Does laugh­ing along with harm­less, sug­ges­tive jokes make Emily Houri­can a traitor to the sis­ter­hood?

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - Life - - FIRST PERSON -

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

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