Being the Wet Blanket

Feminists are often accused of having no sense of humor, of having a stick up their asses, or of being curmudgeons. And I’m going to be honest: many times I feel like I am the wet blanket. I can’t enjoy many of the movies and TV shows that I used to because I notice how screwed up they are, I feel uncomfortable around many people because of the ways in which they joke or the words that they throw around, and I often have to tell people that they really aren’t as witty and charming as they thought they were, they are in fact just being oppressive assholes. It’s not fun to have to take on this role. It’s not fun to have to “ruin” people’s fun. I often find myself feeling guilty or wondering if I’m oversensitive or too delicate in my sensibilities. But there are some good reasons to continue being the wet blanket, and perhaps these reasons can keep you going through the times you feel like everyone hates you for speaking up.

Perhaps the most important thing to remember in “wet blanket” situations is that you are not in fact ruining anyone’s fun. Their fun has already been ruined by the fact that it’s come at the expense of someone else. If you were to walk up to a bully punching a smaller child and stop them from hurting that child, you wouldn’t feel guilty for ruining their fun: you would know that their fun was inappropriate to begin with. You are doing the same thing when you call someone out for sexism, racism, or other oppressive behaviors. Those behaviors just as actively hurt people as the bully physically beating someone. They hurt people through the violent norms they enforce, through rape culture, through the wage gap, through hate crimes…these are realities that are linked to the jokes and the casual conversations we have.

Many people also accuse feminists of being incapable of having fun, not just of ruining the fun of others. I’d like to propose a thought experiment to explore this claim. Let’s imagine we live in a society in which brutal torture was normal. It was even considered fun. People publicly tortured others to get kicks, and it was often viewed as a show: going out to the torture. Say you were an individual living in this society and you couldn’t bring yourself to enjoy any of this. You go out to the torture and you look at your friends and say “this is wrong! We’re hurting people!” They respond by asking why you can’t have any fun. Looking at a society like this, we would recognize that the person who is unhappy is actually perceiving the situation more accurately and with more empathy than the other individuals involved, and that most likely they could have fun if it were in a non-harmful way.

Now obviously this is hyperbolic. But as I mentioned before, many of the things that people view as fun, joking, or entertainment do in fact contribute directly to the harm of others. Perceiving this connection and being upset by it is not an indication that one has no sense of fun: rather it’s an indication that one has an active sense of empathy and a clear perception of the situation. I would bet that if you asked most feminists whether there things in life they enjoyed they would say yes. They’re just probably not the things you enjoy. I myself for example deeply enjoy My Little Pony, chocolate, swimming, and taiko drumming just to name a few. But I attempt to find things to like that don’t hurt others. Being upset by bad behavior is not an indication that you’re incapable of enjoying things. It’s an indication that there’s something wrong with the things people are asking you to enjoy.

People who are labelled as “wet blankets” are often those who perceive something that others don’t. As an example, we have some people at my work that want to do and try everything. We need our resident wet blanket to say “stop. Let’s think about what will happen if we do this”. In many cases this is about practicality, however it can also be about ethics and empathy. I want to be the person who asks others to stop and consider the implications of their actions because that person is the one who keeps our world running and functional. That person is necessary and improves things in the long term. They don’t necessarily want to stop what you’re doing, but they do want you to think it out first and make improvements to it. I have no problem with you writing that song, but I think it would be a much better song if it didn’t promote rape culture and I’ll tell you that.

But more than anything, when you feel you’re making a big deal out of nothing, remember that your emotions are valid. If you are upset or hurt by something, that is valid. And it is also valid to ask people to stop doing things that hurt or upset you, even if they don’t understand why. Particularly when you  know that others are hurt by something, you can feel confident that your discomfort is not out of line or irrational: it is necessary.

So yes, I will happily take the label of wet blanket if it means that I am making people more aware of their actions and the implications of their actions, if it means that I’m ending “fun” that is harmful and cruel, if it means that I’m standing up for my own needs and the needs of others. If that’s being a wet blanket and ruining your fun, then you’re doing fun the wrong way.

