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Biting the hand that feeds

Published: 
Sunday, January 17, 2016

Maybe I am a prude, but is it okay for a national newspaper to regularly publish a column whose language, imagery and content is denigrating toward women? A column that imagines it is witty and intelligent to respond to differing ideas from its own with phrases like, “logical argument and feminism don’t often occupy the same vagina?” Or declare without apology the reason women do not take on particular jobs is “because they don’t want to ruin their nails.”

What do readers learn and gain from a weekly column delighted to inform us “feminists are so often opposed to erections?” Or dismisses a female scholar and colleague as “overly emotional and lacking in reason.”

The defence here, and no doubt a supposed benefit to a newspaper editor, is of course humour. Yet, to me, these columns don’t read as funny; rather they seem nasty and sexist.

Maybe if it happened once we might say it’s clumsy writing. But when it comes from a writer who regularly tells us of his great intelligence it becomes to this reader deliberate, mean and spiteful. Again, maybe I’m easily offended and I’m misjudging the comedic nuance here. The line between stereotype and prejudice, humour and insult is a fine one. Perhaps many do see these columns and language as humorous. The few women I talked to didn’t. But of course, that’s not a fair representation. So I would be interested to hear what other female readers say.

In the social sciences there is empirical evidence demonstrating that one of the consequences of men getting together to laugh isn’t always just humour, no matter the intention.

For example, Kehily and Nayak demonstrate in their discussion of Lads and Laughter in the UK that linguistic subversion or banter and humour can also produce forms of exclusion and aggressive masculinity like “hyper masculinity.” By forms of exclusion the authors mean men create internal group boundaries and make women into outsiders through the repetition of sexist stereotypes, jokes and language.

For Kehily and Nayak this is humour as a means of maintaining sex/gender conformity and hierarchy. Humour in this sense is no longer a social valve to release pressure and suspend everyday rules for a short time. Instead humour here becomes a reproductive technique maintaining social behaviours and divisions like gender.

In my own published ethnographic fieldwork on Trinidad, I found a similar reality with picong amongst men. On one hand, picong in particular social spaces and times, can be empowering because it destabilises historical and structural racial hierarchies through forms of linguistic subversion. So for instance, in spaces of male sport or male friendship in some parts of Trinidad, ethnic and racial names, identifiers and nicknames, which in other socio-cultural spaces would be considered racist become for a time socially acceptable. This can be phrased as linguistic subversion to the dominant and polite Afro/Indo-Saxon culture of day-to-day interaction in Trinidad.

Yet, on the other hand, within the same male spaces of sport and friendship, sexist and homophobic slurs—those of men being men and playfully ribbing each other about their masculinity and whether each is performing to some “correct” notion of heterosexual masculinity, produces what one female participant described as the worst sexism she had experienced anywhere. She said what seemed playful to some men was to her, deeply insulting. This suggests the stereotypes men can find funny about women when they are amongst other men are often received as simply offensive to many women themselves.

Hence my bewilderment as to why it is okay for a national newspaper to run a column whose content regularly pulls stereotypes that are most at home in such male sexist spaces. Does this suggest sexism is part of the organisational culture of this institution?

This is an example of why gender balance within management positions is important in all companies because it could promote and produce better awareness of everyday sexism, which men talking amongst themselves often miss.

Another point to acknowledge, as others have mentioned recently via the Chris Gayle incident, and social science scholars more generally have agreed on for the last few decades, is there is a continuum of sexism in society. On one side are everyday forms of sexism like gender role expectations—as we see here through stereotype and prejudice—while on the other edge of the sliding scale is violence.

In more simplistic terms, some describe four positions, each with particular characteristics that men take on the continuum: 1. Active sexist (invents sexist jokes), 2. Passive sexist (laughs at sexist jokes), 3. Non-sexist (quietly uncomfortable with sexist jokes) and 4. Anti-sexist (challenges sexist jokes). I wonder where my prudishness lies versus where the weekly column called out here lies?

Dr Dylan Kerrigan is an anthropologist at the UWI, St Augustine

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