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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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Did Titantic do more for climate change than Leonardo DiCaprio’s new documentary?

Sex, icebergs and individual plight: the actor’s earlier outing teaches us more about vast disasters than his new docufilm about global warming’s impact, Before the Flood.

“Now you know there was a man named Jack Dawson and that he saved me . . . in every way that a person can be saved.” Or did he? For Titanic actor Leonardo DiCaprio, there is one way in which Jack never did rescue Rose: from the threat of climate catastrophe. 

Over the last 15 years, DiCaprio has made the issue a personal mission. Yet even in his role as UN climate ambassador, he stills feels far from heroic:

“If the UN really knew how I feel, how pessimistic I am about our future . . . I mean to be honest, they may have picked the wrong guy.”

So begins his new documentary, Before the Flood. A quest for answers on climate change, the film sees Leo racing around the world, marvelling at the sound of endangered whales, despairing at the destruction caused by tar-sands – “it looks like Mordor” – and interviewing a series of concerned experts, from professors to Barack Obama to the Pope.

There are plenty of naysayers to stand in his way and put him down. “Who better to educate world leaders on made-up climate change and a crisis that doesn't exist, than an actor with zero years of scientific training?” mocks one commentator from Fox News.

But if DiCaprio can gather enough evidence to believe in himself – AND believe that there are viable solutions out there – then so can we. Or so the story arc promises. His journey thus stands as a guide for our own; a self-education that will lead to salvation for all. 

It's all a little messianic. The film is even named after a biblical painting. And will those who don't already know who DiCaprio is even care? 

The sad fact is that, while DiCaprio’s lasting popularity still owes so much Titanic, the 1997 box-office smash that made his name, his new documentary fails to recapture the dramatic wisdom that put him there. It doesn’t even quip about the icebergs.

This is an oversight. Titanic didn’t win 11 academy awards for nothing. As well as a must-see rite of passage (pun intended) and soundtrack for infinite school discos, it taught me something invaluable about storytelling. Though I was not initially a DiCaprio fan, over the years I’ve come to accept that my lasting love of the film is inseparable from my emotional investment in Leo, or at least in his character, Jack. What Titanic showed so brilliantly was that the fastest way to empathise with suffering on a vast scale – be it a sinking ship or a sinking planet – is to learn to care for the fate of one or two individuals involved.

Every part of Jack and Rose's story is thus intimately linked with the story of the ship. Even that famed sex scene gains its erotic force not from the characters alone, but from their race through the blazing engine room (situated as it is between the foreplay of the naked portrait and the famous post-coital ending in the back of the cab).

And such carefully crafted storytelling isn't only essential to great entertainment but to great activism too. It can literally inspire action – as evidenced by fans’ desperate attempts to prove that both Jack and Rose could have climbed to safety aboard the floating piece of wood.

So would Before the Flood have been better if it had been a little bit more like Titanic and less like An Inconvenient Truth? Yes. And does that mean we should make climate films about epic polar bear love stories instead? Not exactly. 

There are many powerful documentaries out there that make you emotionally invested in the lives of those experiencing the consequences of our indirect (fossil fuel-burning) actions. Take Virunga, a heart-wrenching insight into the struggle of those protecting eastern Congo’s national park.

Sadly, Before the Flood is not one of them. Its examples of climate change – from Beijing air pollution to coral reef destruction – are over-familiar and under-explored. Instead of interviewing a Chinese official with a graph on his iPad, I would have preferred visiting a solar-panel factory worker and meeting their family, who are perhaps suffering from the effects of the smog in a way I can't yet imagine.

If you want a whistlestop tour of all things climate change then this necessary and urgent film is the movie for you. But those hoping it will give new depth to climate activism will be disappointed.

DiCaprio's distant relationship with the effects of climate change leave him stranded at the level of a narrator. He makes for a great elderly Rose, but we need a Jack.

Before The Flood is in limited theatres from 21 October and will be shown on National Geographic on Sunday 30 October.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.