How do you tell the difference? A sexist joke is at the expense of the victim (for want of a better word). A joke about sexism is at the expense of the perpetrator.
Joe Hanson has a zest for science communication. He makes a series of short, science videos It’s OK to be smart which you can find on YouTube. Great examples of clear, engaging science communication.
In his Thanksgiving themed video, he made an error. He made Albert Einstein sexually harass Marie Curie.
See, the episode hinged on having bobble-head dolls of prominent scientists from the past sit around a table with him and discuss how far science has come since their time. To their dismay, not as far as they thought.
This is where the Einstein-on-Curie action occurs. Einstein repeatedly advances on Curie, then gets his gear off, then mounts her.
One of Joe’s points is that huge challenges still exist for women in science. As he explains to Curie in the video, only 14 women have won the Nobel Prize since she did, one of them her daughter. There are still major imbalances between men and women in senior positions, truly mind-boggling instances of sexual harassment and rampant implicit bias. All of these things need to change.
But Joe had to explain most of this in his post-video-backlash apology .
Why didn’t it come across in the video? Because, I’m sorry to say, the joke wasn’t well executed or funny. Jokes about ‘isms’ are tricky. The vulnerable party can’t be the butt of the joke. If you’ve ever watched The Office (you really should have), Ricky Gervais does this brilliantly as David Brent. Brent does and says some truly horrific things. But he’s always the one who looks bad. You know he’s in the wrong. The rest of the characters make it clear.
In the Thanksgiving video, no one calls Einstein out. Joe actually praises one of his pick-up lines. For it to work, Einstein had to be the butt of the joke. Curie could have kicked him off the table (I certainly would have). Any of the other scientists could have ridiculed him. Joe, as the moral, modern scientist could have called him out. Better yet, why not have a woman scientist co-host and give Einstein what-for? It had to be abundantly clear that Einstein’s behaviour was not OK.
Sexism should always be called out. Loudly and with gusto. I also think there’s a difference between someone who sets out to tell a sexist joke and someone who failed at making a joke about sexism. The end product was sexist, but the intention was not. I don’t think heads need to roll.
Instead, it’s a great opportunity to get the right message out there. That so many people immediately shouted, ‘That’s not OK!’, is brilliant (here, here, and here). Like others, I think this needs to become part of the video. At the end, explain the fall out. Explain why people were rightfully angry. Explain what you meant to do. Try again.