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Can’t take a joke? Too right, says Laurie Penny

Racist, sexist or homophobic banter draws its lazy humour from exclusion.

Racist, sexist or homophobic banter draws its lazy humour from exclusion.

Boys are funny, aren't they? I mean funny as in curious, not funny as in ha-ha. One minute they're all bogeys and pokemon and perilous attempts to set fire to their own farts, and the next they're making hilarious jokes about gang-rape. First, there was 'unilad,' the student magazine for undergraduates looking to affirm their own masculinity with a bit of joshing about how rape is just surprise sex. Then there were the 'G4'- four rich city boys whose cringeworthy email about a planned rugby bender in Dubai was leaked to the press, including 'rules' about 'laddish' behaviour like high- fiving each other during notional gang-bangs in which they would degrade the women involved. They also swore not to phone the girlfriends they had somehow managed to acquire, although this seems unlikely to remain an obstacle for long.

'Lad banter' is nothing new- but the leakiness of data online means that a large number of women can now see the way that we have always suspected some men talk about us behind our backs. Before they were chased from the internet by fire-breathing feminist hellwraiths, the jolly boys at Unilad apologised for 'going too far' and for causing offence. This is an Olympian feat of point- missage: the problem is not the offence caused but the fact that some men still think that this is an acceptable way to talk about women in or out of our earshot.

Some jokes are designed to make people feel powerful by dehumanising others. Racist, sexist or homophobic banter draws its lazy humour from exclusion, and in general, the worse a joke is, the smaller the circle of people likely to 'get' it. When people accuse women of inability to 'take a joke' when men humiliate, objectify or degrade us, they are absolutely right. The 'joke' wouldn't work if it were designed for us to appreciate, because that sort of humour is based on cruelty, on making men feel big and stiff at women's expense. Some jokes we are simply expected to 'take' rather like one might take a punch.

That this sort of misogynist table-thumping has more than a little of the playground to it is not accidental. It is learned in the playground. I remember ten years ago, in year eleven, the way the loud, overweight boy in who might have been bullied if it were not for his particular penchant for filthy banter used to speculate, as soon as the teacher left the room, as to how the genitals of the prettiest girl in English class might taste - like bacon? Like beef? Was she shaved?

I remember how she just sat there with her eyes lowered, waiting for it to stop. With hindsight I can understand the vulnerability of these spotty little underage virgins, the anxiety to prove themselves men, which meant adopting the postures of a circle of angry power that excluded all of the girls as well as not a small number of the boys. It excluded the shy, the nerdy, the obviously gay, and the one or two who had somehow learned years or decades ahead of their peers that women and girls were real human beings with dreams and desires and personal agency.

I wonder if hindsight works the same way for the rest of those boys, wherever they are now. I wonder if some of them look back and see the harm that their lairy bullying and baseless sexual boasting caused. Or perhaps not. Perhaps they just grew up into wealthy, powerful douchebags like the self-styled 'G4', entertaining heady fantasies of gang-rape as part of a language of violent sexist posturing kept entirely private from the women in their lives. That would be funny. But not funny ha-ha.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 20 February 2012 issue of the New Statesman, How do we stop Iran getting the bomb?

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Britain has built a national myth on winning the Second World War, but it’s distorting our politics

The impending humiliation of Brexit is going to have a lot more in common with Suez.

The Crown, Peter Morgan’s epic drama covering the reign of Elizabeth II, ended its first series with a nemesis waiting just off-stage to shake up its court politics. In the final episode, Egyptian president Gamal Nasser gives a rip-roaringly anti-imperialist – and anti-British – speech. The scene is set for the Suez Crisis to be a big plot point in Season 2.

Suez has gone down in history as the great foreign policy debacle of postwar Britain. The 1956 crisis – which saw Israel, France and Britain jointly invade Egypt to take control of the Suez Canal, only to slink off again, nine days later, once it became clear the US wasn’t having any of it – is seen as the point at which it became clear that even the bigger states of Europe were no longer great powers in the world. “President Eisenhower’s humiliation of Britain,” Jack Straw wrote in his 2012 memoir, “had been total.”

