Last week, I heard a sexist joke. It went something like ‘What do you call a woman with two black eyes? Nothing, you already told her twice’. Everyone in the room chuckled and yet I found it very difficult to laugh– it made me too annoyed. I was accused of ‘not being able to take a joke’. This got me thinking – had I lost my sense of humour? Or am I right in my refusal to see sexism as a laughing matter?
Indeed, the person who told me this joke was not sexist. In fact, I can’t even begin to count the number of decent, intelligent male (and female) friends who would never think to actively disrespect women. And yet, this kind of joke is all too common. Particularly after I’ve spoken out about my opinions just as I am now. Ok, so I understand that breaking boundaries is a vital ingredient to successful comedy. But why is it that sexist jokes, more often directed at women, are used unrestrictedly without regard to the consequences? I don’t know about you, but I’m so sick of being told to get back in the kitchen.
Reinforcing negative gender stereotypes is surely nothing but negative. Indeed, jokes subsist about blondes, pregnant women and women drivers to name just a few. These normalise sexism and antagonism against women. Most people don’t even realise this, as these ‘jokes’ are so pervasive in society. It could be that when both men and women make and allow these ‘jokes’ such as that of domestic violence that I heard last week, they are simultaneously endorsing that violence and allowing it to fall within the bounds of social acceptability. This may actually be doing real harm to women by normalising sexist attitudes. I’m not ok with that.
These jokes do not exist in isolation, no matter how much people want to believe they do.
Indeed, ‘stereotype threat’ refers to the idea that the knowledge of one’s own prejudicial stereotype can lead to anxiety to the extent that a person actually ends up confirming that stereotype. Studies have shown, for example, that women score lower on a math test when they are reminded of their gender, or take the test in the presence of men. This was not the case in verbal test scores, where no such negative stereotype exists. For every meme or ‘joke’ shared depicting a woman’s bloodied face alongside the message ‘She should have just made the sandwich’, there are countless incidents of domestic violence in real life. These jokes do not exist in isolation, no matter how much people want to believe they do.
As a result. my refusal to just ‘take a joke’ and ‘stop being so sensitive’ is perhaps justified, given that these people are perhaps being as sexist as the jokes they are corroborating. Throwing the ‘just take a joke’ disclaimer at me does not void you of any responsibility – it is a silencing tactic, which belittles and controls my opinion. Despite this, I think standing up against this is important, because if we talk about it loud enough, everyday sexism will cease to become common place. It would seem an unfair contradiction that I am frequently met with the claim ‘women are equal now’ and yet these people simultaneously retain the right to make jokes at the countless ways in which women are stereotyped, belittled and even assaulted, at my expense.
However, it’s important to note that if you make a joke, you are not automatically a bad person. But if someone calls you up on a sexist, homophobic or even racist comment and you refuse to take responsibility and you instead turn it on to them and blame their ‘sensitivity’, that’s when your behaviour becomes morally suspect. Equally, if you’re reading this and already coming up with ways in which to argue why these jokes are not damaging, you are not reading it properly. Such claims are the laziest way to dismiss a valid concern and come from a misinformed position that thinks gender equality has been achieved and this is just another ‘feminazi’ complaint about an insignificant issue.
By simply making the small decision to call your friend out on a sexist joke, you may just be facilitating the overall goal to reduce gender stereotypes and inequality. . . .
For the record, and to account for the inevitable and habitual response to any feminist argument ‘But what about men?’, I do not condone sexist jokes directed at men either. However, the difference here is the simple fact that men are not as often the victim of sexist jokes and, historically, men have not had to deal with rape, sexual harassment and pay inequality (to name just a few) to the same scale that females have.
Despite this, it’s encouraging to see that we are starting to see people question the ethicality of what is often seen as mainstream, innocent fun. Indeed, racist jokes are no longer tolerated; this is the case in football in particular, whereby severe punishments are given for racist remarks both on and off the pitch. However, while homophobic and racist jokes are no longer tolerated the way they once were, sexist jokes are often given a free pass and we still have a long way to go.
So next time your mate Gary makes a joke at a woman’s expense, call him up on it, even if this means you’ll get roasted on the group chat as a result of male culture (sadly) mistaking empathy and a sense of justice for weakness. But, believe it or not, there are far more important things, such as the institutional and systematic subjugation experienced by 50 per cent of the world’s population everyday. By simply making the small decision to call your friend out on a sexist joke, you may just be facilitating the overall goal to reduce gender stereotypes and inequality and to no longer see gender as black and white but rather as a spectrum – an outcome which is undoubtedly beneficial for 100 per cent of the population.