Saturday, January 10, 2009

Can't we just take a joke?

by Josh Franklin

In her recent post, Equal Writer Elizabeth Winkler wrote about a short video produced by Princeton students which she described as "disturbing beyond words". In the video, a man dressed in a sweater and a scarf set against the backdrop of an ideal domesticity, explains in a sarcastically cheerful tone how to engage in "man's oldest sport": slapping a woman.

I want to talk about the creative intent of this video. Elizabeth writes: "and let’s not forget perhaps the most disturbing aspect of this entire issue – the participation of a girl, the ‘object’ of the video’s slapping." What should we make of this girl's participation? Elizabeth's reading, which uses the interpretive lens of the subjection of women to patriarchy, implies a problematic distinction between the creative input of the men and of the woman who worked on the video. Elizabeth is justifiably concerned with the content of the video: "...the video reaches cross the threshold of the remotely acceptable, let alone the humorous. After all, one has to wonder if – on a certain level – these guys actually mean what they joke about." Does "these guys" include the woman who was involved in the production of the video? If not, why is she specially exempt from responsibility for the work? If so, why does she merit a special identification as the creator whose participation is "the most disturbing aspect of this entire issue"; that is, why is it particularly problematic that a woman participated in this production?

I think this is an unfortunate consequence of a certain kind of feminist critique. We want to acknowledge patriarchy's power to shape experience, desire, and sense of normalcy. It is productive and important for us to realize that gendered power dynamics define to a significant degree the ways in which women can and do act in our society. But by employing this particular interpretive logic, we can arrive at a perverse conclusion; we grant agency to men and deny it to women. If it seems correct to us to attribute the creative agency of this work to the male participants, isn't our analysis grounded in precisely the phallocentric assumption that constitutes patriarchy? If we consistently use the assumption that men are the abusing agents endowed with free will and creative capacity and women are brainwashed or dominated by a patriarchal society, don't we merely restate and reinforce the very power dynamic we are trying to challenge?

The answer to all of this is, of course, that the woman involved in this video is subject to the oppression of patriarchal culture. However, men are also subject to patriarchy. Both men and women are given persistent messages about gender and gender violence, and we are all subject to the stable expectations that patriarchy creates for us. Men and women are subject to patriarchy and different ways, and men are certainly granted agency in power in our society. But men aren't patriarchy--men are subjected to patriarchy--and male agency is defined by the same circumscription as female agency; we live in a world where joking about gender violence is accepted and expected.

I don't want this to be read as an apology for male power in general. The truth is that relationship violence does discriminate statistically against women; this is a horrible tragedy. But both men and women are victims of relationship violence and both men and women contribute to a culture that lets that violence persist. I'm not calling for a pardon to be granted to men, nor am I suggesting that we blame the victim and focus on the significant but admittedly limited contribution that women make to the cultural normalcy of gender violence. Rather I am calling for a more nuanced feminist critique that recognizes the ways that both men and women are engaged in a complex balance between individual agency and submission to patriarchy.

Is this video a horrific act or a bad joke? Relationship violence is certainly not a joke; it is a deep tragedy. Although I was inclined to read most of the video as very sarcastic, I'm not really sure how to feel about it. I can't say whether we ought to heap moral condemnation onto the video's producers or we ought rather to excuse it as a joke in very poor taste. However, I do think that it's wrong to see this video as indicative of men or male power dominating a woman and forcing her to behave in a certain way. Rather I think that the gender dynamics of this video's creation are more complex; this work is symptomatic of our culture's lack of concern for relationship violence in general. This lack of caring is something for which we must all be held accountable.


At January 11, 2009 at 1:41 AM , Anonymous Elizabeth said...

A few comments:

1- The interpretation of this video as alternately disturbingly offensive or satirical is, I guess, up in the air. From watching the video a few times it seems pretty clear that these guys don't mean it as an intelligent critique - it was posted on collegehumor, after all. I think it is interesting, if anything, to note that in being so blatantly politically incorrect, these kinds of 'bad jokes' can use the excuse of satire as an easy cop-out.

2- "why does she merit a special identification as the creator whose participation is "the most disturbing aspect of this entire issue"; that is, why is it particularly problematic that a woman participated in this production?"

