No, it’s not ironic sexism.
Edit: Upon reading the comments, I’ve reconsidered my criticism of Colbert’s segment and retract virtually all my criticism. I do wish the part that I criticize below had been made more clear.
I think feminists are misinterpreting the type of sexism displayed in this ad.
The above ad is sexist in a number of ways (though enjoyable in one). But it’s done in an over-the-top way that makes it ironic. This Paris Hilton commercial also qualifies:
It is the presence of this irony that has led commentators to call this ironic sexism or (sigh) “hipster sexism”. “Liberal racism” is a good descriptor, but hasn’t caught on; I wonder why.
Here is a definition of hipster racism, that I leave to the reader to modify for a definition of hipster sexism:
Hipster racism involves making derogatory comments with a racial basis in an attempt to seem witty and above it all. Specifically, the idea is to sound ironic, as in “I’m allowed to say this because of course I’m not racist, so it’s funny.” It’s an aspect of a larger part of the hipster culture, which wants to seem jaded and urbane and oh-so-witty.
Notice that this definition forces us to make assumptions about the psychology of the actor. The person making the derogatory comments believes that the comments would be wrong if they were not said ironically.
Anita Sarkeesian’s makes the same assumption:
Advertisers must believe that the use of irony distances themselves from male chauvinism but that isn’t the case. While we think we are in on the joke, the reality is they aren’t making fun of or pointing out sexism, they’re doing it.
Sarkeesian claims that advertisers think they aren’t really being sexist if “they know that I know that they know, that they’re being sexist.”
I saw Sarkeesian’s video on this subject quite a while ago, and something seemed off. Her description of what advertisers were doing did not match my mental model for how businesses behave.
I eventually figured out what was wrong, and it’s a mistake that perhaps could only be made by feminist bloggers who think sexism is a huge, undeniable problem and perhaps don’t spend that much time around those who don’t think the same.
Consider car commercials. Car companies are ridiculously conservative. Still, we see totally un-ironic commercials in which a beautiful woman man-hops her way to her Cadillac.
We see Audi commercials that have been described as “rapey“.
Fiat, apparently thinks so highly of its cars that they are the literal equivalent of supermodels. (Or perhaps thinks so little of women that a car would do just as well.)
These commercials are produced by companies that don’t take real risks with their public images. In fact, when I first saw these commercials I didn’t consider them problematic. That is by design. Car companies don’t want to offend anyone.
What did Sarkeesian said again?
Advertisers must believe that the use of irony distances themselves from male chauvinism…
Wrong. Advertisers are indeed trying to distance themselves from something through irony, but it isn’t sexism. They don’t think there is anything wrong with sexism. If companies thought using sex to sell were even a tiny bit wrong, they would only use it to sell beer and video games, not cars and insurance.
The first two ads are indeed ironic, but the irony is being used by advertisers to distance themselves from the manipulation of using sex to sell, not from sexism.
When advertisers show you a pretty lady along with their product, they are manipulating you by trying to associate the two things together. The product (not particularly desirable) is now closer to the woman (highly desirable). This manipulation is what advertisers are trying to disinherit. They don’t think there is anything wrong with showing Paris Hilton half naked. They think it is wrong to use her to sell hamburgers, so they are going to go over the top so that you accept it and just watch her gyrate on a Bentley without worrying about being manipulated. It’s ironic advertising, not ironic sexism.
Somewhat sadly, the feminists linked seem to have overestimated the awareness of these companies to feminist concerns.
But there is ironic sexism in real life. People make jokes that attempt to satirize what a redneck-style sexist would say, and it’s funny because everyone knows they aren’t actually a redneck sexist. You’re good, and good liberals can’t be sexist. Except it doesn’t always work that way:
A hipster sexist calls you a bitch and tells you to shut up but in a funny way, while a classic sexist tells you your rape was God’s will without a hint of irony. Both are douchebags, but the hipster sexist is a douchebag in enlightened clothing (see also: the nice guy™, the hipster racist). Hipster sexism hinges on the assumption that “no one thinks this way anymore” and therefore it’s funny, like making a joke about horses and buggies or something. It allows for sexist comments under the guise of being sooo far above them, and it’s a lot harder to call out than non-ironic, old-fashioned sexism.
Attempting to take the sting out of something by couching it in irony is dangerous in its sneakiness and sneaky in its danger. Like claiming that we’re in a post-racial society and therefore your jokes about slavery are uproarious, trashing women because you know better and still find it funny only reinforces the sexism inherent in your “humor.”
