When Humor Reinforces Pre-Existing Social Structures Rather Than Satirizing Them

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“9 Non-threatening Leadership Strategies for Women,” was a heavily shared graphic article during the summer of 2016. Sarah Cooper published the article on her satirical “office humor blog” known as The Cooper Review, which generates a variety of cartoons, listicles, and videos under the descriptor tagline, “Funny because it’s true.” However, as I dig into the complexities of the article’s simplistic assumptions, this tagline becomes less ironic and more revealing in how the media it promotes is actively harmful in reinforcing particular norms and binaries.

The graphic article begins with an introduction that suggests the audience (females in business work environments), the antagonist (males and “the patriarchy”), and the purpose (how to alter female leadership style in order to avoid negative perception from men): “In this fast-paced business world, female leaders need to make sure they’re not perceived as pushy, aggressive or competent. One way to do that is to alter your leadership style to account for the (sometimes) fragile male ego.” The full introduction, brimming with sarcasm and humor, sets the reader up for the satire to come: “Should men accept powerful women and not feel threatened by them? Yes. Is that asking too much? IS IT? Sorry I didn’t mean to get aggressive there.” The piece goes on to present nine graphics, each with its own caption and “strategy” for women in the workplace. This framework alludes to the “corporate manual” and variations of leadership strategy guides in the corporate world. These guides permeate the business world in the form of books, magazines, online publications, and are sometimes specified towards women, such as Levo League, an online platform dedicated to providing resources, advice, and connections to businesswomen.
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Each of the graphics in the article is a colored square framed by the article’s name “9 Non-threatening Leadership Strategies for Women” on top and
The Cooper Review branding on the bottom. Between that framing, bold black letters spell out “#1” through “#9” and range from simple actions (e.g. “sharing your ideas” and “emailing a request”) to responding to external incidents (e.g. “someone steals your idea” and “hearing a sexist comment”). Each square is split by a black line, the left side title “THREATENING” highlighted black and enclosed in sarcastic quotes, while the right side title “NON-THREATENING” is not highlighted and is not enclosed in quotes, making it more approachable. Underneath each title is a simple gray scale drawing of a woman or a woman with a man and a text bubble above the woman’s head. The only differences between the left and right sides of each graphic are the characters’ facial expressions as linked to the text (“threatening” vs. “non-threatening”), showing that the “non-threatening” responses are supposedly more polite and happier for all those involved. The left to right transition, imitating the normal English reading pattern, also subconsciously implies which situation is the “right” way for women to act in order to be respected by men.

Despite the biting sarcastic humor of the graphics and their respective captions, the graphic article makes several assumptions that detract from its explicit attempt to undermine particular gender societal expectations. Most glaringly obvious throughout the nine graphics is the reinforcement of the gender binary and gender stereotypes as well as a complete lack of racial and body size diversity. Cooper’s article is fixated on women versus men and their respective perceptions in a corporate work environment. Every “woman” has long hair (either white or black), white skin, is thin, and wears some sort of blouse or suit jacket. Almost every graphic also includes the image of a “man,” also white with either white, gray, or black hair and a collared shirt and/or tie. In promoting such homogeneous images though, the graphic article reinforces a deeper problem of norms in the corporate world. The graphic images only present two categories of gender identity, one type of body size, one race, and most likely one social class, which perpetuates the same normature that the aforementioned “corporate guides” already promote. By showing one type of person, Cooper falls right into line with the large marketing structures that subconsciously promote homogeneous images and what is acceptable in the corporate world.

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Cooper’s #whitefeminism mission leaves out several gender and racial identities, but she also goes further as to pinpoint and use male stereotypes. For example, “#6 When You Already Knew That,” depicts a “threatening” standpoint in which the female character tells the male character that she has already explained something to him. The “non-threatening” side presents the woman saying she would love to hear him explain it again. In the caption below, Cooper states “Men love explaining things.” While she might intend to present men as stereotypes in defiance of the generalized representations of women, such a statement doesn’t lead to a productive outcome for her assumed female audience. In breaking down expectations of women in the workplace, she builds up and reinforces stereotypes and expectations of men. In the last graphic, “#9 When You Disagree,” the only change between “threatening” and “non-threatening” is the fake mustache on the female character. She claims that wearing a mustache makes you “more man-like.” But what does “man-like” even mean? Having facial hair? “Growing a pair”? Although Cooper intends this comment as a joke, there’s also an unfortunate underlying assumption about what masculinity even means. But, her assumption that men receive more respect in a work environment due to their biology also reveals a subtler point about gender characteristics and perceptions. As we discussed in class, butch and femme characteristics receive different treatment outside the LGTBQ+ community, and perhaps more masculine qualities (i.e. butch) receive a greater degree of respect in the office environment. Studies have shown a counter-intuitive wage gap in which gay men receive a smaller salary than straight men while lesbian women receive a larger salary than straight women. Not only does the graphic article present the characters as cisgender, they also appear heterosexual, which brings us back to another corporate normature that Cooper sustains. One of our takeaways from the Wilchins piece discussed in class was that with sexual queerness comes a level of gender queerness and vice versa. Meanwhile, the characters in Cooper’s graphics seem to all fit the socially constructed gender and sexual norms that the typical corporate guide would also promote, whether intentionally or not.

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Cooper sets out to critique and disrupt the man/woman dynamic in the corporate workplace and model that has been promoted by countless publications, advertisers, and media. She focuses on women’s oppression in the workplace and uses a male/female inversion to prove the lack of respect women receive. However, this graphic article fails to act as a didactic piece and comes across as only entertainment because she only inverts the heteronormative male/female relationship and reproduces other homogeneous racial, sexual, and class expectations in the corporate world. If she wanted it to be more than a piece of entertainment, highlighting the intersectionality of oppression in the workplace would ultimately teach and flip her audience’s expectations of who really does work in the business world.