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.