hate me for this statement, then I would like to reassure you that I extend this condescending sentiment to the following categories of men as well: fans of spectator sports, fitness enthusiasts, tory voters. If you're a tory-voting football-watching magazine-reading gym nut, you're probably thick.

With women it seems like they're all it, buying magazines all over the place. And this of course is a sexist generalisation, and not actually true. But like I've said - I'm guessing it might have been somewhat obvious that I was making a joke. Another accusation levelled against me is that the joke wasn't funny, which is fair - you can't please all the people all the time and if someone says your joke isn't funny then this is the kind of situation where you have to respect that. When arguing with people on the internet you can enter a minefield of saying "that's your opinion" until anything that's deemed an "opinion" cannot be false. This doesn't ring true for a lot of topics, but when a joke is deemed unfunny you can't expect someone to change their mind by saying "YES IT IS FUNNY, IT WAS FUNNY, OH MY GOD ADMIT IT WAS FUNNY WHY WON'T YOU ADMIT IT WAS FUNNY".

The conversation then went like this:

Humourless person: MISOGYNISTIC JOKES ARE NOT OK 
Me: YEAH LET'S NEVER HAVE A SENSE OF HUMOUR ABOUT ANYTHING
HP: Oh god, Tom, really? Objecting to a sexist joke is having no humour?
Me: OH MY GOD YOU HATE THIS MAGAZINE SO MUCH BUT ALSO CAN'T STOP READING IT. YEAH, I WAS BEING SEXIST. IT WAS A JOKE. YEAH, YOU ARE BEING HUMOURLESS. REALLY.
AHP (Another humourless person): Question for the audience: why is it that people who accuse feminists of humourlessness are always the first and most egregious ones to flip their ever-loving, overly-defensive shit whenever we point out that it is in fact they who are unfunny?
Now, I realise I've decided to paint all these guys as humourless and have sorta presented this as a factual statement, but it's within the context of an opinion piece where I don't shy away from carpetbombing my words with my outrageous opinions. Or the occasional burst of caps lock. They, on the other hand, have said I'm unfunny like it's a fact. And this, dear readers, hurt me deeply. Also, they introduced the f-word to the conversation in such a way as if to suggest I am not a feminist. They tried to start a fight of Tom vs the feminists.

But that does not wash with me. I am a massive feminist. I can't be bothered to explain all the ways in which I support feminism, but I don't think 'being really humourless' is one of the principal axioms of feminist thought. I did a tiny bit of research on this matter and searched the Wikipedia page on feminism for the word "humourless", and I couldn't find a single result. Humourless people do not have a monopoly on feminism. Disagreeing with someone who identifies as feminist doesn't mean you're any less feminist. It's an umbrella term for a number of political movements, and not all feminists will agree on their beliefs and aims.

Is feminism about suggesting we can't poke a little fun at differences between genders? When women suggest men love football or golf or formula 1 racing is it gender hatred? Is saying 'women love shoes' or 'women love reading crappy chick lit novels' gender hatred?

It's all about context. If I worked in a bookshop and suggested with a straight face that a woman should stop looking at serious works of literature and instead browse in a section filled with books about fabulous thirtysomething women who have fabulous careers and buy lots of shoes and are looking for love, this would be sexist. If I worked in a newsagent and suggested to a woman trying to buy the New Statesman that she might prefer to read Take a Break magazine, that would be sexist. If I was a journalist writing an article about the new head of the IMF in which I talked mostly about her appearance and feminine charm, that would be sexist. All of these are sexist in a bad way.

If someone was to interpret what I said about women and magazines as suggesting that women are incredibly frivolous and would rather read magazines than a serious publication, I can see where the problem might lie. But they'd be making a quantum leap of reading between the line (line, not lines) to do so. This was a conversation about magazines. It wasn't as though I waded into a chat about newspapers and said "women don't read newspapers, they're more interested in magazines. Because woman is stupid."

The reason, AHP, as to why I'm feeling so defensive is that I think people should be able to take a joke. Within reason. There's obviously a line to be drawn somewhere, but was I really going too far? I think it's seriously lame when people want to cry discrimination at every corner. And when people suggest that having a sense of humour and being feminist are incompatible, it damages feminism.