I identify the girl as 'most disturbing' because her participation seems to signal that the tendency to scoff at the seriousness of domestic violence has infected even those who are typically the objects of that violence. I would think this is pretty obvious... if we interpret the video not as intelligent satire, but a really offensive, poor joke (as I think it clearly is), then we have a girl trivializing sexism and the abuse of women. C'mon...that's problematic! Josh seems to claim that in condemning her participation, I'm denying her some sort of creative agency and exempting her from the same condemnation I place on the men; on the contrary, I'm not denying her agency but suggesting that the use towards which she has put it is troubling...and by claiming her role as the most 'disturbing', I'm certainly not exempting her but arguably condemning her even over the guys. It seems to me that if women themselves can be so convinced of the insignificance of domestic violence, then there is, in fact, very little hope of seriously addressing the issue.

3- This ties in with Josh's insistence, "I am calling for a more nuanced feminist critique that recognizes the ways that both men and women are engaged in a complex balance between individual agency and submission to patriarchy." I think this is a relatively essentialist/universalist interpretation of the division between patriarchy and agency... isn't patriarchy fueled by the agency of both men and women acting according to patriarchal norms/values? If "men aren't patriarchy," then what the hell is? Patriarchy isn't some high idea forcing itself upon us... sure, it's part of a system but it's a system that requires the participation of specific players. I'm not saying all men are evil or all men uphold the patriarchy etc., but that certain men (and women) can certainly be said to comprise that general category.

At January 11, 2009 at 1:15 PM , Blogger Franklinster said...

1. I'm not sure if you intend 'guys' to be a gender-neutral word, or if you are referring to only the male creators (later in your comment you use it to refer only to the males). I know it's hard to find good gender-neutral language, but I think this causing some confusion for me regarding who you claim to control the creative process behind this video.

2. You're right that there is a lot to worry about in terms of the gender dynamics of the video's creators, and I oversimplified a lot in my post. I certainly don't mean to be so destructive towards what I see as your productive analysis of the video. However, I don't actually see the fact that a woman trivializes the suffering of other women as particularly problematic. Don't we all bear responsibility for the suffering of survivors of relationship violence? I don't think that it's OK for a woman to make a joke out of the abuse of women, but to claim that it's particularly problematic seems to imply that it's more OK for a man to make that same joke--it's not. I think that it's precisely the belief that women should be more concerned about gender violence than men simply because they are statistically the victim of that violence that constitutes a huge barrier to seriously addressing the issue. We ought to hold ourselves accountable for relationship violence not because we are afraid of being victims, but because we respect our fellow human beings. I'm not claiming that 'men have it just as bad as women' with respect to gender violence--we don't, although we would do well not to trivialize the experience of male survivors; rather, I am insisting that in the discourse on gender violence we all bear an equal responsibility to take this seriously--the responsibility of a human being to speak out against the injustices committed against her fellows.

3. I'm sorry for that phrase 'men aren't patriarchy'; it was probably a little bit unclear. I don't mean to excuse men in general from accountability for the oppression of women. I just think it's necessary to consider male experience in this discussion. Patriarchy is an ideal that society forces on itself, in that every man's experience is defined by a relationship between his self image and the ideal patriarchal man. Yes, we participate in patriarchy, but that action is made desirable or even imperative by expectations that are abundantly visible. I'm not trying to divide agency and patriarchy; on the contrary, I'm trying to say that agency in our world is defined in a profound sense by patriarchy; if men seem powerful, it is because patriarchy makes us seem that way--we are granted an experience of power only so far as we conform to the expectations of patriarchy. If I'm being essentialist, it's only to go so far as to say that there is a universal responsibility to respect other humans and that that responsibility entails an ethical imperative that allows us to define patriarchy and stand in opposition to it. That imperative is universal; we may believe that responsibility discriminates with respect to gender, but that impulse is just patriarchy trying to perpetuate itself. Clearly men and women develop their subjectivities in different ways, and I don't want to ignore the fact that the historical or sociocultural position of women shapes the reality of gender violence. However, that difference in the subject positions of men and women is what constitutes patriarchy. In a feminist critique, it would certainly seem appropriate to question the assumption that a particular person's actions have a particular meaning simply because they belong to one gender or the other.

-Josh Franklin


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