JK and I indulged in an evening-long marathon of the British version of The Office last night. After the third episode, I started feeling a little funny. I began almost dreading the next one.
The show is well-written and smartly acted. The humor -- much of which involves male characters making off-color remarks and gestures directed at female co-workers -- makes us cringe and squirm so much that we almost have to laugh. I laughed. But after a while, I realized I was doing more cringing than laughing.
The writers' portrayal of workplace sexual harassment supposedly illuminates the absurdity of this behavior. That's why we think it's funny. The show doesn't require us to accept the idea that sexual harassment is acceptable in order to laugh at it -- quite the opposite, really. We're not exactly encouraged to identify with the guys tossing around the off-color jokes and ogling their female co-workers.
But we also laugh because workplace harassment (of women) is familiar. It's expected. The show draws its humor, in part, on our collective understanding that this kind of environment is a regular -- although theoretically unacceptable -- occurrence in the lives of many women.
I usually think smart, ironic humor is a good way to shed light on -- and even educate about -- social issues (Margaret Cho and Chris Rock are sometimes good examples of this; Sarah Silverman, in my opinion, is not). But every now and then, I wonder whether the "smart, ironic" part is just a cover that allows people who are usually male to get away with stupid, sexist jokes that otherwise might be considered tasteless.
I don't blame all individual men for the existence of sexism. But I do think that adults with Y chromosomes tend to be a little more comfortable laughing outright at an expression of sexism without any pause to consider its real-life origins or implications.
After six episodes of The Office last night, I suggested we call it quits. "Are you getting bored?" JK asked.
"No," I said, "honestly, I'm just kind of tired of the harassment humor. It's getting a little old."
He had no idea what I was talking about. Sure, he noticed the jokes, but he was able to watch them purely through the lens of humor. He didn't cringe every time a new character who shared his gender walked onto the screen, knowing full well they were about to experience a barrage of behavior meant to humiliate them.
Sexism -- and sexual harassment in workplaces and schools -- is still a real problem. And I think humor can play a part in addressing it. But at the end of the day, there are countless other things I'd rather be laughing at.