There are loads and loads of people I know, male and female, who don't identify as feminist. And these are otherwise sensible people. Humourless feminists (not as in all feminists are humourless, I mean those feminists who are also humourless) have tarnished its name, and made out that being insanely politically correct and never having a laugh are what it's all about.

You can go pretty deep into any political/philosophical theory and after a while it can all start to sound like bullshit. Like on the Wikipedia page for misogyny there's this:

Feminist theorist Marilyn Frye claims that misogyny is phallogocentric and homoerotic at its root. In Politics of Reality, Frye analyzes the alleged misogyny characteristic of the fiction and Christian apologetics of C.S. Lewis. Frye argues that such misogyny privileges the masculine as a subject of erotic attention. She compares the alleged misogyny characteristic of Lewis' ideal of gender relations to underground male prostitution rings, which allegedly share the quality of men seeking to dominate subjects seen as less likely to take on submissive roles by a patriarchal society, but in both cases doing so as a theatrical mockery of women.

Right. I literally have no idea what that means. But this isn't really what it's all about.

For those of us who are into less wordy analysis of really old children's books, there are a few fundamental ideas of feminism. It's late so I'll shamelessly paraphrase Wikipedia again - it's about women having equal political, economic and social rights, and equal opportunities in education and employment. So this means women getting paid the same, women having the vote, women being equally represented on boardrooms and in government. If you believe in all of this then you're a feminist.

So how can I justify making a funny at the expense of women despite being feminist? Well, I'll give you an example of when 'LOL it's a joke' goes too far. There are a load of Facebook pages based on 'Lad' humour which seems to be all about encouraging young men to be really misogynist. Immature boys will make jokes about rape or repeatedly say 'make me a sandwich' or 'get back in the kitchen', all in aid of 'banter'. If I was to turn 'go read a magazine' into that sort of joke, and constantly interrupt every woman I know with this suggestion every time they try try to make a serious point, then I'd be being pretty misogynist.

But that's not what I did. I made one little joke. And in the context, it made sense. It seemed kinda funny at the time but once you write a million paragraphs defending yourself it seems a little less so.

I wrote a Facebook retort which was basically a shorter version of this, and AHP concluded:

