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Julius toppled by vaginas…and T-shirts?

Julius Malema has been toppled by vaginas and sexist T-shirts. Who would have thought that the posts that attract the most reads should be about plastic surgery for fannies (over 5 000, a record for me) and T-shirts bearing legends like “You looked better … from behind”.

Admittedly, a lot of the comments would indicate that the readers of News24, devastated at the loss of their anonymity, have decamped en masse to Thought Leader. “No sense of humour” is the charge often fired at feminists, and it was flying all over here and Twitter yesterday. Jeremy Nell, the cartoonist, weighed in, declaring that the best response to FeministsSA’s call for a boycott of the Foschini Group (the “feminist onslaught”) was to mock them via funny T-shirt designs.

Well, here’s my take on those T-shirts. Let me state upfront that I’m a feminist with a sense of humour. Recently I blogged about being a very bad feminist who talks about bitches and bunnyboilers. I used to collect South African insults, so I can handle my four letter words. Hey, Barry Ronge once called me “Hitler with tits”, which I found odd because I don’t look much like Hitler at all.

Here’s the thing. I’m not a fan of those T-shirts. I’m not quite as viscerally offended by them as Jen Thorpe, but I can see why she hates them. Now I don’t dislike them because they’re sexist, which they are, or an example of marketing at its most cynical, which is debatable (I do think they’re a fine example of the dofness of many marketers in this country, who have an ability to turn tone deafness to nuance into a fine art). I think they’re crap because they’re just not really … funny. In fact, the funniest thing about them is the name of the individual who designed them: Harry Fokker. One of the finest examples of nominative determinism I’ve seen in ages.

He says they’re satirical. He’s wrong. The designs are lame, yes, slightly cringeworthy, yes. Real Fourways doos-with-a-beer-at-the-braai stuff, yes. Compared to the best of South African humour, humour that’s sly and subversive, that asks us to look beyond the obvious and dig beneath the surface, especially if it makes us uncomfortable — they’re not quite up there. I was going to say: compare them to T-shirts from hayibo or Laugh It Off or Big Blue, but nobody’s done great wearable satire since “Black Labour, White Guilt” (the hayibo Julius stuff is now looking a bit tired). If you want to really push it, look at the work of Bitterkomix, which uses sex and stereotype to make some very pointed comments on business and politics. Offensiveness can be cathartic, even healthy — but it has to be a certain kind of offensiveness, and the Markham’s shirts fail on that score.

This is what satire looks like.

Sure, humour is subjective, and making value judgments isn’t necessarily appropriate. The rule I use is usually this: does the joke ask us to think? Does it prod us out of our comfort zones? At the most simple level, does it mean the opposite of what it ostensibly says?

Harry Fokker’s T-shirts don’t challenge the wearer — or the wearer’s oke and chick friends — to question the assumptions on which they’re based. Saying “I put the STD in STUD all I need is U” or declaring “I recycle girls” isn’t questioning the nature of sexism at all; it’s an endorsement of it. The target market is the jet, bike-riding, chino wearers of the world and they’re not going to read against these texts any time in the next century. I’m a big fan of humour as a tool for social cohesion and the mitigation of aggression in a diverse society, but I also recognise that lots of jokes reinforce iniquity rather than reduce it, and that’s what’s happening here.

I think that part of the reason for this is the context in which they’re sold: satire simply cannot live in that space. Even so, those shirts aren’t witty enough to qualify as satire no matter where they’re sold.

Whether the shirts should have been withdrawn and whether this is a freedom of speech issue is a matter I’ll address separately once I’ve given it more thought. In the meantime, it’s no surprise that a lot of people think those shirts are laugh-your-ass-off funny, especially because you look better from behind. After all, they would, wouldn’t they?