Sunday, December 8, 2013

It's Just a Joke

Let's just put this out there first:  I understand that you made a joke and that it's supposed to be funny. I'm not stupid; if they're done properly I will in fact recognize them.  I understand that it was lighthearted, that you just wanted to infuse some humor into everyone's day, that it wasn't intended to be taken seriously, that it isn't literal, that I'm putting way more thought than you did into your joke, and that you think my job is to just laugh and move on.

All of that is beside the point.  Jokes don't exist on some magical plane where meaning disappears, critique is irrelevant, and analysis breaks down. 

Of course it was a joke...but it's not "just" a joke.  

Its being a joke doesn't somehow excuse it from being offensive the way it would be if you just flat-out said something nonhumorous with the same content.  ("What do you call a blonde with brains?  A golden retriever." vs. "Blondes are dumber than dogs."  Those are saying exactly the same thing, except one of them is (also) a joke. They are both offensive. (And yes, I deliberately picked a blonde joke because it was the least offensive kind of offensive joke I could think of, and I didn't actually want to Google rape jokes or racist jokes.) )

Jokes aren't objective bundles of funny. Humor is subjective...but that's not an out; it's a tell.  The whole reason you find a joke funny is that you more or less agree with the assumptions being made.  Otherwise it wouldn't really make sense.  You wouldn't really get it, or you'd at least have to make an effort to perspective-shift before you did.  Jokes that you find funny work because they fit into your conception of the world.  So if you find yourself laughing at rape jokes, you might want to check and make sure you're not actually kind of an entitled misogynist inside somewhere.

It's also kind of the case that all jokes are offensive.  Freud (as far as I understand, not actually having read the relevant work myself) definitely pegged humor.  He said that all jokes were motivated either by eros, the sex instinct, or thanatos, the death (aggression) instinct.  Seems about right.  Pretty much every joke in the world (except (some) puns, which usually aren't funny anyway) is about sex or aggression at the core, and sometimes both (any joke that involves a husband coming home to catch or almost catch or not catch his wife's lover).  Jokes almost always turn on putting someone down.  Someone's stupid, or someone gets beaten up, someone's powerless, someone's a member of some group that can't do X or always does Y.  Most jokes don't work if there's not a butt.

And so yeah, that sucks, because humor is an important force in the world.  That means you have to figure out a way to do it well.  Which is hard! But when you don't, that's your fault, not the fault of the people who got offended.  You don't get a free pass to be an asshole just because you're trying to create something to make people happy.  Especially when it doesn't actually  because your privilege gets in your way of understanding that not everyone interacts with the world in exactly (/at all) the same way as you and so not everyone is going to think you're hilarious, or is going to be able to (or want to) ignore an aspect of your joke that is immensely problematic to them.

But if it comes down to it, I firmly feel that not making other people feel like shit is more important than adding giggles to other people's lives.  Humor is important, but it's not as important as not feeling like everyone else on the planet wishes you would disappear, or actively wishes you harm.

But humor is supposed to push boundaries, and it helps us work through terrible things that happen to and around us.  True!  I don't actually think there are subjects per se that shouldn't be joked about.  But there is a huge difference between joking about something to work through it or make a point about it and joking about something to make it worse.
You can talk about controversial subjectsin fact, you should talk about controversial subjects, because comedy is an incredibly powerful subversive toolbut if you want people like me to stop bitching at you (a dream we share, I promise!), you need to stop using your comedy to make those things worse.  You don't have to make things betteryou are under no obligation to save the worldbut if you are actively making things worse for people, especially when you are not a member of the group whose existence you are worsening, don't be surprised when people complain.
For instance, race jokes.  A lot of jokes about race are racist and offensive.  But they don't have to be.  A Dave Chappelle joke about race that is not itself a racist joke:  
You know the only time racism is really good for black people?  Terrorism.  Terrorismnever take black hostages.  You know it's true.  You know why they don't take black hostages, don't  you?  'Cause we're bad bargaining chips.  They call the White House, "Hello!  We have got five black people, and we will kill them, too!  Hello?  Hello?"
See?  Racism is the butt of the joke, not black people! It critiques how little public attention crimes against black people get as compared to similar crimes.  (Gun violence in white suburbs = neverending news story.  More black kids dead in Chicago?  Not so much.) 

