I wake up late. I pour myself a cup of lukewarm coffee that my fiancé made before he had gone to work. The cup is missing its handle, but since I paid seven dollars for it, and because ultimately it is still functional, I use it. Email, Facebook. There is a post from Atticus Books on my feed, a response to the Macfarlane fiasco at the recent Academy Awards, but beyond that, a commentary on the nature of telling jokes, and the nature of responding to them.
The reason I’ve never been offended by a joke is because jokes are fiction. They aren’t criticism and they aren’t memoir. And they have one goal: make you laugh. That’s it. Anytime you insist they showcase moral shortcomings or the underpinnings of society’s prejudices or are castigating one group in favor of another, you are claiming that the joke is doing something it never wanted to do. Jokes aren’t arguments. They aren’t windows into the true nature of the teller. They’re miniature, made-up stories designed to make us laugh, nothing more.
For a fiction writer, as well as the comedian, the purpose is similar. Create. Create something to be looked at, consumed, internalized, made a small and intrinsic part of our bodies. Yet if what we create is fiction, made up, is that too meaningless? And if the joke is meaningless, then are stories, those impositions on reality, as quaint as a haha?
Part of it depends so much on how we approach fictions. We cannot separate our bodies from our experiences, and we certainly cannot separate them from the words that we write, the moments we laugh, the sentences we read. I am almost twenty-seven. I am a white female, adopted, bisexual, 5’2’’. I have small breasts. I am middle class. I am in the academic elite, safely enclosed in a studious, ivory tower. This is a part of my physical reality, one that I cannot separate myself from when I read or when I listen to jokes, or when I curl up with a novel, or linger over a sentence in a short story. And I have never been able to separate my body from commentary or criticism, because my womb, my uterus, my vagina and clitoris are not afforded that luxury. Believe me, this is a luxury I wish I was could indulge in.
What the article in question fails to recognize is that context and content are everything, no matter the medium. MacFarlane, unlike the comparison to great writers (Twain, Nabokov, Moore, etc), is lazy. The boob song, even if you manage to divorce it from the fact that we are supposed to laugh at how fondly we remember Jodie Foster’s breasts as she was being raped, or even that Scarlett Johansson’s breasts were not shown for public consumption as someone hacked her phone and distributed them, is a child’s premise of humor. Boob is a funny word. Boobs are something women are told to cover up. When the private is made public, it makes us uncomfortable and so we laugh, never mind that after the chuckles fade, women still have to live with their amusing breasts.
That’s probably why they’re sometimes called “funbags”.
What I think is interesting – and perhaps the most frightening assertion –is that fiction cannot harm us, just like jokes cannot harm us. After all, none of it is true. And if fiction has no power to wound, then it certainly has no power to inspire, to heal. The physical truth of a story is held up like a lightening rod of power, as if we don’t already live inside so many lies, or lies have never been held up as truth. Allow me to tell you a “Story”:
Once, in the United States, certain people were considered undesirable. That is not to say that we did not wish to fuck them, but rather that if we fucked them we fucked them over. These specific undesirables were black women, women of lower income, women who were considered to be promiscuous. In 1927, Carrie Buck, a woman who had been raped by her cousin and became pregnant, who was considered “feeble-minded”, was sterilized immediately after she gave birth. They said her children would be as mentally unfit as she was. It did not matter that her son was on the honor roll until sixth grade, when he died of measles. What did matter is that her physical reality was changed by a social reality; your body is not your own, it is ours to do with what we see fit.
There are plenty of jokes about the mentally disabled. Google them. Have a laugh – it is not as if those jokes in no way help the narrative of the physically disabled being inferior. But of course, breast jokes are not eugenics. Holocaust jokes are, though. Ever heard one where an oven is the punch line? I have.
Narratives shape our lives, whether they are on the page or they are whispered amongst friends. So much depends on the context and the content of those narratives, and especially who is telling them and how they tell them. As stated in the commentary, Mark Twain is consistently under threat for being banned for using the “N” word. Anyone who has read Huck Finn knows that Twain is making fun of the people who use that word and who engender slavery, not the people whose lives are shaped by that word hurled at them as a pejorative. Lorrie Moore is not making fun of people with cancer, she’s making fun of the way that we monetize cancer stories and how the experience is actually pretty awful and absurd. The people who suffer are not the butt of these narratives; the people who profit from systematic oppression and suffering are.
You know why George Saunders writes some of the most effective and brilliant satire today? Because his punches aim upwards, towards those who would contain us and tell us to be silent. He does not make fun of the disenfranchised – he clarifies how absurd the system that disenfranchised us is. And he does so by telling a story, telling a lie. Often, those are more important than the truth, because they do so much work deconstructing and reconstructing our reality.
Roger Ebert, in his review of “The Accused”, offered this line: “[The courthouse scene] may be the most important message this movie has to offer…that verbal sexual harassment, whether crudely in a saloon back room or subtly in an everyday situation, is a form of violence – one that leaves no visible marks but can make its victims feel unable to move freely and casually in society. It is a form of imprisonment.”
It’s too obvious to say that words have power, but I suppose it bears repeating. What you say matters. What you write matters. This is not to say that this commentary I respond to is to be silenced. No matter how much I or others disagree with what MacFarlane jokes about, he is still successful and may be for quite a long time. Even Twilight, that trash, tells a narrative that all abuse is allowed, so long as we couch the vampire in love. If ticket sales and fan-clubs are any indication, the narrative of romantic love sells well. That doesn’t make it worthwhile.
Our words must be in service to those whom words have often done a great disservice.
Lastly, it is suggested that it is exhausting to always be offended. That is correct. I am exhausted. I am devastated in my exhaustion after reading about how Boys Will Be Boys, and that the girl in the Steubenville case was a whore for drinking around men. I am tired of my breasts being a punch-line. I am exhausted when I see that a black woman in college is told she is “only there because of Affirmative Action”. I want to go back to sleep when I see that once again, they have painted a white girls face black to sell overpriced pants and then type up an apology of “sorry you were so offended”. I am frustrated as hell when all of these lives are reduced to a one-liner, when their bodies, when my body, is bandied about for the sake of a chuckle.
But I would rather type this, my coffee empty, the caffeine having done nothing for my nerves, again and again, then let it pass by and say nothing.