Home > Daily Struggles, Naming Experience, Those Humorless Feminists, What They're Saying > Another Perspective On Delineating Funny/Not-Funny

Another Perspective On Delineating Funny/Not-Funny

The Philadelphia Inquirer has an interesting article today about the “issue of cultural sensitivity…in the world of comedy”. Comedy: When The Laughing Stops looks at how comedians struggle with knowing where to draw the line – and when to go ahead and cross that line.

Some people fear that when comics don’t delineate boundaries, it gives the public the impression that it, too, can freely utter offensive comments. [Chris] Rock addressed the subject during his sold-out New Year’s Eve show at Madison Square Garden. Fat girls make fun of skinny ones, he said, but skinny ones can’t do the same to fat ones; the poor can excoriate the rich, but the rich are not allowed to ridicule the poor.

What’s the common theme there? Subjugated groups can poke fun at their subjugators, and it’s comedy.** When subjugators make humor out of the condition of the subjugated – not so much. To revel in the status of subjugator and mock the ways in which the subjugated group experiences your boot on its neck is to promote continuing subjugation. It will be funny to those who are comfortable with the subjugation. But it will be seen as an act of violence by members of the targeted group – at least, those who aren’t complicit in their own subjugation.
Wanda Sykes making a joke about wishing she could leave her pussy at home, so she could then tell potential rapists “Sorry, I forgot to bring it with me today” is funny. She’s speaking with and for women, and challenging through humor the fear all women have about being raped. Men making jokes about wanting to rape women promotes the notion that all women should be sexually available to any male who wants them at any time. I guess that’s funny if you think men have a right to rape women, or that rape isn’t such a bad thing, or some kinds of rape are acceptable.

**In the case of fat women/skinny women, it’s not so much that skinny women personally participate in oppressing fat women, but that our culture values thinness and looks down upon the non-thin. A fat woman can mock the cultural oppression; a skinny woman making fun of fat women reinforces the equation fat = bad and disgusting.

  1. Mecha
    January 31, 2008 at 11:50 am

    Agnostic, the power view does account for it, you simply have to take it a step further (which you may or may not find valid), and not quite use Zuska’s phrasing. Semantics ahoy, as it were. I’m going to put it in the very overused context of privilege.
    In society, physical attractiveness (or being effectively normal) does provide a power. It’s the power of privilege. You can try to frame it as ‘well, it’s everyone else who’s disadvantaged’, and that’s also true, but it’s not just one or the other. People who are fit inside of the positive norms of a society (white, male, Christian, skinny, etc. in ‘Western’ society) get to wade through it without having to worry about many things. So their jokes, their statements, are sometimes made from a position of not _really_ getting it. They tend to be less afflicted with depression and other negative health disorders (yes, there are studies on this, compare to women, queers of various sorts, etc.) Note how the article mentions that some people feel awkward at Silverman, but ‘she seems to not think one group of people is better than another.’ That ‘awareness’ is the kind of thing one has to cultivate.
    There is a power differential there, but it is a socially determined power difference, if you will. ‘Pretty’ people get the good life (generally), ‘ugly’ people get the woe (generally.) It’s not necessarily explicit subjugation, but it is implicit subjugation. And every thin white straight-haired girl that cuts down that fat nerd, or that nappy-haired black girl, gets to wield that power, however briefly, for their own benefit, their own callous amusement, and their own little bit of subjugating.
    It seems to me you’re hanging your argument a bit too strongly on the concept of explicit subjugation, not the implicit biases and norms that our society actually tends to deal in. When you approach it from that perspective, Zuska’s ideas/phrasing make a lot more sense.