Same works for rape jokes.  See:  How to make a rape joke.  So I actually don't really think the Louis CK raping Hitler joke is all that OK, but the part immediately after it (which actually sounds more appalling) I think is perfect:
Now I'm not condoning rape; obviously you should never rape anyone.  ...unless you have a reason, like you want to fuck somebody and they won't let you, in which case what other option do you have?  How else are you supposed to have an orgasm in their body if you don't rape them?
Because, of course, it's an explicit disavowal of what he just implied about rape being OK (even for Hitler), and it perfectly makes fun of rapists' thought processes and horrific entitlement, not of women who get raped.  (The tone of voice and facial expressions help; it's much less funny in print than in video because it's increasingly possible to misread the emphasis.  Which is why Facebook is a bad place for controversial jokes.)

Bonus:  15 Rape Jokes that Work (Except I actually feel a lot more ambivalent about most of these.  Wanda Sykes and Dane Cook, yes; all the Onion stuff I'm a lot more on the fence about.)  Rape jokes about how much you want to rape someone:  not cool.  Rape jokes about what it feels like to be a woman afraid to go anywhere or do anything:  useful to the discussion.  Race jokes about how stupid/lazy/watermelon-loving black people are:  not cool.  Jokes about what it feels like to be a black person who likes fried chicken (because who doesn't?) or about all the racist things people have said to you, or what it's like to be afraid to have any interaction with the police:  germane.  Jokes about putting babies in blenders:  not cool.  Jokes about how people treat you after you have a miscarriage:  I've never heard any, but there is at least room for them to make good points.

Kind of on a basic level, even apart from how people feel when they're the butt of a joke, or how making certain kinds of jokes makes the climate worse by normalizing terrible attitudes and making it seem like a safe space for them, it's a matter of quality and complexity.  Racist/sexist/ableist jokes just aren't very good.  They're simple; they're lazy; they show a lack of imagination, they tap into the obvious.  Taking it a couple layers deeper?  More complexity means better jokes.

Mark Twain is full of crap ("Explaining humor is a lot like dissecting a frog; you learn a lot in the process, but in the end you kill it")*.  If your  joke can't stand up to analysis, it's not worth making.

* Except it seems it was actually E.B. White, and he said "Few people are interested and the frog dies of it."

Things I just cannot get over in otherwise amazing shows

Things I just cannot get over in otherwise amazing shows:

1) West Wing:   Every single character who has occasion to express this sentiment says "I could care less" rather than "I couldn't care less."  Of course I don't expect every character on every TV show to speak beautiful, grammatically correct, professorial English. (But if one show were going to be it, wouldn't you think it'd be West Wing?)  And of course plenty of well-educated and otherwise intellectual people say weird and incorrect things because they've decided they like it better that way (for me, it's the singular "they"), or because that's just the way they grew up saying it so it stuck, or they have a strong preference between two more-or-less accepted options (my "have another think coming" rather than "thing" (except I'm also right; read all the Grammarist posts and the like)).  But you cannot convince me that of all the intellectual snobs there are on that show, none of them would be pedantic enough to not only use the proper "couldn't care less" themself (see?!*) and correct everyone else every time they said it wrong.  Et tu, Bartlett?

2) Pushing Daisies:  The inconsistent level of concern Chuck and Ned have about touching each other.  You'd think if a single brush of skin could kill you or the one you loved, you'd be a little more cautious about sitting or standing next to each other, and yet they stand approximately as far away from each other as any other pair of people on TV does (except she's not allowed to ride up front in the car!).  She should really be dressing in head-to-toe lightweight underlayers (Cuddl Duds!).  Or he should, I guess; I only just realized that I was joining the chorus of putting the onus on the woman to dress appropriately for her interactions with men.  He's the one with the freaky magical powers!  But then they're remarkably slow to figure out how they can hold hands (that weird partition in the front seat of the car with a rubber glove, or, you know, just wintertime when they're wearing gloves) or otherwise have any contact with each other at all.  Vague references to a potential sex life of some kind pop up toward the end of the show, and they start kissing through Saran Wrap, but it shouldn't take a genius to realize that if they'd just cover up, they can touch like normal people.  But I guess it's more fun to talk about making her wear a bell like a cat or for them to announce "Coming," "Going," "Crossing" as they move about the apartment.

3) Buffy the Vampire Slayer:  Will nobody ever have any situational awareness? How about we all look where we're going instead of bumping into bad guys while we're peering off in some other direction?  How about instead of forming a circle facing in having some conversation or fight or "smoochies" in the graveyard, we face outward?  How about we look around a whole room before entering it if we expect there to be demons or somesuch lurking around?  Also:  can we all please stop dressing and doing our hair and makeup like we're 35? And using terminology like "wigging" and "smoochies"?

