Tag Archives: jokes

When Is a Joke not a Joke?

Laurie and Debbie say:

(Cross-posted on Feministe)

Our internet neighborhoods are buzzing over a particular piece of April fool nastiness, in which a movie reviewer, whose April Fool’s pseudonym is the rather descriptive L. Ron Creepweans, for Locus Magazine (the most prominent news magazine in the science fiction/fantasy world) thought he could be funny by posting a satirical little piece about WisCon (the world’s first and largest feminist science fiction convention, which both of us go to and love). We’ve written about WisCon before.

To tell the end of the story first, Locus staff immediately apologized and took down the article and has since pulled Mr. Creepweans’ posting privileges. As a reviewer, he had the ability to go onto the site and post material no one else had seen. He’s trying to riff off an incident a few years ago in which an invited guest of honor said some Islamophobic things on her blog (not, as our joker says, “in the mildest possible terms”), deleted the comments when people showed their anger, and was disinvited as a guest. His April Fools’ “story” relates how WisCon’s “ruling committee” was going to force all attendees to wear burqas “in sizes small to 5X” to keep from offending Muslims by the “by the amount of sinful and wanton flesh” on display at WisCon, and also to “eliminate ‘rampant looksism.”

To ice the cake, he used the name “Belle Gunness” for the WisCon chair. Unknown to most folks, the real Belle Gunness was a serial killer at the end of the 19th century.

Since the story was pulled, Mr. Creepweans is feeling very good about himself. Traffic to his own blog spiked, and we’re sure he’s getting a lot of adulatory fan mail, along with the angry letters and comments from WisCon members and supporters. And he gets to feel all censored and attacked since the piece was taken down so quickly, but lives on in Internet screen captures.

It’s almost impossible to read this story and not think about last week’s Internet storm around Adria Richards, who decided to take some pix of the guys at the tech conference telling “big dongle” and “fork” jokes while sitting behind her, and tweeted the pix to the world at large. She has since been fired for this incident. She has also joined the legion of women bloggers who have received volumes of nasty rape and and death threats when they speak out.

But, hey, it was April Fool’s Day! But, hey, those guys were just sitting in the audience talking to each other! But, hey, you’re just perpetuating the stereotype that feminists have no sense of humor!

(If you believe feminists have no sense of humor, come to WisCon sometime and check out Ellen Klages, Tiptree award auctioneer. But we digress.)

What makes a joke funny is a combination of the actual wit and humor used and the context. It’s really easy to get laughs about groups or stereotypes (or individuals) that you and your audience both hate or despise. The right audience will love whatever you say about “those people.”

When your audience is diverse, then you have to be genuinely funny. On an Internet news site, whether it’s a specialty news site like Locus or a general news site like CNN, it’s impossible to keep your jokes from finding the “wrong” audience, the one that doesn’t appreciate how you trash their culture.

Creepweans took everything he’s ever heard–and hates–about WisCon: Feminists go there! They were mean to a potential guest who was just telling the truth about Islam! Lots of them are fat! They get angry easily! They claim to be welcoming! He then tried to wrap his stereotypes up into one finger-pointing, body-shaming, misogynistic anecdote. It is extremely difficult to be mean-spirited and funny at the same time. Creepweans isn’t.

Helen Keller: Joking Matters

Debbie says:

Helen Keller jokes have been around for decades, since well before the real Helen Keller died in 1968. A little Googling tells me that they’ve gotten nastier in the intervening decades, as jokes in general have also gotten nastier.

In case anyone doesn’t have the backstory, Helen Keller was blind and deaf from before she was two years old. This rendered her effectively completely incommunicado with the world, until Anne Sullivan came to teach her, and found a way to get language through to her. Keller went on to be a peace activist, a Socialist, and a Wobbly (a member of the International Workers of the World), and lived to be almost 88.

Keller and Sullivan’s story was made famous in a deeply romanticized play, The Miracle Worker, which has also been made into more than one movie.

Now, advice columnist Dan Savage has written Miracle!, a campy drag retelling of The Miracle Worker in which a butch therapist named Annie trains a deaf, blind and mute drag prodigy, Helen Stellar.

According to this review and others, the play is “awash in Keller jokes, gritty repartee and sexually graphic (though clothed and wigged) routines.” Savage pulls many of his laughs from simplistic gags like having Helen Stellar trip, fall, and bellow. And, apparently, in the end the story also shows some sweetness.

Savage does a lot of good work. He made me cry a couple of months ago when I heard the radio version of his story of his mother’s death. And despite all of the legitimate critiques of the “It Gets Better” project, I’m a fan of what Savage and his husband Terry Miller are doing with it.

All I have to say about the play is that 1) I have no desire whatsoever to see it; and 2) I’m always sorry when someone as clever and potentially thoughtful as Savage can’t thinking of anything fresher or more interesting than cheap shots at easy targets.

His play (or at least Shakesville’s post about it) got me thinking about Helen Keller jokes.

In the 1950s and early 1960s, when I was a kid, I never thought Helen Keller were funny. I devoured stories about disabled people–I had a fascination with understanding what their lives were like, and (though completely sighted and hearing) I was too identified with Helen Keller to see any funny side.

The briefest glance through Google makes it clear that everyone who tells these jokes, or collects them on a website, is on some level aware of the inherent cruelty. Many of the websites start with warnings, or disclaimers, or criticisms of “political correctness.” One joke I found almost funny is “Why is it okay to tell Helen Keller jokes? Because she can’t hear them anyway.” Notice the implication that if she could hear it, the joker would have second thoughts about telling it.

After a lifetime of people-watching, I understand better the sense of protective magic we get from laughing at the things we are most afraid of, using humor and crudity to ward off of the fear that it could happen to us. This goes hand in hand with an undeniable delight in topping one crudeness with another; my Helen Keller joke (or my “That’s what she said,” joke, or whatever) is cruder or nastier than the one you just told. It’s a lot easier to top the last speaker with crudeness and nastiness than with humor.

If a sense of protective magic is the “heads” side of the Helen Keller-joke coin, dehumanization is the “tails” side. We don’t want to be Helen Keller. We want to keep our eyes and our ears, if we have them now. So we engage in a process of making her so completely “other” that no joke is too cruel, or crass. (This is not specific to Helen Keller jokes by any means–it’s true of jokes about women, about African Americans, about the people from the other side of the river. Keller is no more than a good example.)

And here’s the catch, inherent in the “she can’t hear them” punchline. She could hear them. Not with her ears. But if she hadn’t learned to “hear,” we wouldn’t know about her; she’d have died invisible and incommunicado. And people with similar disabilities can “hear” the jokes now, hear themselves being othered, and demumanized, and snickered at. The real protective magic is to understand that those of us who can see and hear are lucky, that our luck can go away at any time, and that there’s room in the world for people who can see and hear, people who can do one and not the other, people who can do neither. We don’t have to laugh at each other to recognize the places where we’re lucky.

Telling Helen Keller jokes armors us against having to confront our own luck and our own vulnerability. It also erases Keller’s lifetime of activism and passion, making her into a blind-deaf caricature and not a person. The soppy romanticism of The Miracle Worker does the same thing. Where’s the play (or novel or movie) about who she really was and what she accomplished?

Dan Savage, are you up to the task?