[Update: MSNBC dropped Imus altogether. Maybe they’ll do something really outrageous and put a real news program on in that time slot? I’m not holding my breath.]
[Another update: Don’t miss the Steve M. smackdown (figuratively speaking) of Little Lulu.]
Some time in the mid to late 1970s I was working for a small book publisher in Cincinnati. One of the contracted authors was a professional after-dinner speaker; this guy made a living traveling around the country entertaining Kiwanis and Lions and Elks. He was especially prized as a humorist, and my employer was publishing a collection of his tried-and-true jokes.
So there I was reading his manuscript, but I wasn’t laughing. Mostly, I was appalled. At least half of the “jokes” were aggressive and nakedly hostile put-downs of women. There was a whole section devoted to Ugly Wives, for example. And then I came upon an anecdote about a fellow buying a fishing rod. The punch line revealed he was buying the rod to beat his wife.
I blue-penciled that puppy out of the manuscript faster’n you can say “male chauvinist pig.”
The author complained to the managing editor, saying that I had no sense of humor. The managing editor, also a woman, read the “joke” and backed up my decision. It stayed out.
The truth was, if I’d deleted everything in that manuscript I found offensive there wouldn’t have been enough material left to fill a moderately sized pamphlet, let alone a book. (As a junior staffer, I didn’t have the authority to request the amount of revision I desired, which involved stuffing that manuscript someplace where the sun don’t shine.) But at the time, most of this “humor” was representative of much “humor” we’d all seen on television and in movies. It was mainstream stuff, in other words, although less so in the 1970s than it had been in the 1950s and 1960s.
I often wish someone would research the stand-up comedy routines presented on such venues as the Ed Sullivan Show and analyze how much of it amounted to complaining about women. Mothers-in-law, women drivers, nags, and of course ugly wives were the meat and potatoes of comedy in those days. A comedian — always male, of course — had only to say “my mother-in-law!” or “women drivers!” and roll his eyes, and the audience would howl. Thanks in large part to second-wave feminism, by the late 1970s television comedy had mostly moved on to other topics, but our author from the rubber chicken circuit was still telling the same jokes he’d been telling for twenty years.
And if he’d published his joke collection a decade earlier, the fishing rod story would have stayed in, and it’s unlikely anyone would have had second thoughts about it.
By now you’ve guessed I’m going to talk about Don Imus. Yes, but I also want to look at the use and abuse of put-down humor generally.
For some reason, in the years after World War II American society went on a woman-hating binge. You might remember that in The Feminine Mystique, Betty Friedan cataloged considerable differences in the way women were portrayed in popular culture in the 1950s to early 1960s (Mystique was published in 1963) compared to the 1930s. Women in the 1950s were seen as considerably dumber (remarkably, even women’s magazines were “dumbed down” in the 1950s) and more helpless. About the same time it became trendy among psychiatrists to blame all manner of pathologies on bad mothering and to declare that a woman who wasn’t interested in being a housewife and mother must be neurotic and needed psychiatric help.
I honestly don’t know why this was happening, but I remember it well. And as I remember it, second-wave feminism began as a backlash to the postwar put down of women and only later expanded to challenge sexism throughout human history. It’s also clear to me that the pervasiveness of misogynist humor in those years helped keep women “in their place.” Believe me, the wife jokes you might have heard the late Henny Youngman or Rodney Dangerfield tell were mild compared to what was common fare in the 1950s, and those two gentlemen — Dangerfield in particular — usually told their jokes in a way that made the joke on themselves as much as their allegedly ill-favored wives. (Dangerfield sample: “My wife and I were happy for twenty years. Then we met.”) The jokes of the day carried the subliminal message to women that we’d better not be ugly, or shrews, or nags, or assume competence in anything but cooking and housecleaning.
This morning I googled “psychology of humor” and came across this book, big chunks of which are available for reading online. Humor is a social phenomenon, it says, that can be employed to many ends, both beneficial and malicious. It’s common for people to express genuine hostility in the form of teasing, for example. “Some of the social functions of humor can also be quite aggressive, coercive, and manipulative,” it says at the bottom of page 17.
Some researcher in the 1930s made the brilliant discovery that Jews found anti-Jewish jokes less funny than did non-Jews (page 51). On the other hand, the text continues, a survey done in 1959 claimed that an audience of blacks laughed at anti-black jokes as much as a white audience did. (It doesn’t say if a black or a white comedian was telling the jokes; seems to me that would make a big difference on how the audience perceived the humor.) And I see on pages 51-52 that some guy named Cantor in 1976 “found that both female and male college students showed greater appreciation for disparagement humor in which a male had the last laugh at a female’s expense, as compared to jokes in which a female disparaged a male.” Somehow I suspect that wouldn’t be true now.
But I think that illustrates the damage put-down humor can do. Women (or a racial minority) raised in a culture in which women are pervasively ridiculed are likely to internalize that ridicule and see themselves as worthy of ridicule. And those women in college in 1976 had been raised in a culture that had relentlessly ridiculed women. I don’t doubt that generations of vicious racist humor had a psychological impact on African Americans as well.
Like my author from years ago, Imus probably thinks some people have no sense of humor. But there’s a big difference between Imus insulting the political and media elites who are guests on his program and calling the Rutgers women’s basketball team “nappy headed ho’s.” If he and his defenders can’t see that, there’s something seriously wrong with the lot of them.
