Ways of Seeing by Mary E. Mendoza: Misogynistic humor isn’t funny, even in satire
Last week I attended an academic conference for historians in the American West. The organization that puts on this productive annual meeting, has come a long way in the last 15 years. It used to be a place that was relatively hostile to women and people of color, but over time, we have seen a huge shift, in part because the organization’s leadership has stopped giving hate a platform.
This year’s meeting included a panel on sexual violence in the academy and in U.S. politics and culture. The panel sparked an incredibly fruitful conversation, but out of the 42 people who came to it, there were only 9 men. Clearly, conversations about the problems with white heteropatriarchal power don’t much interest most men in the academy (or elsewhere). Why would they? If we discuss these things openly and men continue to abuse their power to degrade women knowingly then they become culpable. They actively become part of the problem rather than passively existing in a society where degrading women is the norm and “boys will be boys.”
In spite of the low attendance rate for men, we had a rich conversation not only about direct acts of violence against women — the clear-cut cases of misconduct like rape or threats — but also about the subtle, yet powerful ways that men uphold and sustain their power. The little things that seem “normal.” The things that women (and men) notice, that make women feel and seem less important, which then allow for the gross abuses of power like those direct acts mentioned above. Things like not looking women in the eye when you talk to them, or in a group, when men only talk to men even when women are present. Things that reinforce that women are inherently less valuable than men and can thus be objectified. Things that completely and utterly undercut any power or authority of women.
After the conference, I came home and read our beloved local paper and I was immediately taken back to the conversation about the subtle, seemingly normal acts that uphold white heteropatriarchal power when I read Greg Dennis’s “interview” with Donald Trump about Vermont candidates who are running for office.
This “interview” was of course a figment of Dennis’s imagination. In what was a poor attempt at satire, Dennis asked Trump about Marie Audet, who was running for Vermont Senate as an Independent. When he asked about his opinion of Audet, Trump (but really, Dennis) responded with: “Well, I can’t say. I haven’t seen a picture of her. When it comes to women candidates I go by looks.”
The paper took out an additional line because the editors thought that it crossed a line, but then mistakenly posted on the newspaper website for a few hours an unedited version of the column that included that additional line. The first part, though, seemed OK to leave in because it was satire and according to an editorial published by Angelo Lynn on Oct. 29, “Only someone who doesn’t understand what satire is would suggest that because the column uses humor it is ‘joking’ about” issues of sexual violence, misogyny and female denigration. In his piece responding to criticism of the column by Dennis, Lynn also made clear the distinction between the paper and the columnists (like me!) who write for the paper.
This is the Ways of Seeing column and I am an independent writer. Here is how I see this issue: All of this crosses the line. Greg Dennis crossed the line and then the paper crossed the line twice (first by publishing the original unedited article online, then by defending printing it in an incredibly condescending way).
First, Greg Dennis has alluded elsewhere that he is concerned that Audet’s political leanings would promote or exacerbate the pollution of the lake. He has also noted that he thinks she has aligned herself with the Republican Party. His tone, to me, suggests that he is not a huge fan. That is fine. What is not fine is that, in his column, he opted to hide behind the veil of Trump to use her female body as a way in which to critique what he sees as her political agenda.
If, as Angelo Lynn notes, satire uses exaggeration to criticize people (and thus here was critiquing Trump), then Dennis did a poor job because this is absolutely not an exaggeration of what Donald Trump might say. This was simply a tasteless way to use his platform as a columnist to dig at a woman with whom he disagrees. But misogynistic humor is no longer funny and Dennis should not hide behind Trump to use it. Full stop.
Angelo Lynn’s response rightly notes that the paper tries to print a variety of perspectives in its columns, but there are two extremely problematic points in his retort. The first gets us back to my earlier points about the subtle ways that white heteropatriarchal power is upheld constantly by seemingly normal acts that consistently undercut women’s authority. Someone at the paper didn’t consider how this would come across to women in this community, many of whom have agreed that this was over the line. Instead, they printed what they thought was a typical satire because, according to Lynn, “humor” does not necessarily mean that one is making light of the corrosive objectification of women. In doing so, they gave that corrosive, if subtle, objectification of women a platform.
The second thing that the paper did was defend this by defining satire for the women (and men) of this community who disagree with the printing of this piece as if we are not capable of deciphering for ourselves what works and what doesn’t when it comes to humor and what satire is and is not. Here’s how this reads: “Why can’t you just take a joke, dummies?”
We can’t take a joke about objectifying women, rather than engaging with them on an equal, intellectual playing field because it simply is not funny. It’s never been funny and it’s time we all stop doing it.
Mary E. Mendoza is an assistant professor of history at the University of Vermont and the David and Dana Dornsife Fellow for Historical Work in the American West at the Huntington Library in San Marino, Calif. She lives in Weybridge.
Editor’s note: The version that this writer submitted included the line from Greg Dennis’s column that we cut from the print version and ran mistakenly online for a few hours. We also cut that line out of this column