* Though I'm never really sure whether the reflexive form of the singular "they" should be "theirself" or "themself."

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Shitty Reasons to Be Opposed to Gay Marriage, an incomplete list

1) Think of the children!!

Which ones?  The ones who you keep telling their orientation is dirty and shameful and sinful and who see it will result in a lifetime of fighting for basic human rights, the ones who are bullied at massively higher rates than everyone else, who have much higher suicide rates, who are sexually assaulted at higher rates, who are kicked out and left homeless at higher rates?

No?  Oh, then you must mean the ones whose parents have to keep trying to cobble together a series of documents to attempt to legally protect their family and their custody, the ones whose families may be sharply redefined simply by moving one state over, the ones whose parents are rendered invisible or who are held up as examples of what we can't let the world turn to, whose parents are compared to child molesters?  Oh, except it turns out there's actually no evidence they have poorer outcomes.  They're not more likely to be gay themselves (if you consider that a negative outcome), and they're not less likely to be well-adjusted. They're just kids, and legitimizing their families would seem like a great conservative project if "family values" hadn't acquired a bizarre definition.

Oh, so it sounds like you mean your children, who might—horror of horrors—be forced—forced, I say!—to read a book where someone has two mothers or where two penguins raise a chick together.  And then they might—oh no, anything but that!—ask you a question or something.  So by "think of the children!" you mean "I don't like having to talk to mine."

2) Webster

Dictionaries don't create meaning, they report it (sometimes poorly).   Not that "marriage" actually has meant much of anything we currently use it to mean throughout human history, since, after all, its a concept humans invented to serve their own purposes at varied places and times.  The Bible alone reports polygyny, concubinage, and forced marrying of deceased siblings' spouses, none of which we're anxious to include today.  Sometimes spouses have been selected by parents* and sometimes they were self-selected.  Sometimes marriage was a practical economic arrangement (division of labor).  Sometimes people paid to marry someone, and sometimes they were paid.  Sometimes marriage is assumed to be monogamous, sometimes not.  (Sometimes it actually is, sometimes not.)  Sometimes it's meant to be permanent, sometimes not.  Sometimes the participants have to be of a certain age.  Sometimes they have to be of the same race or caste.  Sometimes they have to be of different sexes.  Sometimes one member controls another, sometimes they're seen as equals.  Sometimes they have to make religious vows, sometimes only secular ones.  Sometimes children are required or at least intended, sometimes that's irrelevant. Sometimes control of property and inheritance was the primary goal, sometimes sex was, sometimes love was. Sometimes you share a bed, sometimes you don't.  Sometimes you like each other and talk over breakfast, sometimes you go months without seeing each other.  Sometimes you can't have been married previously but sometimes that doesn't matter.  Sometimes you can't be married currently; sometimes that too doesn't matter.  Sometimes you have to sign things, sometimes you have to break things, sometimes you have to light things, sometimes you jump over a broom.  Sometimes there has to be a clergy member or pillar of the community to pronounce your marriage valid, but sometimes it's only between you and the other party.  Sometimes it's a partnership, sometimes it's a hierarchy.  Sometimes you're in love (sometimes before, sometimes just after). Sometimes it's a community issue (even/especially the consummation), sometimes it's private.  Sometimes it's a legal process, sometimes it's a religious process, sometimes it's a personal process; sometimes it's some combination.  Read some books on the history and functions of marriage.  Or just go look a married gay couple in the face.  (Other countries are already doing this.  Some states in this country are too.  Married gay people exist, so obviously the term "marriage" already means them.  You have already lost this battle.)

To be continued, naturally.

*I was going to put links for every single thing, but that gets old.  Everyone's capable of Googling, I hope.

