I wrote for BlogHer about The Onion’s racist and misogynist joke about Rihanna and Chris Brown, and how some white feminists have defended The Onion (AGAIN!) against black women critics. I had some further thoughts beyond what I’ve said there, so I’m sharing them here.
Firstly, about this idea that black women and others who criticized The Onion are missing the joke or the idea behind it…It’s frustrating to have to say this repeatedly. Like many of us explained during the discussion of The Onion’s vulgar tweet about Quvenzhané Wallis: we all get what the joke is intended to be. No one is confused about this.
The fact that some white feminists seem to think that the only reasonable explanation for objections to a joke they found funny or effective is that people didn’t understand the joke, or that we lack a sense of humor, is quite telling. These responses imply that how these individual white feminists took the joke is the same thing as what the joke means “objectively” (spoiler alert: there’s no such thing). They suggest that black women can only object to a problematic joke at the expense of a black survivor if the conscious intent of the almost certainly white and male author(s) of the joke was to mock Rihanna as a woman of color and a survivor.
As I said in my tweets about this (though this and other similar observations from black women never seemed to make it into any of these articles) – the fact that no one at the The Onion is sitting around twirling their mustaches thinking about how they can hurt a black survivor is precisely the point. The way systemic racism and sexism work is that people can do racist and sexist things without ever consciously intending to do so. When white feminists suggest that black women are confused on this point, they not only derail what could be a productive conversation about how oppression works and manifests, they also set a ridiculously high bar for what counts as racist misogyny – much in the same way that Sam Morril thinks he’s excused from misogyny because it isn’t his “intention to write a joke that upsets people” and “never [writes] a joke thinking, “this’ll show ‘em.” It’s the exact same mindset.
I suspect these feminists all know that this is not how sexism, or racism, work. Intent, as ever, is not magic.
[ETA:] One defense claimed that there was no way for The Onion to tell a joke that “[places] Chris Brown’s despicableness front and center [without] turning a real person’s trauma” into a “passive comedy device.” Yet somehow, The Daily Currant managed to lampoon Brown (and Ariel Castro) without playing a detailed description of violence for laughs.
To be clear, I’m not endorsing this joke. At this point Brown-as-abuser has become such a meme that it’s become more about mocking him in particular than any real commitment to holding abusers broadly accountable . But clearly it’s possible to write satire about abusers that doesn’t objectify victims in the process.[/ ETA]
The rush to defend The Onion against women who are supposedly their fellow feminists should give these women, and all of us, serious pause. We see this happen repeatedly, and not only with white feminists who derail or object to conversations about racism started by women of color. Cis feminists will attack trans women for calling out transphobic jokes and slurs. Middle and upper class feminists slam women who call out classism and the oppressiveness of western capitalism. Anti sex work feminists shame and deride and exclude sex worker activists.
When it comes to humor that capitalizes on the oppression of women with marginalized identities, the response from mainstream feminists often ends up being totally different than what it would be if the butt of the joke were middle class, abled, cis, straight, white, etc. women. At best the response is a debate over whether these jokes and slurs are “really” offensive, and whether the offending parties really “meant it” to harm, and aren’t marginalized women being just a wee bit oversensitive and irrational, after all?
Recently some white mainstream feminists have complained that feminism is eating itself from within – that we’re using issues like intersectionality and privilege to “trash” fellow feminists for being successful. [I have to point out here that the concept of "eating the other" was developed by a black feminist, bell hooks, and it's kind of upsetting to see this idea being used, consciously or not, to advance a feminism where intersectionality takes a back seat and marginalized women are expected to shut up about oppression.]
But the reality is that “successful” and “prominent” feminists are often all too willing to “trash” marginalized feminists whenever issues of inclusion and intersectionality come up – as bitter, angry, confused, not engaging in good faith, ungrateful, overly demanding. But we’re expected to fall in line to support “successful” feminists on their pet issues. We’re told we don’t really understand or appreciate what the people or organizations we’re criticizing are doing. That these groups are doing us a favor. That we don’t really know what our own oppression looks like.
This is not sisterhood.
A final point about feminism and humor: Hanna Rosin and Elizabeth Nolan Brown are particularly vocal in expressing their annoyance at feminists who “prove..right” the stereotype that “feminists can’t take a joke.” All of these pieces argue for the importance and power of humor to provoke thoughtful responses on important issues – Rosin even goes so far as to argue, repeatedly, that humor is far more effective than “any sober-minded discussion” in making feminist points about violence/social issues. For Vanasco, The Onion’s piece used humor to make discussion of violence against women “palatable”; to Redden, it was effective satire. Wakeman describes it as “not [her] type of humor…[but] spot-on in the particular ways it made us [question: Who is “us?”] uncomfortable. Humor can be a powerful way to make people think.”
I was reminded, reading these pieces, of a point that stood out to me in the controversial “FemFuture” report compiled by Courtney Martin and Vanessa Valenti. In their discussion of online feminism, they argue:
Humor, pop culture, fashion, and the punchy, sassy writing, tweeting, and memes that feminists deploy have become the most effective way to engage young people about the seriousness of injustice, using new Internet culture to speak back to pop culture….[feminists are] countering the long held, wildly inaccurate stereotype that feminists have no funny bones. Convincing the public that feminism can actually be fun through humorous quips on blog posts has evolved into savvy online campaigns that catch like wildfire. [p. 12-13, Emphasis mine]
Now, I’m a huge proponent of maintaining a sense of humor and engaging with pop culture in feminism and other activism – both as an act of self-care and because humor and pop culture are languages we all share in common, and thus too important to overlook as sites for engaging others and critical cultural analysis. However, I was disturbed by the FemFuture claim – offhand comment though it might have been – that humor is the “most effective” way create engagement around issues of injustice, and by the investment shown in that statement in “convincing the public that feminism can actually be fun.”
Not to put too fine a point on it, but this is not actually the point of feminism.
As I did when reading the FemFuture report, I have to wonder why white feminists defending The Onion are so invested in people (men? white men?) believing they can be funny or see humor. Why to the extent that they will attack other feminists as obtuse or prudish for raising objections to problematic humor?
What this suggests to me is that feminism itself is in serious need of the same kind of analysis of the relationship between humor and power that they praise when Sady Doyle and Lindy West and other white ladies level it at white male comedians. Humor can be, as Wakeman says, “a powerful way to make people think.” But it can also be – and often is – a powerful way to reinforce patriarchy, racism, and other forms of oppression. Humor is very often about power – in many cases precisely what makes humor “effective” or “palatable” is that it plays on the very oppressive tropes and inequitable power dynamics that feminists are supposed to be fighting. If we lose sight of how humor can oppress in the rush to be seen as funny, our feminism can all too easily lend itself to ends we should find repellent.