Can’t you take a joke?

In the first of a series of guest posts on Higher Unlearning, Kate Adach  takes on the issue of taking issue when a joke isn’t funny.  [Warning: This post contains offensive language.]


My friend J.T. posted this on Facebook because he thought it was funny.

I didn’t.

And I wasn’t alone. Mutual friends of ours wrote to me privately. “How could he post that?” they asked me. “That’s awful!”

So – couched in playful, warm conversational tones – I voiced some disapproval on his wall.

Typical response,” he wrote back, “violence against women.

….uh… WHAT?! This was NOT the J.T. we knew. J.T. was a good guy, a good friend of ours, with a stellar feminist girlfriend. How could he not see that the picture he posted was, in fact, violent?

Again, my friends wrote to me privately: “I don’t understand how he’s casually brushing it off and no one’s saying anything? Arghhhhh,” came one text message.

Sadly, no one complained to him directly.

(Note: There’s an issue of silencing here. But I’ll explain that awful problem later.)

 ‘Okay,’ I thought, ‘so he didn’t get it. He needs a better explanation.’


Well, fine. Here it is:


When is something funny and when isn’t it? Can we laugh at the expense of others? Does it depend on who that “other” is? And what’s the difference between a joke that’s harmless and a joke that’s dangerous?

Comedian Jason Alexander has some great answers.

In a recent appearance on The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson, Jason repeatedly joked that cricket is a ‘gay sport.” It was an improvised comedy bit, unscripted, unplanned and meant to be funny.

The audience laughed. From what he could tell on stage, the initial feedback was good. He thought it was funny. The crowd seemed to think it was funny. So it must have been funny.


After the show, he was shocked to hear otherwise. Some of his Twitter followers told him they were offended by the joke.

Truthfully,” the Seinfeld star writes in an awesome online apology, “I could not understand why. I do know that humor always points to the peccadillos or absurdities or glaring generalities of some kind of group or another – short, fat, bald, blonde, ethnic, smart, dumb, rich, poor, etc. It is hard to tell any kind of joke that couldn’t be seen as offensive to someone. But I truly did not understand why a gay person would be particularly offended by this routine.

He consulted gay friends to try to make sense of the complaints. They dissected the joke and eventually he understood it.


“What we really got down to is quite serious. It is not that we can’t laugh at and with each other. It is not a question of oversensitivity. The problem is that today, as I write this, young men and women whose behaviors, choices or attitudes are not deemed “man enough” or “normal” are being subjected to all kinds of abuse from verbal to physical to societal. They are being demeaned and threatened because they don’t fit the group’s idea of what a “real man” or a “real woman” are supposed to look like, act like and feel like.

For these people, my building a joke upon the premise I did added to the pejorative stereotype that they are forced to deal with everyday. It is at the very heart of this whole ugly world of bullying that has been getting rightful and overdue attention in the media. And with my well-intentioned comedy bit, I played right into those hurtful assumptions and diminishments.”

He goes on to explain how he should have known better. How with his age, experience and exposure to the world that he should have seen the hostility and humiliation that his actions were contributing to.

In his message of amends he writes:

“I would like to say – I now get it. And to the extent that these jokes made anyone feel even more isolated or misunderstood or just plain hurt – please know that was not my intention, at all or ever. I hope we will someday live in a society where we are so accepting of each other that we can all laugh at jokes like these and know that there is no malice or diminishment intended.

But we are not there yet.

So, I can only apologize and I do. In comedy, timing is everything. And when a group of people are still fighting so hard for understanding, acceptance, dignity and essential rights – the time for some kinds of laughs has not yet come.”


And this, my friends, and dear friend J.T., is why sharing an image of a hand shoved in a woman’s face, pushing her head away, with the word “bitch” written over it, is not okay.

The timing is wrong.

Today, in 2012, violence against women is a very real problem. Three women in Toronto were sexually assaulted this past week alone. On the streets. By different men. In what is supposed to be a relatively safe city. And that’s nothing compared to what’s happening behind closed doors, at parties, in homes and in less safe towns.

Making things worse, today online misogyny is vehement and growing.

Pop culture critic Anita Sarkeesian recently opened a Kickstarter account to raise funds for her research on how women are portrayed in videogames. She was viciously attacked online for her efforts. Her inbox and Feminist Frequency website were overrun with tens of thousands of attacks. Meme-like images of her face with the word “bitch” plastered above it, just like in this meme. She received drawings and digitized photos of her, doctored to show her being raped and killed by video game characters. She was cyber-attacked by anonymous men, death threats, extreme vitriol, and other violent and humiliating tactics, including an interactive game where you can click to beat her up.