As they say: if you have to explain the joke via multiple boring, tedious, self-righteous, rules-lawyering, inane paragraphs...it probably wasn't that funny to begin with. Troll smarter next time. 
To which I'm tempted to retort with something so misogynist that it completely undermines my original argument and makes me sound like a sexist bully, but I'll bite my tongue. For now.

~~~~~

Quick disclaimer: I don't know this AHP in real life so haven't put any information up about them -cyberbullying is a real thing after all. On the other hand, I'm pretty sure that once you write a sentence on Facebook then technically Mark Zuckerberg owns your words so I didn't have any qualms about ripping direct quotes. Also, AHP isn't the person whose blog I referred to at the beginning. (That's HP).

15 comments:

  1. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-17203823

    ReplyDelete
  2. Righty-ho, response time. (I'm the original Humourless Person, by the way. Hate humour, me. The sound of laughter is anathema to my existence.)

    Tom, I'm not saying that the joke you made would have been inappropriate in all circumstances. But the way it came across to me, who was already pissed off at DIVA, was like this:

    Me: *tries to express anger at what I feel is the expression of biphobia from a leading queer magazine*

    Man: lol women

    Frankly, it just sounded as if you were minimising the concerns I had, because, you know, WOMEN and their MAGAZINES that's nothing SERIOUS after all. I don't think that feminism means you should never poke fun at genders, as you put it, but the time to LOL over women liking magazines is not when a woman is trying to discuss discrimination.

    Obviously your joke was nowhere near as bad as a rape joke. But made at that time and that place, it was totally inappropriate.

    On the other hand, I get that it seemed like an overreactive back lash. On the OTHER hand (counting about three or four right now) a big part of being a man involved in feminism is knowing when to listen to women telling you that they're offended or hurt.

    Also, I hardly know how to establish my credentials as someone who isn't humourless. Obv. protesting by listing a variety of things I find funny would look ridiculous, so really is the only way I can establish not being humourless is to say that your joke was funny and appropriate? You seem to be defining humourless in this case as not appreciating your humour.

    Also "I think it's seriously lame when people want to cry discrimination at every corner."

    Dude, people don't WANT to cry discrimination. People "cry discriminated" when they FEEL hurt and discriminated against.

    Anyhow, one final point - the person who's called Another Humourless Person in your blog post is not female - zie prefers "zie, zir" for pronouns, I believe. You probably didn't know, so just a heads-up.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. With respect to AHP, using female pronouns was based on seeing their school was a ladies' college and if they wish to be known by gender neutral pronouns then that's fine. Zie and zir is not something that has really caught on with language usage though - what's wrong with a singular they?

      Anyway, I'll change the pronouns.

      Delete
    2. I've now realised the answer to my question - the answer, it seems, to 'what is wrong with a singular they?' is that it sort of leans towards pluralising so it's hard to tell who I'm talking about.

      Thus I've changed this:

      "AHP, on the other hand, has said I'm unfunny like it's a fact. And this, dear readers, hurt me deeply. Also, she introduced the f-word to the conversation in such a way as if to suggest I am not a feminist. She tried to start a fight of Tom vs the feminists."

      to this:

      "They, on the other hand, have said I'm unfunny like it's a fact. And this, dear readers, hurt me deeply. Also, they introduced the f-word to the conversation in such a way as if to suggest I am not a feminist. They tried to start a fight of Tom vs the feminists."

      Which has slightly altered the meaning in that I'm referring to 'they' as you, Simone, and AHP. Trying to use a singular 'they' made it look clunky and read horribly.

      Delete
    3. That's better, thanks. :) Some people do prefer to be known with singular "they", and some prefer gender neutral pronouns. The English language is sadly lacking in these circumstances.

      Delete
    4. Singular they is a gender neutral pronoun.

      Delete
  3. Hmm, won't let me reply. That's annoying. Just looked up these gender neutral pronouns for first time. Zir/zie looks bloody awful in the English language - but then by that logic I probably wouldn't like the word zoo had it not previously existed. Still, E/em/ey seemed nicer for fit... Still, I can't see that catching on any time soon, I think people will have gender neutral thoughts before that...

    ReplyDelete
  4. You two should totally get together.

    ReplyDelete
  5. "I am a massive feminist. I can't be bothered to explain all the ways in which I support feminism..."

    http://dbzer0.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/07/feminist1-248x300.jpg

    ReplyDelete
  6. No Tom, no matter how funny [you think] you are, sexism is not funny.

    Sexism isn’t funny. Racism isn’t funny. Classism isn’t funny. Bias is not humor.

    If you think bias is humorous, you need to take a look at your insecurities and question why you like putting other people down.

    ReplyDelete
  7. "Now, I realise I've decided to paint all these guys as humourless"

    Lesbians are still women. I know you have a problem with pronouns, but I'm fairly sure you're familiar with the male / female, guys / gals distinctions. I don't know the humourless lesbian feminists in question, but I kinda doubt they're guys.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Oh I see - yeah I'm totally in agreement with you there. Lesbians are indeed women. I use the word 'guys' as a sorta gender indiscriminate word for anyone although I am willing to admit this is incorrect. Forgivez-moi s'il-vous-plait.

      Delete
  8. Another Humourless Feminist14 April 2012 at 14:34

    Tom - this post is really just a long exhibition of your own insecurities. I understand that you feel a bit affronted when you realise that a form of humour you have long believed funny and that a big section of mainstream society that is patriarchal and structurally misogynist supports, is really quite hurtful and biased. The mature thing to do would be to accept that you learn something everyday and see what you can take away from this. Rather than do that you have clearly chosen to take the very well trod but tiresomely offensive and sexist "some feminists have no sense of humour" route. No - feminists do not laugh at sexist jokes. And really - you ought to expect better than this of yourself and learn to have fun while being politically correct.

    "To which I'm tempted to retort with something so misogynist that it completely undermines my original argument and makes me sound like a sexist bully, but I'll bite my tongue." --> kind of sounds like a sexist threat to me even if there's not any explicit sexist content in there. No you're really not helping your own case.

    ReplyDelete
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