Seeking the Grail: Activism – Can’t You Take a Joke?

Seeking the Grail: Activism – Can’t You Take a Joke? August 17, 2015

You can never go home again. That’s a piece of wisdom that comes out of the idea of the Hero’s Journey and Joseph Campbell’s work with mythology, and I’ve found it’s really apt, including in my activism work. I never intended to be an activist, but the more I have become aware of the inequality in our world, the harm we do to one another, the more I have felt called to stand up and act to be part of changing our culture for the better.

But going on any journey of transformation has consequences.


Recently, I went to the Bristol Renaissance Faire. I used to work there in my teens and early twenties, and it’s a place I used to feel was “home,” a refuge from the outer mundane world. Working at Ren Faire was the first time I really ever met people like myself; it’s where I connected to my first Pagans. I met my first husband there, and many friends.

This summer I attended the Ren Faire with some awesome new friends and had the opportunity to see a lot of the shows, but a funny thing happened. A lot of the schtick wasn’t funny anymore.

It’s stuff I would have laughed at even a few years ago. As I thought about the jokes being delivered during the shows, realized that the backbone of much of the humor was rooted in homophobia, transphobia, misogyny, and rape culture. The jokes were only funny if you’re heterosexual, cissexual, bigendered, and comfortable with men being masculine and women being feminine. And here’s the thing; these performers clearly identify as liberals, as they wove in plenty of jokes about our state governor Scott Walker and his policies, or other liberalisms.

The core of some of the big jokes–particularly the audience participation ones where a guy is chosen from the audience to participate–was that the guy gets emasculated. And oh, I sure did laugh at that sort of thing when I first saw it at Faire or other places. It was great to watch the great manly man guy get teased by the gay-acting performer until the “volunteer” was clearly uncomfortable. Things like, the male performer giving the volunteer a big long gropey hug, or tricking them so that they’d get a kiss on the cheek, or in the Mud Show, getting a muddy kiss on the face. Or a male acrobat climbing onto the guy’s shoulders so that the back of the volunteer’s head was in connection with the performer’s crotch.

Here’s why homosexual jokes aren’t funny any longer–and why they are problematic and indicative of a host of deeper issues. Homosexual jokes frequently focus on men, specifically, men who are not “manly” or who are “effeminate.” It’s a joke all in itself just to imply a heterosexual man is homosexual; it’s an inherent insult. So first, those jokes are implying a baseline standard that homosexuality is different, deviant, bad, because otherwise, why would we make fun of it?

The core of many of those jokes is implying that a man is womanly, because that’s a deeper root of gay jokes. It’s (hetero) men’s fear of being perceived as unmanly, as feminine.

This joke is so ingrained in our culture that we don’t usually even question it. First, it assumes gender standardized gender roles. Boys play with trucks, girls play with Barbie. Boys wear blue, girls wear pink. It implies that men who act womanly are bad, so this is not only a problematic joke reinforcing that being gay is bad, but it also basically says, being female, feminine, or womanly is bad.

By now you’re probably thinking, “Good grief, you are probably no fun at parties at all!” Well…you’re right, I’m really not. And you might be wondering, “Do you overthink everything this way?” And the answer to that is, pretty much. I have a hard time sleeping and this stuff keeps me up some nights. You may even be shaking your head and thinking, “You drank too much of the Politically Correct Kool-Aid.”

And that’s where I’ll offer you a challenge.

“Politically Correct is a term used to dismiss a concept of respect, and treating people with respect…and even love. Political correctness is about trying to keep yourself from looking like a jerk for insulting those who are marginalized. PC is about trying to make sure people don’t know that you’re really a bigot, but still staying bigoted.

Respect and love is about actually caring about those who are marginalized and trying to build a more equal, more just world.

So if I want to build a more just world, I can’t ethically and authentically sit there and laugh at veiled gay jokes, which are–in turn–misogynistic and reinforcing of the gender binary. And in truth, I don’t even actually find them very funny any longer.

Another trope of the audience volunteer aspect was getting a woman to come up onto the stage and tricking/pressuring her into accepting an uncomfortable touch or a kiss. And we wonder why we have problems with rape culture; people’s consent and bodily sovereignty are being violated all the time and it’s made into a joke.

Even just a few years ago I’d have laughed at this like anyone else, but along the way I took the Red Pill and went down the rabbit-hole, and now I can’t unsee the cultural ramifications. (Yeah, there’s also a reason I spend a lot of my time alone, it gets overwhelming.)

How Does Humor Work?

See, humor’s an interesting thing. Any public speaker knows that humor can be difficult to achieve, and nothing’s worse than a joke falling flat. But the core of a lot of humor is about tension and discomfort. There’s a set of muscles in our body, primarily our diaphragm, that tense and release when we laugh, and when we cry. Both laughing and crying work these muscles, and this muscle movement relieves emotional tension. Tension occurs when we are uncomfortable, and so the easiest road to making people laugh is to make them uncomfortable. Specifically, people tend to laugh at differences. We often laugh when we are afraid, or when we see something that is different, gross, bad. It’s a natural body response to discomfort.

Yeah, I know–that kind of takes the magic out of humor, doesn’t it?

It’s the root of physical comedy–someone trips and hurts themselves, and we laugh at that. Someone stumbles over their words and stutters, and we laugh at that. Someone puts their shirt on backwards or shoes on the wrong feet, screws up their makeup, tries to push the “pull” door, and we might laugh at that too. We laugh at people who do stupid things, we laugh at people who do things differently than we do, we laugh at people who talk differently. We also laugh at heavy accents, we laugh at people with developmental difficulties, we laugh at different cultural traditions.

