The Problem With Gendered Jokes

(I would appear to have my Raging Feminist hat on today – for the record it’s a beanie with a pink feminist fist badge pinned to the back, like the Hand of the King badge in Game of Thrones!)

Note: this post includes examples of jokes explained and analysed to minute degrees, to the point that they’re definitely no longer funny, and you may lose the ability to find humour in anything anywhere else. Sorry, but this post is about explaining jokes, and jokes always seem crap if you have to explain them – there’s no way around this, so you’ve been warned.

I bumped into a pretty funny image on Facebook the other day – it’s a Football Manager joke, but I promise I’ll get to the gender stuff in a second, so hold on. The image was two screenshots, one showing an in-game football pitch with one supporter in the stands, and one showing the same stadium at full capacity, reflective of the popular style of playing the game where players manage a team with no money, reputation or (sometimes literally) fans, and build them up into the most successful and famous club in the world. The images were also captioned with descriptions of the fans in the stands: the one bloke in the first picture was said to know all the ground staff by name and so on, while the hoards in the latter picture were described with captions like ‘Middle-Eastern prince looking for a new club to invest in’, which is quite funny considering that’s honestly how world football works these days.

I then jumped on the bandwagon in my mind, and started thinking of other descriptions for these new, less genuine fans, and one was ‘girlfriend being dragged along’. First I smiled to myself, then realised I’d made a generalisation about gender – i.e. men do the dragging-to football matches, and women are the ones being dragged – without a second thought (not to mention this all assumes these fictional crowd members are heterosexual like that, but heteronormativity’s a can of worms I’ll open another day). Now, my ‘joke’, let’s call it, is funny because of the idea of a romantic partner being dragged along to a thing because of that romance, often in spite of said partner’s actual interest in the thing – it’s an amusing contrast between romantic devotion to a person, and how far you’ll put up with their crap because you love them.

But if gender is introduced to the equation – i.e. a girlfriend is being dragged along by a boyfriend – gender is suddenly added to a joke that’s based on the existence of a relationship, and not the gender identities of the people in it; men and women [can have partners who don’t care for their obsessions, and both are adept at forcing them to come along in the name of their relationship. If the people in the joke are gendered, the emphasis moves away from the contrast between love and obligation, a contrast that transcends gender, and to the stereotypes and traits we paint gender identities with; basically, my joke becomes funny not because of the contrast I highlighted, but because ‘haha women don’t get football’, a joke that would have been so old it’s no longer funny in approximately 1876.

Take another example, this picture about Valentine’s Day; the joke is that people aren’t as obsessed with their partners as they perhaps should be, and are attempting to make up for a lack of romantic attraction with card-based trinkets bought from a petrol station, which is amusing. But the picture is totally gendered – men are buying the cards, not women – and it’s place on the LADbible site genders the joke further, that it’s only men who care this little for their partners, and women (sorry, more heteronormativity here) who get into the more romantic side of Valentine’s Day: everything from the title of the site to the caption ‘Evening Ladness’ genders a situation that doesn’t need to be gendered.

And this is all nit-picky, but little things like this build up to larger stereotypes over time; if the punchline of every sports joke is misconstrued as ‘women don’t get sports’, or the punchline of every romantic joke is ‘women are silly and like flowers and chocolates’, we’ll eventually get the impression that these archetypes are accurate representations of other human beings, instead of simple misreadings of jokes that weren’t anything more than decent to begin with. What’s more annoying is when jokes are genuinely amusing without being gendered; I dislike the LADbible for it’s gendering of content, but a lot of its jokes are amusing, and I’d totally share some of its pictures – like this one about a picture of an owl in a meeting, which is surreal and hilarious, but has the unnecessary ‘Evening Ladness’ preface to it. I started looking for the gendered punchline in that one, only to realise that there isn’t one – it’s a meeting, with a picture of an owl, and it’s funny just because of that.

I know there are bigger battles to be fought regarding gender equality, but as someone who tries to use as few gendered nouns as possible, and refer and respond to things for what they meaningfully are, not whether they have a cock or boobs, this kind of thing irks me a bit.

Irked enough to write a blog post about it. Take that, The Establishment!

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