Wednesday, April 14, 2010

In which feminists make jokes.

So I think it's fair to say that Sady "Sady fucking Doyle" Doyle went all Rahm Emanuel on this douchebag, who is pissed because he feels men aren't treated fairly by feminists -- basically, because he thinks feminism isn't about women, it's about equality, and therefore men shouldn't feel like they need women's approval to be real feminists. There's a whole argument to be had there about how if women don't like your feminism, it's probably not feminism, and about the epistemic privileging of the oppressed, but for right now, I want to talk about this shit:
Look, I have to tell you: your whole enterprise here, the whole long and short of it, appears to be an edifice designed to give you a platform that paws at discourse while denying the possibility of you ever getting called on anything. I mean the whole apparatus of the place. It’s like this constant recursion of LOLspeak/serious speak/LOLspeak, this Russian dolls style thing you’re so enamored with. It’s just a mechanism to introduce a self-limiting aspect on what you want to say; you want to be heard and to be taken seriously, but you want the out to be able to say that you were just goofing. Well, goof away, it’s the Internet, and it’s your dime, but understand that you are denying intellectual rigor when you do so.
Sady, in her first response, gave some pretty good attention to some of the reasons why she's allowed to make jokes if she wants to (it's a little alarming that this is something women have to defend), but I want to add a couple more reasons.
  1. Because of the humorless-feminist stereotype.
Over the years, I have noticed that sometimes, powerful people make really unpleasant jokes at the expense of women, or black people, or Jewish people, or Mexicans, or queer people. And when they do so, those people and their allies sometimes call them out on it. And almost always, when they do, we're told that the problem isn't in the joke -- no, the problem is that the victims of the joke were just too sensitive to get it, and were too caught up worrying about the fact that this joke was making light of very real hardships and dangers to get that it was funny.

So feminists get characterized, again and again, as humorless, because they're always cracking down on the enjoyment that normal, funny people get out of sexual assault; domestic violence; misogynist, racist, homophobic and transphobic stereotyping; violence against queer people; the grossness of queer people; and the grossness of fat people.

Almost all humor, people in marginalized communities are told, is at someone's expense -- it just happens that this time, it happened to be at your expense. But somehow these jokes never get turned around -- we don't actually end up hearing the jokes at the expense of men, or white people, or straight people. And when we do, without the context of oppression the meaning isn't the same -- I can hear jokes about straight white cis dudes without feeling threatened.

So what ends up happening is that many of the actual conflicts involving feminists (and, to a lesser extent, anti-racists and queers) are between some straight white dude making jokes, and some feminist earnestly telling him what's wrong with those jokes. And so feminism becomes the side of earnest, serious people getting in the way of fun-loving, if sometimes insensitive, dudes.

And that's not a fun side to be on. So it was nice to see, in this case, a real lady feminist getting criticized by a fake dude feminist for being too funny. And it's also a hopeful sign, that we might live in a society where people no longer feel that they have to trade in the funny for the feminism.
  1. Because humor is a really effective way of policing a space.
The two standard options for policing feminist spaces are to simply refuse to publish offensive comments and to be willing to seriously debate the ideas contained therein. Both of those have their merits, but they have their flaws as well.

In particular, refusing to publish them gives assholes an excuse to cry censorship, which can end up creating a conversation about censorship instead of a conversation about them being an asshole. But publishing them and seriously debating them lets them derail, and in the process sends a message to marginalized people that this is a space that cares more about the free speech rights of assholes than about their safety or comfort.

And to be fair, a little of both of those are done in the posts I linked above, but mostly, the guy's subjected to endless mockery. And rightly so -- because his ideas weren't serious criticisms, they were derailments. Humor enables us to send a clear message that particular types of discourse aren't welcome, without giving a real opportunity for people to cry foul -- it's exactly what anti-feminists have used against us for all these years.

And so the final result is, if I was planning on making an misogynist comments over at Tiger Beatdown, you can be pretty damn sure I'm not going to now. Because if I did, Sady Doyle would fucking end me.


  1. Free Freddy's boners: Priceless. Nice post.

    Per, don't you think that using "douchebag" as a derogatory term enforces sexist language?

  2. To be honest, I go back and forth on "douchebag": lots of feminists I respect a great deal use it, and a few don't. I think this is probably the best treatment I've seen of it.

    My gut answer is that no one really thinks of douchebags as involving vaginas -- most people who use the word probably couldn't even tell you what a douche looks like. Then again, that sounds a lot like, "Since I'm not using 'gay' to mean 'gay,' but instead to mean 'gross and unacceptable,' it's okay." But since douches are so anachronistic, and since the term is almost never used to ascribe feminine qualities or critique the un-femininity of women, I'm not nearly as convinced of the inappropriateness of "douchebag" as I am with, say, "bitch," "cunt" and "pussy."

    That said, as I've said before, it's not up to me whether or not "douche" is acceptable as an insult. My approach thus far has been to cautiously use it, since my impression is that the feminists I most admire mostly believe its expressive capacity is at least sometimes worth it.

    But I'm starting to think maybe I'll stop, because I think it's better to err on the side of sensitivity, rather than on the side of -- see, this is exactly the problem. I was about to type "douchebaggery," and I really don't know what word to substitute.

    Oh wait, problem solved. "Boorishness." "Boor" is an underused word anyway. But then I find out that its origin -- boer -- means peasant. So I'm substituting classist language for sexist language. But the classism is, um, even more historically distant, since you have to go to another language? So that makes it okay, just like, um, "denigrate" -- ah, fuck. That one's not okay either.

    Suggestions, Internet? What word do you use?

  3. Oh shit, I can't believe I just posted that. I absolutely do not want to know what word the Internet uses, because there is zero chance it is less offensive than douchebag.

    Let's try this again. Suggestions, feminist Internet?

  4. Yeah, I see where you're coming from. But I definitely don't see "feminists who I respect use it" as lending any weight to the argument for or against the term's use. Feminists, especially male feminists like you and me, slip up and enforce sexism, too.

    Obviously, the term "douchebag" is insulting because it's associated with women's reproductive organs. Women and their reproductive organs already share enough pejorative terminology and negative connotations, and it's our responsibility to change that. It's a profoundly challenging project to find new ways to express ourselves that will do justice to the emotions or emphases we are trying to express. But it's certainly not a project that should be half-assed.

    (Everyone has an ass.)

  5. Well, the discussion of language is kind of difficult. On the one hand, yes, there are probably advantages to mitigating the offensive impact of language. On the other hand, it's all too easy to forget that so much of the commonly accepted language we use has roots in potentially offensive references. In other words, Per was right; try to substitute one negative term for another and eventually you discover that most of them are questionable to some degree. Eventually you realize that maybe you're coming at this from the wrong direction. Anything can be insulting if you want to. We can have a field day finding out just how eager people are to feel insulted. Maybe that's not so productive after all.

    I'm not sure either way. But it seems that the vernacular doesn't cause the problem, the problem causes the vernacular. So it's kind of like trying to stop a fire by replacing burning logs with fresh logs: just gives the fire something new to chew on.



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