The Huffington Post has published a joke about different ways to set men on fire, Glen Poole is not amused.
There’s a line in the Terry Pratchett novel, Jingo, that goes: “give a man a fire and he's warm for a day, but set fire to him and he's warm for the rest of his life.” It’s a funny line, not because setting a man on fire is funny, but because it reframes a familiar format in an unexpected way.
The same could be said of the mocked-up front cover of an imaginary women’s magazine called “Bloody Awful” published by Huffington Post UK this week. The general joke is that women’s magazines make women feel “bloody awful” about themselves and so the publication contains pretend articles like this:
- Women richer than you wearing things
- Sex, have you had it 20 times today? If not what’s wrong with you?”
- You look so old, just fucking hell”.
It’s a clever piece of comic mischief from the hugely talented UK blogger, Technically Ron, who is widely credited as being one of the funniest men on twitter. Now I love funny men (and women) and I’m acutely aware that deconstructing comedy is one of the most humourless past-times known to man but, but, but…….ever since I first saw the cover of “Bloody Awful” I have been asking myself why the following headline is considered to be funny:
“How to set fire to men in 20 different ways”
If you spend a little time on google you can very quickly find 20 different ways that real men have been set on fire, men like Luke Kennedy who suffered extensive facial burns after his beard was set on fire by strangers "for a joke" as he slept on a train in Sussex; Andrew Lyle, whose wife was imprisoned for 22 years for drugging him, dousing him in petrol and setting him on fire in Hampshire and Frank Hancock who was burnt to death in his own kitchen in Catford.
So why is the idea of a woman’s magazine running an article entitled “how to set fire to men in 20 different ways” funny? It reminds me of one of Jo Brand’s classic jokes: “they say the quickest way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, I say it’s through his ribs with a bread knife”.
Once again, the joke is created by taking something familiar (in this case a popular saying) and giving it an unexpected twist. For Jo Brand, these man-baiting jokes worked because they were delivered by a character who pretended to be a bitter, cynical, man-hating singleton, who couldn’t get a boyfriend.
So why is the headline “how to set fire to men in 20 different ways” funny? Is the joke that the readers of women’s magazines are all bitter man haters?
It's just a bit of fun!
I’ve been checking out Technically Ron’s work to try and understand the psyche of a man who makes jokes about setting men on fire. Ron describes himself as a “blogger and weirdo” who, before twitter was invented, used to “write shit jokes on post-it notes and throw them at people”.
So maybe I should accept Ron’s joke about women committing grievous bodily arson upon men’s bodies in the spirit that it was intended---just a throwaway gag. Much as I’d love to leave it there, it would be remiss of me not to mention that Ron recently become a brand ambassador for @JustforMenUK, purveyors of products for men who want to cover up their greying hair.
In his first blog for the company he wrote: “even those in the most loving of relationships need time by themselves, or you would probably end up in a news report that finishes with the line ‘…and then they turned the gun on themselves’.
Ah yes, jokes about men shooting their entire families, to compliment the hilarity of women setting fire to their men. I must confess, that while the joke about shooting your family leaves me cold, the joke about women setting men on fire did tweak the laughter muscles in my belly.
These are the same muscles that twitch when Jo Brand declares: "How do you know it’s time to wash the dishes? Look inside your pants. If you find a penis in there, it’s not time."
We no longer tolerate mainstream racist jokes
On one level I think my desire to laugh is cathartic. These jokes that are sexist against men are, in a bizarre way, an acknowledgment that hatred of men (misandry) exists, even though it’s a concept that is rarely a topic of mainstream conversation and it's often dismissed and denied when it is. The laughter, then, is a fleeting public acknowledgment that this hatred for men may well be real and provides momentary relief from the cultural lie that life is filled with misogyny, but misandry just isn’t a thing.
At the same time, the laughter I feel in my gut is problematic. As Esther Rantzen said of racist comedy, “humour can make prejudice acceptable, makes people comfortable with their worst feelings for each other”. The same can be true of sexist comedy and that includes comedy that is sexist against men.
Rantzen famously stood up to the comic, Bernard Manning, during an interview with Michael Parkinson saying: “When you make a joke about black or coloured people to a white audience, suddenly the prejudice they don’t dare admit to is respectable, suddenly they hear each other laughing and it’s comfortable”.
The same could be said about “setting men on fire” jokes, with the exception that the worse offenders are sometimes men. So why do some men feel compelled to make sexist jokes at the expense of their fellow men?
It’s usually because those men do not see themselves as Typical Men. Typical Men are viewed as a separate class of people that they don’t belong to because they like to think of themselves of being atypically good men. It’s not surprising, perhaps the negative press about Typical Men is so brutal that men have deserted the man brand like customers abandoning Ratners in the 1990s.
As Technically Ron confessed in one of his blog posts for @JustForMenUK , “I am a complete failure when it comes to the stereotypical definition of a man”. And once individual men stop identifying with “men as a group”, then we disassociate ourselves from our collective identity, we make men “the other”, they become the butt of mainstream jokes like the Black, the Jew, the Gay, the Irish and the Pakistani once were.
It's a Bloody Awful joke
Of course you could argue that the joke is equivalent to a fake UKIP magazine with the headline “20 ways to set a immigrant on fire”, or a pretend fundamentalist Christian magazine running articles like “how to set a homosexual on fire in 20 different ways”.
But the context is different, the joke here is not to mock women’s bigotry towards men, but to ridicule the way that big business (in this case the magazine industry) makes women feel “Bloody Awful”. In that context, I think I've concluded, that the idea of “setting men on fire” is a bloody awful joke.
I haven't asked Technically Ron for a comment, though he does make the following general statement on the front page of his website---"I am terribly sorry". So now I'm left wondering whether the decent thing to do is simply accept his apology, or whether I should set him on fire! Boom! Boom!
---Photo credit: Flickr/Stephen Wu
Article by Glen Poole author of the book Equality For Men
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