Infamous Scribblers

women writers of the long eighteenth century

Heckling Privilege: What Austen’s Emma Can Teach Us About the Politics of Joking

Miss Bates reacts to a joke told at her expense.

Miss Bates reacts to a joke told at her expense.

The interwebs have been set twittering about, well, another tweet: Madeleine Albright’s quick-fire response to Conan O’Brien’s use of her as a comedic subject–namely, that he is going as a “Sexy Madeleine Albright” for Halloween. Albright retorts that she thought about going as a “Hunky Conan,” but such a concept seems outside the realm of possibility. Some read the interaction with utter delight, including Conan and Albright themselves; others with more harsh words for the famous comedian, particularly calling out the ageist sexism embodied in the joke. Of course, the feminist realms of the internet have renewed their debates on the “sexy” Halloween outfit, some calling them exploitative and limiting for women, others saying their choice to dress sexy is “empowering” for them. O’Brien takes up what he sees as a thread of the ridiculous–his job as a comedian–that of the”sexification” of otherwise un-sexy costumes. He does this by including Albright as the next object of the ridiculous, an ideal project for “sexyifying” The joke, it seems, is on her–older women like Albright are apparently not meant to be “sexy,” and thus they are another random, even ridiculous, costume, a parade of aging and irrelevant female sexuality that one can “dress” up in bustiers and laughter to make the spectacle of female sexuality all the more entertaining, consumable in an entirely different way.

Albright’s response is perceived as funny, sharp, clever; and to an extent it is. But part of its comedy appears to lie in the fact that such figures, especially female figures, of ageist and sexist satire rarely joke back. The unexpected delight of some underscores that fact: Albright has “won” the internet. Others claim those who are upset by the joke don’t understand it’s “satire” or need to “lighten up.”

We’ve seen this all before, though to much more volatile extents than Albright’s cheery response. Michael Richards wistfully recalls days of lynching when he disturbingly reacts to an African American viewer’s rejection of his act. Daniel Tosh’s horrific bottom line, that “rape is always funny,” went viral in 2011. Tosh’s reply to a woman viewer’s objection that “rape is never funny” was a half apology, and a whole justification: comedy, he argues, ought to allow for anything. Thus his rejoinder, something along the lines of “wouldn’t it be funny if five guys raped her like right now,” was for him a plausible response to being heckled. Many comedians–and comediennes–defended him, almost as many as those who denounced him. Club owner Jamie Masada of the Laugh Factory, who gave both Tosh and Richards the stage-time where they delivered these terrifying jokes, even goes so far as to call the woman a heckler, stating, “I understand where she is coming from, but Daniel Tosh did not attack this young lady. I feel bad for her and I apologize to her. If you are a member of the audience and you start dishing out something to a comic and try to be funny, you better be able to take it.” In her claim that rape isn’t funny, the owner assigns the audience member the role of trying to be funny. In engaging in this “heckling,” his logic goes, she is tacitly participating in a behavior–with implied consent–that, in turn, allows her to be made fun of to the point of implying her “rape” would be hilarious. In short, for Masada, she asked for it….the rape jokes, that is, that threaten to laugh at her violated expense.

But is it heckling? Is Albright’s response heckling? Is critique aimed at Conan voiced by several feminist writers a form of virtual, rather than live, heckling? I can’t think so.

There seems to be something fundamentally different about telling a jokester that a joke is not only unfunny, but offensive. Or have we as consumers of comedy gotten to the point where offense is the only thing that’s funny?

As I was reading about the Albright-Conan battle of tweet-wits, I couldn’t help but recall all of the other critiques of the art of the joke and, what’s more, the constant pressure we need to put on joke-writers to even consider privilege as an aspect central to their process. Sure, joking at someone else’s expense is somewhat offensive and can be funny; but when it is at the expense of victims? When it is at the expense of reifying privilege or erasing marginalized people’s sexualities? Hmm.

Of course, being the scribbler that I am–i.e., delighted in long eighteenth-century infamy–I was immediately taken back to one of the best examples of when a privileged joke-teller (with an Albright-like older woman target) goes wrong: Austen’s Emma (1815).

