March 3, 2013

MOSER: The Art of Offense

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Last Friday, my computer died. For five whole days, I was without laptop. Luckily, with Jug-gate, New York State Assemblyman Dov Hikind showing up in blackface to a Purim party, Seth MacFarlane being Seth MacFarlane and The Onion’s tweet about 9-year-old Quvenzhané Wallis, I hardly even needed the distractions of Tumblr, Youtube, Twitter and Facebook to keep me from, God forbid, actually taking notes. It was quite a week for offending people.

First of all, I would like to state that I personally was not offended by the original name of Pi Kappa Phi’s event, “Which Sorority Has the Best Water Jugs” (a little shocked maybe, but not deeply upset.) I was, however, horrified at some of the backlash in response to the change, like anonymous strangers commenting on The Sun’s story essentially telling crazy feminists to learn how to take a joke.I am a feminist and tend to fall on the side of the offended, but I also have a fabulous sense of humor and do think there is a place for controversial material in comedy. So what I would like to do today is explore the mechanics of not how to take an offensive joke, like those jerks on the Internet propose, but how to make one. After having thought at great lengths about that line between comedy and sexism, racism and general douchebaggery, I’ve come up with three criteria that need to be met if you plan on making a joke pertaining to marginalized group of society.Criterion I: Everybody has to be aware that the person making the joke isn’t actually a sexist pig or a homophobe or whatever the anti-group of the subject of the joke is. Take this example of a quote from the episode “TGS Hates Women” of 30 Rock. Jenna is in a sketch dressed up as Amelia Earhart and says, “This is Amelia Earhart. I’m almost across the Pacific. Oh no. My period!” as the plane crashes. This joke is clearly not offensive coming from my feminist idol Tina. However, if one of those aforementioned internet commenters had made it, offense would definitely be warranted.One of the reasons Dov Hikind’s blackface disaster was so offensive was because, although his family may know he isn’t racist, the world does not. Similarly, I know and love several members of Pi Kapp, and I know they are not misogynists, but I understand how those who aren’t familiar with those kind-hearted and well-meaning men were offended by a fraternity hosting an event with a pun about boobs in the title. Fraternities in general don’t exactly hold the moral high ground on gender-related issues so I empathize with those offended and ultimately agree the name should have been changed. But if it had been the Women’s Resource Center making the pun, I’d imagine the reaction would have been somewhat different.Criterion II: The butt of the joke must be society and not victims of oppression. The audience has to laugh at how terrible the racists or sexists are, and not actually at those people affected. A recent successful example of this was John Hodgman on Wednesday’s episode of The Daily Show, in which he talks about “a lazy moocher normal [who] doesn’t get a job because they know they’re going to get welfare or goes on a reckless leukemia spree because ‘Hey, Obamacare’s got it covered.’” Here, the object of derision is not people who are on welfare or have leukemia, but rather those that have similar views as Hodgman’s character. After the Daniel Tosh rape joke scandal this summer, Jezebel published a wonderful article you should all read that outlines this point as it pertains to rape jokes: They are acceptable only if the joke mocks rape culture and not its victims. In other terms, it’s not okay to make a racist joke; it’s okay to make a joke that makes fun of racists. I think Seth MacFarlane’s “We Saw Your Boobs” song at the Oscars tried, but did a poor job, striking this tone. If it had been blatantly obvious that it was an attempt to make MacFarlane himself seem like a tasteless immature idiot and commentate on society’s objectification of women, it would have been a lot less problematic. Instead, William Shatner’s disapproval felt more like an afterthought included to placate those who might be offended.Criterion III: The joke must be funny. People who say that rape jokes are never funny are wrong. Sarah Silverman, Louis C.K., John Mulaney and other comedians have hilarious rape jokes and I argue that they are not offensive because they meet the first two criteria in addition to being clever and funny: i.e. Louis C.K.’s “I’m not condoning rape, obviously — you should never rape anyone. Unless you have a reason, like if you want to fuck somebody and they won’t let you.” I think Daniel Tosh received so much flak partially was because his rape joke was lazy and just not very good (besides failing to meet Criterion II.)The same can be said for The Onion’s Quvenzhané Wallis tweet, calling her a c**t. Everyone knows The Onion is not serious, so it meets Criterion I, but it was not clear the victim of the joke wasn’t adorable Quvenzhané herself and the joke wasn’t very funny to begin with.I love a good joke as much as the next fellow, but there is a line between joke and insult. One purpose of comedy is to show us unpleasant truths about the world, especially by talking about issues like race and gender. There are successful examples of comedians who do this all over the place (one is W. Kamau Bell who will be talking about race in society in a comical way for free on Wednesday night). But jokes are unsuccessful when there’s doubt about the perpetrator of the joke’s position, when they make fun of helpless victims of marginalization and when they’re just not good.I will conclude with a joke that nobody should find offensive because it meets all of my criteria: How many feminists does it take to change a lightbulb? Hey, that’s not funny!

Original Author: Julia Moser