All too often, gross remarks – be they racist, sexist, homophobic or otherwise abusive and vile – are excused or condoned on the grounds of irony; that because they were meant to be humorous, they can’t possibly be offensive. And if somebody is offended, then they’re either oversensitive or incapable of laughter – either way, though, the problem is with them, not the joke-teller.
Except that, no: it’s not.
Generally speaking, there are two reasons why people make ironically offensive jokes: either they think we live in such a post-racist, post-sexist, post-discriminatory world that the act of mimicking historical abuses cannot possibly reinforce those abuses, on account of how they no longer really exist; or they secretly think the stereotypes which underlie offensive jokes have some basis in reality, and are therefore funny because they’re true. The former person can be anything from genuinely well-intentioned but oblivious to belligerently convinced that society has swung so far in the opposite direction that previously oppressed groups are now the beneficiaries of so much privilege that mocking them is only fair. The latter person, however, is almost invariably bigoted, even if they’re not consciously aware of it.
As such, there are really three types of people who tell ironically offensive jokes or make offensive remarks for fun: those who think bigots either don’t exist or are so vanishingly rare as to be meaningless statistical anomalies, those who are bigots but don’t realise it, and those who embrace their bigotry as the only logical truth. If that’s true, then it’s surely important to know the exact intentions of the people both making and responding to supposedly ironic jokes – otherwise, you run the risk of laughing at yourself.
But if the remarks themselves are functionally identical regardless of who’s making them, then how can you possibly know which ones are meant ironically?
The answer is, you can’t – and for those who’d like to contend otherwise, permit me a small experiment with which to support my case.
The following statements are all, word for word, sexist comments or messages I’ve received online from total strangers. Some, by the explicit admission of the senders, were intended ironically; others, also by explicit admission, were not. Some are from self-professed sexists; others are from individuals who violently objected to my labelling them as such. Some were sent in the course of a conversation; others were out of the blue. But all were sent online, by people I don’t know in real life – meaning that you, my readers, know as much about the senders and their potential motives as I first did on receiving them.
So tell me: which ones are ironic, and which are not?
1. im gonna rape you
2. you rant and whine like a true cunt
3. Most women need to be dominated. It might not be what they think they want but its what they need, trust me they eat that shit up.
4. God, what a feminist bitch!
5. you just sound like another bitter angry man-hating lesbian
6. Petal, you have no idea how pleasurable it is being fisked by a self-righteous tea-cosy-wearing Scots feminista called “Foz”.
7. it’s not really a sexist belief that women are mentally and physically inferior to men
8. You’ll never get a husband thinking that way.
9. You’re a fat bitch with a man haircut that never got laid so you turned dyke and you’re on a feminazi rage.
10. still an ugly slag, get some surgery bitch
Not because I don’t have a sense of humour – I do. It’s just that this isn’t funny. This is a tiny, tiny taste of what it means to be a woman online: I have folders full of this stuff, and I guarantee that most of the people sending it don’t think of themselves as being the least bit sexist or misogynistic . Oh, no: they’re just being honest, or – god help me – comedians. But the thing is, the ironic-offensive-humour-peddlers? They’re the minority. The vast majority of the offensive nonsense I receive – that all women receive – isn’t meant ironically. It’s either meant explicitly to intimidate and frighten, or – just as chillingly – is nothing more than a deadpan, no-nonsense glimpse into the sender’s view of women. It’s the opposite of irony.
So when you joke about how I should get back in the kitchen and make you a sandwich, you’re not being clever or witty or post-ironic. You’re offering up a pitch-perfect imitation of the sort of abuse I routinely receive, and – at absolute best – are asking me to laugh at how weird, how implausible it is, that people used to think like this! Isn’t that just crazy?
What’s crazy, friend, is that you expect me to laugh at my own belittlement.
Bottom line: ironic sexism is still sexism. Not just because women can’t tell the difference, but because misogynists can’t, either – and they think that shit’s hilarious.