Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Blatant Sexism as 'Humour' in a Sudbury Newspaper

I've never understood the claim that when you say awful things about a person or a group of people, but you intend it to be funny, then those awful things magically cease to be awful and turn into light hearted fun that we should all just enjoy. This claim usually doesn't get made directly, but it is fairly openly present in the most common responses you hear when you challenge awfulness-packaged-as-humour. You hear "it was just a joke," and that anyone who was upset needs to "lighten up" and "get a sense of humour."

Because I've never really understood those kinds of responses, I'm finding it hard to write something that will preempt the predictable defensiveness by the editors of a Sudbury-based community paper called South Side Story which published some misogyny under the guise of humour on page 15 of its October 2010 issue. Someone I know a little bit in the Sudbury community drew it to my attention, though, so I feel I have to write something.

South Side Story is a monthly community newspaper that focuses on short pieces intended to be humorous or quirky, with occasional pieces about home decor or useful but not groundbreaking health-related things like the latest breast cancer fundraiser or the basics of COPD. The closest comparison I can find for the majority of its non-advertising content is the short, quirky factoids and anecdotes that grace Reader's Digest. So South Side Story is not in any sense a journalistic publication. Nonetheless, like any publication, it still needs to be responsible for its content.

The article in question is called "Wanna Be A Real Woman?" The text of the piece consists of 23 bullet points, each of which is a juicy nugget of blatant sexism. The items include:

  • Silence, the final frontier -- Where no woman has gone before.
  • The undiscovered side of banking -- How to make deposits.
  • Nag Nag Nag -- how to overcome your tendency to be a fish wife.
  • Communication Skills I -- Tears as the last resort and not the first.
  • Driving a car safely -- A skill you can also acquire.
  • Managing your weight -- It's not water retention, it's fat.
  • PMS -- Your problem, not his.

I am, regretfully, not making this up. South Side Story doesn't publish online so I can't link you to the complete piece and I'm not sure it's worth my energy to type all of the items in, but this gives you a representative flavour of what is on offer.

The reasons to find this content objectionable seem so obvious to me that I'm tempted not to say anything more, just to encourage those of you who share these objections to publishing material that is so insulting to women and pretending it is 'humour' to communicate this to the folks who produce South Side Story -- you can email them at southsidestory@eastlink.ca; you can telephone them at 705-523-2339; and you can send them a letter at South Side Story, Regency Mall, 469 Bouchard, Suite 204, Sudbury, Ontario, P3E 2K8. But I know that such poor editorial judgment always has its defenders, so I'll try to preemptively address some of that.

The most likely approach do defending this piece is, as I said at the beginning of my post, that people will claim that it is humour, not serious, and so should not be taken seriously. In response, I would say that people need to think about what makes it plausible to think that this might work as humour. I would argue that in order for a writer or editor to plausibly think that large numbers of readers might relate to a piece like this, the items on the list must make reference to some sort of shared commonsense understanding of the category in question -- in this case, the category is "woman." If you were to add things like, "Oh, those women...always eating the green jelly beans and leaving the yellow ones for the menfolk" or "Isn't it frustrating how women always dress up like lumberjacks?" it would make no sense as humour, or at least as the kind of humour that this article is attempting -- maybe as some sort of absurdist something-or-other, but that's already a completely different approach than this article is taking. And the reason those random statements don't even potentially work as the sort of humour featured in "Wanna Be A Real Woman?" is because they do not reference the shared cultural commonsense that, indeed, the piece's title quite blatantly points us towards.

The content of this dominant shared cultural commonsense has been explained and challenged by feminists for decades. It weaves together all sorts of specific, stereotyped traits -- women are too emotional, they talk too much, they're bad drivers, they nag, they shop too much, blah blah blah -- into an overall picture of what it means to be a woman, or to be feminine. Integral to this dominant notion of femininity is a sense that those who bear it are inferior. This, in turn, has a complicated but powerful relationship to the ways in which material circumstances (patriarchal social relations) actually do limit the space that women have (in different ways depending on other aspects of their experience) to exercise power over their own lives. Which isn't for a moment to suggest that women don't or can't exert agency -- it is to point to particular kinds of constraints in how agency can be exercised that are organized along gendered lines. And this dominant commonsense is both a product of these material circumstances, and a way in which these material circumstances are justified, legitimated, naturalized, organized, and reinforced.

The kind of humour in the article of course stays at the surface of this commonsense, and plays with some of the elements of it that have obtained iconic status in the patriarchal imagination. That is, the humour in the article both depends on and reinforces this dominant shared commonsense about what it means to be "A Real Woman."

The article's over-the-top presentation of these elements of patriarchal commonsense might in itself tempt some to argue that it doesn't need to be taken seriously -- kind of a derivation of the "the world isn't like that any more" argument. However, elements of this commonsense still organize in very powerful ways, if often with more subtlety than the article itself displays, assumptions by many people and institutions about what it means to fit in the category "woman." Even when it is less blatant, this commonsense is present in what many women experience from male partners, from co-workers and fellow community members of all genders, from employers, from institutions with which they must interact. There is plenty of writing and research, largely by feminists, showing that even if the form of all of this is less blatant than forty years ago, it is still there, still a serious problem. Yes, one small exercise in poor editorial judgment at an insignificant community newspaper -- I'm dubious about the claim on the front page that it has almost 100,000 readers per month -- is but a drop in the patriarchal bucket. But it still deserves to be challenged.

