Friday, August 31, 2012

Unpacking women's supposed sexual power over men

Note: This post is not meant to imply that women can never have any form of power over any man and are always de-facto victims. On a case-by-case basis, this can and does happen, of course. This post is meant to de-construct a view of women's sexual power over men as the consistent, broad, and enduring phenomenon it is often portrayed as.

I saw an image online of a little girl in her underwear, pulling on the elastic so she can see what it's covering, as a little boy near her looks on. A speech bubble above the little girl's head reads: "with this, I'm gonna rule the world!" And of course, it's difficult to be a woman or a man in this country and not be familiar with that sentiment; you hear it almost every time a woman brings up her oppression and male privilege: "no, it's actually you women who have power over us men, because you can use the power of sex!" Which of course doesn't address the issue of institutional, socio-political, and cultural inequality, or the fact that even when/IF this sexual power is operable, it would usually only apply to women men found conventionally attractive and cis-hetero women. But let's just unpack this assumption and PRETEND that there's something to it. When people say this, what sorts of things do they have in mind? Just how are these instances of power supposed to play out?

A woman getting free drinks at a bar, either because men buy them for her or because it's Ladies Night? Men CHOOSE to buy drinks for women, and they usually do so in the hopes that they'll get laid, (even if all they want is a phone number, it's so they can get laid at a later date). Ladies Night is a way for bars to get more business, because more female customers = more male customers, so it's for the sake of money and appealing to men's desire to hit on women at bars.

Do they mean it in a more direct, transactional way, like getting money for sex? I doubt it, and sex workers are one of the most abused, disrespected, and disenfranchised groups in this country. Often their finances aren't even in their own control, but in the hands of a usually abusive pimp.

Does it refer to women deciding who they want to have sex with and being the gatekeepers of their own body? That's not a privilege or power over anyone; that's a human right, but one that is violated and ignored at an alarming rate, anyway.

Using attention and/or sexual favors to advance professionally? I don't think this is all that common and is pretty problematic, but wouldn't needing to give sexual favors in order to advance from a subordinate position underscore your position as a member of an underclass anyway?

Becoming famous and/or wealthy through being sexually attractive? This is quite possibly the only example that even remotely makes sense here, and 1. it only affects a handful of women, and 2. it can also apply to attractive men (actors, models, musicians, etc.) so it is not unique to women. Many women would be completely barred from this avenue of wealth. What's more, even these women are still exploited in some way; their successes belittled, their minds dismissed, their whole being objectified and often reduced to the sexual pleasure they can offer men (quick and easy example: men's magazines like Maxim and Equire. The latter referred to Rihanna as "the essence of the word 'fuck'". Talk about reducing someone to a sex object, even when they're a successful, accomplished woman!). They are often slut-shamed for using their body for capital gain, as though they created the system and weren't simply trying to take advantage of it. And doubtless there is usually some man or multiple men behind the scenes profiting from her success. Most importantly, being famous or wealthy hardly translates into ruling the world. Money usually does not necessarily entail political power for women, especially not as a group.

The sad thing is, it was a woman who posted this comic (I don't know if a woman created it, though), and I know that many women agree with this view and find it empowering. When women use the system to their advantage, I don't blame them for it. But I think awareness of the fact that women's bodies, either the disseminated image or even the real physical body, are linked to sexist oppression (through pornography, sex trafficking, rape, and femicide), is key to understanding what we're up against. Calling objectification empowering is like living in bondage and calling it freedom. It's like using the master's tools to dismantle the master's house. I'm not suggesting that a woman's own body and sexuality can't be instrumental in her liberation. It definitely is. Sex is a part of life, and no liberation is possible by denying ourselves sexual pleasure. But cis-hetero men's obsession with women's bodies as an object for sexual consumption is not a source of real power for women; it's linked to men and their pleasure, it's a "power" men give us, that they allow themselves to be affected by, because they know how fake it is, how flimsy, how it ties into their desires and forms no real threat to their power and privilege, to the socio-political order, not even close. It holds as much power as a diversion, as a game before the return to real matters at hand; there may be some resistance, some refusal, some playing hard to get, some flaunting, some teasing, but he knows that he'll get what he wants in the end, through force, coercion, manipulation or simply by moving on to the next one.


Thursday, August 23, 2012

I take it we're too sexy for you?

