I’m sure none of us has had the good fortune to escape the many jokes which use wives/husbands beleaguered by wives on their family Whatsapp groups. In the sainted past, one could go at least a few days (or even weeks!) without having to listen to these PJs of the worst kind, but now thanks to the wonders of technology one can savour the pleasure of gagging over the sexism of one’s (usually male) family members every day.
I always thought that I belonged to a fairly progressive family (while being under no illusions that the patriarchy is still alive and well). Unfortunately, my cousins whatsapp group is rife with this stupidity. Now seeing as I’m an ardent feminist and usually quite fiesty, you’d be surprised to know that I have kept silent all this while. I didn’t want to rock the boat and be that feminist. Yeah I know.
But even I have my limits. And I won’t deny that I’ve become (even more of) a grumpy ol’ crone since I have been stuck at home. Now I don’t even have literal fresh air to distract me from the irritation of other people.
So when once again, I saw a couple of jokes using wives as a punchline, I decided to speak up. Predictably, the dudes in question got defensive. In trying to explain to them why I disliked these jokes, I found it surprisingly hard to find something online. In fact, when I Googled “why wife jokes are not funny”, the top results were “why women aren’t funny”. Insert facepalm emoji.
As I step out of academia, I am realising more and more how the common sense there does not apply to other people. Many people have just not got the memo, and even if they did, they didn’t understand it.
Since I couldn’t find a readymade explanation for why wife jokes should be consigned to the annals of history, I decided to write one:
These jokes come from a long tradition of jokes that use women as the punchline. Remember the “dumb blonde” jokes that have thankfully died a quiet death? Either women are stupid or frivolous or talk too much. For example, the wife that cannot stop shopping or spending all her husband’s money.
A variation is the poor husband who has to face his wife’s ire (never mind, domestic violence rates). This was the joke that broke the camel’s back on my family group. The problem with the joke is twofold:
- It’s flat out tiresome. It’s been made so many times that it gets boring. Also constantly making the same joke about the same group of people is not just not very creative, it’s bullying. What else would you call picking on the same group of people? The punchline of these jokes is essentially – women be crazy ha ha ha. How many times do we have to hear that before we stop laughing?
- Jokes function best when they are punching up. A white person joking about being oppressed by a black person would probably fall flat. But when the same dynamic is translated into gender terms, anything goes apparently.
Women are already subject to discrimination and oppression. (That is something middle-class men do not want to acknowledge became apparent in my family discussion). We may have made great strides in gender equality, but that project is far from finished, even in our privileged circles. Men still rule the roost.
- Given the above, jokes which cast men as being at the mercy of their wives are particularly galling. In a similar way to how Indian goddesses as trotted out as examples of how enlightened Indian culture is, these jokes purport that women are supreme in their homes, when the reality is anything but. While women have carved out the home as a source of power for themselves, having not been given the choice to do anything else for centuries, it is still often the man – who has the benefit of economic independence and the whole patriarchal infrastructure shoring up his sense of self worth and entitlement – in most families, who calls the shots in the final analysis even in the home.
Moreover, like the mythological goddesses, there is a suggestion latent in these jokes of women going too far, of their power (however limited in reality) being in danger of actually threatening men. The joke thus functions as a way of circumscribing what is essentially seen as a transgression of women by ridiculing them.
Have men ever wondered why women talk so much anyway? Perhaps because they don’t have the luxury of saying just a single word and being heeded at once.
- The other problem with these jokes is that they perpetuate stereotypes of men and women that are in the “men are from Mars, women are from Venus” vein. This is the very idea that has conveniently kept women out of many spheres arbitrarily deemed the exclusive province of men on “natural” grounds. “Arbitrarily” because from a scientific point of view, men and women are much more alike than different. Many of the differences we insist on seeing, if they exist at all, are the result of social conditioning. So there’s a self-fulfilling prophecy at work here: men and women are different because we insist on saying that they are, and these jokes are part of that narrative.
The ineluctable difference between men and women is often both the punchline of the joke and its defence. Thus, when it is pointed out that it’s rather cruel to denigrate a group that is already oppressed, the oppression of women itself is called into question. Men and women both have their strengths, we are told. Sure, everyone has their strengths, though I tend to think our strengths are much more individually differentiated, rather than being part of some lumpen “women’s strengths”. Even if one accepts that women as a group have particular “women’s strengths”, we have been historically prevented from exercising them on an equal footing with men.
The “men and women have their strengths” line is a nice way of saying “stay in your lane, ladies” (and that lane just happens to be subordinate but we’ll be nice and not say so). It’s similar to people justifying the caste system on the grounds that we need this hierarchy for society to work.
Yes, we know, the world will fall apart if women wear pants, literally or metaphorically. And if such a dastardly eventually were to come to pass, how can men cope by pointing fingers and laughing.
- But but “dad jokes” and “inept husband who doesn’t do any work” jokes! How is it that women can poke fun at men? First, see point 2.
Then, think about how frequently we hear “dad jokes” versus “wife jokes”.
Finally, I do not find “inept husband” jokes funny. Men refusing to pitch in with the housework and the double burden women carry has serious consequences for women.
- So obviously one will finally be accused of, in nicer terms of course, being a humourless feminist bitch. Usually, it is phrased as “no one will be able to make any jokes anymore if everyone gets offended”. The threat of a world without humour has been ongoing for decades at least but as far as I can see, despite the best efforts of us social justice warriors, humour has not died. In fact, dare I say that we have landed up with better humour? Think of stand-up comedy today versus what it was a couple of decades ago when being funny was basically pointing to people who looked different and alughing. Comedians are now forced to reach higher than the lowest hanging fruit and that’s a good thing.
Try harder, dudes. I’m sure you might actually be funny one day.