It’s Never Just a Joke

The White House hosted the Clemson football team this week to celebrate the team’s national championship. Ostensibly because of the government shutdown, the president served up a buffet of fast food offerings—burgers, fries, pizza, the works. And it’s fine. Weird, but fine.

Big man food.

What’s not fine is the president’s assertion that the other option was to have his wife and Karen Pence make the players a salad. I know, I know, it was a joke. Here’s the thing about jokes, though. They will tell you who a person really is. If we’ve learned nothing else from Louis CK, we’ve learned that much. And the president’s sexist joke didn’t tell us anything new. We already know the man is a misogynist. From the gleeful remarks about “pussy grabbing” to the ongoing and countless insults about how women look, it’s clear that this president believes women are inferior to men.

Lady food.

This weekend, my husband and I went to see On The Basis of Sex. It’s the movie about Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s precedent-setting civil rights case that laid the groundwork for laws protecting men and women from gender-based discrimination. Part of the movie focused on Ginsburg’s own struggles to work and be taken seriously as a young lawyer and professor. At one point, after a dismissive remark from her husband’s boss, she notes the degrading effect of a lifetime of dismissive remarks. The small slights add up.

When someone jokes that a woman’s place is in the kitchen, that’s dismissive. When someone insinuates that women are too delicate to eat “real” food, that’s dismissive. When someone implies that a woman’s job is to serve men, that’s dismissive. When someone implies that the way a woman looks or what a woman cooks is more important than what she thinks, that’s dismissive. Even when these things are delivered in the context of a joke, it’s dismissive.

To dismiss is the point of such remarks. It’s a way of saying that women are less valuable and less interesting and less intelligent and less complicated than men. It’s a way of saying that women are less.

I don’t know what Melania or Karen Pence said to their husbands after those remarks. Probably nothing. There’s not much evidence that Melania even speaks to her husband on a regular basis. But I hope other women will have the conversation with their male partners and friends who might chuckle at the statement or dismiss it as “just a joke.” I’m talking about men like Scott Jennings, the CNN commentator who insisted he didn’t see it as sexist. Jennings took the time to dismiss the women who pointed out that it definitely was a sexist remark. “I think you might be over-reading this one,” he said. “Over-reading,” by the way, is just a modern way of calling a woman hysterical.

Fellows, here’s a tip: if a woman tells you that she is offended by a remark she perceives to be dismissive and based on her gender, it’s a sexist remark. Full stop. You don’t get to override her perception of the remark. You are not the arbiter of meaning or intent. If we tell you something is offensive, it’s because we’re offended. And we don’t all have to be offended at once for something to be legitimately offensive.

I expect remarks like this from our president. Frankly, he makes so many offensive and dangerous remarks that this one barely registers. I mean, who cares about some lame sexist joke when it seems increasingly likely that the president is in cahoots with the Russians?

I care.

I am tired of jokes being used as a cudgel to beat people down or keep people down. Those sorts of jokes are lazy and unfunny and all too revealing. A person who makes sexist jokes is a sexist. A person who makes racist jokes is a racist. A person who makes jokes about gay people is homophobic. And a person who pretends he doesn’t understand why someone is getting all bent out of shape about a harmless joke and insists that the offended parties are overreacting? That person is an asshole.

I don’t know anything about Scott Jennings’ wife, but I hope she set him straight about his remarks. The point is not that the president was just making a joke, the point is that he was making another joke in a string of jokes that reduce women to outmoded stereotypes. By feigning ignorance about that, Scott Jennings only proved that he’s nothing but a joke.

Lest you think I am humorless, here are a few jokes for you.

  • Q: What’s older than either a wheel or a wall?
  • A: A sexist old gasbag.

  • Q: What do you call a man who tells a woman how she should feel and think and dance and speak?
  • A: A Republican.

  • Q: What’s worse than eating a pile of Big Macs for your victory dinner?
  • A: Eating your victory dinner in the Trump White House. Hey, at least McDonald’s has a playscape.

  • Q: What do you call a man who cheats on his wife with a porn star and a Playboy Bunny and then pays hush money to con the American people?
  • A: Mr. President

  • Q: What do you call the Russian agency tasked with distributing anti-American propaganda?
  • A: FOX News. Also, Facebook.

  • Q: What do you call a group of people that elects a lying, cheating, failure to what was once the most respected office in the world?
  • A: Americans.

Whew! It sure feels good to laugh, doesn’t it?

Tiffany Quay Tyson
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