[CN: Sexual harassment, bullying, victim-blaming]

I want to talk about a few things that have been on my mind lately that were crystallized in this post over at Geek Feminism.

The post begins with a story about a girl in first-grade who was bullied for bringing a Star Wars water bottle to school. It got so bad she wanted to bring a pink bottle instead, just to avoid being teased. This story generated a lot of sympathy and even action on her behalf:

“Katie’s story went viral including at the official Star Wars blog and a year later CNN reported that at GeekGirlCon when a brigade of Storm Troopers formed an honor guard for Katie, and that there’s an annual Wear Star Wars day as a result.
We had our own smaller burst of geek support on the Geek Feminism blog in May this year, for five year old Maya, who was turning away from her love of cars and robots...In addition, it wasn’t an especially difficult thread to moderate as I recall: a few trolls showed up to tell Maya goodness knows what (sudo make me a sandwich LOL?) but in general people left warm, honest, open stories of their geek life for Maya.”

Just as Mary specified in her post, I also want to clarify that I think this kind of support is a very positive thing. But I too have to ask: why doesn’t this degree of unified, unequivocal support exist for women who point out gender-based bullying and harassment, especially in male-dominated spheres? What about cases of sexual harassment or rape?

I think one important distinction lies in the latter: much of the harassment women discuss is different precisely because it is more likely to be sexual. Mary briefly alludes to this contrast too:

“What they don’t seem to have in common is a universal condemnation from geekdom: bullying children? Totally evil. Harassing adults? Eh… evil, except you know, he’s such a great guy, and he hasn’t got laid in a while, and (trigger warning for rapist enabling) he does have the best gaming table, so what are you gonna do, huh?”

But I think this point merits deeper analysis, particularly because it accounts for a broad array of bullying women face, as distinct from the kind that Katie and Maya dealt with. This type of bullying exists on a continuum:

  • Targeting a woman’s presumed sexuality or promiscuity as a way to justify disrespect, invalidation or exclusion (this is especially relevant in geek culture)
  • Targeting a woman’s presumed sexuality as a way to demean them, by using hyper-sexualized rhetoric and slurs and/or pornographic imagery (which Anita Sarkeesian discussed as just one component of the bullying* she faces online)
  • Sexual harassment
  • The threat of or act of sexual assault and rape

You may be thinking: how does this relate to the topic at hand? A couple ways: 1) I’d venture to say that the above encompasses the vast majority of bullying that women face and discuss (whether in geek culture or not). Any discussion about the bullying and exclusion [geek] women face is woefully incomplete if sexual harassment/violence isn’t also addressed and 2) I think it’s another important component in understanding why the same people that felt sympathy for Katie and Maya will feel far less for [geek] women who experience this kind of bullying.

I understand that there are a lot of reasons that Katie and Maya received more sympathy than adult women, and Mary already discussed a lot of them. Thus, I’m not arguing that sexual harassment is the only factor or even the most important factor in explaining this difference in sympathy. But I think it's an important factor that merits more discussion.

Let’s use Katie’s story as an example. Perhaps her story seemed universal to other geeks and that made it easier for a broad array of them to empathize with her--after all, she was being teased and bullied for being different and for her “geeky” interests.** But what exactly did those boys say to her that made her feel bad? Well, isn’t that a ridiculously callous question? All we need to know is it was bad enough to make her cry and no longer want to take her Star Wars water bottle. In the face of her unhappiness, I’m betting no one would feel right about grilling her, especially with an aim to argue that she somehow wasn’t justified in feeling that way.

But once you reach adulthood, that callous reaction becomes much more commonplace when talking about harassment and exclusion; people want to know what happened, largely so they can assess whether they find your emotional response justifiable. “Wait, what made you feel uncomfortable? Oh, that? That isn’t even a big deal/That wouldn’t bother me/Others have it worse/Can’t you take a joke/You should just suck it up/Well, if you don’t like it, you can just go somewhere else/It’s part of the culture” etc.

I acknowledge that part of this callousness is due to the fact that there’s less compassion for adults, regardless of their gender. But that doesn’t account for all of it. The problem is compounded when a)the harassment is sexual and b)the victim is a woman. 

