Katie's Voice

TEACHABLE MOMENT

So. This joke list is going around Facebook at the moment, and it’s called, “37 Slogans for College Majors if They Were Actually Honest.” Definite potential for humor there, and since I teach college, I had to click on the link and read them. After all, what would they say about creative writing?

But it took me a while to get to creative writing, because the first slogan stopped me in my tracks. I believe it wasn’t intended to be deliberately offensive; it was the kind of humor people hear all the time. It was in line with most of our popular culture. Here it is: “Computer Engineering: Tons of chicks, just not very many.”

Sigh.

Oh, how much I want to be able to implode comments like this with a witty retort—like Gabourey Sidibe did  (“To people making mean comments about my GG pics, I mos def cried about it on that private jet on my way to my dream job last night. #JK”)—but I’m too earnest. I’m from the Midwest, after all, and not the sarcasm-fluent cities of Chicago or Detroit. No, I’m from downstate Illinois, corn and soybean fields, take your time saying what you really mean. So you get this response instead.

I’m not angry. I don’t hate men. I’m not oversensitive. I’m not militant (whatever that means). I am a feminist. And I am a teacher. I like people, in general. I think the best of them. I don’t want to make anyone who laughed at the “tons of chicks” line feel like a bad person, and I definitely don’t want to make them defensive. I just want to explain. I want to take apart this bit of language and show why it made me sigh to come across it. To let regular people, those who don’t live in my heightened-awareness-of-language world, in on why words matter—even jokes.

Yeah. So this line (“Tons of chicks, just not very many”) reinforces two worldviews that I believe hurt people a great deal, and are untrue: 1) That the primary value of a woman is her appearance and 2) That fat equals ugly. (For a good discussion of this second one, read The Militant Baker ).

Those two ideas alone are insidious. But if we unpack the line a bit more, we come to some other underlying and corollary beliefs: people are fat because they are lazy, weak, and inconsiderate, and therefore they are fair game for mockery because it’s their own fault; women in particular are responsible for keeping/making themselves attractive; men care about access to a lot of traditionally attractive women rather than real connections with women. Whoa. These are some heavy-duty assumptions, and they hurt men as well as women. Guys, do you ever feel the pressure of living up to stereotypes about men and what they want? Ever had that pressure mess up a relationship or potential relationship?

I could go on. Here’s another slogan from the list that made me sigh: “Dental Hygienist: Something to do until you get knocked up.” But I’ll leave the unpacking to you, the reader, at this point. I’ve got my own creative work to get back to.

p.s. At first I thought the slogan for Creative Writing was sort of true, sort of funny, sort of bad-ass, “Because job security is for pussies.” But then I smacked my own head because here it is again, the equation of something female with weakness. Sigh.

5 replies »

  1. Thank you, Katie, for such clarity and compassion for all. You reminded me of a joke I used to hear at Penn State that made my male students guffaw (or did they just feel pressured to laugh? And if they were pressured to laugh, what else were they pressured to do?). This joke broke my heart every time I heard it. I studied, lived, and taught there sixteen years and will always love Penn State, faults and all. I loved my students then, male and female, and I love them still. Penn State was a culture proud of its Playboy Party School ranking and its Greek life. Until recently, the administration could keep the high per capita rape statistics on the down-low, but the number of my female students who confided in me and not the law suggested the actual sex-crime rate might be higher. I hope that the clean-up after the Sandusky scandal includes provisions for the protection of women and that jokes like this are no longer cool at Penn State. If jokes can be evil, dehumanizing all, this is one of them:

    Q: What’s the difference between a sorority girl and a toilet?
    A: The toilet doesn’t follow you around after you use it.

  2. Yes, Lisa. That joke is so very old. And so many layers of judgment pile up in that one–against women, sorority members, men who might actually want to be in real relationships with sorority members. Because that’s a big part of it all, isn’t it? That we all see each other as people, that we recognize our shared humanity, that we do all we can to support and foster real connection.

    • Drat, you know that joke too? I was hoping it’d been contained like a toxic spill. Yes, it carries judgment against anyone who might dare mistake sex for an expression of affection, the manifestation of trust, and the promise of future tenderness yet to be shared. I suppose that’s part of what makes our job worth doing–we’re empathy coaches!

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