Though many of us might like to forget it, for a moment let’s ponder on this year’s most popular and outlandish Super Bowl commercial:
My first, unstoppable reactions to this commercial were as follows:
- Ugh, of course, a woman, bent over, is a hot way to start a commercial.
- Ooohh, wait a hot second, women’s strength through sexual prowess! Yes!
- Loving that she’s taller than him. Visually dominant. Yes! Yes!
- Utter disbelief in realizing that she was the car. Also known as, women are objects.
- Woman used solely as an observation of a men’s sexual desire. Am I surprised? No.
Incredible that this commercial is the widely-acclaimed winner of the ads shown during that highly-desired time slot. Even now, a Google search for critiques of that commercial is difficult given the abundance of applause the ad received at the time.
Women, overwhelmingly over men, are utilized in advertisements as objects of our sexual desire. I’m never surprised, but incredibly annoyed in a this-happens-exhaustingly-often kind of way. To top it all off, the commercial was funny, in a sort-of, that is hilarious because I know someone who has essentially a sexual attraction to their car! kind of way. Was it also funny because he was left high and dry? And what of the woman – we forgot about her completely, despite the residual anger over her body, her sexuality, her person, being used for our humor.
The chicken-or-the-egg conversation of whether advertisements mirror our culture or whether they instigate it is tricky. So what is going on in recent language that might contribute to an advertisement company still thinking that women are objects, to be objectified as such?
Let’s ponder why this is actually funny:
As a child of the 80s and a kid of the 90s, ‘yo mama’ jokes feel like a part of my growing up. Holding your own in an argument, knowing the latest rip, and finding the most untrue but still most laden language with which to take someone else down, all rested on the mothers. Yo mama so fat, yo mama so ugly, yo mama so poor. Women, mothers in this circumstance, as an object to be thought of in disgust, easily degraded in public, and put down for humor. To be passed around the joke pool. I have no remembrance for any jokes directed toward people’s fathers. And, in all honesty, some of those ‘yo mama’ jokes are pretty damn funny. Largely because of the creativity and wit people use to come up with them. Which can make it hard not to laugh. But it really tore at my soul a bit today when I found the Wikipedia page dedicated to maternal insults. Tragic.
In recent years, there has been further digression into ‘your mother’ jokes, specifically in reference to someone jokingly commenting that they had sex with the other person’s mother.
It’s funny, right? Not always music video style, the everyday lingo conversations are more casual. A call-and-response, someone might speak about how good lunch was, and someone else might reference how good your mother was last night. A joke organized around referencing sex with a women, seeking to offend the listener, in a funny way. Because somehow someone having sex with another’s mother is funny. The objectification of women, again mothers, in this joke series, continues, where women are repeatedly referred to merely in a sexual connotation. Often, however, these jokes are more positive, but funny because who would think that mothers would be having sex lives. I’ve never heard reference to someone joking about having had sex with someone’s father.
‘That’s what she said,’ when it started via Michael Scott in The Office, had me cracking up every time.
Totally impossible not to laugh. Wayne’s World originally advertised the “that’s what she said” derogation. Important to note that they’re holding up a picture of a woman, an object of desire, as this is being said. And what is ‘that’s what she said’ referring to exactly? The woman, while having sex, having said something. The phrases lead to an immediate picture of what is happening, often to the woman, during that sexual act, each time it is used. So, again, woman as object, in this example a sexual object, about whom to make fun and laugh about.
Ah, and the ever-popular put-down, douchebag. Interestingly, this reference is typically voiced against a man, detailing a feminine hygiene product used specifically by women. And by feminine hygiene, what I really mean is a vagina cleaner. One example of this reference is an attempt to knock an impressive but cocky Olympic swimmer down a few notches. Now, when you really think about it, no one really wants to think about what a douchebag is. Why? Because it grosses people out. It’s something only for women, used for the vagina, and people get all nastified about it. So when referring to a man, using a woman-thing that sort-of makes people think about a vagina, douchebag is a put-down because vagina-stuff is gross. It’s also a slight nod to the effeminate object put-downs like pansy or pussy: pretty things being pejorative to manly men. At least I think pussies are pretty, so I’ve always been confused by using it in a pejorative way.