For one, the lack of empathy (“this isn’t a big deal”) can be tied to a lack of perspective: not everyone experiences sexual harassment, and men certainly don’t experience it on the same scale or in the same way that women do, so it may be more difficult for them to empathize (this of course doesn’t give them a free pass,  just explains why some men have trouble being sympathetic). Some men don’t understand the ways that sexual harassment and bullying can make the victim feel uncomfortable, alienated, or even unsafe because they’ve never been subjected to it. And of course, some men just don’t care either way because they’re not personally hurt or excluded by it, and in fact, enjoy being able to harass women and and don’t want to give it up. If they felt sympathy for one victim of sexual harassment, wouldn’t they have to question their own behavior? Cognitive dissonance? Oh no, we can’t have that!

For another, sexual harassment opens the door to victim-blaming in a way that is far less feasible in cases like Katie’s. No one asks if there was something Katie did that meant she was “asking for it” or deserved to be bullied. But in the case of sexual harassment, there will probably be a lot of interest in what the victim was wearing, whether she was being flirtatious, whether she was drunk, etc. (i.e., victim-blaming and slut-shaming). This means that, for some people, sympathy for women who’ve been sexually harassed is conditioned on whether they conform to the flawed notions of what a truly “blameless victim” looks like.

With all of this in mind, let’s take one more look at Katie’s story. What moved people? I think it was ultimately because it was sad to think of her giving up something she loved, something that made her happy, all just to avoid being made fun of. It was sad to think that gradually, she might change herself and her interests to avoid being targeted, instead of just being herself. And it was sad to think that all of this trouble was caused by some arbitrary, baseless notion that she wasn’t supposed to like Star Wars because it was “for boys.” But the point is: all of that is still sad regardless of her age, interests or the nature of the bullying.  And it happens all the time (and this is only the tip of the iceberg.)


*Yup, bullying, not “trolling.” Jay Smooth does a great job explaining why these coordinated attacks should not be understood as harmless trolling, but as an effort to intimidate, bully and silence. I want this distinction to catch on because it’s essential to understanding the nature of harassment and bullying in a digital world.

**Although Nick Mamatas makes a good case that the perception that geeks are bullied for their interests does not reflect reality, I’ll still argue that the perception is fairly strong, and was probably at play in this case.

Friday, August 10, 2012

The Linkbait Project

If you follow big-name blogs and op-eds, chances are you've come across any of the following at least once: a) authors overstating or misinterpreting the results of an academic/scientific study, often so they can argue a controversial opinion as if it were fact OR worse, b) authors that make a controversial argument without even attempting to offer facts to support it. Although this is nothing new to journalism, I get a feeling that it's getting worse--especially due to an online publisher-advertiser model that incentivizes publishers to drive as much traffic as possible. Enter linkbait.* Is it good writing? No. Is it sound science/argumentation? No. Will it drive traffic? Yes, in part because it's so controversial (or sometimes downright offensive) that it gets people talking and linking to it on blogs and social media, which ultimately drives that sweet, sweet traffic to their site. 

I don't think this trend is going to go away any time soon. So, why am I even talking about it? Well, mainly: I want people to be aware of it, recognize when they're reading an article that's clearly linkbait, and take any claims made with a grain of salt. Be skeptical and critical! Really, this is just a good rule of thumb when evaluating any argument.

But while plenty of bloggers talk about the shoddy argumentation and offensive rhetoric in these pieces--and there will be plenty of that--I also want to focus on the pseudo-scientific claims, poor research design, and confirmation bias (and how readers can spot it, too!)** 
So if you're into that kind of thing, stay tuned for future posts with the "linkbait" tag!


*Linkbait doesn't just come in the form of articles. Sometimes it's provocative (and often sexist and problematic) imagery.
**You might be thinking: but C, won't you just be driving more traffic to their site by discussing their articles and linking to them? Well, joke's on them, I don't have a big enough readership to generate a significant amount of traffic anyway (ha ha)! But seriously, I don't think I could put a dent in this practice even if I had a big following. Linkbait is pretty entrenched, and will likely remain that way as long as publisher-advertiser dynamics stay the same way too. For what's it worth: if I put on my "online marketer cap" I do predict an eventual shift in the publisher-advertiser model because a) paying for ads on a CPM basis is for suckers and b) why drive traffic if you can't even monetize it? 