Saturday, March 2, 2013


It was brought to my attention that I'm (thankfully) not the only person on the planet bothered by the "Our wives and mothers" rhetoric and that there's a White House petition about it.  (Which obviously isn't going to get anywhere near enough signatures to get a response since there're under 5,000 now and the deadline is March 15.)  Since then I've even seen the petition linked to on two blogs I read, so that's somewhat promising, though I'm still annoyed none of them noticed the problem on their own.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Our wives and mothers

My Google Reader is full of feminists.  Actual feminist blogs, style blogs written by feminists, parenting blogs written by feminists, a couple news sources where one is more or less guaranteed to see a feminist coverage of any large event among the six or seven articles they publish concerning it, etc.  And yet somehow I am entirely alone in seeing something a little questionable in the president's feminism as expressed in his inaugural address.  This is kind of a first for me, finding myself with more extreme thoughts than literally anyone else I've encountered, even among more or less professional feminists on the internet, people who generally spend a lot of time dissecting language and nuance and implication.  So maybe I am "just looking for things to be offended about," * or maybe I'm just that special.  At any rate, I wanted to explore my thoughts a little bit.

*  I'm not.  Though obviously I do look at basically everything with, first and foremost, a critical attitude, so if there's an aspect in which something is unfair or questionable, I'm going to notice it, and of course I'm going to point it out.  That's how I work, yo.

The section in question, which was Facebooked and blogged by several women I know and loads of random internet women, goes like this:

For our journey is not complete until our wives, our mothers, and daughters can earn a living equal to their efforts. Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the lawfor if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well.

So, first of all:  yes, obviously, to the sentiment.  Women should earn fair wages on par with men and gay people's marriages matter as much as straight people's.  No quibble there.

However, I find this part to be, ironically, a sudden (linguistic, rhetorical) departure from his previous language of inclusivity.  It's a subtle shift, but I find it surprisingly alienating.  If Obama is suddenly talking about "our" wives and mothers and daughters and "our" gay brothers and sisters, the "we" he is speaking to doesn't seem to actually include those people who are the wives/mothers/daughters, brothers/sisters.  He suddenly seems to be speaking to those in charge, those with the power, those who are 'neutral,' who actually (functionally, historically, are perceived to) make up the "we" of the citizenry of America.  And that implication is where I suddenly have a problem.  For these sentences he shifts into the usual language of privilege and exclusivity that I generally see all around but that is the result of attitudes that he is explicitly trying to end.  Sure, let's give rights to those people.  "We" in our benevolence, can bestow that upon them.  It's perpetuating the attitude he's trying to solve.

I'm really surprised that nobody else has had this reaction, because it stuck out like a sore thumb to me.  Reading down the transcript, you get we, we, we, together, together, together, "we have always understood," "this generation of Americans," "for we, the people, understand...," "we understand...," "we, the people, still believe...," "any one of us," "the commitments we make to each other," "we, the people," "we, the people," "we."  All togetherness and unity and melded identity, and then, wait a second, "our wives, our mothers, and daughters."  Except he's talking about me.  In the third person.  And if I'm not part of the "we" here, I'm left to wonder if I've been part of the "we" all along or if this whole speech is addressed to people who aren't  me.

And it really is rather abrupt and rather unique.  He didn't say "our friends who are parents of a disabled child," he just said, "parents of a disabled child," which I at least take as the implied "those of us who," or "if you end up being."  He didn't say "when our old spent their twilight years in poverty," he said, "when twilight years were spent in poverty."  He does say "our brave men and women in battle," but I feel like that's different and rings more of "those of us who..." than "our sons and daughters" (which he could have, and often has, said).  It's all about smoothing over differences and kind of looking past individuality, about identifying as part of an amorphous blob of citizenry.  (Which I don't mean to sound negative; we could use more of that.)  We, we, we, together, my fellow Americans, you and I as citizens...  Why not continue with "Our journey is not complete until we all, regardless of gender, can earn a living equal to our efforts" (or even "until we all can earn...," though I assume he wants to specifically point out gender, and I dig that) or "until our income is not dependent on our gender" or "until those of us who are women can earn a living in accordance with our effort"?  Why not "until we view all marriage as equal" or "until we all can enjoy the legal and social sanction of our declared love" or "those of us who are gay enjoy equality under the law" or "all our marriages are equal, as our love is"?

I actually have less of a problem with the gay part, I guess because "our brothers and sisters" still more invokes "each other" than "our wives and mothers and daughters" does.  (At least I hope it's not just that I am a woman and not gay.  That would be disappointingly normal of me.)  So while I still don't like the alienating "our," it's more an "our" of "our friends" than "our children."  It's a mutual relationship being implied.  And "brothers and sisters" is obviously meant yet a step more metaphorically than "wives and mothers."  Plus I feel like the follow-up sentence furthers the thought and focuses on the identity and equality more:  "for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well."  Back to "we."  And not a "we are equal with them," but a "we [all of us] are equal [with each other]."

