I think people should get a sense of humourPosted: May 4, 2011
“I think people should get a sense of humour”. Listening to David Cameron on the radio first thing in the morning on the first day back from all those lovely bank holidays was bound to raise my blood pressure somewhat. But this one phrase really got to me. At the end of an interview about something else, Cameron was posed the question about whether he now regretted his “Calm down dear” comment. Given the benefit of hindsight, taken out of the heat of the moment, realising the hurt and anger he had caused, did he regret it? No, he thinks people “should get a sense of humour”.
This accusation is hurled at feminists so often, and yet it is really hard to fight. We’re being “over-sensitive” or “over-emotional”. We’re making too much of something – reading things into the comment that don’t exist. But context is everything with a joke. Stereotypes can sometimes be funny. People can ridicule themselves to show up problems in society. I don’t personally get it, but jokes can sometimes be deliberately offensive and push boundaries.
So why am I so angry about David Cameron’s comments? It’s the context in which they were made. Cameron was standing amongst a government made up almost entirely of white, wealthy, privately educated men. A government that is making cuts that have been shown to disproportionately hurt women. A government where the education minister blamed feminism for the failure of young working class men to get to university.
And in this context, he made a “joke”, parodying a comment from a comedian known to be misogynistic (if in any doubt, take a look back at the attack Winner launched on @VictoriaCoren encouraging his followers to tweet sexist abuse at her), using a line known for being a patronising put down for hysterical women. So a car insurance company thought it would be good for sales to resurrect this line? “Yes, I’ve crashed into your car, but I’m famous and can afford to pay for the repairs. Any inconvenience you suffer is inconsequential to me”. It was a ridiculous campaign, but it is worse to make a joke of it in parliament because David Cameron is our Prime Minister. This wasn’t banter. If he had told an opposing MP to “shut up” he would have been called on to apologise. And yet there has been no official come back from this. Angela Eagle has responded well, responsibly and cleverly, pointing out that the comment was symptomatic of this government’s problem with women. But no-one has officially called Cameron to account for this remark. When a crude”joke” about a Welsh MP was made, the offending member was called on by the speaker to apologise. And this hasn’t happened in this case.
David Cameron, the government, and in fact all of parliament don’t see what was wrong with this comment. They don’t see that patronising women is wrong. David Cameron blames this on “Punch and Judy” politics, which he “gave up trying to change many years ago.” Our system is designed to be combative. But there’s another problem here. Punch and Judy wasn’t an equal fight. Judy was the punching-bag. Judy had to take a beating while protecting her children, and wait for a policeman to turn up and rescue her. And there isn’t anyone to take a protecting role in parliament. We rely on both sides to consider the best interests of us all.
Patronising and denigrating women helps persuade voters and selection committees that women aren’t up to the strains of “punch and judy” politics. This comment has damaged the reputation of parliament, and has caused harm. David Cameron probably at the time thought he was just being funny, as this kind of patronising comment is fairly common from him. But now that it has been pointed out to him that the comment was wrong, why won’t he retract it? Why won’t he apologise?
He is hiding behind a feeble excuse, that anyone who doesn’t find this funny just doesn’t have a sense of humour. The only way to fight this criticism is to explain why something isn’t funny, and is offensive. And yet Cameron has just ignored this explanation, refusing to listen. This arrogance is dangerous, and symptomatic of the way this government behaves.
So where does this leave women in politics? In a precarious position. Which really isn’t funny.