Friday, 18 March 2011

What about when something is offensive AND amusing?

This piece originally appeared at Womanist Musings where Renee has very generously allowed my random musings to appear on her excellent blog

I'm going to poke at something now that has had me thinking. In particular, a line a friend of mine said lately when she was confronted by a sexist joke

“Damn it, I can't be angry because I laughed.”

And I think I disagree with this sentiment. I question the idea that something that is funny – or amusing - cannot be offensive. I also think that it's not helpful to assume the two can't go together

It is commonplace to argue that “that's not funny” because it's offensive (now, sometimes it isn't. Sometimes it's just plain vile, or sometimes we're just so outraged and sickened by it that the very idea of it being funny is boggling to us). And it's awkward because sometimes we use it even when we don't believe it – even when we are tempted to crack a smile. Because we have an idea that somehow, if it is funny, it is not offensive. How many times do we hear “it's not offensive, it's just a joke! It's funny!” It's like if we concede the humour then suddenly all the problematic elements disappear by magic “aha, the marginalised person has SMILED! Their arguments are now invalid! Bring on more of the prejudiced jokes!”

In fact, we're seeing this excuse in regards to this by Fosters in the UK. Now I generally am quite amused by the “Good Call” Fosters adverts – but that doesn't excuse playing on the straight guy's terror of being thought of as gay and how any behaviour that may be interpreted as gay must be avoided at all cost. It's a severely damaging trope, it polices us horrendously and is another prod back into the closet – and it has ensured little bursts of rage every time I watch TV. But, the defenders rally, it's funny isn't it? As if that means it can't possibly be offensive.

I say that something can be funny AND offensive/problematic and even triggering. And that being funny is not a defence against being offensive, does not protect you from being criticised and does not excuse the insult caused. The giggles do not invalidate the hurt – or the damaging societal tropes that are being perpetuated just because it's wrapped in something we may smile at – or that many people will smile at.

One example for me, personally is the Sassy Gay Friend which I'm sure everyone has seen on Youtube. And every time I watch it, I am mildy amused (less so when Beloved feels the need to interject “what what WHAT are you doing?” and if he does it again I will not be responsible for my actions). It's funny, it makes me smile, it makes me laugh

And it makes me cringe. It makes me cringe because the “Gay Best Friend” or “GBF” trope is severely overdone. It makes me cringe because the idea of gay men being accessories, toys and tools of straight women is a pervasive one in the media and has been pushed in magazines from O Magazine to Teen Vogue It's an extremely demeaning, objectifying and belittling trope that is rapidly reaching saturation point.

Now, it may be satirising that trope – but I don't like it playing into it, I don't like this stereotype and assumption to be pushed and I don't like this damaging meme to be perpetuated. It's amusing, but it's still problematic. And I don't think we can sweep all that problematic-ness under the rug because we raise a smile.

And I think this is important to establish. Like my friend mentioned at the beginning, who feels she is now unable to complain or criticise a sexist joke. We have accepted this defence, this immunity that because something is funny or amusing then we cannot criticise it or find it objectionable.

We give a pass to -isms running rampant in society because they manage to drape the cover of humour over them. We feel we can't fight them or point out they are problematic – because people like them – because we even were amused by them or parts of them

Which brings us to another point. We tend to excuse the fails in media we like (not just media we find funny), in books, in shows, in actors, in personalities we like or are fans of. Again, our amusement or following of them makes us give a pass to the fail they bring. It is hard for us to recognise that a show or series or person we like so much is due criticism or is -ist in any way, so we overlook it. We give it a pass. In many ways because we desperately want a book/series/whatever to be great, beyond question and certainly not full of fail. We defend it, vehemently – because it can't be failtastic can it? I like it too much for it to be failtastic!

And in doing so we end up defending the fails. We end up defending the -isms, even -isms that hurt us, because we like that book/actor/film/series and don't want the failtastic to come from them.

The problem is that our media in all its many glorious fails (and Tami has a great discussion round up on exactly which fail we prefer to be exposed to) will often pull shit that is offensive, triggering and just plain wrong. We have, for the most part, being RAISED on many wrong tropes – including many highly offensive tropes that have been presented as humour for as long as we've been alive and likely much longer. In fact, I would go so far as to say there's very little media out there that doesn't have some problematic elements on some levels. And we are raised in a society that perpetuates them through a saturated media – a saturated and often unchallenged, uncriticised media – is it any surprise that we learn the same, accept the same, laugh at the same and even defend the same?

We need to learn that just because we laugh at something, just because we enjoy something, just because it makes us smile – and just because we're a fan doesn't mean that we must overlook, ignore or defend the -isms. We need to stop using “but I like it” as an excuse to perpetuate the damaging stereotypes, prejudices and just plain failness of society. And we need to learn that it IS possible to both like something and criticise it at the same time.

Anyone who listens to our Podcast, Fangs for the Fantasy, may be excused in thinking that Renee, Tami and I spend lost of time giving side-eye and savage glares to our e-readers and the television. Because we snark, criticise, mock and generally tear down the fail in the books we read and the series we watch. But that doesn't mean we don't like them (except Teagarden. I think we all loathe Teagarden) We aren't engaging in some elaborate, masochistic penance. We wouldn't read and critique the genre if we weren't actually fans.

But being fans doesn't make us were blinkers to the -isms, the tropes, the stereotypes, the tokenism, the erasure and the prejudice – it doesn't make us refrain from demanding more and better.

Because being a fan of something doesn't mean you have to accept every part of it without question (nor does criticising and condemning the fail make you any less of a fan).

Because being amusing doesn't mean it gets a pass for the -ism

Because being funny doesn't mean it can't hurt or harm or offend or insult.

Because amusement, humour or fan-following doesn't justify or excuse perpetuating this badness.