Emma, the rich and spoiled protagonist, constantly cites her privilege as a reason to meddle in others lives, particularly those of the lower sort. She, in a way, adopts Harriet Smith, trying to erase her illegitimacy by upper class association, only to try and foist her onto eligible genteel men; she patronizes the poor old maid, the prattling Miss. Bates, masking condescension with proper conduct; and she disdains Harriet’s affection for a farmer. In all, her privilege certainly makes her “doomed to blindness,” though perhaps not for all time. During a rather (in)famous scene–the English countryside picnic and strawberry picking–Emma’s “friend,” Frank Churchill, insists the party play a game, of which Miss Woodhouse presides. Mrs. Elton, Emma’s biggest social nemesis (an early version of frenemy) “swelled at the idea of Miss Woodhouse’s presiding” (Vol III. Chapter VII). Mrs. Elton begins to mutter quite wildly to husband (an “well I never” sort of quiet explosion), and Frank changes tactics quickly: “she only demands from each of you,” he says, ordering for her without her consent, “either one thing very clever, be it prose or verse, original or repeated–or two things moderately clever–or three things very dull indeed, and she engages to laugh heartily at them all” (III.vii).

Before anyone can get a word in, Miss Bates “exclaimed . . . then I need not be uneasy. ‘Three things very dull indeed.’ That will just do for me, you know. I shall be sure to say three dull things as soon as ever I open my mouth, shan’t I?–(looking round with the most good-humoured dependence on every body’s assent)–Do not you all think I shall?” (III.vii). In response to a demand from those higher up in the echelons of society to be “entertaining,” Miss Bates can only think of one such avenue to entertain them: to mock herself. In its awkwardness, Miss Bates reminds them–and us–that entertainment, joking, involves privilege. The joke reveals dynamics of power not simply through who has the ability to tell the joke, but at whose expense the joke is made. And I want us to think of that–expense–in the economic terms that the phrase originally suggests: at whose charge? It is incredibly meaningful that a phrase so often invoked when discussing the joke–at whose expense–carries with it such commercial valence, such privilege of expenditure. Which begs the question in this Austenian situation and others–can the underprivileged afford such a charge? Even Miss Bates’s jokes, like her social situation, rely on “the most good-humoured dependence” of securing “every body’s assent.” Her financial reliance on the generosity of others is mirrored here in her need for the demanded joke’s reception. In this sense, her joke works for her–however painfully it may be uttered–because it clearly articulates her own troubled understanding of her dependent position of non-privilege in the group. In this sense, the joke of her own dullness and irrelevance to the group is a form for her to call out and recognize privilege, even as she is demanded to perform the obsequious work of “entertaining” Emma.

While the rest of the group seems uncomfortably aware of this difference, “Emma could not resist” the exploitation of Miss Bates as a “comical character,” as an irresistible subject for comedy: “Ah! ma’am, but there may be a difficulty. Pardon me–but you will be limited as to number–only three at once” (III.vii). In two sentences, Emma has reinforced Miss Bates’s superfluity: she is excessive, unneeded, an annoyance, a tolerance, and an easy target. So much for our heroine. “Miss Bates,” the narrator continues, is “deceived by the mock ceremony of [Emma’s] manner” and “did not immediately catch her meaning” (III.viii). Emma’s joke is not only at Miss Bates’s expense, something the woman can surely not afford, it is also a mockery of “ceremony,” of the politeness seemingly due to Miss Bates as a charitable cause. Finally, “when it burst on [Miss Bates], it could not anger, though a slight blush showed that it could pain her” (III.vii). Why she can’t get angry seems overwhelmingly clear, even more so when paired with Gwyneth Paltrow’s film portrayal–Emma, in cinematic form, gets angry at Mrs. Elton’s behavior, at her so obvious snub. She not only perceives Mrs. and Mr Elton’s digs at her immediately, she also has the license to get angry.

Emma jokes, "Only three."

Emma jokes, “Only three.”

Miss Bates is accorded no such space to voice anger. She is effectively mocked into silence: “Ah!–well–to be sure. Yes, I see what she means, (turning to Mr. Knightley,) and I will try to hold my tongue. I must make myself very disagreeable, or she would not have said such a thing to an old friend” (III.vii). Its heartbreaking affirmation is palpable here–and in the excellent performance by Sophie Thompson below–all Miss Bates has the power to do is assent and further humiliate herself in a way that Emma did not, in a way that Emma resists when she “could not resist” her target of mockery.

In the film, the party breaks up immediately after this exchange; in the novel, Mr Weston quickly interjects and the project of entertainment continues, if on a rather uneven, uncomfortable footing. The politics of class, usually so carefully masked by that “ceremony” that Emma has now mocked and thus exposed, are distastefully too sour on the genteel tongue for even the sweetest strawberries to soothe. What follows is one of the more intriguing Austen character lectures. Following her away, Knightley charges her, “How could you be so unfeeling to Miss Bates? How could you be so insolent in your wit to a woman of her character, age, and situation?–Emma, I had not thought it possible.” (III.viii).

