For reasons that are completely beyond me, the entire feminist blogosphere has gone gaga for the Feminist Frank meme.
The joke is a pretty simple one, harking back to the glory days of Advice Dog: a blurry jpeg, and a set-up and punchline in Impact font. The first line is a classic dudebro come-on – something like “that chick totally blew me…” – and the second is an eloquent, academic expression of a feminist argument – something like “…away with her courage in declining to participate in gender stereotypes.” A lot of women, apparently, think this is hilarious.
I’m not one of them.
Some critics have suggested that Feminist Frank is a means for male feminists to pat themselves on the back. I disagree. The meme, after all, was created by a female Reddit user and first posted on the TrollXChrosomes subreddit. It spread due to the endorsements of prominent feminist blogs like Bustle and Feministing. Men, really, had nothing to do with its creation or its dissemination throughout the internet. This appears to be an attempt by women to jokingly use the language of street harassment and sexual violence to convey feminist truths.
What Feminist Frank is supposed to accomplish, I guess, is a kind of de-fanging of street harassers and garden variety misogynistic men. The women who created this meme evidently thought that there was some empowerment to be found in pulling the rug out from under catcallers, using their pick-up lines as fodder for comedy. Maybe, in their minds, appropriating the style and diction of harassment represents a kind of reclaiming of violent rhetoric.
Is it ever possible to use dudebro come-ons as a vehicle for feminist talking points?
With all due respect to Bustle and Feministing, I don’t think so.
In 1964, communications theorist Marshall McLuhan coined the phrase, “The medium is the message.” In a nutshell, he meant that the way we receive information – on the internet, on television, in conversation with friends – influences how we perceive that same information. We’re more inclined to believe, and respond positively to, an erudite, grammatically correct piece in the New York Times than a profanity-riddled, all-caps Twitter rant – even if the newspaper and the tweets contain identical content.
This concept is pretty easily applied to feminism. Consider this: when a man says “I am a feminist,” people congratulate him for his sensitivity and intelligence. They call him exceptional and extraordinary. When a woman says “I am a feminist,” she is painting a target on her own back, making herself vulnerable to misogynistic mockery. Because men are perceived as rational, as level-headed, as emotionally distanced from issues that directly affect women, their feminism is often seen as more legitimate than women’s. Even the most basic expression of respect for women can land a man widespread recognition for being a feminist icon.
And that brings us back to Feminist Frank.
In this case, the messages are little more than trite, simplistic feminist soundbites. And the medium is the violent, crass lingua franca of pick-up artists and street harassers. In a way, setting up a fictitious frat boy as the mouthpiece for these statements nullifies them immediately – and that’s where the humor is. Feminist Frank jokes are only funny because we know that no average twenty-something guy on the face of the earth can actually articulate the meaning of the phrase “gender stereotype.” The idea that someone like Feminist Frank would ever espouse feminist values is literally preposterous to us, and this absurdity demands meme-ification. Men have no interest in learning about feminism or advancing the rights of women. Feminist Frank turns that horrifying truth into a silly punchline.
The Feminist Frank meme is hardly the only culprit here. A comic recently posted by College Humour depicts a man clad in a backwards baseball cap aggressively hitting on a pretty blonde: “Mm, girl, you are looking hella fine forreal tho, you got plans tonight, baby?” She replies, “Look, buddy, I came here to drink and dance. I’m not some slut for you to take home.” The dude backs off, but not before delivering a college-level women’s studies lecture replete with polysyllabic Butlerian jargon and getting a high-five from a jock in a Hillary 2016 shirt. The joke here, again, is that the very idea of a “feminist man” is ludicrous and unthinkable – oh, and that street harassment and aggressive sexual come-ons are prime fodder for jokes.
Mind you, the takeaway from all this is not “feminists should not joke about serious problems that affect women.” I do think that humor can play an important role in feminist communities. Comedy – even today, in the golden age of Tina and Amy – is famously a misogynistic boy’s club. Who could forget Daniel Tosh’s horrifying 2012 rape joke, for instance, and the speed with which male comedy stars like Jon Stewart, Louis C.K., and Dane Cook rushed to defend him? Fighting rape culture in comedy necessarily requires women comedians to talk back, and, in the aftermath of this particular incident, feminist comedians like Lena Dunham and Lizz Winstead didn’t hesitate to take Tosh to task. Humor, in this case, was their most potent weapon.
But using the weapons of street harassers and violent misogynists to convey feminist messages is irresponsible. As the great Audre Lorde once wrote, “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.”
Even when those tools are used in jest.
Especially when those tools are used in jest.
How is repeating verbal violence for comedic purposes going to end street harassment?
How is an inherently misogynistic medium ever going to convey a feminist message?