The Funny Thing About Misogyny
By Katie KadueSeptember 25, 2023
THE FUNNY THING about misogyny is it’s structured like a joke. Not a very good joke—a groaner, a dad joke. Why are they called “women”? Because they’re a woe to men. Get it? Woman is a container for man; language engenders gender subordination. As Mike Myers recites on stage in his role as a moody slam poet in the thrillingly zany 1993 Hitchcockian send-up So I Married an Axe Murderer, “Woman! Whoa, man. Whoaaaaaa. Man!”
Maybe that one’s a little dated. Jokes, like women, don’t age well. Misogynist jokes feel tired almost the moment they’re coined—much like flowers, often compared to women in old poems because both wilt as soon as they bloom into beauty. Still, even some of the oldest jokes in the book can manage to get off a laugh, or at least a faint smile of familiarity. Take my wife—is she still here? You get older, but these jokes stay timeless. As Milton’s postlapsarian Adam says in Paradise Lost, surveying the dim future of humanity that the angel Michael has laid out before him, watching man fall over and over again, “But still I see the tenor of Man’s woe / Holds on the same, from Woman to begin.” Whoa, man!
Here’s another one: women are themselves a joke, not to be taken seriously. What makes them even funnier is that they’re humorless. “How many feminists does it take to screw in a light bulb?” goes a classic; “That’s not funny,” is the nonanswer. The punch line to “Do you want to hear a misogynist joke?” is “No!” It beats actual punching, of course. Like all humor, misogynist jokes sublimate violence, in a way that’s so routine that it can be hard to see how precarious a sublimation it is.
Sometimes violence is itself the joke, as in The Honeymooners’ Ralph Kramden’s shaking fist and catchphrase (“One of these days … Pow! Right in the kisser!”) or Cary Grant’s thinking better of socking Katharine Hepburn in the slapstick opening scene of The Philadelphia Story and instead letting her down gently with the soft part of his palm. Those examples, too, are as embarrassingly out of touch as a middle-aged Karen, clinging to relevance and showing up uninvited, like the outdated Overly Attached Girlfriend meme from the early 2010s. But humor still provides misogyny a convincing alibi, in certain milieus, that it no longer seems to afford other offensive material aimed at marginalized groups. Sometimes misogynist jokes are even understood to be doing the reparative work of social justice, as when the tragedy of white women’s deadly complicity in the history of anti-Blackness gets happily converted into the comedy of white women’s utterly unserious femininity. It’s always wine o’clock somewhere!
And really, who but a humorless scold would take such casually misogynist jokes seriously? They’re just jokes, often so obsolete as to be almost automatically ironic. Who are you, Freud? A sex-negative Gen-Zer on Twitter? Are you really going to conceptualize something this harmless as an assault on the female imagination, as Freud does in Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious, where a male “assailant” functionally “exposes” the “assailed” woman through his sexually explicit speech? Why blow the cover of the dirty joke, that slightly more civilized form of “smut” that still aims to expose the implicit female listener but gives itself some prophylactic protection? “[A] tendentious joke”—by which Freud means a joke that has some purpose beyond itself—“calls for three people: in addition to the one who makes the joke, there must be a second who is taken as the object of the hostile or sexual aggressiveness, and a third in whom the joke’s aim of producing pleasure is fulfilled.” What do you call a pleasure-producing three-way? A misogynist joke.
The misogynist joke is offensive, but even more than most jokes, it’s also defensive. It protects the joker against criticism. It protects him against becoming a joke himself.
When a woman laughs at a man, she’s often made to understand that she has made a category error: he is a man, not a joke. She is a joke. The joke’s on her, all over her.
