Agency Within Constraints
If the discourse of sexist humor is an attempt to control women’s meanings, are there effective strategies for reasserting control? Cocktail waitresses, students, and investment bankers alike can be effectively silenced when those who denigrate them have institutionalized power over them. But there are other situations in which power relations are less constraining. Street remarks from strangers, often a source of embarrassment and shame to women, serve to remind their targets that men control public spaces and that women’s bodies are acceptable objects for public denigration (Gardner, 1980). But what if women respond not with shame but with counterattacks? Regina Barreca (1991) has argued that returning hostility with hostility is a legitimate form of self-defense. She suggests that when a construction worker yells, “I’d like to get into your pants, baby!” a woman should feel free to yell back, “No thanks, I’ve already got one asshole in there!” or “The bigger the mouth, the smaller the dick!”
Like the strategies women learn in physical self-defense classes, verbal strategies for self-defense turn the aggressor’s energies back onto the aggressor. Like physical strategies, they are not natural but must be learned through practice (Russell & Fraser, 1999). Women who have internalized the myth of the humorless woman may believe that they lack creativity, a sense of humor, or the ability to take center stage in conversation, and that these deficiencies are uniquely theirs. It is important for women to recognize that what may seem like women’s deficiencies actually reflect situations in which anyone, woman or man, may find it difficult to deliver a witty riposte.
When I was a graduate student, the area of psychology in which I then specialized (learning theory and animal behavior) was almost entirely sex-segregated and sex-stratified. In other words, there were far more men than women specializing in this area of research, and the higher up the academic hierarchy one looked, the fewer women were present. A substantial minority of graduate students in the field—but virtually no prominent researchers, journal editors, or senior faculty—were women.
As happens in any setting where women are but a token presence, there were many occasions on which I became the target of sexual verbal aggression. Specialized conferences in particular were troublesome because men were overrepresented by at least 10:1. At one such conference I found myself on an elevator with six men: four friends and colleagues and two strangers. I recognized one of the latter because, earlier in the day, I had attended his paper presentation on inducing tonic immobility (a response that can be seen in birds and some mammals in which they go limp, and “play dead” when attacked).
Turning to this man, I remarked that I had enjoyed his paper. He proceeded to go into a lengthy routine about how his technique worked with women, too: “Just grab them by the back of the neck and hold tight and they go glassy-eyed and stop resisting.” It was an excruciating moment: between floors on an elevator, with no possibility of a dignified withdrawal, and surrounded by watching men. The effrontery of a man who publicly would make a joke of rape, and so totally without provocation (other than the presence of a lone woman), rendered me speechless. After an eternity, the elevator doors opened and we parted. My colleagues and I walked a few feet. I was red-faced and near tears with shame and humiliation. But when I finally looked up at my friends I saw that they too were red-faced and shamed. Unlike me, they had not been directly attacked, but they had been witnesses to clearly out-of-bounds behavior and had not spoken up. Finally, one mumbled, “You didn’t do anything to deserve that.” Like me, they had been unable to come up with a response—dignified, witty, or any other—in response to unwelcome, hostile, and aggressive humor.
In North American society, there is an implicit male norm of assertive speech that implies that normal people (a. k.a. White men) typically respond swiftly and assertively to infringements of their rights (Gervasio &. Crawford, 1989). Elsewhere, I have reviewed research showing that such direct assertion is not nearly as prevalent as the standard implies (Crawford, 1995). Like the notion of universal male assertiveness, the idea that men have a universal ability to top insults or squelch another’s verbal aggression is a myth. Women’s alleged deficiencies in this regard are socially constructed in part by representing stereotypes of men’s abilities as actualities to which women should aspire. Moreover, women and members of other subordinated groups live in different social worlds than White men of privilege. Other sites of subordination overlap with gender (color, sexual orientation, disability, age), and the assaults on subordinated people are much more frequent and intense. One can hardly imagine a situation comparable to rape jokes in an elevator that could be aimed at a White man as White man. If privileged men were presented with similar situations at a similar rate as other people, their limitations would become more evident—but, of course, if they were, they would no longer be privileged men.