It’s a plain fact that expressions of malice are often disguised as humor. I found this in a Psychology Today article:
This aggressive type of humor is used to criticize and manipulate others through teasing, sarcasm and ridicule. When it’s aimed against politicians by the likes of Ann Coulter, it’s hilarious and mostly harmless. But in the real world, it has a sharper impact. Put-down humor, such as telling friends an embarrassing story about another friend, is a socially acceptable way to deploy aggression and make others look bad so you look good.
When challenged on their teasing, the put-down joker often turns to the “just kidding” defense, allowing the aggressor to avoid responsibility even as the barb bites. Martin has found no evidence that those who rely on this type of humor are any less well-adjusted. But it does take a toll on personal relationships.
The author of this piece and I disagree on the alleged hilarity of Coulter. Coulter’s “humor” is about as close to pure hate speech as “humor” gets. Real humorists don’t wish for people to be poisoned or assassinated, for example. There may be a fine line between “poking fun” and hate speech. But when you go from, say, Bob Hope’s “Carter wants to go to Washington. He’ll feel right at home there – he was raised on a nut farm” to Coulter’s “We need somebody to put rat poison in Justice Stevens’s créme brulée,” I say you’ve crossed that line.
There is no question much hostile rhetoric is being flung from all partisan sides these days, and some of this rhetoric is in the form of humor. Bob Geiger puts together a wonderful selection of political cartoons every Saturday morning, which I usually link to. I’m sure righties find many of these cartoons offensive; frankly, some of them aren’t the least bit humorous, even to me, but they make valid points. It’s also true that much humor is in the eye of the beholder. But I think political cartoons should be judged by the point they make. Is the point true? Or is it just about mocking someone the viewer doesn’t like?
I love the way Mike Luckovich draws George W. Bush — a furious, strutting little man with big ears (here’s another example). Luckovich captures the essence of the inner George Bush, IMO. On the other hand, now that Nancy Pelosi has been labeled Public Enemy Number One by the Right, the righties are going all out lampooning her. Here’s an animated GIF making the rounds today. It’s not just hateful; it’s also dishonest. The point it’s trying to make is a lie. Righties might drop by here and call me a hypocrite for approving Luckovich but not the dumb GIF. I don’t think so, but that’s me.
This is a huge topic that would take a lot more blog posts to full explore, and I’ve gone on way too long. To close, I give you Colbert —
Update: Well, I thought I was done, but I guess I have to keep writing — Today’s question is if what Imus said about “ho’s” is bad, isn’t it just as bad coming from rapper?
A slur aimed at specific people is obviously different than a generic slur in a rap song, but it’s not that different. If one is offensive, so is the other, and it’s hard to argue that the cesspool of misogyny in contemporary rap has no effect on the wider culture. It’s not that this excuses what Imus did. It’s just the opposite. If we’re justifiably outraged by what Imus said, shouldn’t we be just as outraged with anybody else who says the same thing, regardless of their skin color?
Exactly. On the other hand, Fontana Labs writes,
Data point: the thought police of the academy have managed to mold my psyche to the point where Imus’s remark is genuinely, viscerally unpleasant to me, both in its stupid racism and the way it pollutes what should have been a moment of enjoyment and pride for the Rutgers team. On the other hand, I can listen to mainstream hip-hop without cringing at, or feeling indignation toward, the sex and the violence. What explains this awkward conjunction of attitudes? One hypothesis: I’ve accepted, at some level, the presence of lyrics like these as features of the genre, and in doing so I ignore them.
Back in the 1960s we talked a lot about “consciousness raising.” We’d lived in a culture in which sexist and racist rhetoric was ubiquitous, like air. We read and heard things all the time that would be shocking now, and thought nothing of it. It took a lot of work and a lot of courage on the part of civil rights and feminist activists to get people to realize how bleeped up that was, and how damaging it was. Essentially the rhetoric was being generated by a dominant group to keep subordinates “in their place.” And I don’t see what’s different about sexist rhetoric in rap music. Ignoring this stuff isn’t necessarily a healthy sign.
Update2: A rightie blogger is calling TBogg out for writing this of Condi Rice:
Oh oh….looks like a pouty Brown Sugar is going to ask Daddy to buy her another pair of Ferragamos. Or invade another country.
Racist? Or just a fair slam of Condi Rice? The rightie argues,
… of course, Ms. Rice not being authentically black or even authentically female, she’s just getting what she deserves, because the Rules of PC only apply to the Right. The Left, regardless of who is in power, is *always* speaking truth to power and therefore exempt from any such considerations.
But Tbogg doesn’t say she isn’t “authentically black or even authentically female.” The “Ferragamos” remark reminds us of Condi’s shoe shopping while New Orleans drowned; that’s a fair slam. “Invade another country” is a fair slam also, given the role Condi played in stampeding the nation into Iraq. The question is, is it racist per se to mention Condi’s skin color in any way? I would argue the “brown sugar” remark is more sexist than racist, because it implies that Bush is her “sugar daddy.” But I think calling her “brown” is only an insult if you think there’s something wrong with being brown. If Condi were caucasian would mention of her red hair or blue eyes have been an insult per se? I don’t think so. Maybe I’m wrong, though.