In my university's chapter of the Feminist Majority Leadership Alliance, we started a system last year called the "STFU Card." We each made a credit-card sized thing to keep in our wallets upon which we kept a tally of the times that people around us (overheard conversations, class discussions, friends, enemies... etc) said stuff that was royally dumb and under crasser circumstances would warrant a "Shut the fuck up!" Then at meetings, we set aside a little time at the end to talk about these STFU-moments that have been gnawing at our souls. (Last year I wrote about two STFU-moments I had, click here for the link) This functions as a nice way to, in a socially acceptable way, vent out our frustrations with the stupid things we hear said in an environment that will support us and be shocked and frustrated along with us.
However, are there times when calling someone out is appropriate?
This political cartoon from the 2008 presidential election is just one of a multitude of examples I could give about sexist jokes. The t-shirts the dudes in the comic are wearing are actually shirts that were sold during the 2008 election and oft-worn by men making fun of Hillary Clinton's transgression of the stereotypical gender norms that say that only women do domestic work or bake cookies. (I'm reading a really interesting book right now called Big Girls Don't Cry by Rebecca Traister about women and the 2008 election. She lists many other "joke" products about Hillary Clinton that both men and women made and purchased.) One of the problems with saying "Iron my shirt, Hillary" and stuff of that ilk, besides the obvious, is that gender is being used as a credential instead of ... actual credentials. While I was not a Hillary supporter in 2008, I do know that she is a highly qualified person who deserves to be recognized for her professional accomplishments--which are impressive for any person.
So when some troglodyte, or even one of your friends, trots out a dumb joke about women or says something homophobic, how should you react?
My friend Caitlin and I talked about this predicament yesterday. I ran into this problem this past weekend, when an acquaintance said something along the lines of, "Yeah, well, there always has to be like a boy and a girl in a lesbian relationship."
"That's not true," I said, my mind immediately flashing to talking about how heterosexual language is used to talk about homosexual relationships in my women's studies classes. (I had actually recently talked about this in both my Gender Theory and Gay & Lesbian Lives classes.) "I'm pretty sure that usually the point of being in a lesbian relationship is that there is no man."
Another acquaintance piped up, "Yeah, well with dudes there always has to be one giver and one receiver."
"Um... also not true," I said, holding myself back from using the phrase "heterosexual binary" on this freshman. Nothing says party-killer like using gender theory vocab, right?
"Well, I just watched Chuck and Larry yesterday," he began sarcastically, and I said, "RIGHT! Because that's a bastion of LGBT acceptance right there." And I just left it at that because I didn't want to get into a heated conversation in the middle of hanging out with a bunch of people I didn't know very well. Caitlin about how she recently called out a male student in one of her classes after he made sexist assumptions about a character in a film they had watched. The entire class, including the male-TA, jumped in to say, "Whooa! No one said anything sexist!"
"No one wants to be the bitch," we agreed. There is a definite double standard in what kinds of jokes men and women are "allowed" to make. As soon as a woman voices her disapproval about men making jokes about rape, molestation, or sexist stereotypes, she gets labeled the humorless bitch who can't take a joke. Conversely, women who make jokes about castration or penis size get labeled as man-hating feminazis. I'm not really into castration jokes and I'm not trying to say that they're women's "in" to the comedy world, but it definitely makes a point in showing how men and women are granted different access to offensive jokes.
I think, under the right circumstances (which turn out to be one of those tricky judgement calls... ah, nothing is simple), calling people out on their BS is absolutely necessary. This is awkward among peers, I know. And there are circumstances when a joke is just a joke. For instance, I have several great, feminist, male friends. And it is a running joke for them to make sexist or stereotypical comments about my feminism or gender. And usually these jokes are quite funny and I go along with them or make fun of them for something right back, but you bet I call them out if they go too far, and there are never hard feelings. This is trickier in classes, where I have to express my dissent in a generally more refined way, or don't get the opportunity at all to call someone out. (I'm taking a class called Gender in America with around 100 students, and I have heard some pretty horrifying statements come up in class discussion.) The best way to stop people from continuing to say stupid stuff is pointing out in a calm, rational, and respectful way why their comments are offensive and shouldn't be said. There are of course people who will ignore this, but you can't expect people to change their evil ways if you never tell them that the things they are saying because they're a part of "slang" or "they're just jokes" are in actuality, terrible, offensive, and frustrating. And for the situations when you can't, I suggest you make a STFU tally card.