It has not been long since our President joked about rape. He said “for as long as there are many beautiful women, there are plenty of rape cases as well.” That did not make me laugh. It has not been long since a female vlogger cried in an Albanian TV show when the host tried to convince her that objectifying women is funny. That did not make me laugh too. It also has not been long since a guy I went on a date with, commented on my job and said that women who get promoted must be good in sucking dick, literally. That still did not make me laugh. In fact, I glared at him. My reaction somehow elicited the five magic words that I am so used to hearing by now: learn to take a joke.
I am not the only woman who has been told to learn to take a joke, especially when we are the butt of it. There are men who try to “educate” us that quips about sexual harassment and the diminution of women in the workplace are “funny” and a female comic’s feminist jokes are not. This puts us in an awkward position where we need to reconcile between a man’s humor and a woman’s humiliation, and between a woman’s humor and a man’s ego. This reconciliation happens in an instant. No one pauses for a while and assesses if the joke is ticking the right boxes: either you laugh or you don’t.
Who does not love a good joke? Jokes are structured humor made to elicit laughter, which, essentially, is a good thing. It is dubbed as “the best medicine” for a reason. Laughter breaks tension. Laughter eases pain. Laughter makes the world a better place when the government won’t. And here is a given: people will laugh when they find something funny. What we perceive as funny, however, is subjective. While laughing at a joke is not automatically or fully directed by one’s moral compass, when we laugh at jokes that denigrate, we encourage its propagation along with the prejudice that lies at its foundation more than we discourage it. As we repeat this complicit behavior, it becomes normal to laugh at those jokes and it slowly numbs us to another person’s pain, or worse, to pain that we ourselves have caused. If we allow ourselves to be desensitized for the sake of humor, laughter then becomes an anesthetic to the unpleasantness of prejudice and the consequences of sexist attitudes and behavior. Hell, laughter could even fuel it. In his article about the psychology behind sexist humor, Thomas Ford says it best: “sexist humor can expand the bounds of what’s an acceptable way to treat women.”
Some would argue that men telling women to learn to take a joke could merely be a “gentle pull” from the toxic politically correct culture we find ourselves in now. If those men would consider the toxic sexist culture women have to deal with on a daily basis, they might be willing to learn to rethink their jokes instead. After all, learning to take a joke is not the only lesson there is to learn.
We know that not all men laugh liberally at offensive and obscene jokes, but there are men who do and there are enough of them who use humor as a medium to humiliate. There are enough men who are too busy laughing to notice that the joke has failed to break the tension and increased it instead.
While these men are busy laughing, women are busy learning. We are learning that not all lessons men want to teach us are lessons we need to learn, especially that of laughter. We are learning that most of those “lessons” are meant to break us, humiliate us, and put us in our supposedly laughable place in a man’s world. We are learning to look at it differently. We are learning a lesson these men do not mean to teach us; a lesson they might not even want us to learn. We are learning to take a stand and not to take a joke.
We are learning respect at its unbreakable form: self-respect. We are learning that we don’t need to break tension to build respect; it is actually the other way round. We are learning about laughter, and how ours should never be at the cheap expense of a sister, or a brother, or a stranger, whose story was never on sale in the first place. We are learning that we are the boss of our own laughter. We never have to and no longer need to learn to take a joke especially when it means we have to hide, suppress, or displace our anger for the sake of someone else’s laughter. We are learning that breaking the tension for a man’s laughter is not our goddamn responsibility. Our serious anger should not be translated into light laughter. We are learning that we could be—and that we are—simply and outrageously that: angry. We are learning that, while we are told we are too angry, we can never be angry enough for having been cat-called, objectified, violated, hurt, harassed, discriminated, fired, paid unjustly, played, dismissed, maltreated, sold, and bought.
More than the freedom from patriarchal expectations and the freedom to express our anger, we are learning qualities that would free us from inequality. We are learning resilience from a man’s violence; diligence from a man’s privilege; courage from a man’s threats; intelligence from a man’s ignorance; and kindness from a man’s callousness.
As women, we are still learning to make self-respect our first instinct as individuals and as a group. We are learning that until we learn as women, men will not. We are learning that men are also learning, albeit slowly. And we are learning that if we just learn on our own, it will be in vain. Empowering the oppressed is only half the battle; educating the privileged is necessary to win. There is no better time to do this than in the time we would have spent laughing at things we do not find funny, more so at things we should not find funny. We all deserve to truly laugh and not just take jokes.
Truth is, we are not completely there yet. Society, as a whole, is going to need to continue learning before it graduates from being a society where we, women, are taught when and where and how to take a joke, and other “lessons” men want us to learn. But as long as we know and remind ourselves what our laughter and our lives are worth, we are on the right track. ■
(Illustration by James Atillo.)