  2. Mecha
    January 31, 2008 at 6:09 pm

    Chad: There was a time a number of years ago that I once tried to make a similar argument and got my ass handed to me. It took me a long time to try and understand why. Hopefully this slightly OT response helps (and will keep this from flaring into a big pile of ugh.)
    I personally feel that fears of rape by men are valid, but there is a difference, and it is in the area of degree and socialization. And because of that difference bringing up the concept that ‘but men can fear rape too’ is generally not helpful in the vast majority of cases. (The case you bring it up, where Sykes’s routine that was being talked about is very specifically targeted towards woman makes your specific complaint moot, but I thought you might like the general concepting.)
    Women tend to fear rape because it happens to them a lot, they are told it happens to a lot, they experience it to fairly strong degrees. They are warned to protect themselves early and often, they see rape of women in any context (not just the oh-so-frakking-stupid prison joke crap) treated in a cavalier manner. From my personal observation a large number of women have their fear of rape brought to the forefront of their very lives more often than most men even have the fear of a mugging brought to the forefront of their concerns. Let alone rape.
    I personally think that it’s something that it is very hard for anyone but an abuse victim or other minority to even get close to understanding, and even then I’m not sure they could do it. But there’s a gulf of degree there. Were you taught by your father after he learned you were interested in sex, that other people might rape you? Are you put through classes which warn you about being raped? Are there stories of people looking just like you being shown on TV about them being raped? For the vast, vast, vast, VAST majority of men, the answers are a very funny look as if you were crazy. Because men don’t get that socialization. They may get a fear of going to prison, or some gay guy ‘making them gay’ (oy) or half a dozen other minor cases, but almost never to that degree.
    And then you start tying social expectations of being a woman (feminine) into it (eg: be a virgin, but be sexually available when you have to be) and how the social expectations of being a man (masculine) figure into it (eg: be a posessive conquerer of women), and it just builds into a massive situation where when a woman says ‘I fear rape’ and a man says ‘I fear rape’, it’s like they’re saying two entirely different things.
    Ultimately, the slight increase in accuracy you get by saying, ‘but some men fear rape too’ is vastly outweighed by the effects of trying to make something that is overwhelmingly about women and sexism about men, and the something isn’t even in the same ballpark for each group. The two things are two truly different un-unified things. And so while I think that discussing rape among men is valuable… in the vast majority of discussions starting off discussing female rape, it’s not truly helpful or productive to bring it up.
    Hopefully that’s illuminating. I don’t know. I’ve not had this discussion recently, and I lack a real blog to go into this in real depth on. Maybe someday.

  3. February 1, 2008 at 2:17 pm

    “Not that I’m wishing to hear any racist jokes, but why is blatant sexism still culturally acceptable while blatant racism is not.”
    A fantastic question given the 50.7% / 13.4% US demographic ratios. Not to mention a lot more sexists live with (and bunk with!) woman than racists do black people.
    I put in the good faith effort on my own time, PP, and I still don’t get this…

  4. Luna_the_cat
    February 2, 2008 at 12:26 pm

    Not quite sure why anyone would accuse you of living in an echo chamber, PhysioProf. :-/

  5. February 3, 2008 at 10:45 am

    Well, calling me a fucking bot for no reason is definitely fucking irritating. Go fucking figure.
    Frankly, he started the comment thread out in a hostile manner. Funny, yes. But still hostile – “OMG, the fucktards are coming!!!11!!one!” Intentionally funny because it was true. Unintentionally funny given the topic of the original post. But it also immediately creates an insular atmosphere. I get it – it’s your blog, with your friends, and most of the time you all sit around patting each other on the back and agreeing with each other, so I suppose in that atmosphere it’s totally cool to shit on posters before they even post.
    This very atmosphere itself is the logical flaw to which I am referring. One of your most recent posts on the importance of diversity in academia illustrates this pretty well. Overall, it was a good post, although it simply stated that diversity in academia is important and delineated the difficulties faced in achieving that. But it failed to delve into why it is important, presumably because everyone on the blog is likeminded and is already aware that the answer is because 1) it makes you a crappy human being not to treat people as equals and that includes people outside of the dominate power structure and 2) because diversity strengthens the intellectual/social/political/______ atmosphere at an institution.
    Now, I would like to delve into #2 a bit further, because, quite frankly, that is where PhysioProf is failing in my eyes. Diversity in academia is crucial for the same reasons it is crucial in programming, biology, or pretty much any other system at all – it keeps the system from getting stagnant by injecting fresh ideas, it allows the system to self correct by keeping it from moving too far in a single direction, and in an ideal atmosphere it increases tolerance and understanding and makes the entire system run more smoothly because of it. This comes up in programming all the time, and I’m surprised I haven’t seen it mentioned on here more because I suspect it would be similar to engineering. People get stuck. Having a new person with a different mindset come in to look at a problem can be an absolute godsend, correcting bugs that have been plaguing a team for months or rectifying deeply entrenched erroneous beliefs, sometimes within seconds of walking in a room. People outside our normal group structures offer that gift.
    I find it troubling that the blog rarely delves into that angle. I guess it’s just accepted that that’s why diversity is good so it can just go unsaid? I think that’s a dangerous attitude. It’s important to remember the roots of our arguments, lest we forget them or make other comments that conflict with them. Being hostile to commenters who don’t agree is one of these dangerous cases – we need that diversity to keep us from getting lazy in our own beliefs and to help us understand the nuance in the counterarguments. We also occasionally need them to correct us when we’re wrong, and also to make us question and strengthen our own beliefs in meaningful ways.
    We need to put our money where our mouths are, in other words. If diversity is just about the most fundamental cornerstone there is to feminism (which, IMHO, it is), then the people on this blog claiming to be feminists ought to fucking act like it and treat diversity with the respect it deserves. That means occasionally listening respectfully to people who aren’t just repeating our own arguments back to us like damn parrots.
    As for the “two hours” of self study? That was PhysioProf’s statement, not mine. I was responding to it. Here is his original statement in its entirety:
    With a good faith effort it would not take more than a couple hours of self-study on your part.
    In this scenario, he got himself all riled up because he didn’t like what Caledonian had to say and he made a stupid statement. Two hours? Although I think the dude is generally hilarious and I often find myself marveling at the precision and clarity in some of his posts, he also needs to calm the fuck down sometimes.

