It's not 'just a joke' and it's okay not to laugh

by Clementine Ford - 29/06/16, 9:33 AM
Women are well versed in grinning and bearing it.

Women are well versed in grinning and bearing it.Photo: Stocksy

If you're a woman, you've almost certainly had the experience of being expected to laugh along when someone tells a sexist joke either to you or in your vicinity. If you've spoken out against it or expressed your discomfort, you've probably also been told, 'It's just a joke!' Somehow, this is supposed to make things better. But is a joke really a joke if the people telling it rely on you feeling awkward for it to be funny?

Indeed, the phrase, 'It's just a joke' is a common defence used by people when they want to be given free reign to express their bigotry and not be held accountable for it. We've been reminded of this petulant insistence recently in the fallout from Eddie McGuire's 'banter' about drowning Caroline Wilson. It's not violent or intimidating for men protecting their territory to joke about holding a woman under water - it's just a joke, silly!

But what does that really mean? Last week, a woman appeared as a guest on ABC 774's Afternoons with Rafael Epstein. 'Cathy', as she asked to be known, had previously worked in a technical role during Triple M's football coverage. She recounted a number of uncomfortable incidents, including the time a commentator openly joked off-air about his wife's breasts while his male colleagues laughed along. In response to this, another commentator turned to Cathy and said, "Hey you could make a lot of money here if you played your cards right." He then told her, "You'd never have to work again," to which someone else 'joked', "Yeah, but she'd never be seen again either."


As Cathy says, she was very new to the job then. She didn't find this 'banter' funny, but shrugged it off as a form of self-preservation. Indeed, 'shrugging off' is what people most do when they're targeted by hostile 'jokes', particularly if they've learned early on that they suffer from a disparity of power. I've lost count of the number of women I've known who've laughed along awkwardly as men have made humiliating comments to their face under the guise of humour - we are forced to become co-conspirators in the degrading comments made about ourselves, because not doing so puts an even bigger target on our backs.

Another time, Cathy walked into the box while a commentator was trying on a new pair of jeans. "I walked in and they were all standing around and one came up to me and said, 'Hey, can you hold something for me?' And everybody just laughed. I just looked at him. But I felt a bit threatened because everyone was laughing. It was a joke but they weren't my friends."

It was a joke but they weren't my friends.

And this observation sums up exactly what's so false about the claim that these 'jokes' are nothing more than 'playful banter'. If your joke relies on you setting up someone who has less power than you, it isn't a joke anymore. It's bullying. And if your jokes rely on sexism, racism, homophobia or any other variety of oppression in order to garner guffaws from people similarly unaffected or untouched by these discriminations, you are not the hilarious comedian you imagine yourself to be. At best, you're an infantile, unimaginative bully who's somehow absorbed the ludicrous idea that the immense amount of privilege you enjoy has been earned. At worst, you're actually a misogynist, or a racist, or a homophobe or whatever else it might be, no matter how much you might rail against the 'injustice' of being slapped with that entirely accurate label.

Unfortunately, finding something funny isn't necessarily proof of its inherent genius. Nor does it mean everyone else is obliged to agree with you, to sit there and chuckle politely while you cry tears of laughter because someone else's bigotry just really speaks to you. I'm sorry that Eddie McGuire is apparently not funny or good at making jokes. I'm deeply sorry that the fans who continue to stand by him and other men like him are so bereft in anything resembling a comedy gauge that they think such juvenile antics are a form of modern day commedia dell'arte. Mostly, I'm sorry that the people most often targeted by these jokes keep being told they have a responsibility to laugh at them.

But here's the thing - we don't have to laugh. Friends joshing and teasing each other is one thing, but being targeted by strangers or even acquaintances is another thing entirely. We don't have to play along when buffoons make 'jokes' that do nothing more than belittle people with less power than them. Claiming something is 'just a joke' might be a convenient way for them to justify their own intolerance and prejudice, but it's not actually an excuse. Nor is opposition to it 'political correctness gone mad'.

Women who oppose being targeted by sexist 'banter' don't need to get a better sense of humour. Instead, the people who think sexism is funny need to get better jokes.

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