"It's Just A Joke": A Modern Catch-22 And Other Tales Of Sexist Humor

By Emily Ferman

In a made- up classroom setting I’m imagining to prove a point, I’d like to raise my hand and ask a question of the class; why is it that a [sexist] joke is never just a joke? This is something that I’ve been thinking a lot about lately and can’t find an answer for. Sexism, in all of its manifestations, is impossible to reduce to one answer. It is present in the way my brother makes jokes about how I should wear more makeup, or the  way I feel obligated to wear revealing clothing to a night out with my girlfriends. Sexism is how I feel like I have to say “sorry” after every opinion I give, and many other things that impact the daily lives of women around the world. Every time I hear, “oh, it’s just a joke stop freaking out” I get mad. I get so mad that sometimes, I just want to scream forever and ever until it stops. I don’t know how to combat it. Often, I feel voiceless and weak because I feel so much in my blood and in every single corner of my being that there’s nothing I can say to change the way that some people think and speak and act. Some people don’t grow out of the patriarchal lessons that they’ve been taught, and it can be infuriating to come up against that. Yeah, I’m really, really, really mad. So, now what?

From the gentrified and pretentious sands of Westchester on which I stand, I cannot for the life of me understand how people think that a joke is just a joke, nothing more but always, always less than. I just want these people to see that it penetrates far beneath the surface. Sexism isn’t funny, but why does much of this country think it is? At a cellular level, I’m so angry I don’t want to do anything. My totally compos mentis self, though, angrily sent a tweet into the universe. Although I was highly emotional when I sent it, I was proud of myself for using a platform to express my thoughts-- which is just what it was meant for. 

We live in a perpetual catch-22 of sorts; everything that feminists do are the things that a woman does, but many things that a woman does are still considered insignificant, frivolous, and ludicrous.  When a woman tries to raise awareness it is deemed gossip or jibber jabber. The issues many women fight for are laughed off by politicians and certain media as unnecessary, and that dismissal is commodified and often turned into a punchline. Feminists who don’t smile or laugh quietly but instead make noise so everyone can hear, are made to be aggressive and told to calm down. If women don’t react accordingly and “go with the flow” they are often labeled “bitches.” So what response to the questions一 “what, you can’t take a joke?” or“what so, no sense of humor, then?”一 is adequate enough to satisfy those patriarchal voices? 

The story we’re used to hearing goes like this; women don’t have a sense of humor and therefore cannot “take a joke.” The story often now goes like this; feminists are humorless and cannot take a joke. It’s hard not to think about who controls the narrative and has historically determined what kind of humor is valid (hint: men). Why is this a cycle to begin with? How can we break out of this ideology? How do we change the game?

To my questions I still have no answers, but rather have reached an understanding of sorts. I’m very fortunate to be surrounded by friends (both men and women) who appreciate and respect the feminist movement. It’s not a question to any of us whether we identify as feminists or not, because we feel like it’s so obvious to call ourselves such. It’s second nature to us to identify as such, and I feel so fortunate to be within a community that supports one another and encourages each individual to open their hearts and speak their minds. 

Oh and we, individually speaking, have a sense of humor, too.