Tuesday, May 29, 2007

When the Jokes Don't Even Make Sense Anymore

I was idly plugging away at my stumbleupon toolbar and happened across a tired old joke that plays on expected gendered behaviors. It's something like this: a guy's in bed with his girlfriend and really wants to have sex with her, but once he's all buttered up, she says she's really not in the mood and why can't we just cuddle? and doesn't he want her for more than the fulfillment of his sexual desires? So the next day he goes out shopping with her, tells her to buy anything she wants, and watches her work herself into an "orgasmic fit" at the idea of purchasing all of these items. Then they get to the register and he says he no longer feels like buying her anything, and doesn't she want him for more than his ability to buy her things?

The tone was from the first person male POV, with the shopping scene deliberately set up as a cool "ploy" to get his "point" across. It was mean-spirited.

But what struck me about this particularly gendered joke of the sort I see all the time was not just that it was stupidly sexist, but that this joke's "punchline" relies on gendered norms that are completely foreign to my experience. It was a joke based on a shared assumption of behaviors. But it was an assumption I didn't share, cause it wasn't true in my life, so it wasn't funny.

When you tell a joke, you're playing on people's actual experiences. You're ribbing at everyday behaviors, everyday truths, and for the first time I realized that these jokes weren't funny just because they were sexist or crass, but merely because, well they didn't make fun of true experiences. It didn't take behaviors out of context and make me look at them in new ways because this isn't the way my relationships with people have ever worked.

I don't find orgasmic fulfillment in shopping. It makes me feel *worse* about myself. And I'm generally the one who conflates sex with emotional fulfillment in a relationship (yes, I'm working on that). The men in my life don't really buy me things. I struggle to be as fair and equal as possible in the purchasing of shared meals and trips, even when unemployed.

This joke didn't make fun of my life.

It made me think about the shelf-life of sexism, workplace harrassment, etc. The more we live lives that *don't* fit stereotypes and these rigid and absolute gender norms, the more people who speak in these terms look dated, old-fashioned. When an unmarried woman announces she's pregnant these days, the first question out of people's mouths isn't immediately, "When's the wedding?"

I suppose it's too much to hope that sexism will just "go out of style," but certain forms of it have, and I'm watching the rest follow suit. It's why I can understand the fear and terror and violence of the people watching it go; the desperate cry of people watching an entire system of oppression, a system that's kept them in power, headed for the door.

There are days when I worry that it really will take some kind of bloody, radical revolution to get to an egalitarian society. The problem with starting a society based on bloody revolution is that then you have to figure out how to police the bloody-handed revolutionaries. That world isn't any better. I don't really want a Joanna Russ world. What starts with fire and blood often ends with fire and blood.

2 comments so far. What are your thoughts?

Matthew said...

Yeah, I had to endure more than a few of those kinds of jokes, only in watered down "harmless" analogs. They were sprinkled sparingly, the oils and sugars of the Baptist sermon food pyramid. "If a man speaks, and there's no woman there to hear him, is he still wrong?" (this one is from that speaker on creativity in the video clip you linked to a month or so back - it had nothing to do with anything, and reminded me of church, and turned my stomach a bit) Now everybody laugh heartily and say "amen"! Isn't that just the way it is? But we love each other anyway, don't we? Everyone has a place in God's kingdom - hysterical women, emotionally unavailable men, and precious, naive little children.

My personal relationships are configured such that these jokes are completely foreign to my daily experience. A considerable amount of privilege has made it possible for me to retreat from human relationships to that extent, I suppose.

Don said...

I believe you wrote a few years ago about a Joanna Russ story, "When It Changed" a story that had an enormous impact on the way I view the world in many ways.

The joke is stupid and it doesn't make sense with anyone I know personally. I think the guys who tell the joke like the stereotypes that the joke props up. It's comforting to them.

It does make one feel queasy about the person telling the joke and about the society that spawned it. However the fact that it does make me queasy rather than laugh in a conspiratorial way is a sign of progress. Bloodless revolutions take time and patience.