Wednesday, May 11, 2011

That Sexist Joke, Again

Okay, whilst appreciate the respectful, possibly awed silence that accompanies the end of most of my posts, I am sorry that nobody saw fit to answer the question at the end of my post about whether the cartoon was vile homophobia or a surprising stand in support of gay and lesbian rights?

Anyway, a week or so ago, I discussed the dismissal of Ben Stein from a corporate speaking gig on account of accusations of sexist material. In the comments, Daniel F suggests that one of the jokes is worth considering:

But the one about what it really means to be made to feel like a woman (ie to be treated like a serf) is capable of a feminist reading, is it not? Particularly if the gratuitous detail about the woman removing her clothes is left out, as he says it was.

I avoided discussing the joke in any detail, feigning distraction, but the joke really does hover around an issue that comes up all the time. Is a joke sexist, racist, homophobic, etc. or is it aboutsexism, racism, homophobia, etc.?

The joke being discussed has multiple variants; here's one (I have chosen to transcribe it in full without intruding with sic):

A plane is about to crash, a female passenger gets up and shouts out 'If i'm going to die, I want to die feeling like a woman' with that she rips of all her clothes and shouts 'Is there a someone on this plane who is man enough to make me feel like a woman?' A young man stands up and takes off his shirt revealing a well toned torso, he throws the shirt at the woman and say's 'Here iron this'
Here's how the joke was explained to us in the article about Stein:

Another [putatively offensive joke] involved a female airline passenger who, realizing the flight is about to crash, takes off her clothes and asks if there is a man aboard who will “make me feel like a woman,” according to Villarreal’s e-mail, which was also sent to Bloomberg News. A cowboy in a hat removes his shirt, hands it to the woman, tells her to iron it and fetch him a beer.

Now, is this a sexist joke or a joke about sexism?

The joke has a woman abruptly facing her mortality and deciding that in her last few minutes, she wants her (sexual) needs (as a woman) met; the joke is that her (sexual) needs are interpreted differently by a man, who flips what she needs as a woman into what she needs to do as a woman. Female sexual autonomy is met with a demand for female submission to a male's needs, a demand given the somewhat surprising twist that the male is not insisting upon sexual subordination but social subordination. It's a double negation of her sexuality: her desire is thwarted, and is implicitly so undesirable itself that a (sexual) male would rather have her perform some other menial task than do anything that might satisfy her desire.

The butt of a joke, the fool, is usually in some way exposed. A vanity, a prejudice, a pretension is shown to be hollow and the butt tumbles into the void. In a comment to a previous post, Jeff Strabone suggests that emotional demonstrability may be connected to being the object of a joke: uncontained emotions, a failure to control one's mood, excessive and histrionic gestures make for ripe targets because they are already exposures. A man who keeps his cards close to his chest, like Barack Obama or most of the Magnificent Seven, is harder to mock.

There are two exposures in the woman-on-an-airplane joke: the exposure of a woman's sexual desire, and of a man's misogynistic view of where a woman belongs. Because there are two exposures, it would be at least possible to parlay either character into the fool.

In the version Stein says he did not tell, the woman strips, thus physically accentuating her exposure, making her demands more outrageous and also more intrusive, racheting up the extent to which it is "in your face". Bergson, in Le Rire, made the point better than anybody else that much laughter derives from identifying and humiliating or "correcting" somebody for deviating from the norm, such as when they express too much emotion (however much that may be) or, more often, when they fail to demonstrate the flexibility needed by living in society. When the woman strips, she goes even further in taking her sexual desire "out of the norm" and we are pretty much forced to accept that she is the one who is being laughed at. The man, faced with an extraordinary, mad display of unbridled carnality, brings her back down to earth. Right before the airplane meets the same fate.

Of course, even with the stripping, it would be possible to argue that depending upon how the exposures are weighted in the telling, the man could be the butt, the fool - this is what Stein claims. But with the joke's rhythm, the sharp punchline voiced by the man, and its general implications, the burden of butthood is usually on the woman. Still, Stein might not be wrong: it is entirely conceivable that the joke could be told in such a way that the man is a fool. Faced with what could be a wildly satisfying last few minutes of sexual ecstasy before death, he instead turns his bullying misogyny into useless demands.