There are a few other things that defenders of the piece might raise. They might focus on intent, and say no harm was meant. Which is not really very relevant -- as you might have noticed, my post is written with the assumption that harm was not intended. What is at issue here is not intent, it is taking professional responsibility for the predictable impact that your published words will have. Other people might point to the fact that, judging by the masthead of South Side Story, the editor is a woman, as if that might somehow make the content okay. Again, I would point to the important part being the impact of these words, their relationship to a dominant cultural commonsense that is woven through the various ways that women are limited and harmed, not their source -- the intent and the gender of the writer and editor, like the plumage of the Norwegian Blue parrot in the famous sketch, "don't enter into it."

So, if you feel so inspired, particularly if you live in Sudbury but even if you don't, take a few moments to share your opinions of this piece with the editorial staff of South Side Story.

(Thanks to J.N. for bringing this to my attention. Any problems in how I've presented it are purely my own, of course!)


Christian said...

Because I've never really understood those kinds of responses, I'm finding it hard to write something that will preempt the predictable defensiveness by the editors of a Sudbury-based community paper called South Side Story

Scott, just my opinion, but, turn the table on them and respond with some amusing stereotypes about men. Or suggest to them that you look forward to them doing so. Just a suggestion.

As far as the examples you've pointed out, I must admit I chuckled at a couple of them. Having been around the block once or twice, they ring true.

But the one that I think is completely inappropriate and falls far short of being funny, is this one:
Managing your weight -- It's not water retention, it's fat.

That's just ignorant and unnecessary.

Additionally, I don't watch much television anymore, but I could point out many sitcoms where the men are made to look like complete idiots and women as heroins.

I found that to be ignorant and unnecessary as well.

Scott said...

Hi Christian...thanks for reading the post, and for leaving a comment!

I do think that a certain kind of turning-the-tables can make for very effective humour when it comes to things like gender, but not exactly the kind you suggest. Some sort of humorous list that makes the oppression look ridiculous can be funny and effective. But I think that just pointing the same kind of stereotypical lens at men isn't all that helpful, and really just ends up reinforcing the same sorts of things.

If you search through my site for writing about masculinity, you'll find various things that I've written that talk about how patriarchy hurts and limits men too -- not as much as it does women and other gender-oppressed people, and also while privileging us, but it does limit us. Often the kinds of stereotypes you would find in an analagous list about men are closely related to how masculinity can hurt men. And those dominant cultural assumptions about "real men" are just as much a part of the dominant, patriarchal commonsense as the kinds of statements made about women in this article, and are just as much a part of perpetuating harms to women as well as to men.

I don't watch a lot of TV either, but I know what you mean about those sitcoms...I would again say it's not just a matter of these kinds of images and stories saying that one gender is "good" and another is "bad." It's more that they work together in complicated ways to limit who we can be and how we can relate to each other. So, in fact, the sitcoms that portray men as buffoons and women as competent can easily play into exactly the same sort of dynamic as articles like the one I'm criticizing here.

And as for the fact that some of the examples "ring true" for you -- I think it is worth reflecting on what I talk about as the "dominant shared cultural commonsense" or "patriarchal commonsense." Part of what it means for it to be "commonsense" is that it surrounds us and gets inside of us, deep down. It is easy for us to let it organize and prioritize how we see in the world, in ways that we don't always fully recognize, so that it looks like the associated stereotypes are actually real and makes it harder for us to see that they are, in fact, stereotypes and part of that larger complex of ideas and assumptions that are harmful to women. And, in different ways, to men.

Scott said...

It says Scott at the top, but I'm posting the following for Jennifer, who was having trouble getting her comment to show up and asked me to put it up for her:

I absolutely love humour -- and I think I have a keen sense of it. This week, I've been reading fart jokes in Aristophanes' The Clouds (circa 423 B.C.) and laughing my head off! Silliness and raw, unmitigated truth -- that's humour to me. Yet in this case, I find that this article is the kind of thing that should not be shared anywhere but (possibly) the fish hut (and I hope those blokes are bloody freezing!).

For me, it's as much about the fact this was published in a community "feel good" paper, as it is about the content. Don't get me wrong, I think the content is sexist and idiotic. But I have the evaluative ability to see it for what it is. However, the thought that young children -- who are still building their critical reasoning -- could form an impression that this kind of sexism is normative (like young girls and boys aren't dealing with enough these days!).

On a much more serious level, if mommy gets hit for screwing up dinner or spending daddy's money, doesn't this kind of messaging imply that violence could in fact be a reasonable reaction? And if that's reaching a bit far, this article certainly doesn't defend her one bit. After all, mommy has all these terrible qualities (fat, moody, clutzy, gossipy, stupid).

Already, a few of my friends/colleagues have written in to the publisher, and two people are blogging about it (Scott first!). If anything, it's nice to be reminded that we still have to dig in our heels for equality sometimes. For ALL of us to inhabit a world that privileges dignity and respect. Now, that will have me in the happiest of hysterics!

Here's another blogger on this topic, my friend Deborah: