Sexism and “dude-bro irony”

Robyn Kenealy

Some of you will be familiar with British comedian Stewart Lee’s routine about motoring review show Top Gear. In the routine, Lee describes acts of horrible violence befalling the Top Gear presentation team, breaking off periodically to shout “it’s just a joke, like on Top Gear!” before pausing for a moment, and then adding “but coincidentally, it is actually what I wish had happened.”[1]

It’s a great routine. Lee uses, as he explains, “the rhetoric and implied values of Top Gear to satirize the rhetoric and implied values of Top Gear.” Top Gear which is, to quote Steve Coogan of Alan Partridge and Saxondale fame, “three rich, middle-aged men… [who] have this strange notion that if they are being offensive it bestows on them a kind of anti-establishment aura of coolness; in fact, like their leather jackets and jeans, it is uber-conservative.” [2]

I have a reason for bringing up British comedians making criticisms of Top Gear, I promise. Particularly, it’s that those criticisms, Lee’s and Coogan’s, seem to me to also apply to what I call Dudebro Irony (I doubt the term is original with me). Dudebro Irony is when people – when men – say overtly sexist things, either in conversation or in art works, with the assumption that everyone will understand that they are not intending to be sexist. That it’s just a joke. Like on Top Gear.

Top Gear’s values are overtly conservative, whereas Dudebro Irony’s values are liberal or even leftist, but I would – and in fact will – argue that a similar machinery is at work. Rather than a conservative attack against the “PC police” which all leftists may by now easily denounce when they watch Top Gear, Dudebro Irony is done by young, liberal or leftist men, who ironically perform sexism (this is the literal sense of the word irony: their words have the opposite meaning to their intention) as part of a statement that they are not only not sexist, but so profoundly not sexist that the very idea of their issuing a sexist statement is so impossible as to be laughable. This performance has a relationship to Hipster Racism, which Lindy West writing for Jezebel examples as “introducing your black friend as “my black friend”—as a joke!!!—to show everybody how totally not preoccupied you are with your black friend’s blackness.”[3] While not directly analogous, Dudebro Irony often appears in the same contexts and does come from a similar root: the assumption that everybody now lives in a gloriously post-isms world, and therefore any overt display of –ism is automatically ironic.

We don’t live in a post-oppression world. We live in a world that is built on, and sustained by entrenched structural oppression. For example, women still perform the bulk of unpaid labour, which is reinforced by the popular internet meme “make me a sandwich.” As such, as a rule, if I don’t know a man very well, I’m unlikely to assume that he is being ironic when he says something sexist to or about me, especially if he gives me no formal clues that he is joking and no option to opt out of the joke. The statistical evidence provided by my life so far has not set me up to expect that that a sexist statement is ironic, but rather to expect that it is completely serious, and to be followed by profound professional and social consequences.

Repeating or building an artwork around an oppressively sexist statement “as a joke,” on the assumption that everybody knows you’re a good guy (how?) and that nobody has ever in their life heard such statements for real is a complicated move. Suffice it to say that at its most basic level, Dudebro Irony is most often an expression of male privilege, and it is one that has a high chance of playing into oppressive structures of misogyny and sexism. Quite often, too, I suspect it of masking real misogyny and sexism, and of being every bit as conservative as the Top Gear version of “just a joke,” though with some strange lacquer of liberal hipness that renders it resistant to interrogation.

Still, whether Dudebro Irony is or it isn’t genuine sexism is somewhat irrelevant. The onus shouldn’t be on me to interpret ironic sexism “correctly” when no responsibility is placed on the issuing party to convey it comprehensibly. At an interpersonal level, sure, I take some responsibility for interpretation, but at a broader social level, where Dudebro Irony is in common and appropriate usage between complete strangers, I am less inclined to assume it is a hilarious joke. Especially when the joke fails and someone complains; then, instantly, it’s women who are expected to “have a sense of humor,” never the Dudebro Ironist who is expected to “take a little criticism,” or maybe even to “tell a better and slightly more comprehensible joke next time.”

It scarcely seems necessary to point out that this reaction, rooted as it is in the assumption that a woman’s anger is too much, is groundless or irrational, or too personal by virtue of its being rooted in something specific to women, is about as sexist as reactions come. More so when criticism is met with cries that views or artwork are being censored. Criticism and stated offense are not the same thing as censorship, and behaving as if they are speaks volumes about where power lies in the Dudebro Irony equation. Particularly, if you’ve expected to be able to release an opinion to the world without any criticism at all, you may be reasonably assured that you are the powerful party. And of course women’s reactions to sexism are personal; every response to speech is personal because everybody is people, but it is one of the conditions of structural oppression that some personhoods are more equal than others.

Herein lies the bleak irony-ception of Dudebro Irony’s existence: it produces a supposedly anti-sexist dialogue that is tailored around the comfort levels and amusement of men. Steve Coogan, addressing Top Gear’s use of racist jokes, notes that casual –isms are “arguably the most sinister kind.” As he writes, “it’s easy to spot the ones with the burning crosses,” and perhaps an even finer distinction can be made here: it’s easy to spot a conservative baddie, harder to spot a generally liberal person being a bit of a douche. One of the conditions of being on the privileged end of an oppressive dynamic is that it’s not only overt, intentional actions of bigotry and prejudice that work in the service of that oppression, but banal, daily repetitions of the fact that you are the one who ought to be provided with the space to speak – about anything, including, if not especially, experiences that do not apply to you – and the right to demand to be correctly understood.

But, since we’re throwing around ironies, the irony of this situation is that I understand the desire to make jokes about volatile material, and that’s precisely what makes Dudebro Irony so irritating. To my mind, the more serious the situation is, the more important it is to satirize it. Satire is required in the dismantling of oppressive structures. That is in fact quite literally what satire is for: the critique of power in a manner that can be widely understood and easily transmitted, as well as pleasurable and invigorating for those in opposition to that power. But to refer again to Steve Coogan’s criticism of Top Gear, a good joke is a joke at the expense of power, while a bad joke is a joke at the expense of the powerless. Coogan puts it like this, “There is a strong ethical dimension to the best comedy. Not only does it avoid reinforcing prejudices, it actively challenges them.”

The key word here is actively. This is not to deny that there are contexts where close friends know each other intimately, in which long-established and deeply personalized patterns of gallows humor will call for ironic sexism between friends. Sometimes, that will be a good joke; the verbal equivalent of touching fingers to let your friend know that you see the same problem that they do. But Dudebro Irony is not a good joke. Making sexist statements ironically – making a joke that really, in essence is pretty much the sentence “hey, sexism exists,” but without demonstrating the understanding that that sexism is already obvious to every women in the room, not to mention demanding that your audience immediately and without preparation understand that you are the first man in 2,000 years of patriarchy who has never, ever been sexist – really does make it sound like sexism is, coincidentally, what you actually wish had happened.

[1] Routine presented during Lee’s 2009 “If You Prefer a Milder Comedian, Please Ask” tour.
[2] ‘Top Gear’s offensive stereotyping has gone too far, says Steve Coogan’ in The Guardian, 2011.
[3] A Complete Guide to ‘Hipster Racism’ in Jezebel, 2012.

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