Monday, July 30, 2012

Creative Writing Prompt #9: Write about an addiction

I never felt complete without it. Ever since childhood, there were subtle encouragements, affirmations that I should feel that way. It was sanctioned, normalized... for a woman, at least. She could not feel complete and truly happy without a man by her side and romance in her heart. I became addicted to romance, but I saw it as a healthy addiction. It had positive outlets; love poems, stories, dreaming, crushes. No harm done, right? During my teenage dating phase, I always made sure I was with someone who claimed to love me back and treated me decently. It wasn’t until I fell in love with someone who didn’t love me back that it became a bad addiction; one that could hurt me. And it wasn’t until then that I became so thoroughly addicted that all of life without a hit (a glance, a conversation, a smile, a wayward hope) became washed out, dull, empty. Incomprehensible.

I wrote much to describe it back then, but even though I was plumbing its depths, in a way it was shallow, reflexive, animal obstinance. I was convinced it was something high and lofty, expanding my spirit, touching everything, giving me panoramic, bird’s-eye sky-sight of the whole world. But it was also a contraction, a compression of the whole world into a single person. Even my Self was lost in the crush of the singularity.

Still, I felt it was the highest pursuit, the intensity of all of those love poems and romantic stories finally made manifest in my own life. There was no better reason to be steadfast in suffering, and in my mind, I could do nothing but be steadfast and hold onto my feelings. They were a part of me. He was a part of me; thoughts of the most random subject would eventually find their way back to him; I had conversations with him in my mind. But when these conversations occurred far more frequently than those in real life, I felt depressed and worthless. I wasn’t loved in return because it was difficult, perhaps impossible, for him to love me. Something was wrong with me. I wasn’t interesting or confident or cool enough. I was ashamed of who I was, yet addicted to what gave me that shame.

I was fully aware of my state of addiction, but didn’t want to stop. It was a test of my will, of the depth of my feelings; a way to prove that my love of romance was not hypocritical, not counterfeit, not in vain. I was addicted to both the experience of being in love and the possibility of fulfilling it. Perhaps there could be some change, some break in the cycle, some amazing victory. A moment where he understood, he reciprocated in the same way.

The dream of that moment fueled my addiction.

Now I see that the Endless Mystery of His Feelings and Actions that I wrote hundreds of pages about could be reduced to a single line of code. That I was engaged in a struggle for which there could be no victory. I was consumed in masochistic reflection that convinced me that my Self could be re-made if it was un-done; re-shaped into someone who could get me what I wanted. But this only made my Self assert itself even more, like a red stain soaking through a white metal mesh screen of a bird’s cage as it flies against the sides and bleeds. 


Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Tradition vs. Freedom in Pixar's "Brave"

I saw Pixar’s “Brave” a few weeks ago. It was well-executed and I liked it, but it was somewhat predictable and I don’t think it was Pixar’s best. Because it was their first full-length animated feature with a female protagonist, I was scrutinizing it quite a bit (I wasn’t specifically trying to, but I knew that I probably would regardless). I’m not posting this as a review, I just wanted to outline the impressions, issues, and questions the movie raised for me. It will discuss some plot-points, so if you haven’t seen it, spoilers are ahead.

“Brave” centers on a young Scottish princess named Merida who loves archery, horse-back riding, and adventure. Her mother disapproves of Merida’s tomboyish nature and wants her to be more lady-like and act in a manner more befitting a princess. Merida and her mother butt heads frequently, but she gets along well with her father. Now that she is fifteen, her mother tells her that tradition dictates that her marriage be arranged. Merida rebels, claiming that she is not ready to get married. They argue bitterly but her mother refuses to budge on the issue, and Merida runs away, angry and distraught. She comes across a witch, and asks the witch to “change her mother” so that she can “change her fate”. The witch gives her an enchanted pastry to feed her mother, and it ends up transforming her mother into a bear. This puts her mother in grave danger, because Merida’s father is obsessed with killing a bear that attacked him years ago and is responsible for the loss of one of his legs. We find out later that that same bear was also once human, and that he’s part of a legend that Merida’s mother has told her repeatedly about a man who ruled Scotland equally with his three brothers, until he used magic to try to become stronger than they (which transformed him into a bear) and thus disrupted the harmony of the kingdom. Merida must find a way to save her mother from becoming a bear for good.