Hiding Behind Humor

In my family we have a joke. It originated when I was a teenager, bored on the weekend. I walked downstairs and my parents were creating a to-do list of tasks they needed to complete before Monday. Like any good teenager, I demanded that they pay attention to me. They jokingly said that it wasn’t on the list. I promptly picked up a pen and wrote at the top of the page “Priority #1: Entertain Olivia”. When they finished that list, I wrote up a post it note that said the same thing and stuck it to the fridge. There it remained for years, until we had to replace the fridge and took down all of the junk decorating our old one.

It was funny. Except when it wasn’t. Except for the times when boredom drove me into an anxiety so deep that I didn’t know what to do and legitimately contemplated smashing my head against the wall until I blacked out just so I could stop having my thoughts run in circles. Except for the times when I was alone and lost and couldn’t make myself leave the house because I just didn’t know what to do with myself and the hugeness of the world was too much and my mind was too full of angry thoughts that had appeared when there was nothing else to fill it up. It was funny though. It was precocious.

And somehow, deep in the recesses of consciousness, it was self-care. I knew what I needed and I was asking, demanding, begging that someone pay attention to what I knew I needed. And somewhere, my parents knew it too. There was an unspoken agreement that when possible, they would feed my desire for constant entertainment.

Now for the most part, this was just a joke. It didn’t have some large, existential meaning. But it revealed something about me. I really was seeking attention and for a legitimate reason. This isn’t the only time that the way someone has joked has revealed something about their mental state, or about what they need from others.  This is one of the reasons that I feel racist, sexist, and otherwise oppressive jokes are such a problem: all jokes contain a morsel of what the joker believes is truth.

There are two elements to this story that I find important in my own life. The first is that I’ve started paying more attention to how I joke. Perhaps if I had paid attention to it ten years ago I would have realized that I had some issues long before it turned into a life-threatening disease, and personally I think that would have been just peachy. When something comes up repeatedly in my life, I’m trying to take the time to stop and think about it. Oftentimes, these are jokes. Thinking back on my life, I’ve noticed other jokes that were telling: when I was younger I used to say that I wasn’t turning into my mother, I was my mother. Now I’m starting to see that as an unhealthy intertwining of identity. Hopefully I’ll notice my current jokes before they turn into problems.

Rarely have I heard anyone suggest that we should be mindful of the way we joke as a barometer of how we’re doing. However humor is often a way for us to say things that would otherwise be inappropriate without repercussions. More often than not, anything goes in comedy. Particularly sarcasm makes it easy for us to say what we truly mean without being taken seriously. I’m surprised that more people don’t look to the jokes that they make as a way to think about what’s going on beneath the surface of their thoughts, but I’d suggest we all spend a little more time thinking about it.

The second thing that I’ve noticed from this anecdote is that I now pay more attention to the jokes that other people make. Self-deprecating humor? That says something serious about a person’s self-esteem. Racist and sexist jokes? Aw hell no. I’ve started to hold people more responsible for what they say under the guise of humor, because everything we say has consequences and repercussions. I have begun to try to be thoughtful about the ways I respond to humor, even as simple as “Please don’t make fun of yourself, it makes me uncomfortable”. I’ve tried to simply be aware of what it means when someone makes the same joke over and over. I’m taking humor seriously now (which is not to say that I suddenly have lost my sense of humor, simply that I over analyze my sense of humor now. Hooray!).

I hope that more people can become aware of the ways that we use joking and humor to cover things up in our society. While it’s wonderful that we’ve had people like Lenny Bruce and George Carlin open up the world of comedy to some majorly free speech, there is a downside, which is that people often use comedy as an excuse to say anything. Since much of comedy relies on wordplay, it’s often a way to say things sideways without anyone truly noticing the impact of what you’re saying. Comedy is a good cover for the depths of your true beliefs. I suggest we make a concerted effort to bring humor into the realm of critical thought and stop giving it a free pass just because it’s funny. It could make a serious difference.