"What happens at Georgetown Prep stays at Georgetown Prep. That's been a good thing for all of us, I think."
--Brett Kavanaugh, of his all-male high school, in a 2015 speech to the Columbus School of Law, to laughter from the audience
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As I get older and gain experience in the world, and in particular become a middle-aged woman on my way to becoming an older one, I have had occasion to muse about the stereotype of older women as humorless.
Here's what I have discovered:
The more time I have had to encounter the jokes of men, the more time I have had to realize just how effing often certain classes of jokes are employed as a tool to deflect, deny, disguise, and defend abusive and selfish and objective acts towards women and girls.
And, of course, toward other marginalized persons.
The older we are, the more likely we are to have experienced a particular class of joke as a threat instead of as an amusement.
After a while that class of joke simply ceases to be funny and is only ominous.
This is true even when it comes from a person who only intends to be amusing.
It is still ominous, though for a different reason, when it comes from a good person who, because they generally have good intentions, can sometimes find it very difficult to believe in the badness of other people's intentions. What's ominous about that is: to preserve their own innocence by refusing to believe in certain kinds of guilt, certain kinds of human vileness, they implicitly refuse to believe the testimony of those who have suffered from witnessing that violence.
Ominous can't be funny. It can maybe be deployed as pointed, dark satire. But not ha-ha funny.
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I believe I understand the "humorless" stereotype now.
When you've had a few more years to watch it happen, it becomes obvious, and then you see it everywhere: how very, very often the accusation of humorless (often tied to an accusation of being no longer young) is weaponized to control the discourse.
And then it’s not funny even from people who really do only want to amuse. Because it has associations with some other guy who we saw use it as a tool to cover up his awful treatment of someone or his terrible beliefs.
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There are other jokes we could point to (those that involve slurs, for instance) but let's take a look at the timely one I quoted above.
The joke about “what happens in X stays in X” (popularized by an ad campaign for Las Vegas attractions) is a joke about lying to your spouse after deliberately doing something that you know would hurt them or damage their trust in you.
This is a classic example of imposing an expectation that the in-group will treat transgressions as a joke, precisely in order to escape consequences for the transgressions.
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So one time (not that long ago, I was 41) I had the experience of being called an unacceptably righteous prude who couldn't take a joke, among other things, because I called someone out (privately! with I-statements and everything!) for making jokes in front of my kids with slurs for gay people.
Having this experience was a bit of an awakening for me because I found that for just about the first time I did not have one single fuck to give about how this person thought of me, or how they might describe me to other people.
I attribute this to a certain long-awaited wisdom of middle age.
I realized in that moment that I honestly don’t give a shit about being perceived as humorless when it comes to jokes that are at base dehumanizing.
I might leave, I might try to undermine the jokes subversively, or I might call them out on the spot, depending in the circumstances; but I won’t laugh anymore and I don’t care what men think of me for it.
The power of older women is not giving a flying fuck what men think. And I'm grateful for it.