The Case for Joking About Sexism

InStyle March 2018 Sloane Crosley
Photo: Dean Conger/Getty Images

Shortly after Tina Fey became the first female head writer of Saturday Night Live, she gave an interview with The New Yorker in which she shed some light on the darkness of the comedic mind: “If you want to make an audience laugh,” she explained, “you dress a man up like an old lady and push her down the stairs. If you want to make comedy writers laugh, you push an actual old lady down the stairs.”

I have regurgitated this quote countless times since I read it. It encapsulates the mentality of the comedian, whose job it is to foster a sense of camaraderie with an audience despite possessing a somewhat antisocial demeanor and twisted imagination. But lately, as someone who can probably be categorized as a humorist and definitely be categorized as a woman, I wonder if keeping my more mordant material to myself is wise—especially when it revolves around topics that hit close to home. It feels disingenuous that at a time when women are being encouraged to speak up, to tell their truth, comedy about what really hurts us is the final taboo.

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I get why. Things are serious. We are in the midst of an empowering, unifying, exhausting feminist tsunami, and trying to make sure the boat doesn’t capsize is a full-time job. Right now sensitivity reigns supreme as we endeavor to correct a system that has allowed sexism and sexual predation to operate unchecked across all industries for longer than we’ve been alive. Just this January hundreds of prominent Hollywood women formed Time’s Up, a well-funded initiative to fight systemic sexual harassment nationwide. We need this. Lest we forget, last year’s litany of public apology letters included inadvertent admissions that no, actually, their authors had not realized women were people too. Charlie Rose came to “a profound new respect for women and their lives.” Harvey Weinstein came of age “when all the rules about behavior and workplaces were different.” Fellas, wait till you hear about the man we put on the moon! (They sent a man because everyone knows boobies fly all over the place in space. Makes sense.)

Saddened by the rudimentary nature of our cause, we women tend to err on the side of justifiable anger and basic empathy, even among ourselves. As if, upon glimpsing a shot at real change, we don’t want to complicate things with competing reactions. Not when some men are still fuzzy on the definition of “equality.” Besides, is it worth looking like a heartless traitor to one’s own gender by making a crude joke about bathrobes?

I posit yes, actually, it is. It’s been six months since the spate of sexual harassment scandals that rocked the world. We’re overdue for an advanced course in Woman as Person. So I say we start by laughing at what genuinely makes us laugh. Even if the joke comes at our own expense. Especially when it comes at our own expense. It’s so important to stay funny in these unfunny times, not only as an escape valve from headline horror but because making a joke about a serious issue is not making light of it; it’s controlling the spotlight on it.

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Case in point: A few weeks ago a friend shared an article with a group of us. It was about a pair of 6,000-year-old skeletons—a man and a woman—who were discovered curled up together. It was meant to be sweet and reassuring. I wrote back: “Yeah, but 50/50 that was rape.” The year 4,000 b.c. does not strike me as a fairground for romance. Another friend attached an image she found of a skull and typed “#metoo.” Does this make us jerks? Do we think nonconsensual sex is a laugh riot? I hope not. We are a group of progressive women, some of whom have been victims of sexual assault, all of whom are reasonable, educated people. The more we share jokes like these with one another—the darker, the better—the more we test the limits of our own opinions, the more we can find out what we’re really thinking, and the more humor becomes a weapon. It’s our way of saying we have other gears and we will allow ourselves to use them.

I’m not suggesting we suddenly adopt an anti-PC stance, as if it’s remotely OK to raise a country full of eighth-grade bullies who ask, “What’s the matter? Can’t take a joke?” Anything said with the objective to offend, shock, or disempower is rarely funny. Which, for a humorist, is a crime in and of itself. I am simply suggesting that the more personal ownership we feel over an issue, the more we should indulge in our natural array of reactions to it.

Besides, what’s the worst that can happen? No one is amused by your comment on Facebook or across the lunch table. OK. It’ll suffocate quickly. But what if it doesn’t? What if it speaks to other women who’ve been thinking the exact same thing but haven’t articulated it yet? Humor may die without oxygen, but free speech dies without humor.

So to my fellow women I say, “Nothing is off-limits.” Make the joke, post the tweet, write the blog, say what you feel, write what you think. Don’t water it down. Don’t just text it to your one friend who will laugh, because I promise you she’s not the only one who will appreciate it. When it comes to the issues we care deeply about, there is no such thing as too soon, only too late. Now is not the time to put our most twisted thoughts in a modest dress. Now is the time to find the closest staircase and push.

Crosley’s latest book of essays, Look Alive Out There, is available April 3.

For more stories like this, pick up the March issue of InStyle, available on newsstands and for digital download Feb. 9.

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