When is a Joke not a Joke? Why We Got Upset that Black Widow Was Called a “Slut”

Avengers_Black_WidowAvengers cast members Jeremy Renner and Chris Evans made news today for an interview in which they called Black Widow’s character a “whore” and a “slut.” Of course, the internet exploded with many fans expressing their disappointment in these two actor’s misogynistic behavior and many others reproaching the offended for being over-sensitive. The actors have since issued apologies, but as we know, an apology doesn’t always close the case.

A discussion needs to be had about why these types of jokes surface, and whether or not being offended by them is an overreaction.

I made the mistake of reading the comments section of the original article, and as I should have expected there were many people making the point that it was just a joke, that the actors obviously didn’t mean it seriously. But here’s the thing: You can’t just dismiss something by saying it’s a joke. Jokes say something about our culture and what we find funny. And if your first reaction when talking about a female character with multiple love interests is to call her a slut, than you are showing the connection in your mind between sexually expressive women and “slutty” behavior.

But what exactly is a “slut”? It’s any woman who you want to put down. This study focuses on the economic divide in female cliques and the use of the word slut, but it ends on the point that “slut” is used as a “misogynistic catch-all, a verbal utility knife that young people use to control women and create hierarchies.” Let me repeat that. The word slut is used to control women through passing judgement on their sexual (and even non-sexual) behavior and shaming them for it. So the fact that it is tossed around in such a blasé manner is indeed disturbing.

“slut” is used as a “misogynistic catch-all, a verbal utility knife that young people use to control women and create hierarchies.”

For me, and perhaps many women, there’s this fear of standing up when you think a joke is out of line. You don’t want to be “that” woman, the feminist with no sense of humor. But as I grow up, I’m beginning to be more confident in the fact that yes, I do not find any joke that puts down another person funny, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. There’s this culture that jokes are sacred, that anything said in a joke is safe. It’s not. It still has the power to hurt, and so you still have to think about it and its consequences before you say it.

There’s this culture that jokes are sacred, that anything said in a joke is safe. It’s not. It still has the power to hurt.

On my facebook feed today, the Black Widow article was the second top-trending article on my sidebar. The third top-trending article was also about a joke gone too far. The report described Native American cast members walking off the set of Adam Sandler’s current production project, The Ridiculous Six, because they felt disrespected by the racist humor written into the script, especially directed towards women and elders, and by the production team’s unwillingness to address their concerns. The director waved off their concerns by saying that no disrespect was meant and pointing out that the movie was, after all, a comedy. As if by nature of being a comedy it cannot be disrespectful.

There are so many ways to be funny without putting someone else down. Is the sake of your joke really worth hurting someone else? There are so many more productive ways you could get a laugh. That’s my opinion.

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