The emcees introduce Mike as the class clown — you know, that kid that’s always cracking jokes. Pulling up explicit images on his laptop while he’s sitting at the front of the class. That guy.
I am at the annual McGill Society of Physics Students (MSPS) talent show. We are at a bar, a handful of blocks away from campus. The night kicked off with a performance of the Red Shift Blues, which features department head Charles Gale and Dean of Science Martin Grant. But the adults are gone now.
As the class clown begins discussing an erection (his? I can’t remember), I pull my Android out of my purse and fiddle with the record function. The thing that now exists in my iTunes is 24 minutes long. Its contents mostly concern male masturbation, but it also – okay, this is your trigger warning – includes a hypothetical scene in which the speaker goes to a restaurant to shove meatballs up the asses of his co-diners, in order to render their assholes bloody.
And a description of what Mike thinks of when he sees a cute girl: “Oooh booty. Oh, that looks good. Oh those [synonym for breasts]. I want to put my face in them and – ” he makes a bububbbbb sound. “Look at her mouth.” Beat. “I want to put my penis in your mouth.’”
“Now you see exactly where I’m going,” he says. This is gross-out humour. This is Seth MacFarlane at the Oscars, less refined.
And then – a joke about a baby, the baby’s parents, and oral sex. (The flimsy set-up: Freudian psychology is fucked up, because you know, kids love their parents.)
I am sitting at the front of the room. Mike’s followed his joke with the words, “it would feel good.” The two people sitting on either side of me are not laughing.
But, it seems, we are surrounded by laughter.
“I was just being me,” Mike tells me later.
In October, I wrote an article in The Daily titled “Fine men, sexist pigs”, (Commentary, October 11, page 7) outlining the chilly climate that I have experienced in the Physics department. Though condensed and exaggerated on the MSPS’s talent show stage, Mike is a prime example of the kind of behaviour that contributes to it, the kind of behaviour that objectifies women and trivializes sexual consent. This behaviour is not limited to McGill – following my article, I received many emails and nods of support from women (mostly women, anyway) outside McGill. Nor is it limited to the science and tech community – take Ayla Lefkowitz’s article on a rugby banquet last year (“Dresses, Drinks, Mysogyny,” Commentary, February 2, 2012) in which, among other things, the attendees sing a song that goes: “I wish that all the ladies / were like the statue of Venus / because then they wouldn’t have any arms… to shove away my penis!”
But the fact that rape jokes and objectification of women are in any way an acceptable part of the fabric of this community is not okay. I like this department. I’ve had a great time here. In retrospect, even the heavy workload was okay.
Chandra Curry, MSPS VP Academic, tells me over breakfast at Cora’s a couple days later that if people had been booing, she would have pulled Mike off stage (she didn’t hear the act, she was busy running the show). Mike had the support of the audience. The MSPS talent show committee had asked participants to submit proposals for their acts (no one was turned down); in attempt to draw a line, she had asked Mike specifically if he would say anything that would offend her. “My trust – mine, as well as [that of] the entire committee – went too far,” she said.
She gives me Mike’s name and number – I had known him as just, ‘one of the loud kids who is usually playing foosball’ – and tells him to expect a call.
“Jokes by definition should not be taken seriously,” he tells me. “If you are offended, I am sorry, but you should grow up.”
To say that jokes are not serious is a ludicrous statement. I love comedy and I will defend my half-hour of weekly Parks and Recreation time like my life depends on it. Comedy is a great part of our culture, not just because it allows us to relieve mental burdens, lose our breath, and bond: it allows us to explore parts of our life that can feel out of reach in the realm of seriousness – from silly embarrassing moments, to, yes, even rape (see Lindy West’s “How to make a rape joke”). In Mike’s case, comedy seems to serve as a haphazard expression of his sexuality (masturbation), as well a as power play.
Much like sex, which runs the gamut from serious to funny, stress-relieving, to therapeutic – even in its most frivolous and fleeting expressions, never wholly meaningless – comedy can be wielded as an expression and reaffirmation of one’s power over others.
For Mike, all that nuance and respect for comedy just doesn’t exist.
“Is there any joke you wouldn’t make?” I ask him.
“One that’s not funny. If people don’t laugh, then I feel bad.”
He is planning on doing stand up again. He had fun. People liked it.
Shannon Palus is about to graduate with a B.Sc. in Physics. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.