We laugh when a “manly man” is dressed up as a woman or made to do something effeminate.

But when we don’t question why we are laughing, we just keep reinforcing the dominant cultural paradigm and the injustice it stands for. We still live in a world where it’s acceptable in many places to make a gay joke by talking like an effeminate gay man, or make a joke about someone who is transgender.

In my youth I would regularly see people making jokes about “retards” but I see less of that these days. It’s now considered passe, gauche, inappropriate, offensive. People still do it, though, and pass it off as, “Well if you can’t take a joke, screw you.”

One of my ex partners has a routine he’d do to make people laugh, and I’ll apologize in advance for how offensive this will be for some of you. He called it “The ‘Gloid Shaman,” short for “mongoloid,” which is an outdated (and offensive) term for Down’s Syndrome. Yes, the routine was essentially a Pagan-flavored “retard joke.” The routine consisted of him affecting the vocal and body characteristics of someone with developmental disabilities, and taking people on a shamanic journey in that voice.

I expressed to him my discomfort at the joke and that I thought this was really a reprehensible thing for a Pagan leader to do (and often in his capacity as a Pagan leader and teacher), but nevertheless he would bring out the routine at various Pagan gatherings and insist he wasn’t really discriminating against anyone.


Humor works by making us uncomfortable. It’s a physiological response, just like crying is, and often involuntary. Difference and discomfort are going to cause the laughter response in us, sometimes at highly inappropriate times. I have cleaned up vomit and just started randomly laughing because the situation was just so awful it became ridiculous. I have laughed after a car accident or when someone slipped on a piece of pizza and twisted their ankle.

Laughter is a natural physical response to discomfort, but I think if we begin to process why some things make us uncomfortable, we can dig into the cultural norms and stereotypes beneath the humor to see the foundations. It’s not about being “PC,” it’s about mutual respect.

If I want to build a fair, just world, I’m not going to find stereotypical jokes about Black people funny, I’m not going to find jokes about effeminate men funny, I’m not going to find jokes about dumb blonde women funny. Generally, any offensive stereotype about a minority or marginalized group is suspect. If your response to some of this is, “Well, it’s not a stereotype if it’s true,” consider that for a bit.

Sex, Exploitation, and Agency

A good friend was asking me what I thought about a picture on Facebook. I can’t recall the exact context, it was a blonde woman in lingerie or a swimsuit. He said that someone had posted the picture, and someone else had commented and was bent out of shape about the photo being exploitative. My friend wanted to know what I thought.

Here’s the thing; there are no easy answers.

I can’t tell you if the woman in the photo was being exploited just from the photo. I can tell you (just by the way the photo was taken) that the photo is geared toward the heterosexual male gaze. The photo was probably Photoshopped so she looks more “perfect.” The photo was sexually provocative. The question becomes first, was she actually exploited. Was the model pressured? Was she paid properly for her time? Second, did she have agency? Meaning, did she find the photo shoot/representation of herself to be genuinely sexy? Or was she wearing an outfit she finds distasteful in order to do the job and get paid? Was she sexually harassed during the photo shoot?

Third is where things get more difficult. It’s possible that a woman can be photographed in a sexy outfit, be paid well for her time, and feel that she looked genuinely sexy in a way she can support…and yet, she’s still operating under the cultural norms that for women to be valued they must dress in a provocative way, be a certain weight, have firm breasts.

Further, the sexy photo of women is usually a sexy photo of white women, putting forth the idea that skinny white women with large breasts are the ideal of beauty. So, a photo of a model can–all unwittingly–further aversive racism, as well as fat shaming and other body shaming, and support the idea that women are sexual objects.

You see where this all gets freaking complicated?

Becoming an activist usually means becoming aware of the problems in our world, and discovering how big and deep and entrenched those problems are. Every activist comes face to face with burnout, with realizing they can’t fix everything. These problems will continue long after my death. But I’m determined to make a chip in the wall every way that I can.

You can never go home again.

Once you are awakened to these things, you can’t unsee them. You can choose to ignore them, you can choose to continue to support the status quo, or you can work to make a better world. And yeah–sometimes it means you’re going to lose something precious to you. Something you once thought was funny, won’t be. A group of people you once resonated with, you’ll suddenly realize how racist they are, or how homophobic or misogynistic.

And you can either be silent about it and try to keep things the way they were and not make waves, or you can do the hard thing and speak up. And yes, people will get mad at you for drinking the PC Kool-Aid and being a buzz kill.

But, do you want to just go with the flow so you don’t make anyone uncomfortable? Or do you want to support a culture of love and respect where all are equal?

Holding Space for Discomfort

Going on the Grail Quest can start out feeling pretty magical, empowering, and beautiful. But when the deeper mysteries are revealed to you, there’s always pain. The journey isn’t easy; that’s why it’s the Grail Quest. There will always come a point where that home that you left–that home that felt so constraining, that was keeping you from being who you know you were called to be–that home calls to you again. Safety, comfort, ease. There’s a point in any quest when you’re going to wish you could just go back, but you can’t.

Still, would you? Would you really want to go back to that? Would I stick my head under the blanket and pretend that there aren’t people out there suffering from injustice just so I could feel safer and more comfortable?

I’m not at all mad at any of my friends who laugh at these types of jokes because I know how ingrained it is. And yet, there are times where I’m going to lovingly point out the roots of the humor and how it’s perpetuating harmful ideas. I do this with love and compassion and respect, not from a place of blaming.

You can’t go home again. But you can work to build the world into a better home in the first place.

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