Aw Shucks Casual Sexism

Adult Content .. Penn St officials head to cou...

Adult Content .. Penn St officials head to court on perjury charges (Monday, Novermber 7, 2011) …item 2.. Paterno family decries leak of e-mails on Sandusky – The e-mails also would suggest Paterno knew more than he said: (Jul 1, 2012 ) … (Photo credit: marsmet524)

Sex is a funny little world. Such a tiny word for such a big, complicated thing. Some of its complications are unnecessary. Our silly reactions to people experiencing sex in a way that goes beyond our boundaries  ties us up in knots and makes pariahs of those that like to be tied up in knots. No small part of our problems with sex, however, are intertwined with our notions of gender and power. Sex has been used against women for so long, that it is hard to extricate a casual comment from the power dynamics implied in it. Hence this little gem:

Bill Clinton Meme
This may seem cute. After all, our economy was doing quite fine while President Clinton was engaged in his little peccadilloes. We sure had a lot of fun at the expense of those hounding him when their sexual foibles came to light (seriously, it’s like Packwood did not realize his name alone put him in the crosshairs) and exposed their hypocrisy. We endured/enjoyed jokes about stains on blue dresses and gee wasn’t it funny raking Monica Lewinsky over the coals when we all joked about what a chubby-chaser Bill was.

In the middle of all that we forget a few very important facts. We ignore that he was the most powerful man in the world and she was a young woman barely more than a child. He took advantage, no matter how benign he, or we, want to view his behavior. He used his position to engage in the objectification of another human being. She was not a paramour in any way shape or form. She was not his “friend with benefits.” She was an awestruck kid, who wouldn’t be in that position? Best case scenario he got her to believe he viewed her as an equal when that was clearly not the case.

Of course our reaction to President Clinton’s reputation as a horn dog is not the only place where we engage in this behavior. Too often we give a pass to liberal males when they make a bimbo comment about a conservative woman they do not like. We paint the wives of powerful figures as gold diggers, despite the fact  they may be intelligent and powerful in their own right. Even when we sympathize with someone, as we did with Elizabeth Edwards, it is in a coded, fatalistic, sexism that implies this is just a woman’s burden.

I like a good bawdy joke as much as anyone. Sex can make us squirm because we have made so much of it needlessly taboo. You can make a good, dirty joke, however, and still respect women. If you hear a joke, ask yourself, am I laughing because the taboo is ridiculous or am I laughing because it reinforces notions about women and their place in our society. Ask yourself, even if it is the former, does this joke do the latter? In the case of the above meme, we cannot remove the joke from the context of Bill’s power relationship with Monica. That makes it a bad dirty joke, no matter how much you want to call me a stick in the mud for ruining your fun.

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2 thoughts on “Aw Shucks Casual Sexism

  1. Brilliantly written. My experience, too often, is that when I express that I do not find this funny, I get the “it’s just a joke–loosen up,” as though people have the right to tell me what I should find funny.

    • Exactly. That and sometimes there is context behind a joke that they don’t want to face. I have noticed a certain dislike of owning up to one’s privilege among most people, and certainly among most Americans.

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