Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) initially said of the photo taken of him grabbing at Leeann Tweeden’s breasts while she was sleeping was “clearly intended to be funny but wasn’t. I shouldn’t have done it.”
This will not rank among the world’s great efforts at apologies. His second apology — “I’m sorry. I respect women. I don’t respect men who don’t. And the fact that my own actions have given people a good reason to doubt that makes me feel ashamed” — was an improvement, but I want to go back to the part about the photo being intended as funny.
Funny is something I’ve thought a lot about, as it’s supposed to be part of my job description, and may be the only contribution I can make to this discussion. Like everything else, humor is a source of argument right now, and most recently the argument has been whether we have become so politically correct that we can’t tell jokes anymore. I think of the subject a little differently.
I don’t think there’s such a thing as neutral humor. I think virtually every laugh has a subtext, and I think there are two. Humor is always about something. And if you unpack a joke, it is either about attack, or reassurance. That’s it. Take your pick. The whole debate about everybody being too PC is a way of arguing around this fact. Is anything just a “harmless joke”? A lot of what the anti-PC types want is to be able to tell jokes with a subtext that a group is inferior, and that everybody knows it. That’s the tension that the joke leverages its laugh out of. Take that implication away and it’s not a joke at all anymore. So should you be able to tell that kind of joke anyway? I guess so, you have free speech, but don’t be surprised if people have wised up and figured out that it’s just a way to demean a group, and that they don’t find it at all amusing, just some degree of offensive.
And then there is reassurance humor. This is a cultural norm reinforcer, and the laugh is a laugh of relief that our way is just fine. Al Franken’s attempted humor about breast grabbing, though it may have appeared to be attack humor, was actually reassurance humor. The subtext for reassurance was: Yes, men are in fact pigs, we always have been, and all of us want to do this, and would or will if we get a chance, and by the way the woman in the equation doesn’t matter that much. Who thinks this way? A lot of men have always felt entitled to. Steve Martin exhibited just about the exact same behavior in the movie “Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid.” Don’t click here if you don’t want to see it.
But isn’t it impossible to put an end to inappropriate humor? Yes. People are not perfect, and they like humor, both as a weapon or as self-justification. You won’t stamp it out. But there are always social standards for what is offensive, and those standards are currently up for review. As it now happens, women are sick and tired of the chronic mistreatment, degradation, predatory behavior and actual rape of women they have had to endure since … well, forever.
Given all the recent revelations, they just might find someone kicking a man in the testicles somewhat funnier.