I have in my time been called a “humourless feminist”. Obviously this is something of which I’m very proud. I think if you’re not called humourless at least once – preferably by someone who’s also speculating on where you are in your menstrual cycle – then you’re doing feminism wrong (this rule applies regardless of whether or not you’re someone who actually menstruates. I’m pretty sure my partner’s been accused of having PMS in his time, although clearly not by me).
Much as I appreciate the “humourless” accolade, I’m not however sure I’ve truly earned it. I’m actually bloody hilarious, me, once I get going. Or rather, I do try. I’m not a comedy scriptwriter or anything, but I think I see the funny side in things. Perhaps I’m the only one who thinks this, though. That’s the trouble with humour; it’s so personal (for instance, the thing I still consider to be the funniest thing EVER is my partner giving his dad a hat for Christmas in 2002 and ACCIDENTALLY writing “Hatty Christmas” on the gift tag. Over a decade later, I’m still pissing myself about that, for reasons even I don’t understand).
*waits for hysterics at the memory to subside*
Anyhow, where was I? Oh yes, humour. I reckon that feminists do tend to have a sense of humour. God knows, they need it. At the same time, I can see where the “humourless feminist” stereotype comes from. Humour is just such a great vehicle for sexism it stands to reason that some will see attacks on sexism as attacks on humour itself (by “some” I mean “sexist idiots”, but there are a lot of them about).
Humour is used to undermine women, and by that I don’t just mean the content of specific jokes, but broader understandings of the way in which humour functions. Women are continually told that they are “less funny” – less intelligent? less creative? less engaging? – than men. Failing to laugh at a person’s jokes is a powerful put-down, and this happens more to women than to men – because they are “less funny”? Or is it the delivery? The high-pitched voice? The fact that we don’t empathize with other women quite so much as with men? It’s hard to tell. Certainly humour is linked to power in ways which are hard to deconstruct (and totally unfunny should you try). Panel shows such as Mock the Week will include their token funny woman but she’s rarely amusing; you sense her subordination right from the start. Often she seems to be there to legitimise the rest of them, the “real” comedians. Someone makes a sexist joke and the camera focuses on her face, as she’s the only one grimacing politely rather than laughing; her expression alone is somehow seen to be an adequate response to the same old boorish crap (“see, we got someone to show disapproval for you!”).
Of course, unamusing as the jokes may be, unless you’re actually aiming for humourless feminist status you’re not going to want to be the grimacing woman. You’ll want to be one of the lads, to show you have the requisite joie de vivre and maturity not to be offended by anything. Laughing at jokes which are apparently sexist is a sign of sophistication. It shows you “get” it, although “it” never has to be explained (that would just spoil the effect). It’s all to do with postmodern irony or something. Postmodern irony and the appreciation of tits.
As a pre-identified humourless feminist, I’m thankfully in a position to say I thought Seth MacFarlane’s 2013 Oscars opener, "We Saw Your Boobs", was a great, steaming misogynist turd. I’m allowed to say this because I’ve nothing to lose. I’m not clever enough to rise above this humour, not resilient enough to find it funny. It makes me feel uncomfortable, in the way that so much Hollywood misogyny makes me uncomfortable, but to a greater extent because it’s so direct and concentrated (that’ll be the irony, I presume. Alas, it’s whooshed straight over my head). The thing is, though, if I – and a great deal of others – don’t find it funny, doesn’t it mean it is less funny? Or are we, the humourless, once again at fault?
The defence often presented for MacFarlane (and others such as Trey Parker and Matt Stone) is that their humour isn’t a specific attack on anyone. As long as you’re a self-styled misanthropist who hates everyone equally, you can’t, so the story goes, be accused of racism or sexism. I have to say I don’t buy this. The “everyone’s as shit as each other shrug” implicitly supports the status quo and it’s a status quo which benefits the likes of MacFarlane. Family Guy might purport to be even-handed in calling out the hypocrisies of left and right, but it’s overly presumptuous in its claim for neutrality. It’s still an able-bodied white man’s view of the world. You don’t earn the right to indulge in damaging stereotypes and prejudices just because you’ve promised to be mean to everyone else. Your bold decision to occupy the moral low ground isn’t enough to make you a person who’s pre-empted all criticism. You’re still picking and choosing your targets and so can everyone else.
What looks like sophistication and edginess is actually a lack of nuance and the fear of doing anything that’s genuinely risky, such as holding an opinion that isn’t just an implicit backing-up of the dominant positions that you’re claiming to debunk. I think for a long time programmes such as Family Guy threw me, as the domestic set-up and message seemed so Daily Mail, yet the tone didn’t. But it’s just that, the tone. And then the problem is, does offence at MacFarlane’s sexism stay focussed on the sheer Daily Mail-ness of it, or tip over into classic slut shaming (“he did a thing about boobs!”)? I wouldn’t know. Anyhow, I’ve not even watched the rest of the Oscars ceremony. I trust it deconstructed the racism and sexism of Hollywood in a way that would amuse racists and sexists, if no one else. Alas, I just don’t have a good enough sense of humour for these things any more.
PS I’m disappointed because to be honest, I’ve always had a bit of a thing for Brian. I imagined he was a dog I could totally hang out with, drinking martinis and being pretentious. I bet he’d even laugh about Hatty Christmas...
This post originally appeared on Glosswitch's blog, glosswatch.com, and is crossposted here with her permission.