Sitting amongst a bunch of thirty-somethings at a holiday party in Parkdale this past weekend, it was almost inevitable that Shit Girls Say would come up. The popular Twitter turned YouTube clip that depicts what either are, or are not “typically girly” things to say (example: “could you not do that please?”) has now amassed over 5 million views, and has also been followed up by a sequel.
The general reaction at the party was the same as I’ve read around the web: it’s funny because it’s true. “Girls” really do speak like that, the thinking goes, and it’s humourous to see these mundane phrases stringed together, placed slightly out of context. Whatever the reason, I found the clip funny. I’m not even quite sure why, really. But I laughed, and like a few hundred thousand other people, posted the clip to Facebook with a comment to that effect.
But as much more sceptical reactions tumbled out, particularly two from writers I respect—Lynn Crosbie in the Globe and local writer Emma Woolley—I began to feel a little guilty. Both Crosbie and Woolley argued that the video was reproducing the same dismissive approach to women that has been popular for, oh, the last few thousand years or so. And there I was, a straight man laughing the haplessness and silliness of “stuff women say.” Should I feel bad?
After all, we know that jokes are one of the primary ways in which stereotypes are maintained and spread, which is why quips about women staying in the kitchen are now mainly tools to figure out who is and isn’t stupid. By the same token, humour is also a way to critique and engage controversial ideas. Certain comedy about identity done right—like, say, Chris Rock on race or Margaret Cho on sexuality—can be constructive rather than harmful, especially when they upset simple reactions or interpretations. There’s also a broader issue at work, too, in that humour can often be a space for releasing the repressed in a safe way. If you’ve ever laughed at Louis CK on the word “cunt,” you know what I’m talking about.
So if the two options are harmful and helpfully cathartic, which one is Shit Girls Say? Can something be sexist if thousands of people are saying that what it displays is true?
Whenever you ask if X or Y is sexist or racist etc., whether or not the thing depicted is “true” is always the wrong question. What’s true about a large, diverse group of people will always be up for debate, and besides, just because you can find examples of stereotypes, it doesn’t make uncritically reproducing them any less lazy.
But the other option, is that you can repeat stereotypes as long as you do something interesting with them. Stuff White People Like, for example, worked because it wasn’t really talking about “white people” as much as it was progressive, privileged whites. It was the self-reflexive nature of it that made it work, in part because the people being critiqued weren’t really in any danger of losing anything.
You might say something about Shit Girls Say, particularly because its Queen West vibe and aesthetic is really poking at a tiny, very specific segment of “girls” rather than women in general. There’s also another wrinkle here, in that the “girl” in the video is of course a gay man, which ostensibly changes things. “Because the body performing the humour both does and does not read as female,” my imaginary cultural critic says “Shit Girls Say undercuts essentialist notions of gender through its interruption of the normative sexed body.“
Trouble is, I’m not buying the opinion of my invented critic. In producing humour out of day-to-day speech, Shit Girls Say doesn’t really pass the “does it do something interesting” test. At best, it provides a space for privileged women to laugh at themselves, but in the process, lets a few million other not-as-lucky people laugh for very different, probably insidious reasons.
I can’t tell you if you should feel bad for laughing at SGS, but I do know that I do now. I guess I laughed because in the bubble that is my life, almost no-one I know speaks like this. As reasons go, that’s a pretty shitty one, because it means I’m laughing at rather than with, and I fear that millions of other people are too.
But at some point, though, we’re going have to figure out how to deal with a situation in which the things you believe and the things that make you laugh can be diametrically opposed. Humour, as this piece about Louis CK’s comedy and its reliance on shame suggests, is intimately linked to what we feel we are allowed to say and what we repress. Done well, humour can become a way to deal with the fact that many of us have to learn to retroactively deal with prejudices we picked up without even realizing it. I’m just not sure Shit Girls Say is clever or interesting enough to do that.
Nonetheless, there’s a silver lining here, too. On the nerdier corners of the internet like Reddit and various video game fora, there’s been an unexpected reaction. Numerous straight men have reached the end of the video and have felt confused because they found the hapless heroine cute. Put another way, in repeating the tropes of gender over and over again, the video has an unexpected effect: it got a small number of people to question the neat, simplistic binaries with which we usually approach sexuality and gender.
Maybe this is what the web seems to do best. Rather than the public circulation of yet another sexist TV show, for every anonymous accusation of “humourless feminist!”, the interactive, conversational nature of the web means the wealth of reaction have made it almost impossible to encounter the video without also stumbling upon opposing views. You could even argue this is why a video like Shit Girls Say can be so devoid of context or explanation; its creators knew its viewers would be the ones to create it. It’s just a shame that they gave their public so little to work with.
Navneet Alang is the Toronto Standard’s Tech Critic. You can follow him on Twitter @navalang.