This was, though, a fairly limited sort of humiliation. Britain was not invaded or occupied; there was no sudden collapse in living standards, let alone a significant body count. Our greatest national debacle is nothing more than the realisation that Britain could no longer do whatever it wanted without fear of reprisal. As humiliations go, this one’s up there with the loss of status men have faced from the rise of feminism: suddenly, Britain could do what it wanted a mere 80 per cent of the time.

The Crown begins in 1947, when Prince Philip gives up his Greek and Danish royal titles and becomes a British subject, so that he can marry Princess Elizabeth. That year saw another British foreign policy debacle, one on which the show remains oddly silent. In the partition which followed India’s independence from the British Empire, 70 years ago this week, upwards of a million people died; in the decades since, the borders drawn up at that time have been the site of numerous wars, and Kashmir remains a flashpoint.

All this, one might think, might count as a far bigger regret than Suez – yet it doesn’t feature in the national narrative in the same way. Perhaps because partition was about the withdrawal of British forces, rather than their deployment; perhaps it’s simply that it all happened a very long way away. Or perhaps we just care less about a body count than we do about looking bad in front of the Americans.

I think, though, there’s another reason we don’t talk about this stuff: the end of empire is hidden behind a much bigger part of our national myth. In the Second World War, Britain is undeniably one of the good guys; for 12 months, indeed, Britain was the only good guy. Never mind that it still had the largest empire the world had ever seen to fall back on: Britain stood alone.

The centrality of the Second World War to the national myth warps our view of history and our place in the world in all sorts of ways. For starters, it means we’ve never had to take an honest account of the consequences of empire. In a tale about British heroes defeating Nazi villains, British mistakes or British atrocities just don’t fit. (Winston Churchill’s role in the 1943 Bengal famine – death toll: three million – by ordering the export of Indian grain to Britain rarely comes up in biopics.) In this dominant version of the national story, the end of empire is just the price we pay to defeat fascism.

More than that, our obsession with the Second World War creates the bizarre impression that failure is not just heroic, but a necessary precursor to success. Two of the most discussed elements of Britain’s war – the evacuation of Dunkirk, and the Blitz – are not about victory at all, but about survival against the odds. The lesson we take is that, with a touch of British grit and an ability to improvise, we can accomplish anything. It’s hard not to see this reflected in Brexit secretary David Davis’s lack of notes, but it’s nonsense: had the Russians and Americans not arrived to bail us out, Britain would have been stuffed.

Most obviously, being one of the winners of the Second World War infects our attitude to Europe. It’s probably not a coincidence that Britain has always been both one of the most eurosceptic EU countries, and one of the tiny number not to have been trampled by a foreign army at some point in recent history: we don’t instinctively grasp why European unity matters.

Once again, Suez is instructive. The lesson postwar France took from the discovery that the imperial age was over was that it should lead a strong and unified Europe. The lesson Britain took was that, so long as we cosied up to the US – Athens to their Rome, to quote Harold Macmillan – we could still bask in reflected superpower.

Until recently, Britain’s Second World War obsession and national ignorance about empire didn’t really seem to affect contemporary politics. They were embarrassing; but they were also irrelevant, so we could cope. Brexit, though, means that hubris is about to run headlong into nemesis, and the widespread assumption that Britain is a rich, powerful and much-loved country is unlikely to survive contact with reality. India will not offer a trade deal for sentimental reasons; Ireland is not a junior partner that will meekly follow us out of the door or police its borders on our behalf. The discovery that Britain is now a mid-ranking power that – excepting the over-heated south-east of England – isn’t even that rich is likely to mean a loss of status to rival Suez.

Morgan says he has planned six seasons of The Crown. (This looks entertainingly like a bet the Queen will be dead by 2021; if not, like Game of Thrones before it, he might well run out of text to adapt.) It’ll be interesting to see how the show handles Brexit. It began with the royal family facing up to a vertiginous decline in British power. As things stand, it may have to end the same way. 

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Brexit. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear