April 29, 2007

The Helplessness of Being the Joke

Justin Katz

It's a tricky business responding to the personal anecdotes that opinionists sometimes use in their columns. The reader was not there, for one thing, and it isn't always evident what emotions the memory revives, for another. But the stories are offered, ostensibly for the purpose of illustrating an important point relevant to current events, and so they would seem fair game for commentary.

The disclaimer thus expressed, this in-my-life anecdote from M.J. Anderson is a doozy:

I WAS AN ELF ONCE. At the campus dining hall where I worked, somebody thought it would be fun if the servers dressed as elves for the Christmas dinner, so we did.

I am hazy now on what our exact duties were. What counts in memory is that a diner in his cups — a large, athletic-looking guy — grabbed me, threw me over his shoulder, yelled “I got one of ’em!” amid a roar of male laughter and marched toward the door.

What counts is that I pounded on him with all I had and it did not matter. Suddenly, I was in a world I did not know. ...

As for my dining-hall abductor, he had me out the door and into the night before finally putting me down. What to him was a game was to me an education. I had found myself helpless against force, and never forgot the sensation.

This, we are meant to understand, relates to the ordeal of those Duke lacrosse players who took on the role of evil white males for the mainstream media for more than their promised (or threatened) fifteen minutes. See, M.J. was "put down" — spared the rape, one gathers she means — just as the fellas at Duke had the resources to ensure that they, too, were "put down" — spared wrongful prosecution and sentencing.

To be honest, I'm not sure how this observation should work into and/or unravel Anderson's parallel, but it seems not insignificant that the reason the elfish M.J. was powerless that evening wasn't that Mr. Athletic-Looking Guy could have done anything he wanted with her. Surely even some among his roaring peers would have stepped in had she been in any real danger. Rather, the reader mightn't be presuming too much to wonder whether her powerlessness derived from her inability to sense the joke.

It is precisely the humorless sense that all males — in their cups or otherwise — are potential abductors and rapists that set the scene for the actual and rending violation of those young athletes and, perhaps as bad, lured the unfortunate young woman who made the allegations, lacking the boys' "strong families and skilled lawyers," into that overly bright and wasting spotlight from which one is put down only after years of anonymity.

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If M.J. was at work, she had a reasonable expectation not to be picked up as a toy, as if she had wandered into a drunken frat party (and college women who walk into THAT environment should really weigh the risks before they do).
While I have no problem with the charges being dropped against the Duke lax boys (in many he said-she said scenarios, there is likely insufficient evidence to support a guilty verdict in a court), those putting them on a pedestal should consider the behavior which led to their little problem: wild party, bringing in strippers, etc. Something happened that night, though without a trial, we'll never know exactly what.
Fact is, nothing in the Constitution, nor any state statutes, provides for criminal penalties for acting like an egotistical, overentitled idiot. Pox on their houses, as well as Mike Nifong's.
P.S.: Rather than permanent damage being done to the Duke trio's reputations, I would wager that in their circles they and their families travel in, they're more like heroes (like gangstas and Mafia members who've done time are to their peers).

Posted by: Rhody at April 29, 2007 12:07 PM

Rhody, your P.S. is way out of line. The upside down values you refer to are pretty much limited to the two groups you named. You need to produce some sort of corroboration before making such a statement.

And while I have not heard anyone put the young men on a pedestal, I do agree that they did something stupid that night and paid a price.

Great post, Justin. All men are not evil. Further, her anecdote had no bearing on the subject of her article inasmuch as the point of the Duke incident is that the stripper was not assaulted, thank god.

Posted by: SusanD at April 29, 2007 1:03 PM

Actually, we don't need a trial to know what happened that night. The North Carolina Attorney General just offered up a twenty-one page report that tells us.

Posted by: craig henry at April 29, 2007 1:20 PM


Leaving aside the Duke case, which seems to be a mess all around, I'm troubled by this paragraph in your post:

[T]he reason the elfish M.J. was powerless that evening wasn't that Mr. Athletic-Looking Guy could have done anything he wanted with her. Surely even some among his roaring peers would have stepped in had she been in any real danger. Rather, the reader mightn't be presuming too much to wonder whether her powerlessness derived from her inability to sense the joke.

You have this backwards in a very important way. She wasn't powerless because she didn't get the joke. (What a dismissive way to address someone's fear of assault!) Rather, it was a joke because she was powerless. She was the butt of the joke, a joke about her powerlessness. Ha ha! This woman can't resist if I pick her up and carry her off into the night! Ha ha ha!

Yes, she was unharmed, and yes, perhaps it was all intended to be in fun. Maybe I'm just a humorless feminist. But rape jokes are a pretty dicey territory.

I'm sure, furthermore, that I needn't read your last paragraph as equating the grotesque injustice suffered by the wrongly accused lacrosse players with the violation of rape?

And I'm sure that I needn't point out that "surely even some among his roaring peers would have stepped in had she been in any real danger" seems to ignore the lesson of Kitty Genovese and every other date-rape frat party victim?

Yes, yes. Humorless feminist.

Posted by: mrh at April 30, 2007 1:01 PM

Ah yes. Everybody knows we frat boys would just as soon rape a girl as look at her. Perhaps it was just before my time that they stopped snatching girls right out of the dining hall and draggng them back to the house. (How often we mused that we had Greek letters but viking methods.) While we're reaffirming that which recent history has proven, perhaps I should look up the name of that boy who was chained to a bed, raped, and tortured to death by two homosexuals; or that poor victim of "wilding" back in the '80s; or the near-three-dozen people who were just murdered by an oriental loner. But that'd be a silly game, don't you agree, Matt?

I'd argue that you miss the crux of the joke. It wasn't a "rape joke"; how charitably you think of those rich hedonists whom Cho hated! It wasn't even a joke about her powerlessness, or even her being female. It was a capture-the-elf joke, and it would have been all the funnier if Anderson had judo-flipped the kid (which, having never seen her, I must leave open as a distinct possibility, in light of the memory of my judo instructor's daughters flipping me weekly). (It would have been even funnier if M.J. had persuaded him to put her down by promises of a wish or threats of bad luck.)

It may be that we're shouting across one of those interpersonal walls dividing subtly, but significantly, different realities. That was pretty much my point; the lacrosse players fit the villain profile in your world. (And frankly, it's unfair to assess my comments without respect to the context in which they were offered — in which Anderson put them.)

As for my last paragraph, if you cared to read it with an eye toward understanding, rather than condemnatory sarcasm, perhaps you'd have noticed that I'm associating — although not equating — the violation of the boys with the violation of the girl who acted as society's accuser of them for its preconceptions. (How rich, by the way, that liberals have been inclined to point out the athletes' poor behavior in general that night... especially liberals in a state that currently has legalized prostitution and prominently recognized strip clubs.)

Posted by: Justin Katz at April 30, 2007 5:50 PM

Struck a nerve, I guess.

Justin, I misread your last paragraph, and I'm sorry for it.

I'm not sure where you get "the lacrosse players fit the villain profile in your world." I didn't say anything about the lacrosse players, except to identify them as having been wrongly accused and having suffered a grotesque injustice. Is it possible you're attributing to me a stance which I haven't claimed?

Your first paragraph also strikes me as unnecessarily defensive. I never said anything close to "all frat boys are rapists."

I brought up Kitty Genovese to cast doubt on the idea that a crowd of people would necessarily make a woman safer. I don't understand the purpose of your catalog of horrors. Why do you want to play blame the stereotype? I don't.

Clearly, from your response, I offended you. I didn't intend to make a point about fraternities.

We still disagree about the "joke," and on this point I won't give ground. The joke is about sex, and it is about power; it's not about "capture-the elf." You can't honestly claim that the same scenario would play out if the elf were male.

Anyway, if we can get past the "blah blah liberals blah blah" stuff, there's interesting stuff to talk about.

Posted by: mrh at April 30, 2007 9:27 PM

Your words:

... seems to ignore the lesson of Kitty Genovese and every other date-rape frat party victim

Replace with one of my other examples:

... seems to ignore the lesson of Jesse Dirkhising and every other sex-torture gay-lovers' victim

I don't need to add to this, do I? Your objection presupposes that it's quite reasonable for a young woman to suspect that "a large, athletic-looking guy" out for a nighttime snack on campus with his friends is apt to snatch her from a public place and drag her off to be raped. It presupposes that his peers (never mind other diners and coworkers) wouldn't have given power to her screams if they thought there was real danger. It presupposes, in context, that it's reasonable for M.J. Anderson to find a parallel between her experience and that of some young men who filled, as I said (and will not give ground from), the role of evil white males for the mainstream media.

It is within this framework that you assume the joke to be about sex and power. I don't believe it was, and given only the limited information provided by Anderson and my own experiences, I do think the joke could have been made with a male subject — provided he was also sporting an elf costume. (Information is missing, here — perhaps Anderson happened to be near an exit. Without more of the picture drawn, even extending to any description of her job duties, we merely construct our own biases: the image the anecdote raises in my mind is of a quick grab and set-down, probably involving motion of ten yards or so; the image others seem to be describing is of the boy carrying her across the room.)

My next interpretation would be of ham-handed flirtation, not of barely restrained rapaciousness. If physical power entered into it at all, I'd see it merely as the factor that enabled him to make a quick and easy joke (i.e., it was incidental to the execution, not fundamental to the meaning).

The fact that your first interpretation was of a "rape joke" was what suggested the "villain profile."

All of this said, I'm not unsympathetic to the sense of helplessness and insecurity that being the butt of such jokes can instill. What I'm objecting to is the cultural stereotype that gives her anecdote (and probably the experience) its force. The nerve that you hit was less of a frat-boy thing than of an all-purpose villain thing. Did you even think to wonder whether it made a difference whether M.J. was handing out fliers at the door or serving salad in the back? It is this long-standing sense that it is legitimate to assume the worst of young men (especially straight, young, and conservatively coiffed white men) that made the guys at Duke an easy target for the DA's abuse.

Posted by: Justin Katz at April 30, 2007 11:07 PM

We're still talking past each other.

You said: "Surely even some among his roaring peers would have stepped in had she been in any real danger."

In raising Kitty Genovese and date rape, I was making the narrow point that it's not sufficient to blithely assume that the presence of good people eliminates the danger of assault. I would certainly like to hope that, if our elf-nabber had rape in mind, the other diners would have come to her aid. In fact, I expect they would have. However, it's not unreasonable for the young woman to have felt fear.

It's not a good fact about our society that women have fear of rape. I wish it weren't the case. Most men aren't rapists, and it's unfair that suspicion of rape falls on them. However, it's more unfair that women have to have their fear.

I think the explanatory force of sex, gender, power, and violence may be one of those unbridgeable gaps between us. Maybe you're right that Athletic-Looking Guy might have picked up and carried off a young man in an elf costume, but I highly doubt it -- I think he'd be prevented from doing so by fear of homoeroticism. (I'm also not sure I understand your "villain profile" remark. I based my diagnosis of "rape joke" solely on the description of the actions: man picks up woman, and carries her off over his shoulder against her will and desires. Period.)

I don't know why you keep bringing up gay torture, since it seems to have nothing to do with the subject matter at hand, and I'm having trouble understanding the analogy.

The Duke boys (heh) were unfairly and wrongly accused, and yes, it's partly because they were straight, young, and conservatively coiffed white men. I, myself, am a straight, young, and conservatively coiffed white man, and as such I am afforded most of the privileges of our society. One of the downsides of being in power is that sometimes people will assume the worst of us. It sucks. It's unfair. It's also reality, and it's the price we "good" men pay for the "bad" men among us.

I'll leave it there, and I'll happily drop the conversation, as I don't want to wear on your hospitality any further.

Posted by: mrh at May 1, 2007 11:19 AM
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