Ironic Humor is Ironic (Ironically)

July 9, 2012 § 2 Comments

I had a conversation with a very good friend of mine over the weekend and, after catching up on her latest adventures and attempts at basil lemonade-making, we spent a long time talking about the legitimacy of our reactions to questionable jokes/attitudes/comments.

I’ve been thinking about humor a lot lately, particularly the kind of humor that involves politically incorrect ideas related to sexism, racism, etc. How can you tell when something is genuinely funny because it plays with controversial topics and when it is just lazy, thinly-veiled “ironic” stereotyping?

Shakesville has this great post about off-limits humor which boils it down to this: it is just fine to make fun of a person/group of people for something that they’re doing by choice, but jokes involving things outside their control (i.e., their sex/gender, sexuality, race, disability, etc.) usually aren’t cool. Go ahead and make jokes about politicians’ actions and statements, josh about musicians who perform abysmally live (though maybe that’s outside their control?), but know that when you “jest” about sexuality you can easily contribute to our culture of homophobia, or cross the line into bullying and other actions depending on the context.

A few months ago there was a whole lot of talk about an article published at Jezebel on “hipster racism”  – a term first used by Carmen Van Kerckhove at Racialicious. (Related: an excellent video post by Anita Sarkeesian (of Feminist Frequency) about sexism and ironic advertising originally published at Bitch Media.) Hipster/ironic ____-ism passes political incorrectness as completely fine because the person telling the joke isn’t actually racist/sexist/what have you, it’s just for shiggles, it’s harmless, it’s really not a big deal and seriously-you-guys-it’s-just-a-joke-let’s-move-on.

This stuff is complicated, especially when it comes from a friend or a source that you look favorably on. Not responding – or saying something critical – when a friend is trying to joke around can be very tough. It’s often easier to just go along with it and try not to let it bother you.

But we have to pay attention to the patterns. Take television: That 70’s Show, How I Met Your Mother, and Friends all use a lot of gendered humor. I love these shows, but I get tired of the millionth joke about Laurie being a whore or Robin being a freak for not wanting to get married and have kids. Aren’t there some more interesting situations we can come up with? I say more jokes about pineapple incidents, less enforcement of gender norms.

So let’s talk reaction legitimacy. My first reaction to most of this humor is anger. At least a flicker. And then I try to take a step back and figure out if it’s “okay” for me to be angry in that case. Or if I’m making mountains out of molehills. Or if I’m just searching for something that’s wrong with it because I’m too oversensitive about this stuff. And then I have to remind myself  that I’m not looking for stuff to get mad about, there’s just a whole lot of stuff that makes me mad. Here is how Melissa McEwan put it (emphasis added):

The truth is, if I actually spent my days actively paying attention to every example of misogyny around me, I would be a profoundly unhappy woman. Not bitchy or grumpy or short-tempered, but paralyzingly depressed. Women have to train themselves to avoid consciously reacting to every bit of misogynistic detritus permeating the culture through which we all move, lest they go quite insane. I write about the things I can’t not write about. If I wrote about all the examples of sexism I see every day, I’d never sleep.

So please don’t tell me to drop it, or that I’m making too big a deal out of something. If it matters enough to me that I say something about it at all – instead of just staying quiet and not laughing – it’s a big deal.

Which brings me to the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.

Image vis Booze Hound

Not because this kind of humor is going to lead to the end of the world, but because of the emotion it tends to elicit: anger.

John Gottman has done incredible research on couples and what makes a healthy, strong relationship. The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse in relationships are interaction strategies that characterize problematic relationships: criticism, defensiveness, stonewalling, and contempt. Right now I’m mostly concerned with contempt.

In interpersonal interactions, contempt signals superiority of self and devaluing of others. If someone is met with contempt, there is very little that they are going to be able to do to change the other person’s mind or behavior, because they aren’t seen as worthwhile or important by that person. Luckily, all the Horsemen have healthier counterparts that characterize stronger relationships, and guess what the opposite of contempt is? Anger!

Anger is a GOOD THING. Anger is a sign that you care enough about something to become angry about it when you don’t like it, instead of just dismissing it and moving on with your much more important life. Anger is hopeful. Anger can lead to something. I’m angry because I care, and I haven’t given up on the possibility of change. And that’s a good thing.

[Alternative images of the Four Lego Horsemen can be found here and here. Enjoy!]


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§ 2 Responses to Ironic Humor is Ironic (Ironically)

  • Max says:

    Interesting post. The way I look at sexist/racist humour shared among non-sexist/racist people is this: people laugh because its shocking. Are you familiar with dead baby jokes? I enjoyed them quite a lot as a young teen, purely because they were so horrifying. In no way was I ok with being cruel to infants in reality, and I can’t imagine these jokes subliminally made me more accepting of cruelty to children. They were funny because they were ridiculous. The same can be said of racist/sexist humour: the person who tells me the worst jokes about indians is an indian friend of mine, I hardly doubt he believes his own people to be inferior!

    I must admit though I feel highly uncomfortable when someone I don’t know tells me a joke like this, as you never know why the person finds it amusing. I think the teller and receiver of the joke really do help determine if the humour is legitimate or not.

  • Kate Sackett says:

    I think I know what you mean about shock value and dead baby jokes, I’ve never been a huge fan of that kind of humor but some friends of mine recently discovered a game called Cards Against Humanity (“a party game for horrible people”) and I always have fun with it. The game is similar to Apples to Apples but much more ridiculous/awkward/awesome. Some of the cards include “an asymmetric boob job,” “being a dinosaur,” “a mime having a stroke,” and “the Hustle.”

    I’m more concerned about how widely permeated sexism is throughout American culture, the way that jokes can contribute to that, and how “ironic” jokes can be much less innocuous than they seem. The issue isn’t that friends are joking around in a context that everyone understands isn’t serious, but that show after show on cable relies on gender stereotypes to get easy laughs. And if they’re supposedly harmless, that can shut down the conversation about how they might influence perceptions of women in America.

    I wouldn’t start worrying about the dead baby jokes’ effect on infant cruelty until a character like Barney (from HIMYM, although the purple dinosaur is appropriate too!) is built around how funny it is to hurt children.

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