I Cannot Take A Joke! It Is Because I Lack a Sense of Humor!

August 18, 2009

I’m not the funniest person in the world. I’m a little too reserved to be truly hilarious. But I have my moments. I have, at times, been known to successfully engage others in humorous banter. I also smile and laugh quite a bit, compared to your average person. I’d say that I find a lot of things pretty funny. I laugh at most jokes, and I laugh at life.

Why, then, is it so commonly the case that I am accused of having no sense of humor?

Perhaps we can find a clue in the context. You see, it is usually in a very specific context that I am accused of this particular character flaw.

It is when I don’t find something funny because I think it is sexist.

What, exactly, is going on when people accuse feminists of having no sense of humor? It’s a claim that’s clearly factually incorrect. A visit to one of the big feminist blogs on any given day will usually pop up quite a few jokes. And my feminist friends and I joke around all the time. I have this one friend who does the most fantastic white-dude-with-gravely-voice-singing-about-how-hard-life-is impression. You should see it!

Of course, these jokes might not be funny to someone who is not feminist, but…

Wait! I think I’ve hit on something!

It would seem that perhaps an individual’s worldview and culture has an impact on what that person finds funny! Almost as if our sense of humor is an extension of our perspective on things like how we think people should act, what behaviors we find surprising and incongruous (funny), and who is worthy of ridicule.

For instance, have you ever noticed how some people find it funny to ridicule the willful behavior of people who are in positions of power, while others prefer to ridicule the intrinsic nature of people who are in positions of subordination? I’m sure such preferences have little meaning and should be ignored, but I can’t help feeling that the way advocates for the disempowered are so often accused of lacking a sense of humor may have something to do with this fact.

See, I have this wacky, half-baked idea that humor is, as much as anything, an expression of our political views and identities. For example, if someone doesn’t think rape is a big deal, they will probably find rape jokes quite funny. If someone thinks rape is a horrific and all-too-common experience, the mere thought of which sends shivers down their spine and makes them feel vaguely nauseous, they will be less likely to find rape jokes funny.

My wacky theory extends even further: I believe that humor is an extraordinarily common method of maintaining oppressive structures. What could possibly be more effective at silencing someone, at making them an outsider, at establishing them as inferior, than ridicule? Think of a few of the times in your life when you felt most embarrassed and ashamed. How many of them included people laughing at you? Most? All?

We all want to fit in and be respected. There are many situations where ridicule controls people far more effectively than an overt threat of violence ever could.

My theory, which is in no way related to actual experience, also postulates that humor can be amazingly effective at begging the question* of whether oppressive structures/beliefs make sense. For example, let’s consider this enjoyable piece by Bill Maher, a man who I’ve lovingly come to consider the most pathologically misogynist dude in all of comedy, and maybe all the world:

Is it actually true that women talk more than men? Is it bad to talk? Is it good to want everyone to “shut the hell up?” Is it true that women ask their male partners to check in more than men ask their female partners to do so? Is it true that a relationship where people check in with each other regularly is problematic? Does the phrase “pussywhipped” represent an actual undesirable condition, or is it a way of shaming men who respect their female partners into ignoring the desires of their partner and doing what other men want them to do instead? Bill Maher doesn’t care! Men are good! Women are annoying! Yay, comedy!

According to the logic of my wild-eyed speculation, it seems that actually, resisting dominant ideas about what is considered funny and creating a counternarrative about such things would be an extremely important aspect of building effective liberation movements for oppressed groups.

It would also seem that silencing this counternarrative would be an essential task for those invested in maintaining existing structures of domination.

Oh, there I go again. Taking everything so seriously!

*A very boring point: I know a lot of people misuse the phrase “begging a question.” This may lead some readers to be confused when they read this sentence. Here’s an explanation of the correct usage.

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One Response to “I Cannot Take A Joke! It Is Because I Lack a Sense of Humor!”

  1. chryckie said

    They always say there’s a little truth behind every joke. 🙂

    To get serious *pushes glasses back*, Maher had to use “shut the hell up!” because he couldn’t make an argument. He could only display emotion, and hope that by him showing how he reacts to people(women) talking too much, the audience would relate to this frustration.

    A kid makes a poop joke, a teenager makes a pussy joke, an adult makes a government joke. All of them aren’t signs of truth, but signs of the person’s current coping mechanisms. Do you tell a kid that “You farted!” isn’t funny? Perhaps.

    “Son, a kid farts because they need to poop. Next time, say, ‘You should go poop.’ They’ll thank you for it.”

    “Son, having a small penis isn’t really that big of a deal. The number one factor for a women is ‘Being comfortable with their partner’, and you don’t need a big penis for that.”

    Should you tell them as they’re telling the joke? No! You’ll shatter their ego, and the message will be lost over the sound of the shatter. Remember, the poop joke was an attempt to make people laugh and gain some confidence! They aren’t expecting a good talking-to. Not laughing is sort of the same thing. (It’s like sneezing without a “bless you”, or a hanging high-five, or an open-bracket that never gets closed.

    Tell Mr. Maher after he’s out of the spotlight that some men love their women enough to be pussy whipped. It beats not having her around, that’s for sure.

    )

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