In my eyes, the movie had two main themes: one, the importance of owning up to the consequences of one's actions, and two, the importance of maintaining communal and filial harmony. The latter struck me as rather conservative, in a way. I mean, it’s still great that Pixar finally created a female protagonist, and that she is strong, resourceful, and excels at typically “masculine” activities, and that they focused on the performance of femininity that was expected of Merida and the limits imposed on her freedom as a result. But when Merida refuses to get married, her mother chastises her for breaking tradition, and tells her (for the umpteenth time, apparently) of the legend of the four brothers, which is painted as a cautionary tale about how asserting your individual agency and independence can harm your community. Her mother is likening her fifteen year old daughter’s refusal to get married, which would severely curtail her freedom, to an adult man’s selfish, destructive power grab. Merida's marriage would be a political one; her choice of suitors is limited to the princes from the three neighboring kingdoms (although she only marries a prince from one, so go figure). We are told that peace between the kingdoms hinges on her actions, so her position is tied to the legend in that respect. However, I don’t think we are supposed to support Merida’s arranged marriage (the developers are American, after all), and after her mother is turned into a bear, she eventually decides that Merida doesn’t have to get married yet.

The problem is, there is no explanation given as to why Merida’s mother changes her mind. And in real-life situations like this, where people are convinced of the rightness and necessity of tradition and a woman’s proper place within it, they usually don’t abruptly change their mind like that. What option would be left for a woman who rebels, in that scenario? The movie couldn’t imagine a situation where her mother didn’t change her mind about the marriage, but before the whole magic bear business, that was the main conflict of the story, and it seemed pretty intractable. It’s wrapped up rather quickly in order to shift focus to the new magic bear conflict.

The movie casts Merida’s desire to change her mother as deeply wrong;  a severing of their bond that endangers her family and the broader community. But the only reason she wants to change her mother in the first place is because she doesn't want to get married, so the film seems dangerously close to condemning Merida's resistance to marriage itself. At the end of the film, Merida is in tears, contrite for changing her mother and for not owning up to it. It’s easy for her to forget the importance of why she did it in the first place, now that her mother has changed her mind about the proposal. I’m not sure that the movie differentiated enough from the cause of Merida’s unhappiness and the method she used to solve it; it’s insistent that Merida got it wrong and needs to be remorseful, but it doesn’t make it clear that she was right to advocate for herself and her rights. Furthermore, her mother doesn’t go through a similar moment of contrition for trying to force her teenage daughter to marry and for generally brow-beating her for not being lady-like enough; she just randomly has a change of heart, prompted by moments where Merida’s "un-feminine" knowledge impresses her when they’re in the woods. They obviously go through a lot and learn about eachother’s strengths while trying to reverse the spell, but I still think that more explanation and development was needed here (I guess it is pretty typical of parents to not admit when they’re wrong with regards to their parenting and simply change their mind at their own whim, though).

But I keep thinking about Merida's tears at the end, which to me was the most powerful moment of the film. She was wrong to want to use magic to fundamentally change her mother, especially before understanding the implications and dangers of all that that might mean. And she was wrong to not admit that it was her fault that her mother was in terrible danger. But she was not wrong to want her mother to change her mind about marriage, not wrong to be angry and upset that her desire for freedom was ignored and vilified, and not wrong to want to change her fate. Maybe the writers thought that this would be so obvious to us that it would go without saying. But when it comes to women’s right to autonomy, I think it’s best to just say it.


Monday, July 23, 2012

Double Team in Action: More Thoughts on "Offensive Humor"

[CN: Rape, rape culture]

Recently the two of us had a conversation with someone about the Tosh issue and thought we'd post some of it here--especially because it covers a lot of topics that might typically come up in discussions of "offensive" humor. Hopefully it's useful to some readers out there!

"Not all good comedy is inoffensive and that not all offensive comedy is unfunny."

J: That isn't a fact; that's opinion. For some people, if comedy offends them, it's not funny. Rape jokes can do more than offend; for survivors, it can make them relive their trauma and feel humiliated, like this horrible thing that happened to them is just something for people to laugh at. Few comedians seem to factor that rape survivors might be in the audience or listening at home and instead treat rape as some remote, abstract concept, ripe with shock culture potential they're itching to exploit. But it's not actually that shocking or subversive to minimize rape in this culture; it's done all the time, and if a rape joke adds to that, we should try to recognize it. Most feminist commentary online has said that telling a good, funny rape joke is possible ; it just should be well-thought out, critical of the rapist, rape culture, and/or rape apologia, not further mocking the victim. Then there are a few feminists who believe that no rape joke is funny because they all normalize rape. 

