I’m scrolling Facebook this morning and I see this graphic appear in my newsfeed:
And my first reaction, pre-coffee, is the Liz-Lemon eye-roll:
Not just because it’s sexist. I mean… it is. But also because it’s, well. Dated.
I mean, really dated. That joke is the equivalent of wearing pleated pants and clutching a hoagie-sized cell phone, wondering if Ross and Rachel are ever going to figure their stuff out. This is rooted pretty firmly in the “Men are From Mars, Women are from Venus” era of relationship humor, a book which I admittedly have never read, mostly because I was in elementary school when it was released and I had better things to do, like organizing a playground clean-up committee after a brief fascination with the life’s work of Rachel Carson, or hiding the evidence from my mom that I ripped my school uniform skirt again while climbing trees in the next-door neighbor’s backyard. (True story: my elementary school playground was where older kids would climb over the fence at night and drink beer and get stoned, and there was always garbage lying around. I did once organize an actual playground clean-up recess committee, like the baby Leslie Knope that I am. It went well up until my first-grade teacher yelled “PUT THAT DOWN, that is NOT A BALLOON!” and it kind of fell apart after that.)
Point is, this joke is ooooollld. And to a degree, I get it. Finding new ways to point out that men and women have a difficult time communicating — that’s what thousands of literary and cultural greats have been doing for centuries. Shakespeare gave us Beatrice and Benedick. Austen gave us Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy. Nora Ephron gave us Harry Burns and Sally Albright. They’re the first three examples that came to mind, but there are thousands and thousands more — stories about men and women who can’t quite figure out how to break through to one another. And I write those stories too! Because there is truth in there, and that truth can be very, very funny.
Except that joke up there – at least to me – isn’t very funny. I don’t actually think it’s funny at all.
That image was posted by a theatre company that I work for. They’re advertising for a touring production of a one-man show that they’re hosting in their space.
I teach at this theatre company, as part of their summer arts theatre program. It’s an incredible, life-changing experience — easily the best theatre education program I have ever witnessed, and I’ve worked with many. I love these kids, and I love that job, with a fierceness and a protectiveness that is hard to explain. I’ve seen kids utterly transformed by their experiences. They are some of the most incredible young people I have ever met, and I am so proud of their accomplishments and achievements, so grateful that I get to play a small role in their lives.
Which means that some of them — the older ones who are on Facebook — saw that image in their newsfeed today, too.
And my heart sank when I realized that.
The rest of the staff and I work so hard to make that theatre a safe space. We encourage imagination and creativity and growth. We help them write their own plays, which means I’ve seen young women play evil villains, space aliens, zombies, cowboys, pirates, the Fonz. I’ve heard young men sing their own renditions of Let It Go. I’ve seen fearless young women and men transcend dumb stereotypes and build deep and meaningful connections with one another.
And I don’t want anyone — especially not the organization that these kids trust to keep them safe — to reinforce the message that when a woman says “No,” it actually means “Yes.”
My first summer teaching at this camp, a fourteen-year-old girl taught me this incredible lesson. I had handed my kids the first draft of the play we were working on — a sweet little comedy about high school. There was a plotline in which the main character, a shy teenaged girl, gets to dance with the coolest boy in school at the end of the play. After we read through it, I asked, “Does anyone have any questions?”
And one of my students tentatively raised her hand and said, “Actually … I was wondering about the end. I don’t know, it just seems like… it kind of feels like the ending is sending the message that all the crappy stuff about your life would be better if you could just dance with a cute boy. And I don’t really think that’s true, and I don’t think it’s a great message.”
My jaw hit the floor. That is exactly what I had done. I hadn’t even realized it. I was hit with equal parts personal shame and incredible pride — pride that this shy young woman had the guts and smarts to call out sexism when she saw it. We all sat around and talked about ways we could make the ending better.
Some of those kids in that room saw that joke today. And it kills me to think that it’s burrowing down into their psyches. Because that’s what the joke is asking us to do, right? We shouldn’t take what a woman has to say seriously, because women are notoriously flighty and unpredictable. We shouldn’t take a woman at her word, because she’s just going to change her mind. (Besides! It’s not like, I dunno, any of these jokes might burrow into our cultural attitudes about women?)
I know that this theatre company didn’t mean to cause offense when they posted this. I know that they’re in the tough financial situation of needing to make money, and appealing to popular demand is sometimes a necessity. I get that. I understand that completely. I don’t think this was an intentional sexist thing, just like I didn’t intentionally write a sexist play with my kids. This kind of thing happens. It’s so deeply culturally ingrained in us not to think about this stuff.
But. Much like my student called me out several years ago, I’m gonna do the same: I think this isn’t a great message, and I think we could do better.
I remember hearing this one when I was in middle school, and I remember exactly how it made me feel. A boy told it to me moments after I had beaten his team in mock trial:
What’s the difference between a knife and a woman’s argument?
The knife has a point.
If you think that last one is funny, I bet tickets are still on sale.
**UPDATE: I’ve just heard back from the marketing director at the company, an extremely lovely person who agrees completely that the image was in poor taste. They’ve removed the image and are going to use this as a teachable moment for the person who updates their social media. We all talked about it! We learned something! Everybody wins. High-five. Onwards.**