Sunday, July 13, 2008

Hair-Trigger Democrats

A couple of jokes have a number of my fellow liberal bloggers in a full snit and I'm not exactly sure why in either case.

First, there is the cover of the latest edition of the New Yorker. Clearly, a bit of satire ribbing the far right wackos trying to paint Obama as Muslim and pro-terrorist. John Avarosis at Americablog sees this as

"A liberal media that bends over so far backwards to be "fair" that it becomes just as bad as FOX News."
He quotes Jake Tapper,
I wonder what the reaction would be were it the Weekly Standard or the National Review putting such an illustration on their covers.

Intent factors into these matters, of course, but no Upper East Side liberal -- no matter how superior they feel their intellect is -- should assume that just because they're mocking such ridiculousness, the illustration won't feed into the same beast in emails and other media. It's a recruitment poster for the right-wing.
It is not merely intent that matters, it is context. This is clear sarcasm. The fact that someone could misconstrue the sarcasm makes it offensive?

Then, there's Bernie Mack appearing at an Obama fund raiser did a ten minute bit that ended with this line:
"My little nephew came to me and he said, 'Uncle, what's the difference between a hypothetical question and a realistic question?' I said, "I don't know, but I said, 'Go upstairs and ask your mother if she'd make love to the mailman for $50,000.'"
Melissa at Shakesville titles her post about it "Unbelievable" labeling the joke misogynistic.

I consider myself somewhat well read in contemporary feminist writing and cannot see where a second or third wave theorist would have a strong argument concerning misogyny here. The second wave writers generally approach such cases by pointing out where speech acts reinforce negative stereotypes making them more deeply embedded in the gender categories we use to make sense of the world. In a patriarchal society, those categories begin in a way that male is equated with the positive and female-related properties have inherently negative connotations.

What is the property here that the joke is supposed to be reinforcing? That women are greedy? That women are promiscuous? That women harbor secret desires to become prostitutes? None of these seem to be parts of the standardly enforced traditional gender roles.

Third wave, sex positive theorists oppose the sociological bent of the second wave arguing that feminist theory needs to respect the autonomy of women in a way that appeals to patriarchal oppression models underestimates. It seems to me that these folks would see the question as one that plays upon exactly that autonomy -- would the women take the question as hypothetical or would she really accept the indecent proposal. That a question that should be purely hypothetical according to white middle class values might actually be taken seriously, that is, that the mother might not see her options limited by traditional socially enforced sexual mores -- an option we didn't expect since we are programmed to operate within that enforced structure -- provides the frame shifting that is necessary for the utterance to be a joke. the idea of freeing ones mind from these strictures would not be seen as offensive on third wave grounds.

It seems a well-crafted joke that sets us up based on social expectations and jars them in a way that titillates. O.k., I'll grant that titillation is probably not the best choice for a political fund-raiser, but that is a matter of poor taste, not misogyny. It seems more a case of working bluer than appropriate, but I'm not sure why the joke is offensive.

Steve Martin famously said, "Comedy isn't pretty." Am I missing something here or have the last eight years, the loss of a female candidate, and the passion of the election season just combined to give some of us far too thin a skin? I remember last election when Whoopi Goldberg made an obvious joke playing off of the last name "Bush," and the right getting themselves worked up into a lather. It was absurd. It was theater, false outrage. Are we finding ourselves in the same place?