How to be funny: a rudimentary lesson for wingnuts
I’m sure by now you’ve seen this video posted by the Minnesota GOP. It suggests that Republican women are, as a rule, sexually attractive but Democratic women are not.
Sarah Palin claimed that a “cackle of rads” hijacked feminism (in the same tweet, she also demonstrated a level of understanding of the word “ironic” that would put Alanis Morisette’s to shame!), implying that it’s up to conservatives to reclaim what feminism used to stand for. Perhaps this is the sort of old-fashioned “feminism” she’s talking about. After all, the suffragettes were known for marching down the street with signs that said, “Votes For Women, For Your Mother Finds Your Countenance Displeasing”. (Sloganeering has grown snappier since those days, making signs that much easier to carry.)
I fear, however, as a piece of political satire, this doesn’t quite work. I realize that humor is far from the easiest thing for wingnuts to handle, so I thought I’d, being a softie liberal, reach out and use this as a teaching moment on the subject of what humor is, and how to make it actually funny.
The main thing to understand about humor is that it should have a point. Even fart jokes, when viewed from the right angle, are a dark commentary on the weaknesses and humiliations of the human body. Dick jokes often mine similar territory, but with a focus on the absurd. Above all, good humor is rooted in a brutal honesty.
Let us examine what the point of this joke is. Calling someone ugly isn’t necessarily always a pointless non-joke. For instance, if someone is flailing around, calling their opponents ugly, it can often be funny to examine their own shortcomings in the hawtness department. But the joke there is on the lack of self-awareness on the part of the person flinging “you’re ugly” around. There are great comedians who mine self-deprecating jokes about their own looks, but usually it’s couched in some larger observations. And you can always joke that someone’s physical ugliness is the cause of their personality flaws, but in order to do so, you have to make a convincing and snappy case as to why this must be. I find that this is very nearly impossible to do, due to the brutal honesty requirements of humor. It just doesn’t seem true that ugliness of the face equals ugliness of the soul.
Perhaps this video is an attempt to illustrate Rush Limbaugh’s feminists-are-just-ugly joke that feminism was invented “to allow unattractive women easier access to the mainstream of society.” This is a common premise of conservatives, that women’s sole source of satisfaction is to be validated by male approval, and that therefore women who seek other things (such as professional success and the vote) must be lacking in this department.
But alas, the video actually disproves this premise, as the hawt Republican women, with the exception of someone like Carrie Prejean, are quite obviously women who want to access the mainstream of society for reasons other than simply being on display for men or being Mrs. So-And-So. Sarah Palin is clearly not sitting on her laurels admiring her wedding ring. The idea that access to professions and equality only benefits the ugly is quite nicely shown to be false in this video.
At the end of the day, the only real meaning you can get out of this video is that it’s suggesting that conservative men are so insecure that they need to have fantasy trophies to establish their masculine bona fides. And that is funny, especially when you consider the dark pathos of a situation. After all, the men who enjoy this video are really stretching when trying to claim the hawt women as trophies. Sarah Palin isn’t going home with any of these dudes, you know? Watching a video of beauty queens and good-looking politicians and feeling more manly because they vote like you is even more pathetic than thinking you’re a badass warrior because you really enjoyed that Tom Clancy novel.
But unless the video makers were trying to put together a very subtle satire of the yearnings of anxious conservative men—and I highly doubt that’s what’s going on—this video flunked the “has a point” test, much less the “brutal honesty” test of good humor.
The art of the burn. Let none of this mean that there’s no point to a well-lobbed insult in the annals of humor. Really burning a motherfucker is a time-honored way of getting your lulz. But while many people think insulting your enemies (or perhaps even your friends, in midst of friendly competition) is easy to do, in reality, it’s an art form. Any fool can say you’re ugly. It takes a true artist to render an excellent burn.
I have some guidelines on the art of burning:
1) The more specific and individual the better.
2) What you single out about someone should be insightful on some level, and if it invokes the pathos of the human condition, so much the better.
3) You should have a good reason why you think the trait thus singled out is shameful. “Just because” isn’t a reason.
4) Honesty and truth! Logical consistency also helps.
5) Your burn shouldn’t reveal aspects of your own character that are far more pathetic than anything you’re putting on your target.
Let us look at the two favorite—and often sole—insults that conservatives aim at liberal women:
A) You employ your vagina in the service of orgasm-related activities more than I approve of.
B) You are insufficiently attractive enough to get the kind of attention that would result in orgasm-related activities.
Some wingnuts are smart enough to see the rhetorical (if not real world, since ugly people get laid) contradiction between their two official stances on liberal and especially feminist women, but said wingnuts are rarely smart enough to maintain this understanding for more than 2-3 minutes at a time. So perhaps they will tell one feminist that she’s only a feminist because she’s ugly, and then another that she’s only a feminist because she gets way too much male attention and thus is in constant need of contraception and abortion services. They will not stop to think about the contradictions between the motivations that they ascribe to why women would give up their natural inclinations to wish for second class citizenship. But sometimes they’ll be wise enough not to call someone ugly and suggest she’s knee deep in male attention at the same time. Sometimes.
These two attacks fail basically every measure of how to rate a burn. They’re rarely specific in any way—on the contrary, “ugly”, “slut”, or “ugly slut” is the generic insult that wingnuts grab for if their adversary shows signs of being female, and it often takes a Herculean struggle to get them to consider anything else. Gender is the sum total of the woman in their minds. “Ugly” is generally a bad burn because it’s both subjective and doesn’t really speak to the human condition on any deeper level than the literal surface. Any and all insults that pertain to the overuse of the vagina as defined by the wingnut in question fails test #3. Very rarely does a wingnut have an articulate reason for their arbitrary limits on how much sex or how many partners they deem appropriate for a woman—in fact, if pressed, they often can’t tell you what the limit is they’ve accused you of exceeding. Obviously, the logical consistency aspect fails—if you believe that a woman employing her vagina in partner-oriented orgasm-related activities is something that can happen too often, then ugliness should be a quality to aspire towards as a potential limiting factor. And then there’s the honesty and truth aspects. The indiscriminate use of the ugly-and-slutty insults makes the obvious inaccuracy of the accusations a common problem. I, for instance, cannot speak to my attractiveness without threatening the bonds of humility, but I can say the constant accusations that I frequently have abortions and engage in sexual intercourse with many partners routinely simply don’t reflect my rather mundane realities, even if you assume (as I do not) that those behaviors are wrong.
Plus, there’s the dishonesty within this video that attempts to insult Democratic women. The editor engages in naked photoshopping, to begin with. But there’s also the Big Lie, which is the selective use of just a handful of women that are, to anyone being honest, hardly representative of the breadth and diversity of women who vote for or openly support either party. It’s such a blatant bit of non-truth that it violates guideline #5—we learn far more about the person who made the video, and his epic levels of delusion, than we do about the effect that politics has on the sexual attractiveness of women.