C: A big part of this argument turns on the usage of the word "offensive"—I think people aren’t often on the same wavelength regarding its definition. If you tell a joke insulting someone's hometown, they may be offended, but it's not unreasonable to believe they might also find the joke funny. But if you tell a joke about rape, depending on what you say, and at whose expense, you may make a member of the audience feel ashamed and hurt. That's not the same thing as feeling offended and those feelings are much more viscerally incompatible with laughter and feeling good. Additionally, it's about the content of the joke—myself and most feminist bloggers are not arguing rape jokes are off-limits, just that telling rape jokes in which rape victims are the butt of the joke, rather than rapists, can be cruel and a dick-move overall--and THAT’S the issue here. A joke at the expense of rapists in qualitatively different than a joke at the expense of rape victims--especially coming from a dude who has never and most likely will never have to deal with the threat of rape as a reality.

"This is just the PC movement trying to silence comedians!"

J: I don't know that I buy that there's a "PC Movement" per se, or that whatever you're referring to should be given that name. There's a difference between some knee-jerk, prudish, FCC-motivated offense at something and being angry or upset from a personal, empathetic, or socially-conscious standpoint, and it seems like you're conflating the two. When it comes to a rape joke, most people are not criticizing it because it offends their delicate sensibilities, but because they believe it supports rapists, minimizes the gravity of rape, and mocks rape victims. In the case of Daniel Tosh, he wasn't just making rape jokes (not the "good" kind described above either) but also lashing out at the woman who stood up to him and using the threat of rape to put her in her place. 

C: The idea of a “PC movement” has got to be one of the worst mischaracterizations of this kind of criticism—on top of it being a terrible misnomer. I could dissect the concept in greater depth in a later post if you want, but for now I’m just going to focus at the issue at hand: rape jokes. I don’t think I’ve ever read an objection of them that claims that the actual language and terminology used is arbitrarily out-of-bounds. It’s not some knee-jerk, schoolmarm-like reaction of “You can’t say that! It’s inappropriate!” which is what people tend to be invoking when they talk about political correctness. In this case, it’s not about the words and terminology being used—it’s not about the word rape being thrown around—it’s the content of the jokes, it’s the subtext. As I mentioned earlier, there is a big difference between a joke in which the subtext is “aren’t rapists terrible people?” and “it’s funny when drunk girls get raped, they’re really asking for it anyway.”

"But what about free speech? This is censorship!"

 Free speech means you CAN say anything you want, not that you SHOULD, or that you can say anything and no one can give you shit for it. Likewise, any criticism for a joke is also free speech, but you don't hear that one thrown around as often.

And I'm curious, in terms of free speech supporters--- why do you think someone's right to tell some joke is more important than causing someone pain? This isn't a matter of "anyone who's offended needs to stop being so sensitive, it's their own fault for feeling that way", because again, for rape survivors, it's not a choice so much as being triggered into the memory of trauma. As for having everything on comedy on the table; it should be, but again, both the comedian and the audience should examine what the joke supports and perpetuates. Comedy at its best criticizes the powerful and supports the powerless, or makes unique, cogent, subversive observations. This isn't a matter of "hurt feelings" or making the world a "perfect" place, but being aware of existing power dynamics. A joke told at the expense of a rapist is not equivalent to a joke told at the expense of a victim; they function very differently.

There are few people that can say anything with impunity, especially while on the job. Why should a stand-up comic be any different? If anything, their job is MORE dependent than most on making everyone feel like they're having a great time. I love to laugh and I've watched a shit-ton of stand-up throughout my life, but I'm not willing to let them say anything they want with impunity. And it's not like all we do is laugh at comedians; they're telling stories, making observations about society, and further shaping our perceptions.

Free speech and censorship issues are straw men arguments. I haven’t come across anyone advocating that comedians should be thrown in jail or censored. Even if there are critics that have argued that, let me be clear: that is not my argument. Anyone is free to make whatever joke they want, just as I am free to criticize them for the implications of their jokes. Anyone is free to continue making fun of rape victims, just as I am free to consider them an unempathetic, uncritical asshole for doing so. 

One more reason free speech is a red herring: free speech, as a constitutionally protected right, does not govern certain relationships between individuals. A comedian can tell his jokes without the threat of being jailed, that’s true, and that’s already his situation. Does he have a constitutionally protected right to be on stage doing stand-up? No, it’s a privilege. People can boo him off the stage, the event coordinator can cancel his show, etc. etc. These aren’t free speech or censorship issues, so let’s not distort the term by calling them that. He *can* say whatever he wants. Is he constitutionally guaranteed a nation-wide platform to distribute it? No, that's a privilege.