On CBC Radio One’s The Current in July, she said, “They were trying to silence me.

Ah, there’s the silencing I’d mentioned earlier. We’re in a culture that scares women from speaking up in opposition to the attacks on women they see around them. Apparently, including among our friends on Facebook. Why? Because nobody wants to be called a bitch.

Bitch. The exact word that J.T.’s picture uses. And the same word that’s often used when a woman asserts herself or critiques something offensive. No wonder my friends didn’t want to speak up.



You may now be thinking, ‘Chill, Kate. J.T.’s pic isn’t that extreme. It just says, “Hold on Bitch” not, “I’ll kill you, Bitch.”’


Right. And Jason Alexander didn’t make a violent joke either. He didn’t say, “Cricket playing-faggots should be shot,” or, “Let’s rape and kill gay people.” His joke didn’t include a derogatory slur nor incite violence. His jokes were far more benign than that. But it hinged on an underlying message that unintentionally stripped gay men and women of, in his words, their “dignity and essential rights.”

This is the same. Or perhaps worse, because this isn’t just a joke about what sports women play, it’s about the roles women play in society. And the problem lies in how we treat women.

Somehow we ignore it when a woman is labeled “bitch.” Somehow we accept a society where there’s no male equivalent, so that there’s nothing anyone can say back to a man in retaliation. (Think about it. There is no derogatory slur for straight, white men. None. Louis CK has a great routine about this.)

I’m certain J.T. would not have posted an image on Facebook of a white man shoving his hand in a black man’s face, with the words “HOLD ON N*GGER, I NEED TO DROP THE BASS.” Because we know this is wrong.

I’m certain J.T. wouldn’t have laughed at the same image of a DJ pushing away a man’s face and the words “HOLD ON FAGGOT” across the meme either.

Within our circle of friends, we’re savvy about racism and homophobia. I thought we were savvy about sexism and misogyny too. Apparently not. We’re blind to it.

Somehow today we’re living in a world where violence against women is rapidly spreading online, perpetuated by vile marketing campaigns, and “bitch”-normalizing memes like these.

And somehow, amid it all, we – even the “good” men and women among us – are telling women to be quiet and quit complaining.

Hold on, bitch. Step back, bitch. Shut up, bitch. I don’t care what you have to say, bitch. I don’t have time for this, bitch, I need to drop the bass.

It was supposed to be funny, bitch. Can’t you take a joke?


As Jason Alexander realized, “When a group of people are still fighting so hard for understanding, acceptance, dignity and essential rights – the time for some kinds of laughs has not yet come.”


Kate Adach is a multimedia journalist, and an advocate for equality and media literacy.
You can follow Kate on Twitter @KateMedia 

*This post originally appeared on Kate’s personal blog*


  1. Thanks for this Kate. It is so helpful to have clear and accessible articulations of where humour and hurtfulness intersect. It often feels so challenging to break it down in the moment and this really helps to give us tools and language to wade in to these critical discussions.
    One thing I would say is that sometimes hurtful humour is used in ignorance or without ill intent but it also is used very powerfully as a silencing agent. Telling people that they can’t take a joke or have no sense of humour makes meaningful dialogue and engagement so difficult and gives so much power to the “joker.”


  2. Nothing is ever not funny.

    Contextually insensitive yes. But you just don’t call it not funny.
    I found the first picture hilarious. I am a woman of color and if that picture had said the whole “n*gger” thing I probably would have cringed, but still laughed cause of it’s ridiculousness. No one ever said funny had to be right.

    But must all jokes be monitored and tested to see “Is someone offended?” Am I somehow a bad feminist because I laughed? Do I somehow believe in misogny and that my life is basically only for the kitchen, the laundry room, and the bedroom? No. It is important to understand WHY someone is offended, and WHY jokes like that exist. But it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t laugh.

    You pose all these questions about whether if the meme used black or homosexual slurs…but what if the DJ was a woman? Would it change for you then.


  3. The Louis CK bit would be appropriate if it didn’t include the reference to anal rape as a consequence for whites once their race is no longer a majority. Hearing the phrase “fucking us in the ass” contradicts the spirit of the argument this link is intended to support.


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