When Is A Joke Not A Joke

This is a guest post by Laurie and Debbie. Debbie Notkin is a body image activist, a feminist science fiction advocate, and a publishing professional. She is chair of the motherboard of the Tiptree Award and will be one of the two guests of honor at the next WisCon in May 2012. Laurie is a photographer whose photos make up the books Women En Large: Images of Fat Nudes (edited and text by Debbie Notkin) and Familiar Men: A Book of Nudes (edited by Debbie Notkin, text by Debbie Notkin and Richard F. Dutcher). Her photographs have been exhibited in many cities, including New York, Tokyo, Kyoto, Toronto, Boston, London, Shanghai and San Francisco. Her solo exhibition “Meditations on the Body” at the National Museum of Art in Osaka featured 100 photographs. Her most recent project is Women of Japan, clothed portraits of women from many cultures and backgrounds. Laurie and Debbie blog together at Body Impolitic, talking about body image, photography, art and related issues. This post originally appeared on Body Impolitic.

Laurie and Debbie say:

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


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19 Responses to When Is A Joke Not A Joke

  1. yes says:

    Eh, I’d say it’s not that hard to be mean-spirited and funny at the same time. This article just fails at the humble task because it’s so bland and generic. I mean, feminism is ripe for clever satire (and needs it to be healthy, a trait it shares with every ideology), but when the best you can come up with is “rampant lookism” and a one-quarter thought out complaint about cognitive dissonance between feminism and sensitivity to Islam, you’re miles away from anything approaching wit.

    That said, the offense taken is tedious. Not as tedious as the article itself, but that’s a high bar to clear.

    • snorkellingfish says:

      That said, the offense taken is tedious. Not as tedious as the article itself, but that’s a high bar to clear.

      Why is it tedious to call out things that are actually offensive? Are me meant to just not give a shit or pretend that being silent makes things better? My feeling is that even if talking about stuff doesn’t change the actions of bigots, it can at least help marginalised people feel like someone’s on their side.

  2. karak says:

    My friend is a Pakistani Muslim. A few years ago, he attended a con dressed as Big Boss. Someone took a picture and uploaded it to the internet, tagged as ” Nig Boss” or “Nigger Boss”.

    Ha ha. Ha.

    He was so humiliated–and somewhat concerned–that he didn’t want to cosplay ever again. He backed out of a group cosplay we were going to do together and admitted he was afraid to ever dress up again. I told him his feelings and safety were more important than a silly group cosplay.

    He finally decided he was willing to put up with the racism and abuse to be part of something he loved, but that’s a choice no-one should have to make.

    But, yeah, say shitty things about Muslims, because they never cosplay, they’re never targets, and they’re not real people or anything. It’s soooo fucking funny.

    • amblingalong says:

      But, yeah, say shitty things about Muslims

      Wouldn’t that be Arabs or dark-skinned people? I.e. the locus of oppression here is race, not religion, based on the comment that was made.

      • karak says:

        They mainly came after him for his race, true, but a Muslim-hostile presentation would be just one more straw on the camel’s back on why he won’t go to cons or cosplay anymore.

      • amblingalong says:

        Totally, just making sure I was clear.

  3. matlun says:

    This is quite different from the Adria Richards incident, I would say.

    […] it’s impossible to keep your jokes from finding the “wrong” audience, the one that doesn’t appreciate how you trash their culture.

    I believe you are mistaking the intention behind the article. Here we are not talking about a sex joke that was seen as inappropriate. Instead the author used his joke article as an opportunity to air his criticism against Wiscon and some feminist ideologies by painting a caricature. Being insulting to Wiscon and the feminists in question is not an accident – it is much of the purpose.

    The joke article is unfunny and pointless, but I am not convinced it says much about the wider culture.

  4. a lawyer says:

    He’s correctly satirizing the tendency of certain feminist groups–which apparently includes both Wiscon and Locus–to stifle speech that they don’t like.

    Look at the history:

    Someone posted in a non-Wiscon space with inflammatory and offensive comments. The chosen solution wasn’t to make opposing comments; the solution was to kick her off the WisCon panel.

    Someone posted a satirical article which was inflammatory and offensive. The solution wasn’t to post an opposing article; the solution was to kick the poster off of Locus.

    I *am not* disagreeing that the article was poorly done. I’m simply pointing out that the desire to shut people up rather than responding, is an overexercise of control. And oddly enough the article points that out fairly effectively, obnoxious though it is.

    • EG says:

      the desire to shut people up rather than responding, is an overexercise of control.

      Bullshit. Neither Wiscon nor Locus are obligated to expend their resources in providing platforms for people who speak against their core missions or alienate large chunks of the readership or whom they find morally repugnant. That’s not an overexercise of control; that’s a decision about how they’ll allocate their resources.

      • amblingalong says:

        Bullshit. Neither Wiscon nor Locus are obligated to expend their resources in providing platforms for people who speak against their core missions or alienate large chunks of the readership or whom they find morally repugnant. That’s not an overexercise of control; that’s a decision about how they’ll allocate their resources.

