Feminists have no sense of humor. We flip out at every tiny thing. We make a big fuss about inconsequential, totally minor things that absolutely aren’t a big deal instead of focusing on the big and important issues. Lipstick feminism, it’s called.
So why are jokes about women making sandwiches and language like “banging chicks” such a big deal to people like me?
The sad truth is that such things matter. They do. I wish they didn’t. I wish we weren’t affected at all by the images and jokes and subtle messaging that envelop us day in and day out from the moment we’re born.
But study after study show that this just isn’t the case. Because we’re social animals who operate in a social construct, we take our cues about what is socially “done” versus “not done” from the world around us – from the culture and society by which we are surrounded.
Part of what I’m referring to is called Social Learning Theory. It’s the idea that people either accept or reject images and thoughts by watching other people or groups engage in specific activities. Then, we examine the results. So when someone says or does something, we draw conclusions from the results of it. When a pop star makes a video with degrading images and misogynist language and sells millions of albums, becoming even more powerful and famous and important, we connect the two.
Young people have it especially hard. Adolescence is a particularly tough time because we’re all trying to both discover and develop our identities, and we do this by seeking to make sense of the world around us and our place in it. This is no easy task, and it certainly isn’t over once puberty is. But it kicks into high gear during adolesence.
This is easy to understand if you examine how celebrities capitalize on their popularity by creating new fads off of which to make money. First they learn the dominant myths of the group of people they’re trying to target (youth in this case). They gain their trust by fitting into what this target group already believes and ascribes to. Then, once they have that trust, they work to mold, or alter, or replace those ideas with new ones. It’s astonishingly simple and astonishingly effective.
Again, there are numerous studies that attest to this concept of learned behavior, particularly with regards to youth. A recent study conducted by a renowned University of Chicago child psychologist demonstrated that both white and black children ages 4-5 and 9-10 express a bias towards whiteness. Even at that young age, we’re receiving and internalizing racial bias. Another study showed that after reading a popular fashion magazine for just 3 minutes, 3/4 of teenage girls felt distressed, guilty, and shameful. This isn’t surprising given how many messages young women are hit with every day about beauty, weight, and the perfect body.
Teenagers of both genders are consuming 10 hours and 45 minutes of media a day. As recently as 2009, American adults were exposed to approximately 5,000 advertising messages on a daily basis. And this is just the more formal message consumption; never mind what we’re exposed to by actually engaging with one another in thousands of different social interactions.
The objectification of women plays a strong role here – again, even in ways that one thinks of as non-threatening. Turning women into objects like tables, or even “sandwich makers,” is actually incredibly dangerous. As Kate McGuinness points out, “if a woman is objectified, she is made less than human. Once she is less than human, violence towards her becomes more acceptable.”
This is an important point. When we talk about human rights, and how violence against women is not ”merely a women’s issue,” but a human rights issue, we struggle to connect the two in the public’s mind. As Kate describes, “the hallmarks of objectification include: (1) interchangeability; (2) reduction to appearance; (3) being an instrument for someone else’s purpose; (4) inertness or passivity; and (5) capacity to being violated or lacking bodily integrity.” Because we are so often reduced to objects – objects of sexual gratification and objects of procreation - women aren’t seen in the general public as being independent, autonomous agents with the same moral equivalence as men.
We see this in advertising all the time. And in our everyday language as we joke about women being sandwich makers. Once I am no longer a person, but instead an object, identifiable solely by my function, it is more socially acceptable to be violent towards me. Nobody is out there advocating for the rights of tables and chairs. And yet we joke about women being sandwich makers, incubators, etc.
This isn’t, by the way, just men, although much of it is rooted in the power men have over women and over our social and cultural norms. I know women who think rape jokes are funny. I know very progressive, feminist women who think rape jokes are funny. I know very progressive, feminist women who are rape and sexual assault survivors who think rape jokes are funny. And so this isn’t just about potentially offending someone within hearing distance whom a person making a rape joke may consider to be overly sensitive.
But no matter who is making the jokes – and here I am broadly lumping together jokes about rape, jokes about sandwiches, jokes about ironing, and anything else that either objectifies or degrades women – one can’t deny that these themes are seemingly everywhere, including in rape jokes, once you know how to spot them. I wrote earlier about Rush Limbaugh and the preponderance of sexist language that permeates our society. The eleven-year-old boy who called me a f*ing b*tch learned the behavior somewhere, whether from television or music videos or friends or family members. He learned it from the world around him.
