The perils of funny feminism

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.

[HT to the other feminist writers linked in this piece: Spectra Speaks, Nicole Clark, Jessica Johnson, and Kinsey Hope.]


  1. As always, I find it deeply disturbing whenever white feminists use minimization tactics (“oh, you don’t get it! I didn’t mean it like that…” etc) as an excuse for why they don’t need to hold themselves accountable for the way that they (intentionally or not) perpetuate white supremacist values and cause harm to womyn of colour.

    Humour is such a complicated subject for me and it wasn’t until just now that I realized exactly how complicated it is. The amount of times I need to code switch based on who I’m around, when I allow myself to laugh at certain jokes and why is something that I definitely want to dig deeper in. I’ll probably blog about it next week – so thanks for sparking this idea for me!

    • It’s incredibly disturbing. These feminists are unwittingly using the same kyriarchy-reinforcing tactics that they rail against when men use it about jokes that white feminists don’t find funny. These feminists become what they claim to hate. They sound exactly like the white males defending Daniel Tosh or the common sandwich joke, because humor. They, like these white male “comedians,” refuse to take a stance against privilege and marginalizing tactics whenever it’s inconvenient for them to do so. Meaning whenever they have to look within and consider why they find such a joke funny – whenever they might have to criticize themselves instead of someone else.

      It’s deeply hypocritical and a massive barrier to social progress.

  2. I definitely agree with your take-away point here that, “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.”

    I think humor is a really powerful and often under-utilized tool for social justice, as (attempt to) use it often in my work. Personally, I feel that humor should, if it is to be socially just, be punching up at the powers that be, rather than down, at women of color and abuse survivors.

    One of the things I find is that in this age where hipster irony is very much in vogue humor-wise, people’s desire to be hip/snarky/irreverent sometimes comes at the expense of being constructive/positive/just. I include myself in this.

    I think it is often hard to find the line between tongue and cheek irreverence and flat-our disrespect or trivializing an important issues. However, it is not my intention to defend The Onion, or anyone who defends oppressive “jokes,” only to agree with you that humor is an important tool, and emphasize that we need to use it for good (and not evil).

    I hope all that made sense.

  3. I think you make some good points, but your post begs the question: what (or who) is funny, any why?

    To put it another way, can a joke be simultaneously funny and offensive? If so, what is your criteria? Is the source of the joke what determines its humorousness? For example, does the Onion joke change in any way if it turns out the writer of the joke was an African American woman who experienced domestic violence? Or is the Rihanna joke not humorous because people shouldn’t joke about domestic violence in general?

    Another example: Carlos Mencia is Hispanic comedian known for joking a lot about race and ethnic stereotypes. He is also known for stealing many of his jokes from other comedians. Are the jokes he tells funny (or at least acceptable) because he is a minority poking fun at other minorities? Does the nature or acceptability of his jokes change because he lifted them from white comedians who wrote them from privileged perspective?

    You might think I’m nitpicking here, but my point is that if one is going to argue that people must use caution and sensitivity regarding what they joke about and how they joke about it, then it’s just as important to say “this comedian (or show) is a model of good or affirming humor”. For example, many conservatives love Bill Cosby because he tells clean ,family-friendly jokes. So if you ask a conservative what kind of humor they consider respectful to others, many will say “Bill Cosby.” I think feminists who find themselves frustrated with what other feminists will make more progress communicating with .other feminists about humor if they are able to point to positive models..

    While you distanced yourself from the Daily Currant piece, you also stated that it is a more acceptable approach to Chris Brown and Arial Castro on the grounds that it doesn’t go into detail on the level the Onion joke does. What about feminist and victims of sexual violence who say that the Currant piece offends them more? Or those that say Arial Castro’s brutality should be completely off-limits as a topic for humor? Would your response be to agree to their request, or would you argue that the Currant piece shouldn’t be viewed so harshly?

    • Yes, congratulations, I am in fact going to say you are nitpicking. More accurately, you appear to want to restart the “hurtfull and offensive humour” conversation from square one, reframing it as an abstract philosophical debate.

      If you take the trouble to go and find the many excellent blog posts written about why people, especially WOC, are calling this article offensive, you will find lots of good, nuanced answers to the questions you are posing.

      I invite you to pause for a moment and consider that by posting this comment rather than going and looking at the range of posts on the topic yourself, you have just asked this blog’s owner and readers to have a nice reasonable discussion about whether or not it’s okay to be vile about women and girls of colour if it makes someone laugh.

      I assume you don’t need to be told what’s wrong with that approach.

      • It is an abstract philosophical debate. Humor is not a concrete concept. You can’t “prove” objectively what is funny or why something is funny (and vice versa). You can make a strong case for why some humor is insensitive or inappropriate, but our reaction to humor is often involuntary.

