The awfulness of banter, and why male feminists should start a revolution


2012/07/11 by admin

Millie Kidson

“Why did you say that?”

‘Banter’ is the word of the moment. Whether you’re male or female, young or old, banter has become the universal excuse for all sorts of behaviour. That racist rant at the football? Banter. The outing of a gay friend? Banter. The rape joke at a bar? Banter.

A joke shared between friends is all good fun, but, when it comes to banter, it is men who are usually expected to find it hilarious and keep the joke going, at any cost.

With porn readily available on the internet and a stream of vitriolic sites like UniLad making claims like the heavily criticised “If the girl you’ve taken for a drink… won’t ‘spread for your head’, think about this mathematical statistic: 85% of rape cases go unreported. That seems to be fairly good odds” it’s almost impossible to get away from images and viewpoints that are consistently damaging to women.

UniLad were forced to take the site down but the story is the same in numerous men’s magazines, Facebook pages and all over the web. It might not seem like such a big deal, but given that it is estimated 1 in 7 women have been raped, it is not hard to see that perpetuating jokes like this through ‘banter’ poses a very real threat.

When considering the language that lad culture uses to describe women – everything from “gash” to “I’d smash her back doors in” – it is difficult to see what those outside of this behaviour could do about it. On asking the men around me if they would ever challenge sexist banter from their friends, not one said yes, but when asked if they felt uncomfortable or wanted to challenge it, almost all also said yes. There is a clear discrepancy between inner feelings on so-called ‘banter’ and the external behaviour.

One student spoke of his experience with a university snowsports society – “There were a lot of girls, and they were all treated with constant, boring misogyny.

“I think some of them rebelled against it, but eventually just joined the herd and accepted it to the point of going along with it, even pretending to enjoy it, and that is when it became ‘banter’.”

He said that women “accepted their lot as pieces of meat – I suppose it was like a really awful white middle class gang.”

Others described similar experiences within sports teams and during stereotypically “male” activities such as watching a football match or playing computer games. One man described the process of “dehumanisation of women”, agreeing that most men wouldn’t directly approach a woman with sexist comments, and wouldn’t make them outside of their friendship groups.

The experience of finding this uncomfortable seems fairly widespread – another student told me “I find that loads of guys aren’t a fan of banter, and just tolerate it as that is what is deemed socially acceptable.”

The difficulty arises in the inability of both men and women to challenge banter as unacceptable behaviour without being ridiculed or ignored. I can’t claim for a second that is in some way their fault, but there has to be a shift in culture for the inexcusable dialogue surrounding women to be broken down. It has to become the case that making derogatory sexualised comments about the woman behind the bar is greeted with the same response as insulting a male friend.

Whilst it is difficult to challenge a whole culture ingrained in everything from billboard advertisements to porn, it will be impossible to break free of an idealised and sexualised view of women without removing the societal expectations to engage in banter. If young men are consistently taught that their role is to join in with their friends regardless of their own personal stance they will never break free and be able to enjoy sport or other activities free of “boring misogyny”. This role is perpetuated throughout television programmes, the “bros before hoes” mentality and even adverts by beer companies.

Men are just as much a victim of patriarchy as women in this case, and the time is coming for men and women to stand together and call out ‘banter’ as unacceptable. It takes courage, but it almost certainly garners respect. If a friend of mine couldn’t respect me when I told them to stop speaking about someone in a particular way, I’m not sure I would want to call them a friend.

Male feminists are beginning a revolution. It might be quiet, under the surface, pledging your allegiance. Of course, no man can tell feminism what direction it should take, autonomy is key, but it might be time to start putting that allegiance into practice. A simple challenge – “Why did you say that?” – to the sexist banter found in bars around the world could be all it takes to trigger a reaction, to snap a man or woman out of their patriarchal stupor and open their eyes to a world where banter is something shared, not something that puts women in real danger.

Tomorrow Jamie Thunder writes about how his own perception of harassment suffered by women was changed when a female friend explained how she’d been approached by a man while on public transport.

2 thoughts on “The awfulness of banter, and why male feminists should start a revolution

  1. rwelbirg says:

    Can I say I think this focus on the word ‘banter’ is misguided, with reference to your previous post “feminism requires nuance, not sloganeering”. It’s just a word, whose meaning (clearly!) varies hugely.

    ‘Banter’ is not a problem for feminism, except when it is shorthand for misogynist abuse – and even then, it’s the misogyny that is the problem, not the term misogynists may use to defend themselves.

    So I think the StopBanter campaign (not sure it’s big enough to call it that, but you know what I mean) highlights misogyny but labels it with a word that means no such thing to the vast majority of readers. You also run the risk of encouraging resistance because of the conflicting understanding of meaning between you and your audience. Is StopMisogyny not self-evidently worthwhile?

    Anyway, good article, and always good to see the utter horror that is UniLad highlighted.

  2. tarpfrog says:

    I am very interested in the power of humor/comedy (funny or not funny) to transgress social boundaries. It seems that if you have “humor” on your side, you can say just about anything. And if someone gets offended, you can always shoot back with, “Relax! It was only a joke!” or “I was just kidding!” or “Lighten up!” It seems that humor speech has become the most powerful and protected speech in the world.

    Perhaps the most effective way to defeat offensive or inappropriate humor is with more humor (especially if you have an audience). But I think you have to be careful because you want your witty comeback to be powerful enough to shut the person up, but you don’t want to fall into the negative battle-of-the-genders trap that the person has created.

    For example, if a man had made a misogynist joke, my first instinct would be to come up with a dig that would reduce his manhood in front of his friends (something implying that if he felt that bitter/thought that that was really how sex worked, it must be because he hasn’t been laid in a long time).

    But satisfying in the moment as that comment might be, I think it would actually further entrench that guy’s misogynism/insecurity with his masculinity and make him more likely to make similar jokes in the future.

    More difficult is a funny yet somehow loving reply that would be a little more secretly (and effectively) instructive to him. I have seen friends do this in ways that have cracked up an entire table. For example, after a real humdinger of a misogynistic joke, changing the topic to an over-the-top cheesily sentimental one. [While patting him on the back sympathetically and giving him a look of concern]: “Oh, I can tell you just haven’t met the girl of your dreams yet. When you meet her, you won’t have to smash her back doors in at all. All you’ll have to do is knock politely, and, if she’s one for butt-sex (as I know the girl of your dreams will be) she’ll let you right on in!”

    Somehow, switching things to the possibility of the girl of his dreams makes most men take a more sober tone.

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