When Ben Roethlisberger, the Super-Bowl-winning quarterback of the Pittsburgh Steelers, raped a hostess at his casino hotel and she was told to cover it up or pretend it was consensual, rape culture was no longer just a joke or a music video – it was the precursor to violence and crime (for a step by step account of rape culture in this case, see Jaclyn Friedman’s powerful analysis). And when people – women and men alike – are encouraged to laugh at rape jokes, call women objectifying names, support pop culture icons that degrade women, and buy products from companies that glamorize sexual assault – well, that’s rape culture, too. A rape culture that leads to violence and crime.
You have to be living under a rock to think that issues like this don’t affect social behaviors. It’s not coincidence that men who watch copious amounts of porn are more likely to ascribe to rape acceptance myths. It’s not coincidence that domestic violence (whose victims are mostly women) comes at the hands of men who really do believe that women exist to serve and please them.
As human beings, we mimic the world around us. That’s why messages like this, and like those we see in the media and pop culture and in our friends and workplaces and social circles, are so important. Because when we see, hear, and experience a culture, we internalize it. We think of it as normal. We’re at a place now, in fact, where misogyny and violence against women are so normalized that many people can’t tell the difference between quotes that come from magazines and ones that come from interviews with convicted rapists.
It’s even worse when we consider the number of men who will admit to rape, so long as you don’t call it rape. Again, this is about normalizing behavior. Crimes are bad and wrong and shouldn’t be committed. Socially, we accept this. But if you don’t use the “crime terminology,” you have a harder time convincing yourself that what you’re doing is socially and culturally considered wrong. Which is why if you describe a rape but don’t use that explosive term to describe the act, an astonishing number of men will cop to the crime. And suddenly, because what you’ve joked about a hundred times isn’t a crime, it appears to be normal. And then it becomes perfectly ok. And acceptable.
And yet, there seems to be no end of people who believe that these things don’t matter. That not only are they not important in the “grand scheme of things” and that they have nothing to do with “real problems,” but also that they, personally, are not affected by it at all.
For example, up until last August, you could change your Facebook language to different “fun languages,” including one called Leet Speak. If you did so and you identified as female, you were labeled a “sandwich maker.” But when many people read about this, they didn’t think it was a big deal. They made fun of feminists and others who took offense, rolling their eyes with a dismissive, “there they go again” attitude. When the video game Duke Nukem was released last year featuring a Capture the Babe mode in which one was supposed to abuse women, feminists “cried foul.” In response, people – generally men – mocked what they viewed as nonsensical feminist whining. Why can’t we see that it’s just a video game?
These are people who think they are somehow magically immune to the subtle messages and internalizing of those messages that afflict the rest of us.
Anybody who is exposed to these messages morning, noon and night, day in and day out, thousands of times a week, and claims to not be even remotely affected by it, is just a tad delusional. We’re all affected. And I hate to be the one to break the news, but none of us is special. Not you or I. We don’t have special powers that make us immune to internalizing messages of hatred and misogyny and discrimination. We’re all affected. We’re all impacted.
We all harbor internalized “-isms”. Racism, sexism, ageism, ableism, and all sorts of other “we don’t like or respect people who don’t ascribe to commonly accepted notions of perfection” – isms.
That doesn’t mean we have to accept it.
The arc of human experiences has moved our societies and cultures forward - ever so slowly! – in an effort to advance our understanding of human rights and to secure those rights for our citizens. We’re not perfect. There are still too many people who are marginalized, abused, neglected, ostracized, discriminated against, and punished for not fitting into the norms.
But we’re getting there.
We start by acknowledging the problem. By admitting that none of us (myself included) are immune to the barrage of messages that are slung at us from all sides all day long.
Then, by acknowledging that we are not simply the culture in which we live, or the compilation of the messages we receive. As important as cultural context is in understanding our behavior, so, too, do we need to take agency for our contributions to it. We have a choice. We can live up to the worst of our society – to that which degrades, humiliates, and ostracizes so many. Or we can to try to live up to the best of it.
And it’s our decision - each of ours – alone.
Let me put this another way.
Think of your ideal self. If you could be perfect, what would that look like? What would a perfect person – one you perceive to be smart and kind and gracious and thoughtful and ambitious and inspiring and all the other things we aspire to – look like?
Then think about a rapist, or a misogynist, or an evil person who really does hate women.
If you’re about to make a joke that would be funnier to the rapist than to the perfect version of yourself, then please, think about airline food instead.