So my best friend and I were having a conversation sparked by that most recent post of mine. We were discussing whether it was acceptable, even as a cathartic joke, to talk about burning (fictional and/or non-specific) people and scattering their ashes on the wind. We concluded that it could be acceptable in some contexts. But that brought up another joke, that was subtly different:
Q: How many men does it take to wallpaper a bedroom?
A: Only one if you slice him thin enough.
Now, my best friend is actually the same person who first told me this joke 20 years ago, so I was a bit surprised to hear her say that this joke was never acceptable. She went so far as to say she should never have told it. On the other hand, I think it’s completely unacceptable to tell such a joke for laughs in any public context you could find in Canada today – and likewise in any public context you could find in the US today – but that when she first heard it in the 1980s the context was sufficiently different that it could be (and was) acceptable in at least some contexts. Where she first heard it was during an ongoing anti-war protest. It was a women-only camp that was set up to protest and to monitor activity related to the Pershing II missiles (nuclear tipped missiles with a range that shifted during development and production, but was ultimately ~1000 miles or 1500-1800 km) designed to be deployed in Europe. Everyone at the camp being seriously committed to non-violence contributed, I believe, to the context that made the joke acceptable in the time and place originally told. It also matters (to me, anyway) that “humor” about violence against women was still not merely acceptable, but financially rewarded. this is, after all, long after “To the moon, Alice,” and still before Andrew Dice Clay would sell out venues to thousands of people eager to hear “jokes” like:
I give [women] what they want. Pull their hair, rap ’em in the head a few times, say all the little things they want to hear, like ‘Fuck, pig, howl, skank.
For me, although the discussion at the peace camp wasn’t this context, the joke would also have been acceptable when told in a way that was designed to provoke a reaction (“hey, that ain’t fair to men!”) and then to use that reaction to make society better (“But you accept that unfairness from men comedians … if you interrupt and question this joke, are you going to interrupt and question misogynist jokes?”).
Although there is certainly a wealth of sexist/misogynist humor out there, I think there’s enough of a new social context for us to leverage other arguments or employ other tactics to fight what still exists. There’s simply less need for a “slice ’em thin enough” joke to make the point. While the possibility of telling such jokes for catharsis still exists, I don’t believe that telling them publicly (including in almost any manner using the internet) is necessary for such catharsis. I think it’s good if people don’t tell such jokes for cathartic laughs in private with their best friends, but if people conduct themselves well publicly, I won’t condemn them for using humor privately for reasons such as catharsis that would not be acceptable publicly.*1
I make a distinction between this joke and the “people who make me angry” joke in the previous post because the previous post’s joke targeted “the people that inspire my rage” where “my” is a pronoun standing in for a particular, but fictional, person. Thus the targets are specific, but undefined. The targets of the wallpaper joke are non-specific, but well defined (all men). There’s much more reason and justification, then, for some individuals hearing the wallpaper joke to believe that they devalued, that they are socially or psychologically injured by the joke. Nor do I think it saves the wallpaper joke that men benefit from sexism. It’s arguable, but I think in the 1980s men’s privilege and the context of misogynist humor might very well have saved the joke. Today? No.
What do you think? If told in the comedy club nearest you (as a joke, not dissected for its social meaning and effects and morality), would the wallpaper joke be acceptable? Could it ever possibly be? Would it matter if it was a special event night (e.g. “feminist humor night” where the violence and sexual prejudice of the joke are more likely to be interpreted ironically)? What about the burning/scattering the ashes joke? Would it be acceptable at your local comedy club? Could it ever be?
Although I find the latter much more acceptable than the former, I’d love to hear any disagreement.
*1: The reason I don’t think it’s a good idea even privately is that I think it reinforces certain types of thinking, which then makes harmful actions more likely later when one reenters public space. In theory it’s possible to tell jokes that target people based on gender or race or dis/ability in private while behaving generously and without prejudice in public. In practice, I don’t think it’s possible. But since without telepathy it would be impossible to know about the private jokes and (more importantly) impossible to know exactly what role private jokes played in shaping public behavior, I’d rather focus my criticism on the unacceptable public behavior.