  6. February 3, 2008 at 12:48 pm

    Physioprof, that is one of your most endearing qualities!
    Alexis: This post is not about why diversity is good. This post is about why resistance to diversity is so strong and durable and predictable, and what we might do about it. The post you want to read would be interesting and worthwhile, but it would be a different post.
    I don’t moderate comments, I don’t censor people, I have deleted maybe three comments in my entire blogging life because they were so sick and offensive I didn’t want to be associated with them. Anybody can come here and disagree about anything they want to – including you, which you frequently do, and you are not precluded from doing so in any way. In the past you’ve been challenging and interesting and added a lot to the discussion; I do not always agree completely with you but your comments are usually stimulating of conversation. This latest: not so much. I cannot figure out what is bothering you. If this blog doesn’t meet your needs you are always free to stop reading it. I am not here to be all things to all people. I’m here to say what I think and know.

  7. Luna_the_cat
    February 3, 2008 at 6:09 pm

    You…really, entirely missed the point there, Alexis. Like, completely. :-/

  8. February 6, 2008 at 10:19 pm

    Alexis, sorry your comment got hung up in moderation and I didn’t find it sooner.

  9. February 7, 2008 at 3:32 pm

    Ha! Sorry, I like to experiment with different ways of putting things and…well, my experiments don’t always work out quite right. Besides, there’s probably a lot of internet/information theory packed in there that doesn’t translate so well.
    I find myself finally having to admit that I’m not a Democrat any more…
    Yeah, sadly, kind of true, for reasons addressed in rest of post.
    Will I still have friends after this admission? I’m still the same person…
    A little gay humor.
    I’m sorry if I lashed out at you because of my own identity crisis
    Actually true. It sucks to realize that I am drifting away from all of the people I have self-associated with up to now and it is frustrating and kind of a little scary, too. I have probably been a total asshole. I can’t expect everyone else to feel the same way I do about an intellectual discussion and how it should be had properly. That said, I am still pissed about the situation so, yeah, I am probably a little hateful in this one.
    I wish I could just be happy with having what everyone else has…
    More gay humor.
    and with being content with comfortable, safe conversations, …”Yes, you’re right, you’re brilliant, you’re so smart, everyone agrees with you.”
    Based on group-dynamics theory that people adjust their conversation within a group so that they do not stand out or disagree with the rest of the group too strongly. No one wants to embarrass themselves, no one wants to lose favor, everyone wants to look cool. Thus, people that congregate in a group tend to self-homogenize their opinions, which leads to the discussion becoming static and repetitive as well as leading certain underlying assumptions to go unsaid. In far-gone cases, this latter tendency becomes so extreme that members of the group actually lose sight of the most fundamental underlying tenets and become unable to articulate them when questioned, and/or they make conflicting decisions that would be more obvious were the underlying tenets kept in the fore of the conversation. This one theory carries a lot of weight in many different fields and has been applied to all sorts of quite varied problems, include Kuhn’s theory of scientific paradigms, game theory, political science, law, social networking and Internet interactions, and others.
    But that conversation disgusts me…
    Yes, it does. In addition to leaving me cold intellectually due to the lack of challenge, there is also the danger that as the discussion becomes more insular it loses touch with reality and veers further into extremism. This is caused by both conversational feedback loops as well as a set of shared assumptions held by members of the group. The combination of drift + assumptions causes it to become less comprehensible to those outside the inner sanctum and makes the overall group message more inscrutable. Ultimately, it leads to an inability to “get the message out.”
    There. I admitted it. You’ve become boring….I’m not leaving you for another party. I’m leaving you for another game altogether
    More gay humor. I come out. Probably stupid parallel between good conversation and a good lover.
    All I want is to discuss possibilities…
    Specific reasons why self-homogenized discussion is not my cup of tea. What I would prefer instead.
    I’m tired of you telling me what to think…
    Further group dynamic theory. There is a tipping point at which self-moderated conversation becomes actively moderated by other members of the group and outside opinion is actively squelched, ie “you aren’t allowed to say x if you want to call yourself one of us.” Basically, I’ve become tired by the fascism of self-labeled groups, whether groups I would normally affiliate with (Democrats) or not (fundamentalist religious groups).
    I’m damn sure not going to call myself ….anything else you have a label for…gang banging me with their assumptions…refusing to actually chew the meaty heart of a matter
    Culmination of group theory discussion, in which members of the group are automatically assumed to believe X as a requisite to being part of the group. On the tyranny of Kuhnian paradigms. Why I can’t bring myself to do it any more.

  10. February 7, 2008 at 7:18 pm

    That’s what I normally try to do – I suppose the issue is that I’m having a hard time choosing whether self-isolation counts as “engaging the world in good faith” or not. That’s….that’s really the crux, isn’t it?

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