Humor: Charming or Harming?

Published on Jan 14, 2016.

This past November, NNU’s campus newspaper, The Crusader, caused a stir among some of our students.  The edition’s humorous advice column, “Dear Mama Mandy,” unintentionally provoked more than just the laughter at which it aimed when it responded to a woman’s letter about shaving. This anonymous woman, referred to as “Bold in the Cold,” asked Mama Mandy whether or not it was socially acceptable for a female to participate in No-Shave November.  Mama Mandy’s response was an emphatic “NO,” waxing poetic about the disgusting nature of such a proposal and repeatedly implying that any man would feel the same way.

Of course, as a humor column, the exact nature of the letter isn’t cut and dry.  Is it an honest statement of opinion surrounded by jokes?  Is it a subtle satire?  No matter the intention, however, it forces us to confront the topic of sexism and the part humor plays in shaping our society.

In the first place, the column openly acknowledges the double standard of its advice.  Rather than try to rectify it, however, it upholds the idea, offering the justification that “the men of NNU greatly appreciate the extra work you put into your appearance.”  No attention is paid to the girl’s own comfort or feelings in the matter; instead, the only opinion that carries weight, according to Mama Mandy, is that of Bold in the Cold’s hypothetical boyfriend.

It’s possible most people won’t see a problem with the letter.  After all, these are jokes.  “Mama Mandy” is joking.  He or she carefully crafted a response that was calculated to get the most laughs out of the most people.  He or she decided that simply saying, “You go, girl!  Embrace your beautiful, natural form.  Stay insulated!  Save some time in the shower and sleep a little longer in the morning,” while helpful and empowering, would not be nearly as entertaining.

And maybe that person’s right.  Maybe a silly little school advice column is not the place to take a social stand.  Maybe the inside of the paper is the meat we’re supposed to chew on, and the back page is just the light and fluffy cotton candy to dissolve in our mouths without leaving much of an aftertaste.

Maybe.  But I think it can be more.  I think it is more.  I think humor has always played a much bigger role in changing the hearts and minds of the public than we have ever given it credit for.  I think if you get an audience laughing, if you keep feeding them jokes, then there’s no end to the underlying messages they’ll swallow in the meantime.

Therefore, in telling jokes, we must recognize that we are a voice—for change or for continuation, for better or for worse.  And if we decide to go with the latter—in our blogs, in our articles, in our everyday social media—we’ll probably be safe.  We’ll still have our audiences.  They’ll still chuckle at our wit and our snappy writing and our obscure movie references.  We might not do any great damage, but, on the other hand, we definitely won’t do any great good, either.

My point in saying all of this is that I’m tired.  I’m tired of being told that there’s only one way I can feel comfortable and confident with my body.  I’m tired of double standards and “that’s the way it’s always been done” arguments.  And I’m especially tired of people perpetuating the problem by casually upholding these oppressive yardsticks all in the name of humor.

Because here’s the truth:  We live in a society that has made huge advancements towards equal rights, but we still have far to go.  Even if we get to a point where such stereotypes and backwards expectations exist only in jokes, they still exist.  Their harm is trivialized but not actually lessened.  We hear, we laugh, we share with our friends, and the problem spreads.  We internalize.

No matter what the intention, sexist and racist and other such jokes have always served the same purpose—to separate, to divide, to set one group apart as something different.

Something less.

What I’m trying to say is that this particular Mama Mandy column is the subject of my blog post, but my real intention is not to slam it or its writer; it’s to bring to light an important issue.  And the issue is not “to shave or not to shave” because I really don’t care one way or another.  Your body is a temple, and if you want it to have shag carpeting, by all means, go ahead.  If not, that is just as much your right to decide, and no one should make you feel guilty or like less of a woman or man for doing it.

Instead, the issue is equality.  The issue is double standards.  The issue is the media messages that bombard us day in and day out and convince us that we are always, in some way, falling short of what the world expects from us.

The issue is humor and its often unintended consequences.

The issue is Number 4 of Volume 70 in NNU’s The Crusader, and it’s an issue we all have to face.

Nicole Geiger.1

Honors College

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