Secondarily, I have a problem with people being defined in relation to others.  Part of this is connected, but part of it is distinct.  I've never liked politicians talking about "our children and grandchildren" when what they mean is either young Americans or future generations of Americans, partially because (as above) it alienates any minors who happen to be listening and paying attention (or, well, not even minorsI'm going to be alive when the environment self-destructs, and I'm going to be around when Social Security runs out...), but partially because  it unnecessarily links people to us, gives us the primacy and the importance.  If doing something about the environment is important because of its effects on future people, it's important regardless of how those people may be connected to us.  You shouldn't have to have a personal connection to someone to care.  And I know it's metaphorical and is an accepted rhetorical device, and I know that most people really do care more about things when they have a personal relationship with someone it affects (and that's fine, though I would prefer it to be more in a drawing-one's-attention way and less in a hey-that's-my-grandson-you're-talking-about way), but I don't really think that sort of absurdity should be encouraged.

It's offensive to other people's full autonomy as individuals and human beings to couch their existence in relation to ours.  "Our children"?  Blech.  "Our wives and mothers"?  Even blech-er.  This is, obviously, generally much more often done with women ("our children" and "our sons (and daughters) off to war" being the only common exceptions).  Sorry, I am a person.  My rights and my earning power, much less this country's willingness to stand for my equality and full citizenship, should have absolutely nothing to do with my being anyone's wife or mother or daughter.  I'm neither a wife nor a mother, and while obviously all women are technically someone's daughter...really? That's not part of my identity.  That's not who I am, it's just a thing one can say about me.  Like ten or so things down the list.  And you know?  That kind of makes it more important that I make an appropriate amount of money.

(And yeah, I just did kind of the same thing rhetorically, switching to talking about "me" instead of "women."  Fair enough, what I deserve or want doesn't matter either; relating to myself instead of abstractly is exactly the problem.  But the difference is I'm not trying to smash the entire country into one happy huggy together-identifying mass though the power of my words.  Also, this is a personal blog and I am one person, and my job in the world is to be that one person and not a representative of anything else.  So yeah, lots of first-person singular here.  Also, of course, the fact that apparently nobody else out there has quite the same take on this as I do, so of course I'm only speaking of myself.)

Friday, January 11, 2013


A revelation I had at some point in 2012:  You can choose clothes based on something other than aesthetics.  Or rather, you can make choices about your appearance and presentation that aren't rooted in making you look as attractive and pleasing as possible.

I know, right?  Simultaneously mindnumbingly obvious and completely revolutionary.

I can deliberately choose to wear skinny jeans even though they make my legs look shorter and even though they draw attention to my disproportionately heavy thighs.*  I can even choose them because that.  Hello, world, I'm going to stick my thighs in your face and there's nothing you can do about it!

* It is possible this is just me being insecure.  That's kind of beside the point, though.  I can wear clothes that I don't think necessarily flatter my body!  And I can like them and be happy about them and just go out in the freaking world and live already instead of worrying about it like I'm really letting somebody down by not downplaying my "flaws" and highlighting my "assets."

I mean, I always knew that some people chose clothes or hairstyles for practical reasons:  they don't show dirt or they stretch with you or it's easy to wash and wear.  But I always thought of this as a sacrifice, as a tradeoff, that they were giving up on looking nice by prioritizing something else.

But you can wear horizontal stripes because, gasp, you like them, or because you like flouting rules.  You can wear tank tops even though you have broad shoulders, or cropped pants even if you have short legs or mustard even if you're pale or...I don't know, I'm running out, but there are loads of these rules, and you can ignore all of them!  Because society at large doesn't have the right to demand of you that you look as hourglassy and poreless as possible.  You're not required to try to adopt a body shape you don't have, or accentuate the one you do.  You can emphasize whatever you want.  You can be deliberately ugly.

Seriously, nothing is as awesome as people thumbing their nose at other people's demands.  I don't have to smile in public, I don't have to wear only flattering colors, I can slick my hair back away from my face in the least flattering way (as my mother kept encouraging me away from and even outright banning when I was in middle school) as a deliberate signal to society (/men) that I don't want their approval, that I have other stuff going on in my life.

Edited to add this, which I have no idea what it's from (other than the comment on a post I just read, but it purports to be from elsewhere), which, YES:
"Pretty is not the rent you pay for occupying a space marked 'female'."