Breaking down the backlash No.1 Humour: Sexism? ROFL!

As promised, I’m taking on the anti-feminist arguments that bubbled spewed to the surface following the ASA banning of the UlsterTrader ‘Nice Headlamps’ billboard.

No. 1 “It’s just a bit of a larf luv.”

So it’s been well documented recently by journalism’s new feminist champion Janice Turner that we live in an age where anyone who expresses concern at the casual sexism, stereotyping and objectification which pervades our society is humourless, “a strident old ranty-pants” who probably needs a good seeing to. Natalie Szarek wrote a great comment in the Guardian today on the Cambridge Tab Totty controversy in which I found this little gem:

Sexism is a form of censorship that breeds silence; a silence that stifles the right of response, aligns the language of sexism with the status quo and masks the absence of women’s voices.

This censorship comes in the form of rolled eyes, ‘ironic’ put downs (put the kettle on love… ), the fear of discrimination for speaking out in the workplace, physical threat in your own home, sexual aggression while trying to have a night out with friends… I was intrigued by the women who phoned the Nolan show or commented in the Telegraph saying that they wish they had complained; that they were unhappy with the message the billboard expressed about women’s value and certainly didn’t find it funny, but didn’t feel they could speak up. Those of us who did speak up, did so partly for those women – so that next time they might feel empowered to raise their own voice in objection.

A representative from UlsterTrader gave this comment to the Telegraph:

Most people saw the fun in the poster and we accepted from the outset it was sexist.

So let’s be clear about this… not accidental sexism, not ‘we’re sorry if anyone was offended’. This is a very clear dismissal of any assertion that sexism is wrong or hurtful or dangerous. This is Mr UlsterTrader shrugging his shoulders and saying “An’ wha’?”

For the record, personally speaking, I do have a sense of humour. “The Thick of It” is hilarious. I nearly peed my pants watching “Bruno”. And Stephen Colbert rocks my world. To be honest I don’t mind when humour pokes fun at stereotypes or plays on the differences between people, but that billboard was not edgy provocative humour. It was the knobber at your party who gets pissed, talks too loudly, hits on every girl who isn’t wearing a polo neck and ankle length skirt, comments on your photo of your 14 year old sister that she’ll ‘get well rid’ in a couple of years time and leaves everybody asking the same question – who the fuck invited him?

What I especially don’t find funny is having to live with the legacy of the culture that sexist humour reinforces, the norms that it imposes on all of us. One interviewee notes in Janice Turner’s article suggests,

In lots of ways, the racism debate is far ahead of the sexist debate because you can’t get away with the equivalent in racism now.

We are insightful enough to know that racist, homophobic or sectarian humour is not helpful to creating a peaceful safe society based on equality and respect. Why is the same respect not always afforded to women? In the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, there is clear recognition of the harm caused by stereotyping and objectification in the media and advertising as it maintains women’s second class status, allows people to continue believing that women’s value is in their sexuality as opposed to their intellect, creativity, leadership or talent. The danger of letting these beliefs become mainstream is that while women are viewed as sex objects and sex a transaction in which women “put out” and men “get some”, there will always be men who feel they are entitled to take that commodity from them by force. That is rape culture and that is most definitely not funny.

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3 Responses to “Breaking down the backlash No.1 Humour: Sexism? ROFL!”


  1. 1 est November 5, 2009 at 5:32 pm

    good point that NI has had to come to the realisation that eg sectarian jokes are not helpful (even if, on occasion, they may be funny) and therefore way beyond the pale in the public arena.
    fact is there’s a vast difference between jokes we tell in private, often totally out of order, and things that are acceptable in print, or – god knows – on billboards.
    on this occasion, aside from all the other things i object to, the only laughable thing is that anybody thought it was actually funny. benny hill is dead, guys.

  2. 2 est November 5, 2009 at 5:38 pm

    it’s really tricky tho innit. humour i mean.
    jimmy carr interview in today’s G talking about the amputee joke that got him in trouble, and then defending some RIDICULOUSLY offensive rape jokes.
    i would argue vociferously for his right to tell them. and yet i do think the interview completely lets him off the hook in not challenging the fact that he’s not entertaining in a vacuum. this stuff is political, “jokes” or not, and if he tells it then he has to take responsibility for it.
    certainly comes across as a profoundly dislikeable chap..
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/culture/2009/nov/05/jimmy-carr-paralympics-joke

    • 3 soisaystoher November 5, 2009 at 7:37 pm

      I totally agree. I read that Jimmy Carr interview. In one sense I think he’s right that he shouldn’t be judged on what he says to a self selecting audience who have bought tickets knowing what to expect. However, the rape jokes are just ridiculous and they do have a cultural and political resonance. When humour of this tone is normalised it does have an impact on people’s values and behaviour. I know there’s a danger I’ll sound like some loony who thinks computer games make kids violent (imagine!) but I’m not saying going to a Jimmy Carr show will make somebody decide to sexually assault a random stranger on the walk home. I’m more concerned about the fact that as many as 88% of rapes are carried out by someone the victim knows…something is causing men to lower their thresholds of what what level of consent is required to have sex with the women in their lives. The messages present in humour that relies on the assumption that “she might be saying no but she MEANS yes” is all part of that influence.


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