If you look at the YouTube comments under “White Woman’s Instagram,” a song from Bo Burnham’s 2021 comedy special Inside, you’ll learn that Burnham’s parade of pantomimed punch lines—his collection of poses, props, and lyrics that reproduce common images and captions posted to Instagram by white women—is not a misogynist joke: that would be a category error. Instead, it’s a painstaking work of art, “a masterclass in re-contextualization,” according to one fan. Because of the part in the video that comes after “an avocado,” “latte foam art,” and “tiny pumpkins,” where the app-specific rectangular aspect ratio widens and the generic White Woman opens up, in a generic, app-specific utterance, about her deceased mother, many viewers, including many white women, cry. Then we go back to “goat cheese salad” and “incredibly derivative political street art,” and many viewers, including many white women, start laughing again. I don’t disagree that this song mocking a White Woman who confuses quotes from Lord of the Rings with quotes from Martin Luther King Jr. is well done. I also think it’s a misogynist joke, because it’s only funny if you think it’s funny that white women process grief with selfies, consumerism, and superficial politics.
When I’ve described “The Flea,” the famous poem by John Donne, as a rape joke, scholars of Renaissance literature have chuckled, shaken their heads, and patiently explained that I’ve made a category error: it’s a poem. A clever poem, a witty poem, perhaps not meant to be taken seriously as an earnest attempt at seduction, but to be taken seriously as what it is: a poem. If anything, an erotic Donne poem might be, as Anahid Nersessian recently put it, a “panty dropper.” But not a rape joke.
It’s true that “The Flea” is, in short, a short poem. The speaker evokes what we’d normally think of as an irritating insect, a flea that has bitten both him and his female addressee, to persuade her to give up her virginity to him: their bodily fluids have already mixed in the body of the flea, making sex a fait accompli. “Mark but this flea,” he begins—by which he might mean the black speck on white sheets or the black specks of ink, organized under the title “The Flea,” that mark the white sheet of paper—“and mark in this, / How little that which thou deniest me is.” These are instructions for reading: the lady is meant to understand an analogy between her chastity and the bloodsucking insect before her. But the interpretive payoff is very little, because she herself is worth very little.
This is something like what we would today, or at least 10 years ago, call a “neg,” the go-to technique of the pick-up artist who lowers the woman’s self-esteem to the point where she thanks him for it. The neg, as the feminist scholar Madeline Lane-McKinley puts it, “absorbs the logic of ‘just joking’ as an explicit strategy of patriarchal control.” Tell a woman she’s nothing and she’ll be all yours.
It’s hard to resist smiling at the way Donne turns sexual frustration into playful melodrama—“alas,” he cries at the thought that a flea is getting more action than he is—or the coy blasphemy of reconstructing the flea as the couple’s “marriage temple.” And the whole conceit of an erotically charged flea is so wonderfully defamiliarizing, in a way that would please the early 20th-century Russian critic Viktor Shklovsky, whose famous 1917 essay “Art as Technique” elaborates how the literary device of “defamiliarization” or “estrangement” (ostranenie) re-enchants a world deadened by habit and automatization. The idea that art, by prolonging our process of perception of objects we think we know, can “make a stone feel stony” again has become so familiar to literary types as to be petrified in our imaginations, preserved from its context as if in amber. Shklovsky’s most famous examples of art’s denaturalizing capacities come from Tolstoy, but the way that imagery can “allow us to perceive the object in a special way” is, he explains at the close of the essay, over the course of several pages I had completely forgotten about until I stumbled upon them recently, “most clearly followed in erotic art.” As a prime example, Shklovsky offers up a misogynist folktale whose resonances with Tolstoy, he says by way of interpretation, should be “obvious,” and whose resonances with Donne’s poem are perhaps more so.
The tale recounts how a trio of abused animals watch their human assailant beat his wife and then try to make sense of this everyday event in terms of their own recent experiences at his hands: the bear thinks he’s scalding her flesh; the magpie thinks he’s breaking her leg; the horsefly, coming in at the tail end of the joke, thinks “[h]e wants to shove his stick up her behind!” Prosaic gendered violence at the human scale is made poetic through comparison with the comic trauma of an insect, just as it is in “The Flea.” “Though use make you apt to kill me,” Donne’s speaker pleads, ventriloquizing the flea that contains his own blood, what if, instead, you considered this flea in a new light, estranging it from its deadened ordinary sense of “pest” and giving it new lifeblood?
