Challenging sexist jokes can be difficult — but this is why we must speak up
Last week, I found myself battling a sexist joke for the first time in my adult life. Yes, battling! The joke wasn’t made towards me, per se, but was actually made in the body of an article written by a male writer…which somehow felt worse. I won’t get into details here, but I’ll just say that this joke was about sexually harassing women in the workplace. More specifically, that we would enjoy being harassed — if our male coworkers could simply muster the guts to do so.
This joke wasn’t funny. In fact, it was more than a little bit frightening to imagine that some man in some office might actually think that, and feel validated enough to do it because of these kinds of jokes. And there it was, cast out into the webosphere, ready to be archived into eternity by bots and quoted by icky dudes on Twitter until the end of time.
When I brought the joke up to another female writer, she assured me that the guy who made it was “just joking.” Inside, I knew that didn’t make it okay, but it took quite a bit of reflection to figure out why exactly it felt so wrong.
As a teenager, I came in contact with sexist jokes as often as the next girl. When I was in eighth grade, my school invited a female air force captain to speak to the students. Dressed in full uniform, and with a presence that I believed was more than enough to demand our attention, she stepped onto the auditorium stage. As she began to greet us, prepared to tell her story, a chant began some rows back and quickly grew louder. At first I couldn’t quite make out the words, but once I deciphered them, they have stuck with me ever since.
A group of boys in my grade were shouting “Back in the kitchen, make me a sandwich.” Not exactly the most original thing I’ve ever heard, but since when are sexist jokes really that original?
My heart sunk.
That feeling resurfaced with the sexist joke of today. For the boys in my grade, I’m sure (or I hope) that was just part of a phase, a period of immaturity that they grew out of and likely look back on with immense shame. If you mentioned that behavior in front of their girlfriends, moms, or sisters — you know they’d wish you hadn’t.
But what about our society? It’s 2017 — why have we yet to outgrow sexist jokes once and for all?
Maybe it’s because when sexist jokes are made — like in the case of many other subtly disenfranchising situations — we simply don’t know how to deal with it. And that’s because we haven’t been taught how to.
I’m not exactly known for being quiet, and I clearly have no qualms about sharing my thoughts on the internet. But when I was asked to explain why this kind of joke is harmful, I couldn’t help but question and overanalyze everything I wanted to say.
My gut feeling was telling me that something wrong had occurred — and as a female writer, it was my responsibility to make that as clear as possible. But this feeling was fighting with another one inside me, a feeling that I can best describe as embarrassment. I was embarrassed that this joke had offended me. Was I the odd one out? The one that wasn’t laughing, when obviously the joke meant no harm?
My conscience said no, but a part of me thought, well… maybe? I was afraid of coming off as over the top, being thought of as sensitive, or not having my opinion on the matter be valued. Reflecting on this feeling of embarrassment made me realize that it highlights a bigger issue. Too often, when an injustice occurs, the burden of shame falls on the victim, not the perpetrator.
And that’s exactly what happens when someone makes a hurtful joke and everyone starts laughing.
These jokes are not harmless fun, no matter how innocent the intention behind them may be. In reality, humor at the expense of women stems from our position in society, and it reinforces the kind of sexism that I’m sure we all hope to see eradicated in our lifetimes. Studies have even proven how sexist jokes directly contribute to a culture that harms women.
So, maybe the reason more women aren’t speaking up against sexist jokes — or even go so far as to defend them — is the same reason that people still make sexist jokes to begin with: Gender inequality remains extremely prevalent in our society. We don’t feel that we can speak up about it, because we don’t feel empowered to do so. We fear being the odd one out.
But if we want to put an end to these jokes, that’s exactly what we have to do.
Women, and men, need to voice their opinions and support each other in these situations in order to disrupt the status quo. That way, those who laugh at the real life hurdles women face everyday become the odd ones out.
As I already said, this joke wasn’t directed at me. But as a woman, I can tell you that, like all sexist jokes, it was certainly made at my expense — at the expense of my rights, and at the expense of my ability to live my life with equal opportunities.