"But it's comedy! Everything is and should be fair game!"

C: Yeah, everything is fair game for a comedian to joke about, that doesn’t mean that if they say something really uncritical and unempathetic that no one is allowed to criticize them for it. It’s not as if comedy is divorced from society and language. Words have meaning. Words about social phenomena have meaning. It's not as if tacking on a punch-line at the end magically makes that meaning and social relevance disappear. Comedy is part of an ongoing discussion and exchange over how to talk about and represent a host of different issues—and sometimes, comedians (as fallible humans sometimes tend to do) get it wrong.  This is especially important because lot of the jokes in question don’t just hurt people, they also shore up damaging ideas that shape our culture and society. At most, I just want comedians to understand and own up to that. If they see it and just don’t care, that’s one thing, but when they deny that their words can have such an impact at all, it’s pretty grating. 

"But this would be too hard on comedians!" 

C: I guess the ideas I’ve expressed would be “hard on comedians” if you agree that thinking critically and being empathetic and intellectually honest is somehow difficult. But I hold everyone to that standard, no matter how difficult it might be for them, and comedians don’t get a free pass on that. Also, other comedians have done it no problem: George Carlin, Richard Pryor and Wanda Sykes tackled rape in a way that embodies that standard. In all honesty, all I want is for comedians to be aware of the social and individual impact their words can have, and either own up to their own indifference or try to actively change it. 

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Owning the Subtext: Thoughts on Humor and Satire

[CN: Rape, rape culture]

I've been planning to make a post on shock-humor and effective satire and irony, especially in light of similar discussions and debacles, most recently this incident involving Daniel Tosh.

I should start off by saying that I recognize what an incredibly powerful tool humor can be, especially irony and satire. It's one of the reasons I love the Daily Show and the Colbert Report so much--which is not to say I agree with every view or every joke ever made on those shows*--but rather that I appreciate the way they're utilizing humor. Their coverage of current events can be more memorable, engaging and overt in a way that conventional news programs can't replicate. For instance, when news programs reported on the House Oversight Committee hearing on birth control back in February, you might have simply heard an anchor say flatly "There were no female participants at the conference." Jon Stewart, on the other hand, is able to belabor the
absurdity of the fact in a way that sticks and has a greater emotional impact. And this kind of engagement has an impact: there are more young people politically informed and engaged because of these programs who might otherwise have been uninterested in politics.

Despite the fact that not all humor is necessarily social or political commentary, there is one thing that almost all jokes share: subtext. If we take Stephen Colbert's brand of satire as an example, the subtext is the absurdity of conservative tv pundits--it's the butt of all the jokes, it's the punchline we're all in on. And because it's satire, Colbert's rhetoric itself is insincere--the literal meaning of his words is the exact opposite of the intended message. But although we're not supposed to take his actual rhetoric seriously, we are most certainly supposed to take the subtext seriously.

While the subtext in The Colbert Report is intentionally and skillfully crafted, the subtext in other jokes is not well thought-out or intentional--but unfortunately, it's still there, whether the joke-teller likes it or not. And sometimes that subtext offends or worse, actually hurts people. In those cases, joke-tellers have three options: 1) stand by the original subtext and attempt to justify it; 2) engage with people's complaints, clarify the intended subtext (while still admitting to the flawed execution) and/or apologize; 3) derail and deflect by claiming things like "you're not supposed to take it seriously, can't you take a joke?" and/or "quit trying to censor me!" or denying that jokes have subtext in the first place.

So now that we have a framework for evaluating jokes, let's take a closer look at Tosh's rape joke fiasco. What's the subtext? It's pretty simple and hackish: there is something funny about the idea of someone being raped (and that even if it is horrible, it is also funny). Note the specificity here-- the butt of the Tosh's joke is rape
victims, not rapists and not rape culture. This has been covered by others before, that what separates a "good" rape joke from a "bad" one is that the former invokes the horror of rape at the expense of rapists and rape culture, while the latter is at the expense of rape victims by seemingly mocking and belittling their pain and trauma, as if it was an amusing sport.

