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Women Are Not a Punch Line

By Reed E. McConnell

Let me start off with a disclaimer: I’m a feminist, so I don’t actually have a sense of humor. Feminists aren’t allowed to have a sense of humor, because we’re too busy being angry and not shaving ourselves. Furthermore, we also hate free speech because we’re Maoists.

But really—this is the sort of response I usually get when I try to bring up some of the problems I have with objectifying jokes: I need to lighten up, I need to get a sense of humor, I need to stop trying to “restrict free speech.” The issue with these claims is that nothing is objectively funny; certain things can really only be funny to people who have certain kinds of privilege.

Take women’s bodies, for instance. Using women’s bodies as punch lines and disparaging feminists, women’s labor, and violence against women for laughs is nothing new. Women are made to listen to these sorts of jokes all the time, expected to laugh, and forced to acculturate themselves to a point where they learn to swallow any uneasiness and force a smile. And if they complain, they are told to “lighten up.” But this is very hard, because there’s a huge, heavy problem with objectifying women for laughs: Cultural acceptance of such objectification has concrete outcomes. Violence against women happens every single day, all around the world, and these sorts of jokes, this type of “humor,” normalize a way of regarding women and their bodies that is simply dangerous.

This is one of the many reasons that I found Seth MacFarlane’s hosting of the Oscars to be unbearable. His jokes about women rested entirely on disparaging female bodies, made light of domestic violence, and contributed to larger, harmful social trends. In this context, suddenly it seems like much less of a coincidence that MacFarlane was happy to use a situation of domestic violence (Rihanna and Chris Brown’s relationship) as a punch line, and that in his opening number, three of the scenes he mentions in which he saw an actress’s “boobs” were either rape scenes or scenes that occurred directly after a rape.

But it’s ironic! So it’s fine, right? No, actually, because I guarantee you that every single woman in that room has been harassed on the street, has had her body commented on time and time again in ways that made her uncomfortable and unhappy, and that about a fifth of the women in the room have also probably been sexually assaulted. So when someone makes jokes like this, not only is it old, and tired, and puerile, and uninteresting, but it’s also deeply offensive. And when William Shatner comes on the screen and essentially asks us to laugh at the fact that these jokes make women uncomfortable and unhappy, we are forced to ask: To whom can this actually be funny? Who is genuinely able to find women’s discomfort at being objectified to be a funny thing, in and of itself? Certainly not anyone who has experienced this discomfort or who has learned to view objectification as a source of physical danger in their lives.

MacFarlane’s sexualized joke about 9-year old Quvenzhané Wallis emphasized something slightly different: the fact that there is no escape from this sort of treatment for women. It has always been implied—by culture, society, or another one of those amorphous non-identities that force us to write in the passive voice—that all a woman needs to do to avoid disparaging comments is stay chaste; that being called a whore results from misconduct on her part; that “good women” don’t get talked about like that. But just look at this little girl and the joke that was made at her expense. It was a dismissal of her talent, of all her hard work, in order to emphasize her gender, her body—a dismissal but also a terrifyingly accurate indication of the sort of treatment she can expect to receive for the rest of her life. So what do we learn from this? We are reminded that our children are taught to take these things with a smile at an early age. We are reminded that girls are sexualized from the time they are born. We are reminded that as a female person you will never be seen as neutral.

So yes, Oscar night 2013 was not really a great night for women’s self-esteem, but whoop-de-doo, you say. It’s over. Let bygones be bygones. And also I’m just overreacting, because I’m a feminist, remember?

But it wasn’t a one-time thing. It was just a very public example of situations that arise every single day in our country because of the cultural sense that really anything is fair game for a joke. Jokes aren’t serious! And, of course, it’s only reasonable to be offended by serious things. So it becomes impossible to object, and the rape jokes continue, and the objectification of women continues, and these things become normalized as lighthearted topics. And then violence against women happens. And then we resolutely refuse to acknowledge that these things are all interconnected in a larger, socially reinforced rape culture. And it continues. And continues. Conclusion? I’m not laughing, and I’m not sorry.

Reed E. McConnell ’15, a Crimson editorial writer, is an anthropology concentrator in Quincy House.

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