It’s Emma’s turn to blush as she “recollected” on the charge–but tries herself “to laugh it off.” “Nay, how could I help saying it,” she implores, “Nobody could have helped it. It was not so very bad. I dare say she did not understand me” (III.vii). No one could have resisted–the comedy is too good. But everyone else did resist it. It isn’t so very bad, it’s an appropriate subject of comedy. But clearly the “unfeeling”ness of her remark to the point of pain is not appropriate after all, especially because, Knightly astutely points out, Emma is in a position of privilege:

“…were she prosperous, I could allow much for the occasional prevalence of the ridiculous over the good. Were she a woman of fortune, I would leave every harmless absurdity to take its chance, I would not quarrel with you for any liberties of manner. Were she your equal in situation–but, Emma, consider how far this is from being the case. She is poor; she has sunk from the comforts she was born to; and, if she live to old age, must probably sink more. Her situation should secure your compassion. . . . many . . . would be entirely guided by your treatment of her.” (III.viii)

And here we have it. While problematically still couched in the terms of upper class pity, nonetheless Knightley demands further contemplation and, what’s more, correction of Emma’s behavior. If she fails to have sympathy, to “secure” her compassion for Miss Bates, then she must take responsibility after the fact for what she has done, especially because of her position as a public figure. Indeed, the cruelty of Emma’s joke is magnified not just by social distance but by her power as a central character, in showing others–readers and fictional characters–how to act and treat members of the community.

"Badly done, Emma."

“Badly done, Emma.”

Emma is left with some conflicting emotions–acceptance of her privilege and wrongdoing on the one, “How could she have been so brutal, so cruel to Miss Bates?” she asks herself in an Austenian moment of free indirect discourse, and resistance to such a privilege check on the other: “And how suffer him to leave her without saying one word of gratitude, of concurrence, of common kindness!” (III.vii). The contrast of ashamed recognition (how could I have done that?) and privileged indignation (how could someone do that to me?) mirrors many comedian responses to their joke being offendedly, rather than badly, received. We are left in the chapter with Emma feeling “the tears running down her cheeks . . . without being at any trouble to check them, extraordinary as they were.”

Emma’s tears are as foreign as the notion that she is the one “expos[ing] herself to such ill opinion in any one she valued” (Knightley or Miss Bates? Surely the former, uncertain on the latter). More than anything, Emma’s shame is associated in social-economic parlance. She is for the first time vulnerable to being undervalued–something Miss Bates, as Knightley paints it clearly, is constantly experiencing. Expense is coming for her in a way that she can afford, but to which she doesn’t necessarily want to be “exposed.” In the film this is illustrated beautifully–we are left with Paltrow’s sad face, but we are less sympathetic once we’ve seen Thompson’s. Emma’s tears are still important in showing this conflict, but she still has the privileged space of the novel to show that she sheds them. Miss Bates’s response beyond the moment remains elusively on the margins. Emma can’t be bothered to “check” her rare tears, but she is left with an ethical decision posed by Knightley–exposing those in underprivileged situations to further nullification, undervaluing, invalidity, leaves her with a responsibility and a choice to act otherwise and, what’s more, to rethink her own relationship to privilege and value. The novel doesn’t hinge on Emma checking her tears, but it does point to a great need for her to check her privilege. “Badly done, Emma.” Badly done, Conan. Badly done, Michael Richards. Badly done, Daniel Tosh. Badly done indeed.

In this sense, we can borrow the language critical of value and its work in exposing with clarity the operation of  privilege from Austen’s high-society novel, Emma. And in so many excellent responses to these comedians/comediennes, we already have continued the conversation.

I guess the question we are left with is this: is Knightley a heckler? He certainly is in a position of MORE privilege than Emma, but because of that privilege he is able to get angry. Is Miss Bates a heckler too, framing her objections as pain rather than pissed-off? I’m curious for your comments….

But in the meantime, enjoy these clips!

“Just Three.”

“Badly done, Emma.”

Novel Edition Cited:

Austen, Jane. Emma: A Norton Critical Edition. Ed. Stephen M. Parrish. Third Edition. New York: Norton, 2000. Print.

For a refresher on the comedian/heckling cases, see these article:

About Rachel

Doctoral Candidate in Literature

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This entry was posted on October 25, 2014 by .



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