        For example, someone slipping on ice could mean that they are injured, so in theory we should therefore always act concerned when it happens. But often people burst into laughter at the sight of a person falling. Why is falling a certain way funny? Can you diagram the number of physical contortions necessary to distinguish between a fall that is funny and one that isn’t?

        For what it’s worth, I’m a longtime reader this blog and many of the feminist bloggers this site regularly links to and refers to. With regards to humor, I don’t think Grace has clarified her criteria for what constitutes acceptable and unacceptable humor.

        If I understand you correctly, your criteria seems to be that if a WoC considers a joke to be vile, then it is not funny. Grace, on the other hand, has blurred her distinction by saying that the Currant piece is more acceptable than the Onion piece. But if a WoC finds the Currant piece to be vile, is Grace therefore being insensitive to those WoC who find the Currant piece vile?

        • I didn’t remember you commenting all that much here so I refreshed my memory on our previous interactions. It seems my reply to you on the last post you engaged with applies here as well. You have again missed the point of the post, which wasn’t to define criteria for acceptable and unacceptable humor, but to talk about the effects of a specific joke and raise questions about what it means to take a feminist approach to humor. I also did NOT say the Currant piece was more acceptable, but that it disproved the argument that a joke at Chris Brown’s expense must also necessarily be at Rihanna’s expense.

          It’s interesting to me that both times you’ve commented here, it’s been to insist that I need to provide examples on a point that’s tangential to what I’m actually talking about. If abstract philosophical debate on questions YOU are interested in is what you’re looking for, perhaps your questions are better asked on a blog that’s actually engaged in that kind of discussion. This is not that blog.

        • It is an abstract philosophical debate.

          Abstract to you. It is not abstract to those of us who have been the butt of these jokes for centuries.

  4. For what it’s worth, under no circumstances would I contend that feminists (of any racial background) defended the Onion. White women, okay, sure. Feminists, no. Maybe they called themselves feminists, maybe they even fancy themselves feminists but defending the racist oppression of people of color – in particular, the racist oppression of women of color – is about as consistent with feminism as the Department of Defense. But white women have been whiting at each other’s white trying to out-white each other in the name of feminism since sometime in the eighties at the very least, and all they succeeded in doing was failing to present a unified rejection of men’s backlash when women (particularly women of color, who because of racism always bear disproportionately the burden of sexist oppression) needed it most.

    As a rule of thumb, I tend to refer to such liberal d00dism as exactly that. But that’s me.

  5. Maripoya says:

    “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. ”

    This statement really stood out for me. The type of feminism that gets the biggest platform is what I consider cotton-candy feminism: ephemeral, no foundation, superficial. Too often the mainstream focus is gaining approval from image makers–being seen as edgy, fresh, cool–at the expense of deeper analysis and frankly authentic solidarity with the women unable to gain easy access to that segment of the kyriarchy.

  6. Thank you for posting and for linking. A deeper conversation on many things–comedy? being one–is definitely necessary.

    And I’m also grateful to you and everyone — Lisa Factora-Borchers, Sydette, Meagan La Mala, Jessica Luther, Mikki Kendall, and more — who has taken the time to speak back to #femfuture. The work continues.

  7. “Convincing the public that feminism can actually be fun”

    Fun? Fun! What the hell?! If that’s all feminism is to these women, fun? That’s not the point! If they think this is a good way to engage youth please stop (because even though I’m 19, it doesn’t mean everything has to be a fucking joke!). All I needed to know when venturing into the ideals of feminism was that there is a WORLD full of people who are stifled and abused by an oppression we have managed to normalize, and when out of all those people you choose to only help those who look like you that’s downright ridiculous.

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  9. From where I’m sitting now… “humor” of the kind The Onion has stooped to lately is just plain offensive. I was horrified by the Quvenzhané [sp?] Wallace thing, but had hoped they would learn from that and not go there again.

    So … Rihanna’s the target for what I personally believe to be truly evil sniping and mockery.

    Grace, I believe you’re correct re. the inherent racism of these horrific “jokes.” If only the people who write such cruel thing would put themselves in the shoes of those whom they “satirize.”

    (as far as I’m concerned, children are off-limits no matter what…)

  10. Actually, the person who should use the “You don’t get it”here is the person/group offended by the joke. It is only possible to laugh at an offensive joke if you lack the insight, the background, the frames of reference to pinpoint it as offensive. And once it’s been pointed out, you’d better back the hell off. Yes, exactly the same way as you’d expect, or at least want, the privileged person offending your understanding. It’s hard to accept, but your oppressed position is another persons privileged oppressor.

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