PC WORLD: WHERE TO NOW?
Does laughing along with harmless, suggestive jokes make Emily Hourican a traitor to the sisterhood?
So, I got onto a bus recently, carrying a bag of cashew nuts that was I having instead of lunch. The driver, a jovial fellow, made a joke that went something like: “I like the look of your nuts, as the actress said to the bishop”. I laughed, politely. I have been laughing, politely, at stupid jokes like this pretty much all my adult life.
Clearly encouraged, the driver made a few more such jokes about nuts: silly, unfunny, and suggestive in the way those old-fashioned saucy seaside postcards were suggestive. Then he said if I would give him one of my nuts, he would bring me to my destination (a short hop) for free. I said great, and that he was welcome to the rest of the cashew nuts.
Then I turned to take a seat, and encountered a stare of what seemed to me utter disbelief mixed with disgust on the face of a young woman. She was, I guess, a decade younger than I am. She looked at me with horror, the way I might look at someone who, being groped by a man, giggled and said “Oh fiddle-de dee, sir!” As if I were a traitor to my sex, undoing years of hard feminist work by enabling men and their sexist jokes.
I sat down feeling suddenly guilty. Was I a traitor to my sex? Was I enabling this man, who might, the logical reasoning goes, proceed to greater displays of sexism because I had refused to draw a line in the sand early, with a zero-tolerance approach? I considered what my alternatives had been. A wintery smile? Disapproving silence? Outright “How dare you!” None of them seemed appropriate responses. After all, his stupid jokes were, as far as I could see, nothing but what my kids call banter. Not good banter, not clever banter, but still, banter.
I was brought up to laugh politely when people make jokes, to respond amiably to amiability. To be rude only when I confront rudeness, and preferably not even then. But does this make me a throwback? A dinosaur? Is this the equivalent of the 1950s housewife accepting being told: “Don’t you worry your pretty little head about that”, as everyone talks over her pretty head to her husband?
Given that I consider myself a staunch feminist and always have, the idea that the world might have moved on around me, while I remain stuck in the too-forgiving attitudes of the past, bothered me. It still does. And I still don’t have an answer for what I should, or could, have done differently.
A few days later, a friend aired a very particular type of conundrum. She had been looking for a new childminder for her three small kids, and had interviewed various candidates. She warmed to one in particular; a South American girl who, she said, was energetic, kind, fun. So, my friend then did what one does these days — having checked the references, which were excellent, she looked this girl up on social media. And there, on various sites, she found a whole heap of glamour photographs of this girl. Many were topless; lots were pretty skimpy on the bottom half, too. They were more the naughty end of the spectrum rather than anything hardcore. But still . . . was this someone she wanted minding her children?
She tried to weigh up her favourable impressions with the pictures, and got no clear answer. So she asked us. There were various responses: Could this be a cultural thing, given that the girl comes from South America, where body attitudes are different? Did the fact she posed for such photos mean she couldn’t be a good childminder? Did the girl display a lack of judgment? Was there a morality issue? Was it unwise to have this girl working in close connection with my friend’s husband? All aspects were discussed, and no consensus was reached.
So I put those two things together and I got . . . nothing. I still have nothing. On the one hand, it seems it is no longer acceptable to smile agreeably at silly, sexist jokes. But on the other, a woman’s right to display her body as she chooses can still be a deal-breaker in the world of work. Where are we on feminism, sexism and political correctness? No idea. Over to you, people.
I have been laughing, politely, at stupid jokes like this pretty much all my life