        Exactly. The idea that ‘free speech’ requires other people to actively promote your ideas is facially absurd.

      • matlun says:

        No they are not obliged to do so. The question is what the should do. That obviously depends on the exact context and what you think about the texts written.

        Have Wiscon and the people in question been overly sensitive in these two incidents? IMO, yes, but that is hardly authoritative in any way. Anyone interested should just read the two texts (this latest text as well as Elizabeth Moon’s LiveJournal entry) in question and form their own opinion.

      • EG says:

        I understand that, and I see no reason why they shouldn’t have acted as they did. Locus has a readership to consider and WisCon takes an active political stance.

      • tigtog says:

        It’s that pesky Free Association thing that so many Free Speech fulminators tend to overlook: the right to freely express one’s opinions does not guarantee an audience willing to listen to them, and certainly does not guarantee invitations to address audiences whom other people have gathered for their own purposes.

      • matlun says:

        @tigtog: Quite true. But in the same way as free speech does not mean that those texts are not open to criticism, Wiscon’s freedom to act does not mean that their actions are not open to criticism.

        How we should judge their actions hinges largely upon fairly subjective judgments of these texts. If they had been totally inoffensive I believe we could all agree that those actions would have been problematic. As they are not it is much more of a judgment call.

    • delagar says:

      If Wiscon had not rescinded the GOH position to Moon, that would, in effect, have said they had approved of Moon’s speech.

      Given that Moon’s speech was offensive to Wiscon’s mission statement (and to many if not most people who are members of Wiscon) that was a problem.

      Frankly, I don’t see that Wiscon had any other option — and this matter was debated, at length, by those in the community.

  5. Fat Steve says:

    It’s one thing to make fun of ignorance in the form of prejudice against women, it’s a totally different thing to ignorantly and with prejudice make fun of woman.

    However, even innocent comments can be misinterpreted, so it seems ludicrous that he would go this far. I remember when my friend had a female reading series at a bookstore her in NY. Another (female) friend asked if it was too ‘female oriented.’ I said ‘well, it’s not like the walls are covered with menstrual blood.’ I thought I was riffing on her feminist-phobia, but I offended her massively, not because I questioned her feminism, but because I was one of those guys who ‘defined women by their periods’ (which was, of course, the attitude I was criticizing.)

    • tigtog says:

      Not singling out your reported remark above particularly, Steve – it just reminded me of something. There’s a great phrase from a post by John Scalzi about the perils of “joking” to make a point – “The Failure Mode of Clever is Asshole”.

      On the Compliment Women thread, the point was made that “the fail state of a gendered compliment to a woman is a microagression”.

      This is part of what we mean by “intent is not magic” – no matter how clear the connection between the point one wishes to make and the words one chooses to make that point is in one’s head when one is composing one’s remark, we can’t guarantee that other people see the same connection and give it the same weight as we do, and when they don’t make the same connection then our intended communication fails on the intended level and communicates something different entirely.

      If more people analysed communication in terms of taking failure modes/states into account during the composition phase, and as a result often concluded that the risk of a failure state was unacceptably high in that particular situation with that precise amount of time taken for composition, then more people would conclude that making that remark right then and there was not the best strategical move in terms of treating other people fairly/kindly/professionally (and even that the original idea to make the remark at all was a tactical error better forgotten ASAP).

      This would on balance make life much less fraught.

      • Fat Steve says:

        Not singling out your reported remark above particularly, Steve – it just reminded me of something. There’s a great phrase from a post by John Scalzi about the perils of “joking” to make a point – “The Failure Mode of Clever is Asshole”.
        On the Compliment Women thread, the point was made that “the fail state of a gendered compliment to a woman is a microagression”.

        This is part of what we mean by “intent is not magic” – no matter how clear the connection between the point one wishes to make and the words one chooses to make that point is in one’s head when one is composing one’s remark, we can’t guarantee that other people see the same connection and give it the same weight as we do, and when they don’t make the same connection then our intended communication fails on the intended level and communicates something different entirely.

        If more people analysed communication in terms of taking failure modes/states into account during the composition phase, and as a result often concluded that the risk of a failure state was unacceptably high in that particular situation with that precise amount of time taken for composition, then more people would conclude that making that remark right then and there was not the best strategical move in terms of treating other people fairly/kindly/professionally (and even that the original idea to make the remark at all was a tactical error better forgotten ASAP).

        This would on balance make life much less fraught.

        I agree with much of what you say, relative to some circumstances, but I don’t know if it applies to my situation. If someone is behaving irrationally and verbally abusing someone due to their own warped interpretations- telling the person being abused to look at their behavior seems a bit like victim blaming. As a moderator here you must be used to seeing people come up with the most ludicrous interpretations of Jill, Caperton, or any of the blogger’s comments. I don’t believe that all objections are equally valid and/or teachable experiences.

        What you say is correct, we can not count on people having the same interpretation as others- which is why you shouldn’t expect everyone to appreciate your logic. That doesn’t mean I think you can learn from someone who is being willfully obtuse.

      • tigtog says:

        My point, and I should have made it more clearly, was that I was harking back more to the OP than to your comment.

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