With all this estrangement, it’s easy to get distracted from Donne’s flea-ridden lady’s explicit self-estrangement from the speaker. The acknowledgment of her lack of consent comes, in fact, as an afterthought. “Though parents grudge,” the line begins, “and you”: what we at first read as a tale of star-crossed lovers is revealed to be a case of a seducer whose target, in his crosshairs as she is, is at cross-purposes to his. It’s the opposite of ostranenie: she’s so familiar as to pass beneath notice, her refusal relegated to a nagging add-on. Literary scholar David Carroll Simon has written about the similar role of the afterthought in Andrew Marvell’s famous carpe diem lyric “To His Coy Mistress,” a poem less of erotic obsession, he argues, than of casual disregard. (World enough and time? In this economy?!) Donne’s lines work like this: Oh, I’m sorry—I didn’t realize you, the ostensible object of my affection and attention, were still here.
There’s more than one way to tell a woman she’s nothing. Shakespeare described the vagina in some scary terms: hell, darkness, a sulfurous pit. But more often in Shakespeare’s works, and in the English vernacular of his time, it was “a common thing,” or, more commonly, “nothing.” Nothing to see here, nothing that couldn’t be diagnosed and dispensed with using what critic Lili Loofbourow has called “the male glance,” which, unlike the penetrating “male gaze,” simply “looks, assumes, and moves on,” unencumbered by any desire for deep cuts. “Maids’ nays are nothing,” begins a barely existent two-line poem by the 17th-century English poet Robert Herrick, who ends another poem, “To Virgins,” with a jokey threat: virgins can try to keep men away all they want, but no matter what they do, “love will win, / Or else force a passage in: / And as coy be as you can, / Gifts will get ye, or the man.” Here, rape—the “force[d]” entry, “the man” who menacingly stands in for violent coercion—is again, as in “The Flea,” downgraded to an afterthought, the end-of-the-line relation that failed romance defaults to, metrically and naturally.
I’m not saying these poems are equivalent to rape. I’m saying they’re rape jokes. Just jokes, like the “just so much honor” Donne’s addressee risks losing, just-so stories about the infinite insignificance of women and the practical impossibility of their bodily autonomy. As scholars of Donne and other carpe diem poets never tire of pointing out, these poems make more sense if they’re read not as straightforward overtures of seduction but as metaphysical conceits, exercises in wit, to be exchanged with other men familiar with the genre, who will laugh in recognition. The fact that there’s no real woman here makes it all more palatable. Indifference to women, the reduction of women to nonexistence, means we don’t have to think about them, or their humorlessness.
Another poem that’s a rape joke is Patricia Lockwood’s “Rape Joke” (2012). The rape joke, in Lockwood’s poem, is based in part on repetition: the poem continually restarts, reannouncing itself as a rape joke. “The rape joke is that you were 19 years old. // The rape joke is that he was your boyfriend,” the poem begins, and in the next line the rapist becomes the rape joke himself: “The rape joke it wore a goatee. A goatee. // Imagine the rape joke looking in the mirror, perfectly reflecting back itself, and grooming itself to look more like a rape joke. ‘Ahhhh,’ it thinks. ‘Yes. A goatee.’” The fact that rape is so formulaic, so predictable, becomes its own joke: “This rape joke is practically writing itself.”
But of course, rape wouldn’t pack its punch, and rape jokes wouldn’t land their punch lines, if it really were expected. A garden-path sentence is a kind of joke, sometimes one that leads us out of Eden: “The rape joke is if you write a poem called Rape Joke, you’re asking for it to become the only thing people remember about you.” You’re asking for it, we think she’s saying, speaking for a moment in the voice of the rape apologist, though“it” stands not, as it so often does, for rape but rather for the rape joke, or, rather, for “Rape Joke,” the poem that risks becoming the only thing people remember about you, the joke that you, you silly little flea, have been made to understand you are. This didn’t happen to Lockwood, who is now a writer well known for, among other things, her criticism, her jokes on Twitter, and her autofictional novel about jokes on Twitter and the devastatingly brief life of her niece. You can try not to be known for a poem called “Rape Joke” by writing something other than poems about something other than rape; by, at least in writing, moving on.
