Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Harassment and Humor

I'm teaching a course on Feminist Theory, and yesterday we discussed sexual harassment. Entirely by chance, that evening I watched Season 2, Episode 2 of the TV show The Office. The title of the episode is "Sexual Harassment," and it's streamable if you subscribe to Netflix.

First, let me say that I found it hilarious. I was laughing until tears were coming down my face. Part of what makes it so funny is that it works on several levels. If it were just offensive jokes, then it would be, well, just offensive. The humor requires the cognitive dissonance between the guys in the show thinking they're funny, when they're actually more pathetic and unlikable than funny. But everyone knows people who fall just short of their extreme. We can feel superior to them because we can see what they're missing--and the filming, of course, plays that up by showing the guys in the foreground cracking themselves up while the others in the office frown, cringe, and squirm. Those guys should be embarrassed for themselves, but they don't know any better.

However, I do worry about the effectiveness of shows like this for demonstrating the complete social dynamic if the viewer doesn't already get it. That is, I can perfectly well imagine some people I know watching this show alongside me, and laughing when I laugh, but laughing in sympathy with the poor guys who feel constrained by a sexual harassment policy rather than laughing at them in dismay and disgust. For example, a student told me recently that he has a family member who used to admire Stephen Colbert's conservative politics, thinking that Colbert was playing it straight!

Humor is an important tool for coming to terms with social anxieties, and it can be used to show the perspective of the overlooked other. And I'm glad to be living in a time when comedies make such effective use of improv. Still, I think the potential for multiple readings is an inevitable part of this brand of humor.

Here's part of another example (from Berit's blog) of the two (or more) readings that humor can allow:

Why Men Are Never Depressed

The garage is all yours.
Wedding plans take care of themselves.

You can never be pregnant.

Car mechanics tell you the truth.
The world is your urinal.

I have a family member who would routinely send me humor along those lines--but I know from talking to him that he thought this was funny because it is oh-so-true-and-right. Those poor ladies.

One theory of humor is that it works when it makes the hearer feel superior to someone. We tell Aggie jokes or Swedish jokes because we would never fall for the stupid idea that the Aggie or the Swede does. So a joke like this works for me because I interpret it as demonstrating the superiority of my own beliefs about gender difference and what they get me and the rigid, stereotyped beliefs expressed by the male voice here. Still, a certain kind of male can also relate to the joke by interpreting it straight--it shows the superiority of men over women. Am I wrong in imagining that this humor also has that straight reading?

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