More Than a Joke

“Smallish things cast big shadows.”

I saw the comment on a Facebook link to an article about Orlando Bloom’s penis shadow. I couldn’t care less about Bloom or his penis, but the comment made me cringe. I shot out a quick, straightforward reply debunking some of the myths and value-judgments implied about penises and size.

With a verbal eyeroll, the guy quickly replied, “Sometimes a penis joke is just a joke.”

…just a joke.

Raise your hand if you’ve ever heard this kind of an excuse in response to expressing anger or discomfort about something that someone said.

Keep your hand up if you absolutely loathe that bullshit explanation.

Okay, now anyone else who is sitting there thinking that humor gives you license to say anything you want, pay attention. This post is especially for you.


Humor reveals a lot about the person telling the joke as well as about the people hearing the joke because (drumroll please) jokes are always—ALWAYS—rooted in an opinion, attitude, or idea.

Humor is probably one of the most powerful forms of communication out there because it does allow someone to say something that wouldn’t be tolerated in a more straightforward way…and therein lies its power…and danger.

Humor promotes its seed thought, and because it’s “funny” and “lighthearted,” it brings its message in a less threatening way, bypassing some of the defenses that people have towards more overt forms of influence like debate and argument.

Satirists know this and use it to highlight the flaws of society in extreme and absurd ways in an attempt to help people to overcome the natural defensiveness that comes with being critiqued and to be open to thinking about the way their political, religious, or cultural stances can harm.

But it’s not just satirists who use humor for the purpose of promoting. Generally satire is more overt because it’s attacking the status quo, but every joke either perpetuates or undermines certain ideas.

And it’s important to think about the idea a joke is presenting, no matter how innocently the joke may be told.

Humor allows us to touch on untouchable subjects, things that seem too big for somber conversation, too taboo for casual talk, or too volatile for peaceful discourse. It can take the sting out of a topic to a certain extent.

It can also capitalize on vulnerable people’s pain and oppression.

And that’s where the outrage often comes in.

If a joke gets its punchline from racism, sexism, homophobia, body-shaming, ableism, or any other form of prejudice, then it is not just a joke.

It is a harmful joke made at the expense of others.

It is perpetuating problematic attitudes that have real-world consequences for people.

A few years ago, after comedian Danial Tosh made some deplorable and unfunny rape jokes and threats (I say threats because declaring to an audience that it would be funny if someone raped one of the audience members because she was upset about the joke isn’t, in any fashion, a follow-up joke). He did the typical shrug off, it’s-just-a-joke thing later, and there was a large Internet discussion about whether subjects like rape should be within the purview of comedians to cover.

On some levels, it was a really good discussion encouraging comedians to think about the effects of their jokes, but ultimately trying to decide whether something should be joked about or not was somewhat of a red herring.

It’s the idea at the root of the joke—the thing that must be accepted in order for someone to find the joke funny—that is really the issue.

Sarah Silverman showed the world that it is indeed possible to make a rape joke that is funny and that doesn’t perpetuate rape culture or make fun of survivors’ pain because her jokes were pointing out the insensitivity of our culture towards survivors, gathering laughs over the culture’s need to change, not the survivors’ scars.

Silverman’s jokes were intentional for the ideas presented in them and directly challenged the attitude that Tosh brought to his humor. Tosh’s were cheap shots that devalued people.

I see this explicitly demonstrated with the recent election. There are those who use humor and satire to highlight the danger that Trump poses to democracy and freedom…and then there are those who take cheap shots at his appearance.

The same goes for Clinton critics. Some will poke at her policies, her flip-flopping, etc., whereas others target her as a woman, degrading her for her gender alone.

The ironic part is that usually those targeting the one candidate with vicious personal mockery are condemning those targeting the other in the same way. They seem to think it’s fine to make fun of Trump’s skin color but not okay to make fun of Hillary’s face, or vice versa.

The truth is, it doesn’t matter which candidate you’re going after; you’re being an asshole if you think it’s okay to ever make fun of someone over their gender, body type, clothes, or cosmetic choices. It’s schoolyard bullying behavior.

But often worse than the jokes themselves is the defense. It’s just a joke!

It’s as if the joke-teller thinks that someone somehow missed that fact.

Here’s a secret: if someone speaks up about the root of a joke being problematic, more than likely, they’re not missing the fact that someone is making a joke. They just don’t think it’s funny because in order to think it’s funny they would have to accept the message of that joke.

In the instance I described in the beginning, I didn’t think body shaming was funny. In fact, I thought it was problematic enough to have to take a serious moment to debunk some of the harmful stereotypes about penis size.

That doesn’t mean I lack a sense of humor. It means I take humor seriously enough to recognize the harm that can come from thoughtless jokes.

A joke is an idea—dressed up in a playful laugh and lighthearted wink—but an idea nonetheless. So if you aren’t willing to own the idea you’re presenting when it’s stripped of its pretty ribbons, maybe don’t make that joke. You can dress up a box of shit, but it’s still just…well, you know.


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