Feminism 101: On Language and the Commodification of Sex Via Humor

In the "Rape is Hilarious" and "Today in Disembodied Things" series—the latest installments of which are respectively here and here, with previous entries linked at their ends—I've talked about the role of humor in perpetuating and normalizing rape and the objectification of women's body parts, and why humor is such a useful tool in the normalization of patriarchal norms and narratives:
[O]ne of the most common themes among the emails I get is gratitude for expressing frustration or contempt or anger at something of which, women have been told in explicit or implicit ways, our jovial and uncomplaining acquiesce is expected. Thank you for saying it's not funny. That something has always bothered me. It's an expression of relief that someone has said publicly what they've felt privately—and maybe never said to anyone for fear of reprisal, for fear of being told they are humorless, hypersensitive, over-reactionary, boring.

…It's a terribly effective silencing strategy, which is why the conveyance of patriarchal norms is so often closely associated with humor. Anyone who dares complain is just No Fun—hence, we find ourselves mired in a culture in which women who don't laugh at seeing parts of their body routinely used as demeaning gags, and the men who are disgusted by such objectification of people they're meant to love and respect, are the ones considered weird.

It can be really daunting to go up against all that, especially in one's everyday life, on one's own, just one woman against someone(s) equipped with such an effective institutionalized mechanism for shaming and silencing.
"Geez, can't you take a joke?" That's all it takes—the implication that the woman who objects to public expressions of misogyny, who doesn't find funny the means of her own subjugation, or doesn't find amusing being triggered by careless "jokes" about a brutal event she has experienced, is humorless. Uncool. Oversensitive. Weak. (As though standing up to bigotry is the easy way out, and laughing along is somehow strong.)

Humor that exhorts its targets to participate is even more insidious—and promoting the patriarchal narrative of women as sex class via humor has come to rely heavily on the participation of feminist women themselves. And our allies.

It all seems so innocuous, the jokes we make offering ourselves, our bodies, our services to men (and other women, irrespective of our sexualities, or theirs) to compliment them: Marry me… I want to have your babies… I totally want to fuck you, blow you, make out with you, be your slave… If only I were straight/gay/single…

Oh, it's harmless, you may be thinking—and I wouldn't blame you, as I've thought the same thing, too. It's just a bit of silliness, I've justified it to myself. Heck, even the boys say it! And who doesn't laugh when a feminist man says he wants to have a feminist writer's babies? Pish-tosh. It's innocuous.

But how can it be, knowing what we know about women still being valued (or not) primarily for their bodies and sexuality? There's nothing innocuous about playing into the idea that the greatest contribution any woman has to offer is her body as a sexual reward or or babymaking machine. There's nothing innocuous about implicitly reinforcing narratives that sex is a priceless gift to be meted out in reward for good behavior, or a cheap commodity to be bought, nothing innocuous about rendering the sexual-emotional spectrum down to its two extremes and thus its female practitioners down to one half of a familiar dichotomy—the virgin who rewards the prince with her precious cherry, or the whore who gives her body in exchange for something of value.

Okay, but it's ironic!

But how can it be, knowing what we know about women forced into sexual servitude around the world? It's only ironic if women (all women, women full-stop) have agency. If they don't, it's merely privileged—a proud display of agency that we have that other women do not, tinged perhaps with the anxious fear that we are not as far away from forcibly bearing babies against our wills as we'd like to believe that we are.

But when dudes say it, especially to other dudes, it's subversive!

In a closed audience, where everyone understands everyone else, that's true—in which case it operates much like an ironically-used slur among friends. But while "You're such a girl!" or "You're such a 'mo!" might pass between myself and a gay male friend in private, it's totally inappropriate in a public forum where not everyone understands everyone else, and where our affectionate banter might quite easily be mistaken for legitimate endorsements of misogynistic/homophobic language. Point is: How can a dude be sure that everyone reading along knows for certain that he's being ironic to undermine expectations of women, and not being ironic to mock women?

So, there's really no good way to use this kind of language, is there?

'Fraid not.

I hate losing my favorite phrases when I realize I've been soaking in unexamined bullshit.

Me, too—so may I humbly suggest replacing "I love you and want to have 10,000 of your babies" with the blissfully unoppressive and yet devastatingly tantalizing "I love you and want to do your taxes free of charge."

Now that's a hot offer.

[Related Reading: I Done Good—Where's My Sexual Gratification?]

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