Daniel suggested that it was open to a feminist reading about what it is to be made to feel like a woman. Yes. It is hard to imagine a truly "feminist" performance of this joke without some very careful tweaking. But then, even in the brief examples we've been given, we see that the joke is open to tweaking: in one version, the man matches her act of stripping by taking off his own shirt, and we're told that he has "well defined torso", as a prelude to the insulting punchline; in Stein's, the man is cowboy who does not see her strip (Stein says he left that out), but nevertheless takes off his own shirt, and adds a beer to his demands. Why should there not be similar details that re-orient the joke so that the underlying implications of serfdom and subjugation really turn back to make the men who hold these views into the butts?

The closest I can come to a "feminist" reading of the joke along these lines is by way of the "anti-feminist feminists", the Right Wing women who denounce contemporary and post-World War II feminism but admit they have received some advantages from different conceptions of a woman's role, and who claim the suffragettes as their own. If you were a fan of Phyllis Schlafly and adamantly opposed to the feminist movement, you might think that gender roles are not cultural and historical epiphenomena. You might cite a Time poll that "a majority of both men and women still think it is best for children to have a father working and a mother at home" (although you won't use in your citation the full sentence, which begins, "Especially in the absence of social supports, flexible work arrangements and affordable child care, it's hardly surprising that a majority . . ."). You might think that family structures long etched into the granite of our history with established roles and hierarchies are not only cogent but superior to structures based on negotiation, written into the beach of any given relationship with a stubbly twig. You might read Quentin Crisp, and see diamond forming in the kohl:

About eighteen months after we moved to High Wycombe, the dreary ritual of our lives was interrupted by my mother going away for a few days. What caused this to happen, I can't remember. Perhaps she left in self-defence. This was a very rare occurrence as neither my father nor I could boil a kettle unless conditions were favourable. This was further evidence of the rigid sexual structure of the world at this time. Men fetched coal from cellars and hammered nails; women boiled kettles. You knew where you were even though you hated it.

In which case, if you believe all these things, you might tell the same woman-in-a-crashing-plane joke. And you might do it by casting the woman as a pleasure-seeking, hedonistic, shameless feminist (although you could also tone that down); as an anti-feminist feminist, you could tell the joke to gently tease your menfolk, suggesting that their belief that women are only good for one thing (servitude) misses the point, and aren't men/cowboys silly that way?

In other words, it could be a Bergsonian joke about men who fall outside the "norm" because of rigidly held beliefs: the proper cowboy, when he sees a woman stripping and demanding sex on a crashing airplane, would think adaptively to himself, "This woman on a falling plane needs her boat rocked, and since I'm no pilot, I'd better captain her vessel into the wild waters of orgasm." The foolish cowboy would be unable to alter his rigidly-held world-view and so would insist on seeing the woman as a servant, rather than as a sex-object.

This particular joke has no single form, written or unwritten. It is told and it is performed. While it is possible that a great many jokes cannot be seen as anything but racist/sexist/homophobic or otherwise prejudiced (anti-feminist, anti-Christian, what have you), so too most jokes can be bent and twisted by how they are told, the way they are performed and where they fall within a performance, all of which is not unaffected by who is telling the joke, who is performing it, where the performance is taking place, and who the audience is. In a previous post, the discussion was about the role of details in helping us understand what a joke is about. But, once again, we are faced with the problems of ambiguity, and how comedy is an effective spy in anyone's house.

But I don't want to end here with a shrug to ambiguity. Sure, the joke could open itself up to a feminist reading, or an anti-feminist but still putatively, tenuously pro-woman reading. However, the ambiguity is not simply uncertainty, or the possibility of multiple readings. The ambiguity feeds more than subsequent disavowal of misogynistic intent. One problem with arguing on behalf of a feminist reading of the joke is that the joke derives pleasure from the very possibility of a feminist reading: the narrative of one woman's liberation begins sympathetically, but she is put back in her place; similarly, the ambiguity of the joke (that it might be a joke about men, too) is a disavowal of how much pleasure the joke derives from sneering at the feminists who might be lured into the joke by a sympathetic, liberated woman. Does that make sense? The very fact that it is about a woman's serfdom and so would engage with feminist rhetoric makes its sneaky laughter that much more pleasurable to the anti-feminists. Its ambiguity is not just social cover or, taking a somewhat-Freudian view, a way of making frank hostility more palatable through the mechanisms of comedy and the potential disavowal of frank hostility through ambiguity; the ambiguity gives it a secretive frisson whereby we know what it's saying about women, even though we claim it's about the way women are treated. In that way, the very fact that the joke is "capable of a feminist reading" makes the joke so funny to those who despise feminist readings.

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