Over the past couple of years, there’s been a lot of discussion about blurred lines, specifically between what is funny and what is offensive. Whether it’s the debatable satire of Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams, Lily Allen’s video for so-called Feminist Anthem ‘Hard Out Here’, or Jeremy Clarkson making yet another gaff followed by a half-hearted apology. Figures who are carving themselves the space as spearheads for Feminism, such as Caitlin Moran, are constantly putting their foot in it. In moments when seriousness is sometimes needed, jokes are used as defence mechanisms, and whilst being in the public eye may be hard to handle, these debates on humour are important for our daily lives. When you get into conflict with a friend or family member, do you address it or simply tell them a knock-knock joke?
2014 was the year where in The Apprentice, one team made a gender-based game that was not only was massively sexist, but its sexism resulted in it simply not making sense to those that tested it out. It was a complete joke. But what’s not funny is the fact that one company actually placed an order for it. The reality is that people are being spoon-fed a sense of humour where asking the question about what is most annoying to men, we are given the answers ‘watching romantic films, your partner snoring, or a visit to the mother-in-law.’ Not only is this hackneyed and unfunny, but it perpetuates gender stereotypes and carries on the myths, such men not getting on with their mother-in-law. Because humour is meant to be relatable, and we can all relate to that, right? Well, actually, no, because there are a large proportion of people that these so-called jokes exclude.
Over the festive season, we all like to let our hair down. But when alcohol and board games are mixed together, it can be a recipe for disaster.
One board game that has risen in popularity is ‘Cards Against Humanity’, to which any objection is met with comebacks such as ‘it’s meant to be offensive!’ and ‘if you don’t like it, don’t play it.’ However, the idea of offence runs so much deeper than the words are often given credit.
To be offended is often made out to be something boring and tedious; you can just imagine the heads of the BBC rolling their eyes as they force another apology out of Clarkson. People are often dismissive about things that some find offensive because they don’t understand it. Therefore, if someone finds something sexist or misogynistic, people will scramble for examples of women who don’t find whatever it is offensive (or claim not to). But if you dismiss the individual’s right to be offended, you are not giving them the respect they deserve and are simply being insensitive. During my first game of Cards Against Humanity, I was with a group of white men and another white woman, and had brought along a female friend of mine who is black. When the “black sassy lady” card was put down and claimed as the funniest answer, we exchanged a look, but didn’t feel able to speak out.
When humour silences people, I don’t find that funny.
At times where I have been offended by something as a woman, the reaction within me is far from boring and tedious. It has provoked a physical response: my body has shaken, my heartbeat has raced, and I have felt unable to articulate myself. Whether the root of the offence is upset or anger, it is not something that will go away from being told to ‘chill out’. Often women are silenced in these situations by running the risk of being told we have no sense of humour if we do speak out, as our only choice otherwise is to join in. Granted, a lot of women do join in, because, if you can’t beat them… But joining in is another form of silencing, as any pain that may be caused is swallowed down. For some, it may be possible to come back with something witty and to the point, but for those that aren’t able to do that, we are left as the butt of the joke whether we laugh along or not.
As a poet, this was something I wrote about in response to a situation where I felt silenced. I was playing a game of Risk with my boyfriend, my male friend and two of his male friends. Throughout the game whenever a player announced innocently that they were going to “do Carmina” next, some would chorus “do ‘er” repeatedly, as though it was a sexual exploit. This was certainly problematic, and confusing. My male friend later put it down to it being a male majority. Is this pack mentality at play? If so, this scenario showed just how it can escalate. Later in the game someone said they were going to attack me; another member of the group decided it would be funny to say “rape alarm”. I was shocked and again, I felt silenced, but the comment went by ignored amongst the laughter. Regardless of the fact that when jokes about rape are made and not reprimanded, it runs the risk of a rapist seeing this act of normalising as condoning the behaviour, rape is actually quite common. Again, we also know that perpetrators are often friends, family, or partners.
These facts, coupled with the fact that this joke was directed at me purely because I’m a woman, are the reasons why I felt compelled to write a poem about it. Not only did I want to absolve the guilt I felt at not speaking out at the time, feeling I had done a disservice to victims of rape, but I also wanted to urge men to speak out. We need to unite against the casual misogyny that comes out with games and alcohol, excused as ‘banter’. I acknowledge that this is not an easy feat. I know now that I need to speak out when I am offended, but I can only urge my fellow men to stand up to this with me.
Padraig Reidy stated that ‘the best comedy is about failure, because it’s the thing we need to laugh at most. Our own inability to interpret the world, our raging at our impotence, is what humour relies on; not the weakness of others.’ What I found key about this statement is the repeated use of ‘our’. Praying on the weakness of a minority or those who have less power in society may get a cheap laugh from the patriarchy’s children, but sometimes it is important to think about why you’re laughing. In a game like ‘Cards Against Humanity’, it may be questionable that it was a group of white men who created the game, and that the cards are undoubtedly created to be offensive. However, I believe it also comes down to how you play the game. Nobody is forcing you to answer a question on what Mexicans put their pesos into with ‘a big hat’ – alluding to a sombrero – and in fact, it is often these obviously offensive answers that are not even funny. Humour comes out of subverting expectations, which is when you play with an extra, invisible player, you will often find the randomness creates humour.
There are certainly games that are made to be offensive. But you can’t blame the game entirely.
When filmmaker Tom Shadyac asked himself what was wrong with society, he answered ‘I am’. We need to take responsibility for our own actions. We always have a choice when playing these games and to dismiss people when they are offended by something, especially in a context that is meant to be fun, is arrogant, ignorant and actually quite callous. What you are saying is that your fun is more important than someone else’s feelings.
Instead of laughing in someone’s face when they tell us they’re offended, we need to ask why, and listen. Along with that, we must stick by our own beliefs and not simply laugh along or let others silence us when we really feel we need to speak out.