The nice liberal guy who is just making a joke can make the joke because he has emotional distance from the phenomenon, which makes sense because he’s never been subject to sexism in the same way that a woman has. He is quite understandably not in a good position to judge whether a woman shares that sufficient emotional distance so as to be able to find humor in the situation.
Given this lack of knowledge, I think it makes sense to err on the side of trusting the opinion of whoever is the subject of the joke since they are the ones who have direct experience with the phenomenon.
If you jokingly tell a woman to make you a sandwich because you know you would never say it seriously, and she doesn’t seem to appreciate the joke, maybe it’s not because she’s a humorless wench. Maybe your joke wasn’t actually funny. Contrary to the opinions of seemingly every professional comedian, when you get criticized for making a joke, it is your responsibility to make yourself more funny, not the responsibility of your audience to lower its standards until it finds you funny.
I realize, of course, that you, male reader, can take a joke. You wouldn’t mind if someone joked about your embodying some male sexist trope, but there isn’t a true symmetry there. At least that’s what women tell us, and even if you don’t believe them, you are a jerk if you continue to insist on making jokes about people who tell you they don’t like it even if they are just being overly sensitive.
Let me admit my guilt too. It was only a couple weeks ago that I realized that my habit of (ironically!) including totally random photos of pretty women in my posts here wasn’t actually funny.
And that brings us to Stephen Colbert. I love this part of his segment in response to the Washington Redskins starting a charity for Native Americans: Folks, this move by Dan Snyder inspires me, because my show has frequently come under attack for having a so-called offensive mascot. My beloved character Ching-Chong Ding-Dong…the point is, offensive or not — not — Ching-Chong is part of the unique heritage of the Colbert Nation that cannot change. But I’m willing to show the Asian community that I care by introducing the Ching-Chong Ding-Dong Foundation for Sensitive to Orientals or Whatever. The above joke is justified and almost necessary to make Colbert’s point. What I question is 6:20 of the segment, during which Colbert plays acts a stereotypical Chinaman. The rest of this post pertains only to this portion of the clip. Hoo-hoo, I ruv tea! Is so good for you! You so pretty American girl, you come here, you kiss my tea, make all sweet. I no need no sugar when you around. Come on my rickshaw, I give you ride to Bangkok! Doodoo loo doo doo doo doondoondoong! Tod found the clip hilarious. Can you articulate clearly where the humor from this part of the segment comes from? What joke is Colbert actually making when he acts like a stereotypical uneducated Asian? Did Dan Synder act like like a stereotypical Native American at a press conference? Even if he did, there was nothing to indicate he did in the clip so the audience could make the connection. Colbert’s character is based on Bill O’Reilly. Does Bill O’Reilly do racist impersonations on his show? Even if he did, are you sure you’re laughing at Colbert impersonating O’Reilly impersonating a stereotypical Asian? Is that meaningfully different than Colbert directly impersonating a stereotypical Asian if Colbert makes no reference to O’Reilly? The identical clip of the same character is also shown here at 1:30. That link also includes a bunch of jokes directed at Hungarians. (“Budapests!”) How would Colbert’s clip been received if Colbert founded the Coon Foundation for African Advancement or Whatever and then played a clip of him speaking ebonics, eating fried chicken washed down with grape soda, and drowning because someone left a watermelon too close to the swimming pool? Of course Asians are not the same as blacks just as jokes about women are not the same as jokes about men. But Colbert’s clip rests on the notion that racism toward Native Americans and racism toward Asians are morally equivalent. He points out quite correctly that it shouldn’t matter whether Native Americans or Asians are targeted. So, I think it’s very reasonable to ask why he ought not in turn be held to the same standard by asking what would happen if we moved his own performance a notch or two on the color wheel. Jezebel whitesplains that Colbert’s segment is “surgical-precision satire“, but this seems exactly wrong. It is a wonderful joke about a fake charity with an appended, unnecessary clip from 2005 that does nothing to further any point about the behavior of the Redskins. The gratuitousness of the clip is more obvious in its original context: What point of liberalism is being advanced here? What ideologue of the right is being skewered? There is no content here beyond some good overacting on the part of Colbert. And the only reason this works is because Colbert is good, and good liberals can’t be racist.
Disclaimer: I showed the clip to my Chinese wife, and she laughed all the way through it and said I should chill out and get a life. Additionally, I have visited a number of blogs written by people of color, and have yet to find anyone who shares my concerns about the segment itself (as opposed to just the Colbert Report tweet).