And what of the missing men? The missing fathers? Why are there no jokes about them? Is it because jokes about them would not be funny? Is it because the proverbial man in our minds would be angry and defensive over his person being used for joke? We’re less likely to go there automatically because there’s a higher respect for the men? In the sexual joke contexts, of the ‘your mom last night,’ is the sexual prowess of a father, a man, somehow less of a jovial subject? Less funny, more serious, perhaps because there’s more of a possible threatening context there that people don’t want to mess with?
A common issue with arguing against jokes, any joke, including those perceived as anti-woman, is that the woman raising the complaint cannot, herself, take a joke. C’mon, it’s just a joke. Just laugh. And sure, sometimes it is. Some very close friends of mine, who I know for certain are not anti-woman, use these jokes, and often I’m cracking up.
But, this is where it gets tricky. It’s not just a joke. Typically things are jokes because they’re quick, the language is sputtered so quickly that you barely hear or have time to think about what was actually said. We just have an instinctual, inner feeling that what was said, was either funny or it wasn’t. And we laugh or we don’t.
And is it the laughter itself that’s the problem, as argued by Soraya Chemaly? There is the constant degradation of mothers. ‘Yo mama’ and ‘your mother last night’ jokes are not only anti-woman, but they validate how the topic of mothers is up for grabs, up for debate, and validates how mothers are second-tier to fathers in our cultural eyes. There’s the mommy wars themselves where women cut down other women, for working or for staying at home, and mothers are fighting constantly for recognition for their contributions to society, to family, and to the next generation of people. This fight doesn’t exist in the same regard for fathers. And yet, despite the respect that people have for their own mothers, these jokes continue. Because anti-woman jokes as a whole sit on a spectrum. They’re on a spectrum of how men, and women, and thusly children, comment against women in an offhand, didn’t-even-think-about-it-that-way sort of way. On one end there is referring to them in a light-hearted sexually antagonistic statement, such as with ‘that’s what she said,’ and on the other end there’s the Tosh comic extreme where gang rape jokes make people money. Abhorrent and nauseating.
Really, that’s the spectrum. No, but really. And, unfortunately, thinking about it that way makes it not funny. But really, it wasn’t funny in the first place, was it? Because when these jokes happen, who is this theoretical, proverbial woman or mother image we conjure up in our heads? I’d venture a guess that it’s rarely our own image, our best friend’s image, or our own mother’s image. Because, of course, then the joke wouldn’t be funny. In my mind the image that I conjure is some faceless woman, to whom things are happening, and against whom public commentary is made. And I hate that. That I have some faceless image of a woman as a reference point in my head for times when women are being degraded and my cultural humor automatically laughs at her. If you really think about it, it’s not funny. It’s not.
But then, how do we comment when there is a joke made that isn’t funny to us? That is actually socially offensive? In the Tosh circumstance, the woman who said that rape jokes aren’t funny unfortunately had it taken against her further, with the comedian’s retort that she should just be gang raped and then that would really be funny. And she had to walk out. Feminists, or anyone standing up for a joke that isn’t funny, should be able to participate in jokes, too, right? Can we not create retorts to the anti-women jokes that are funnier, that really make people think, that get all of us cracking up? My first go-to would never be an anti-man joke, so why is it always anti-women popular humor? An easy counter-argument that feminist as a term is irrelevant, this language conversation itself is a pretty good starting point. Clearly, women and men are not equal in culture and in language when jokes like these are off-hand, dismissed as no big deal, similar to women’s continued inequality. However, we should ensure that our own language is decidedly pro-woman, and not allow the subtleties of language take away the face of women in our minds.