I’m not saying anything original. Misogynist jokes, like all misogynist discourse, are usually unoriginal and derivative, as derivative as Eve from Adam’s rib, as unoriginal as sin. I like these jokes because there’s something comfortingly familiar, to the literary critic, in their structure, something that makes them work like 17th-century poems, or like 20th-century romantic comedies, or like certain generic personal experiences that only make sense to me as jokes.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: you have a friendly drink with a male colleague; both of you have been struggling on the academic job market. Trying to show solidarity, you breezily bring up how bad you are at interviews, how you find yourself utterly unable to answer those formulaic questions, utterly unable to charm in that situation. (You try to say this in a charming way, to indicate that your grasp on irony is related to your failure to charm those who lack such a grasp.) His look darkens. Who do you think you are, he asks, that you don’t think you have to put up with stupid questions? Do you think you’re special? You’ve never had to make someone being aggressively thoughtless feel like they’re being perfectly reasonable, have you? You smile. You think, What do you think I’m doing right now?—ba-dum ching! But you pull your punch line, because you’re in fact quite used to putting up with stupid questions when it’s a question of being a woman putting up with a man, and putting up with a man means never letting him know you’re putting him on, because you never know if he can take a joke.
How about this one: you have a friendly drink with a male colleague, someone who works in a related field but whom you haven’t met before. He has read your academic work; he admires it. As a matter of fact, he admires you. He knows you’re in a monogamous relationship, but isn’t monogamy a bit old-fashioned? Wouldn’t it be fun to do something even more old-fashioned: have an affair? He’d really like to kiss you right now. You laugh, trying to be charming, worried about what will happen if you fail to charm. You keep drinking, since that might be part of your charm. He keeps bringing up “an affair,” a kiss. You keep saying no, but laughing, drinking more so the laughing will be easier. You could leave but you don’t; you don’t want to be rude. The next day you text to say you were feeling bad about the previous night and were uncomfortable about the affair references; you apologize for not saying so at the time. Oh that? he says. That was a joke. Completely a joke. In fact, he’s in love with someone else. In fact, he’s had a rather bad day himself; he doesn’t want to get into it, but it’s something quite awful, something more, presumably, than a question of hurt feelings. He’s sorry you’re upset, though. He’s sorry you couldn’t take the joke.
You mention this sheepishly, in broad outlines, to a mutual friend. Oh—that’s just how he is, he says. He’s like that with all women. And you thought you were special.
The rape joke, or the misogynist joke in general, protects the joker from becoming the joke himself. In other words, it protects him from being a woman. It’s a good thing the joke practically writes itself, with the preprogrammed regularity of cliché or AI-generated text, because otherwise he might have to think about what it means that he’s so often just joking.
There is, after all, something silly about telling jokes, the joke always threatening to contaminate even the most in-control comic with its unseriousness. As Freud manfully proclaims, we must “have the courage to admit that the economies made by the joke-technique do not greatly impress us,” going on to compare the joke’s linguistic economy to that of overthinking housewives. Have you heard the one about the housewife who travels a farther distance, at the expense of time and money, in order to buy slightly cheaper produce? That’s what the joke-technique is like, Freud explains: it takes two thoughts and then goes to great lengths to “transform one of the thoughts into an unusual form which will provide the basis for its combination with the second thought. Would it not have been simpler, easier, and, in fact, more economical to have expressed the two thoughts as they happened to come?” How embarrassing for you, to have put so much work into something that does so little.
A similar threat has always faced lyric poets, who spend countless hours crafting tiny artifacts that are often no more marketable than fleas. Part of what makes love lyric written by men and addressed to women particularly and historically embarrassing is its frivolity, its femininity, its generic slightness, far from the battlefields of epic, where real forms of violence rather than smutty “assaults” are happening. No one ever says, “last night was lyric.” Lyric can make nothing out of something, can make nothing happen by making it a joke. “The rape joke is you went home like nothing happened,” Lockwood’s “Rape Joke” goes, “and laughed about it the next day and the day after that, and when you told people you laughed, and that was the rape joke.” “[T]his cannot be said / A sin, nor shame, nor loss of maidenhead,” Donne’s “The Flea” goes. Nothing to see here. Nothing to say.
Katie Kadue was born and raised in Los Angeles.
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