“Sarah, I enjoyed the Seth McFarlane act at the Oscars, I laughed at the jokes, I found them funny. Does that make me a bad feminist?” (Anonymous friend)
I didn’t watch the Oscars and really only know about the Seth McFarlane controversy from secondhand reading. However this was not relevant to my answer to my distressed friend. My first reaction was not quite unexpectedly: “Why? Why are you coming to me to give you a strong honest opinion on yourself? Rachel? Where are you?”. You might think I was coward, I think I was just being reasonable (and not only because Rachel is better at articulating pondered judgement than I am).
I enjoy the little glorifying thrill that because I have a blog I posted on twice I’m now being held as a (very limited but still) authority on the matter but really I shouldn’t because I’m not and no one is. This is not how I figure these things should work. Yeah sure, I like fantasising about going around the world and labelling things and people once and for all: “good feminism” ; “bad feminism” ; “ugly sexism”, but for these things to change, the cause needs more than a guerilla stickers action (although what a fun wednesday afternoon we could all have with that). What it definitely does not need though, is me or anyone, as an arbiter of feminism, distributing ‘good’ or ‘bad’ feminist points.
My unrefined, instinctive, rough feminism (before I learned to put it into words for this very blog and that I didn’t even call feminism at the time) was just a yearning for equity in opportunities, nothing else. I just wanted to be allowed to do exactly what everybody else is allowed, screw things up as everybody does and be held accountable as an individual and not as part of a gender or any other social group. At the end of the day, it’s all down to the individual – its rights, its aspirations, its choices. I did not really believe in or care for the sisterhood – an idea both too abstract and too restrictive for my tastes. I changed my views a bit but not that much. What I see more today in feminism is the sense of possibility that comes from the confrontations and celebrations of women’s experiences, especially when these differ from a traditional narrative of womanhood, but not every single one of these experiences is going to please me. Women will always be human, and as such they will sometimes be wrong. If your reaction to a woman holding a view you don’t approve is “YOU’RE FAILING FEMINISM AND YOUR GENDER ALTOGETHER”, you’re basically acting like the patriarchy again, aren’t you?
Of course feminism implies an awareness of occurrences of sexism and a willingness to point them out. More often than not, when humour is involved there will be debates about: whether or not the jokes in question are indeed sexist or rather making fun of sexism, if the context matters, who the speaker is, what are the premises of his act and such. I usually tune off at this stage. The problem (or the best thing) about jokes is that they trigger your instinct before your reason, they make you laugh before they make you think. Before you can decide whether or not you like it, you already expressed your opinion. Sexist jokes are a tricky subject around which I’m still trying to figure out a working opinion, but before I get my way and can impose a moratory on all jokes until I figure a judging system, we will have to make do.
I could go through every single one of Seth McFarlane jokes and try to analyse whether or not I find them sexist and/or funny. At the end of this tedious process, all we probably will have determined is my own sense of humour. You can’t rationally argue over if something is funny or not, more that you can argue over whether some food is tasty or not. Some people might just not stomach it.
So no, anonymous friend, you’re not a bad feminist, and more importantly, it’s not for me to tell. People have the right to tell you you’re wrong to like certain things or why it is problematic that you find them funny, but they are not allowed to imply what you should think based on your gender. In the Second Sex introduction, Simone de Beauvoir voices her exasperation at some patronising assholes: “I sometimes got irritated, while in some abstract discussions, to hear some men tell me: ‘you think such a thing because you are a woman’; but I knew that my only defence was to answer: ‘I think it because it is true.'”
So, sorry anonymous friend, this is not the big tutorial on humour from a feminist point of view you might have wanted from me here but you can always quote Beauvoir as a snarky comeback when someones criticises your sense of humour.
I said last time that there was no card to my “feminist party”, that still is true. On many issues, I just suspend my judgement because, with as much good will as I’d like, I’m still ignorant and biased and I know it. I post very little here, really try to thread carefully on each subject and always end up talking about things that I experienced directly. Sometimes that makes me feel short-sighted and cowardly, not to be able to take a big stance on things. Most of the time, I am just sparing you my insane and rambling doubts and I do feel it’s for the best. That’s the reason why, for my sake and yours, I have no interest in scrutinising the entirety of pop culture until a sexist utterance catches my eyes (and it will, it always does). It is also the reason why this post won’t conclude with a “guideline to acceptable humour”.
Ok, if you take anything back from this post on humour and how to be a good feminist please let this be it: being a good feminist is respecting other women’s choices. You don’t have to agree, you can try and convince them, but ultimately, you don’t have a say in what other people think or do. This is a discussion that has happened about stay-at-home mums, women’s career choices, fashion and political choices. Every single time a woman makes a choice deemed conservative or traditional, it might seem like a backlash for the movement. But it always feels like a victory if you remember that a woman made this choice out of her own will.
You could also take some of my little contributions to Rachel’s previous sing-a-long, because being a feminist can also consist of celebrating really good and fun songs.
You think that feminism is trying to deny you your faire share of genitalia-related fun songs? This is Amanda Palmer singing about her ‘map of Tasmania’ (crotch). This is probably the most joyful celebration of pubic hair out there.
Maybe this is not a feminist anthem, per se. No part of it is specifically about the female experience (although it touches celebrity culture), more about a general self-affirmation feeling. But you have to feel you heart sink a bit at Tracy’s beautiful “I did it all/ I didn’t ask permission/I did it all/What kind of life is not an exhibition?”