All the #metoo posts got me thinking about how women everywhere needed to feel they were not alone anymore. Do you know what the loneliest feeling is? Thinking you are alone. An odd (wo)man out. The person who humorlessly “doesn’t get it”.
Some people can only feel satiated by power. And they feel most powerful when they can take power by diminishing others. When silencing or bullying others, they convince themselves of their supremacy. And one of the most effective disguises of their true harmful intentions is humor.
How many times have you heard an inappropriate or sexist comment from a male colleague, who later claimed it was “just a joke”? How many women offended by these “jokes” are then accused of having “no sense of humor”?
The first thing these bullies want is for women to question their own judgement. So making you doubt your sense of what’s allowed is step one in their playbook. Because when they accomplish this, they know you’ll hesitate to speak against them. You’ll have no faith that you will be heard and believed. You’ll expect to be ignored and you’ll expect to lose your status in the group. Who will take you seriously if you can’t simply do your job without “causing” problems?
So women soldier on, thinking the group will turn against the bullied, and never the bully. Historically, that’s always been true, and consequences have been rare. So women keep silent, or complain and are ignored, or simply leave if possible.
I can’t tell you how many friends and colleagues have told me stories about being harassed or diminished. Or how many powerful laughing toxic men I have witnessed or had to work with.
I’m not just talking about sexual misconduct, which is no small issue. (Note: yes, toxic men harass less powerful men too).
Usually these men exhibit other intimidation tactics in a cocktail of bad behavior. I’ve seen bosses throw things at their employees. I’ve seen powerful men make women answer to names that were not their own, just to prove their power over them. I’ve seen men openly ask specifics about women’s sexual preferences. I’ve seen men in charge discuss women’s bodies with as little empathy as if they are reading a grocery list. All these stunts are tried and true ways to make women or subordinates feel isolated, humorless, and alone.
Humans are social animals. And most of us really want the approval of our group; aka family, friends, religious groups, clubs, and yes work too. This makes us feel “Normal”. “Normal” by definition requires that you have a sense of what your peers do, like, and find funny. And that you attempt to fit in as best you can, even if it means you give up some self-determination to just get along.
Women historically are seen as social connectors. Look at any marketing and publicity department to see how we can shine in those roles. We are often the social-glue. We (women) are raised to be social organizers as well as, more recently, individuals too. But which role is more important, the group you belong to, or the individual you are?
With all our social-glue experience we have learned to make these choices quickly, almost unthinkingly. We tend to gloss over other people’s poor behavior with a smile or a small awkward laugh, that some might mistake for a giggle. And let me be clear, that nervous laugh of discomfort is NOT consent. It is not acceptance of tasteless jokes, inappropriate questions, or an invitation to sexually harass us.
Laughter is a defense mechanism people have historically always used. But does it work? Does it really defend you? Does it really make your oppressor see you, empathize with you? Can it make the bully go away? No, it can’t. At best it can buy you time. Time to decide what your next move is. Time to decide if it will be fight or flight in the face of your smiling aggressor.
And why IS humor a place misogyny hides anyway? It’s most likely because there are are “losers” and “winners” in jokes. If we are laughing with someone, it’s usually because they are pointing out the flaws in others or in themselves.
But on an uplifting note … women in comedy have been breaking through and when they do, they are deciding what funny looks like from a female perspective. It’s clear that comedians are hyper-aware of the personas/brands they carve out for themselves, and why that brand is funny. I want to look at a cross-section of humor book covers today. What does 2017, the year of #metoo look like on the humor shelf.
Do you think any of these covers were selected based on how sexually interesting these men appear to the readers?
Obviously not, which is fine, because the covers are all pretty funny. And would actually be less funny if the men looked TOO good.
Let me preface this by saying that designers are NOT the ultimate arbiters of how sexy to make a cover. And that women have EVERY RIGHT to be sexy. But on the next two covers, it’s clear the viewer will see these women as sexy first and funny later.
In a way these covers are both classic in their glam-ness. And yes, Chelsea’s cover is actually from 2010. Remember the early 2000’s? There was an expectation back then that every woman could be perfect, and all things to all people. Sexy, funny, smart, fun, accomplished. But sexy was still kind of the top of the list. The feminist label hadn’t quite made a comeback yet.
I don’t think anyone can deny that Amy Schumer has a love/hate relationship with feminism. Her brand of “laugh at me because I’m promiscuous”, somehow makes women wonder if she’s secretly “slut-shaming”.
And back in 2010, the design of Chelsea Chelsea Bang Bang really worked, because it really DID fit into Chelsea’s brand, at that time. And celebrities usually have control and sometimes even veto power on their covers, so I’m sure Chelsea must have loved the cover too. Afterall, she knows her brand better than anyone. “Oh, hello?” in a sexy voice IS Chelsea’s catchphrase after all.
THE NEW WOMEN
These covers show a new generation of funny women, who seem liberated from the “Sexy First” expectation.
These women are not only funny, they also thumb their nose at the old convention of being sexy first. These covers seem to signal a new era of self-defined female humor.
With streaming hits like Lady Dynamite and Broad City. Comedies that are less polished and more raw. The new women in comedy seem less concerned with looking glam, and more concerned with telling it like it is. Granny underwear included! They are the #meetoo generation of funny. And they make me hopeful for a post #metoo world, and what it might look like. A world where honesty is the new sexy.
Want to read some of what inspired this post? Read about the Changing Gender Roles in Marriage • Read how Samantha Bee’s and Sarah Silverman’s had the funniest and gutsiest responses to the Louis C. K. allegations • Read about Why We Laugh
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Maria Elias lives and works in New York City. Before falling in love with book design she worked in news and magazine. Her work has been recognized by AIGA 50 Books/50Covers, the Type Directors Club, and the New York Book Show. You can read more by Maria Elias on her blog Book Design Heroines.