To say that mocking and belittling trauma "offends" people is a gross understatement--in fact, I resent that word being used, because it's not even accurate. If you insult someone's favorite sports team, they may be merely offended. If you make someone relive a traumatic experience, make them remember all the hurt and fear and shame, except this time in a room where everyone is laughing at the very idea of their experience--then they are not offended, they are experiencing something painful. Even if the listener has not experienced rape, if they have ever felt anxiety or fear over it, can imagine how horrible it would be, or even simply feel empathy--that joke doesn't simply offend, it is unsettling and still painful. That is not the same as feeling offense and indignation. And it's no longer about "political correctness."

Let's take a look at Tosh's response: 

"All the out of context misquotes aside, i'd like to sincerely apologize,”

While I'll give him credit for attempting to apologize, it is pretty irksome that he simultaneously writes some throwaway line about "out of context misquotes" without actually ever specifying what was misquoted or taken out of context. I suspect he didn't specify anything because, assuming it even existed, it didn't actually change the subtext of the joke. 

He then followed up with this gem: 
"The point i was making before i was heckled is there are awful things in the world but you can still make jokes about them. #deadbabies."

As noted earlier, there is a difference between making a joke that illustrates how horrible rape is and making one that makes light of it. Tosh did the latter. If he were trying to do the former, he failed. If he wants to do better in the future, he needs to be cognizant of the subtext of his jokes and actively change it. Somehow, I doubt this is going to happen.

I'm not saying that it's not possible for critics to ever misinterpret the subtext of a joke. That certainly happens, especially in cases with jokes less simplistic and hackish than Tosh's "joke." But what I am saying is that the conversation should at least revolve around both the joke-teller and the listener agreeing that jokes have a subtext, and from there they can discuss the intended meaning and whether it was executed properly. That is a much better conversation to have than denying that subtext exists at all, that it can hurt people and that it matters.  
For an example of a comedian genuinely engaging with the subtext of his joke, see Jason Alexander's statement here. It's not impossible. It's not even difficult. It just takes some thoughtfulness and empathy.

One last point I want to discuss is a response to hurtful jokes I mentioned earlier: 
derail and deflect by claiming things like "you're not supposed to take it seriously, can't you take a joke?" and/or "quit trying to censor me!" or denying that the subtext exists in the first place. This is the tact that the bulk of Tosh's supporters took when defending him. 

Regarding the claim that jokes "shouldn't be taken seriously": I think this is ultimately a poorly constructed phrase (similar to "offended") that obscures what critics of hurtful jokes are really trying to say. It's not that they've lost sight of the fact that it's a joke and are trying to interpret the words literally. In Jason Alexander's case, it's not as if they thought he was literally saying only gay men played cricket, or that he was giving a serious appraisal of the sport. But what they did take seriously was the inescapable subtext: that men acting "effeminately" is worthy of ridicule. They took this seriously because it's a serious problem in our society that has serious consequences: homophobic discrimination, bullying and killing.

There is no space where you can make commentary about society and have it be divorced from social issues, no matter how subtle the commentary might be. Comedy is not a space that can be free from social criticism so long as it is full of individuals talking about society. Words have meaning. Words about social phenomena have meaning. It's not as if tacking on a punchline at the end magically makes that meaning and social relevance disappear.

We understand this about comedy perfectly well in some contexts. We understand that when a little boy bullies another boy he considers effeminate by jokingly calling him a girl that the bully doesn't actually believe he's a girl. But we also understand that his bullying is serious--both in terms of it being a serious problem and the bully's serious intention to inflict pain. We also understand that it's wrong. Would it magically not be a serious problem if suddenly the bully had a microphone and was in front of a crowd? Would it suddenly not be wrong? 

This brings me to the next point: censorship. This is a particularly frustrating straw man. Not one critic that I've come across has advocated that Tosh should be thrown in jail, or should be prevented from ever making these kinds of jokes. Even if there are critics that have argued that, let me be clear: that is not my argument. Tosh is free to make whatever joke he wants, just as I am free to criticize him for the implications of his jokes. He is free to continue making fun of rape victims, just as I am free to consider him an unempathetic, uncritical asshole for doing so.  

And more importantly: he is free to make jokes about rape all he wants. He will simply be a more decent human being if he actually thinks a bit about what he is saying, and whether it's the rape victims or rapists he's laughing at. 


*EDIT: For instance, I'm not happy with this at all...