ALLAN G. JOHNSON'S BLOG
Making Fun of Men Is No Joke
Three women are sitting around a small table in a bar, a night out together, talking, laughing, when a man walks over and rests his hand on the back of a chair as he leans in and says, “Are you ladies alone?”
I want to state for the record that men are not born with a predisposition to say such things. Or to write, “Man, being a mammal, breastfeeds his young.” Or to be emotionally tone-deaf, inattentive listeners, socially forgetful and inept, or unable to read nonverbal cues, including the difference between being friendly and wanting to have sex. These result from long and careful and sometimes painful training. In the interest of fairness I should also make clear that these are variable patterns among men, but they still show up enough to become sitcom plots and punch lines in comedy routines, not to mention stories that women tell around small tables in bars.
The patterns include men’s tendency to dominate conversations, which has been extensively researched and documented. I remember Nora and I having lunch one day many years ago when she brought up a topic for conversation. I don’t remember what it was exactly, which gives a clue to the problem right there. But I do remember her starting off in a general way, as in, “I wonder about such-and-such,” which is all I needed to jump right in. Apparently I went on for quite awhile before she managed to get my attention long enough to ask a few questions.
Did I actually know what I was saying, she wanted to know, and was I keeping track or just rattling on, and did I have reason to believe I was correct, since my tone seemed so confident and sure.
I didn’t have to think it over before saying no. I was having a good time saying whatever came to mind without much thought to anything else.
You need go no further than cable news to see there’s a lot of that going around.
These patterns are part of what keeps male privilege going, but they also make men vulnerable to looking foolish and being the butt of jokes like the one about there being a market for human brains and women’s brains selling at just a quarter the price of men’s because women’s brains are used.
The source for this particular joke was the actor, Sharon Stone, as she introduced Betty Friedan at the 75th anniversary celebration of Time magazine, attended by a crowd of some 1,300 luminaries, including a slew of powerful and prominent men, from Mikhail Gorbachev, Henry Kissinger, and John Glenn to Muhammad Ali, Joe DiMaggio, and Tom Cruise.
The important thing is that the crowd laughed.
I think it’s worth asking why. Why would Sharon Stone be able to predict a joke like that would play so well to an audience full of powerful and ego-driven men? Why make fun of men’s brains in a world where it’s hard to name a social institution or powerful organization—including science and universities where brains are what it’s all about—that is not controlled by men? Not to mention if men’s brains are distinguished from women’s in not being used at all, how come they’re running the world?
I think part of the answer is that Stone wasn’t talking about all of that when she said men don’t use their brains. She was speaking in a familiar code that allows women to make fun of men and get away with it. Men don’t use their brains for things that, in a patriarchal culture, are optional for men—all of the emotional, human, relationship-tending tasks that are left to women. If men are no good at those, it’s only because they’re off doing more important things. The message in the crowd’s indulgent laughter was clear: so long as you leave men’s manhood alone, and the control—both real and imagined—that goes with it, you can make fun of them all you want about things that don’t really matter.
Except they do matter, because being clueless about emotion and human relationships has disastrous consequences. In Gil Elliot’s careful and conservative study, Twentieth Century Book of the Dead, he estimates that in just the first 70 years of the last century, more than 120 million people lost their lives because of wars waged by men.† And most of those wars were a series of blunders from beginning to end, with only the victor’s magic brush of masculine history to make it look like something else.
The list of powerful men who overreach, who misjudge the facts, who lie to themselves and everyone else, who misread their adversaries, who go to war because they’re afraid not to and, once started, keep it going for the same reason, and who are completely unprepared to deal with the chaos, destruction, and mass suffering that result, is staggering. Our own government knows no equal when it comes to charging off under the delusion that the men in power know what they’re doing, that with enough money, troops, and manly grit they can make it come out the way they want, and not only that, it won’t take very long or hurt very much.
And they are almost always wrong. No, actually, they’re always wrong.
It is a miracle that we don’t go to war more often, and that we do not is undoubtedly because a woman’s hand is in there somewhere, not that it will make the front page of the Times.
When Ronald Reagan was president, the Cold War was coming to a head with nuclear posturing on both sides, and, as the story goes, the president’s wife, Nancy Reagan, confronted him. She told him he had to cut it out, that he and Gorbachev, the Soviet premier, had to find a way to get along. And the reason?
“Because you’re scaring everyone.”
Amazingly enough, the president listened. But also amazing is that so many men can become so powerful and yet be so clueless about something as basic to human existence and well-being as how to get along without pulling out a gun or blowing one another up or scaring everyone half to death.
Buried in the laughter at Sharon Stone’s joke is the sobering truth that if it is only half true, you really have to wonder why men would be in charge.
Not to mention what’s so funny.
If you liked this post, you might also want to read, “What Happened to the Tender-hearted Boys?”
†Gil Elliot, Twentieth Century Book of the Dead. New York: Scribner, 1972.
This post was published in the Fall 2013 issue of Voice Male Magazine.