Just a joke? #MeToo, Internet humour and feminist killjoys

A woman holds up a sigh which says #MeToo.

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Maja Brandt Andreasen is an AHRC- funded PhD student in feminist media studies at the University of Strathclyde. Her research project investigates rape discourse on humorous websites with the Weinstein allegations and the #MeToo movement as the case study.



The #MeToo movement remarkably created a shift in the public debate where victims were considered truthful and where sexual abuse was discussed as a systemic problem. At least that’s the impression I got from the mainstream media and my left-wing, feminist Twitter feed. However, when looking into social media sites that encourage users to share humorous responses to current events, I get a very different impression of the reactions to sexual abuse. Through my PhD research I look at memes about #MeToo and the Harvey Weinstein case on websites that encourage users to have fun and that “want to make the world a happier place”. My question is, though, who exactly is invited into this humorous space and who is excluded? You guessed it, this is of course a question of gender. The websites I’m analysing prove to be androcentric and heteronormative discursive spaces where users never mention their gender because they are always assumed to be male (and white, and heterosexual, and young, and able-bodied etc.). Should a female user reveal her identity she will be the target of abuse for having broken the unspoken rule of androcentrism, echoing the popular Internet trope “There are no girls on the Internet”.

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Image text: From Maja Brandt Andreasen’s data set.

As Judith Butler points out, language has the ability to injure us, to impose harm on us and is therefore not merely a harmless instrument of communication (Butler 1997). Similarly, I would argue that there is no such thing as harmless humorous discourse. It is never “just a joke” because our discursive spaces are always a product of our social, cultural and historical reality. When harmful or hurtful humorous discourse, such as dismissive memes about rape, is trivialised because it is “just a joke” it functions as a distraction from the structural problem with rape culture. A meme comparing Weinstein to Jabba the Hutt or a picture of a sock with the words #MeToo reveal a long line of assumptions about victims and abusers. In this example Weinstein is characterised as inhuman, as “other”, as something monstrous which distracts from the structural problem of sexual abuse. The truth is that sexual abuse isn’t limited to separate instances but is something most women experience to some extent, exactly what #MeToo pointed to. Also, comparing a sock (presumably used for masturbation) to a victim of sexual abuse not only ridicules the #MeToo movement, it also trivialises sexual harassment, abuse and rape.

What the sock image also reveals is how these humorous discursive spaces online function as androcentric communities. The humour is by men and for men which then often means that women are the punch-line of the jokes. As mentioned above, the consequence for female voices on these online spaces is verbal abuse. Humour here becomes a tool for inclusion and exclusion with a male producer of humorous content on one end of the spectrum and a female voice of disruption on the other. Female disruptive voices are dismissed and deemed humourless, in fact the trope of the humourless feminist is a favourite in these communities that consider themselves as a sort of freedom fighters in the feminist war against free speech. Again I ask: who exactly has access to freedom of speech and who is limited by it? Sara Ahmed (2010) refers to this disruptive feminist voice as a “feminist killjoy”. This is the person who protests, who speaks up and disrupts the spaces of joy and happiness which are only reserved for some and which marginalises and excludes others. I find the feminist killjoy to be an incredibly powerful, encouraging and empowering image when dealing with humorous rape discourse online. Victim blaming, rape myths and trivialisation of rape thrive in these spaces and I for one am not going to dismiss perpetuation of rape culture as “just a joke”. I wear my Feminist Killjoy t-shirt with pride. And by the way, I have an excellent sense of humour.

 Works cited:

Ahmed, Sara. 2010. “Feminist Killjoys (And Other Willful Subjects).” The Scholar and Feminist Online 8 (3).http://sfonline.barnard.edu/polyphonic/ahmed_01.htm.
Butler, Judith. 1997. Excitable Speech: A Politics of the Perfomative. London: Routledge.