If there is a rule to being offensive, it’s this: you can say whatever you like, as long as it’s funny. That’s true on stage, on the Web, and in person. I’ve been friends with some truly offensive people. They have said horrible things to me, things that echo the bullies and tormentors of middle school days gone by. But my friends were also hilarious. I laughed along, often at my own expense, and I forgive them their trespasses.
Sqoot, a company promoting a coding marathon in Beantown called the Boston API Jam, came up with a doozy. In the invitation to the event, Sqoot lists some of the perks for attendees. Among these: Massages; a Live DJ; Gym Access; Top Shelf liquor; Women; free dark chocol . . . wait a minute, did they say women? Women are a perk? Yes, indeed.
In fact: “Need another beer? Let one of our friendly (female) event staff get that for you.”
Do I have to explain why this is a boneheaded move? Probably not. It touches on so many terrible prejudices that it really shouldn’t be excused. Women are a “perk.” Women will be present, if only to get you a beer. Attendees prefer women, especially subservient women. Women, especially those women who want a man to get them a beer, will not be in attendance as coders.
Some of those inferences are exaggerations, but the hints of their implications are certainly present in the text. So, how can one excuse Sqoot? Well, I can’t, but I can at least explain why they aren’t as contemptible as you might think, and certainly not as bad as other egregious and similar incidents that have popped up recently.
First, there’s a case to be made that this is offensive to the men as well as to the women. What sort of doofus wants to admit that women in attendance at a coding event would be a perk? This is similar to the booth babe controversy. On its surface, it would seem booth babes are a problem for women, but they are equally problematic for men. Assuming a constant sexualization in men’s psyche is offensive, just as is identifying women as objects. In other words, it is similarly offensive to say to a group of men: “all you think about is sex” as it is to say to a group of women: “your existence is to serve men.” I won’t argue over who gets the worst end of that stick (the women), but I will say it does nobody any favors.
Second, Sqoot’s timing couldn’t have been worse. Without taking sides, I can still say that issues that disproportionately affect women have become hot-button political topics. Attacks against women make the news on a nightly basis. Now is perhaps not the time to tread the boundary between bawdy humor and blatant sexism.
On the other hand, is it possible to accept the honesty in the premise, no matter how unsavory? I’m not sure about coding events, but the technology events I go to are attended by men in the majority. I’d like to see this change, not just to give women better opportunities in a thriving field, but also because the entire industry would benefit from a variety of perspectives, whether those are perspectives of a different sex, race or culture. I won’t define those alternative perspectives in stereotypical terms. I’ll just say that I assume that people think differently from each other, so the more difference we can encourage in our industry, the wider the variety of opinion.
But, back to my original point, I think the real offense committed by Sqoot is that the joke just wasn’t funny. I’m a fan of some very offensive and controversial comedians. Howard Stern. Bill Maher. Louis C.K. As much as they might protest, they certainly reach levels of offensiveness far greater than what Sqoot achieved. They also surpass the infamous Rush Limbaugh comments with no trouble.
Stern is a perfect example. As he often says, it’s hard to fill a 4 hour block of entertainment every day. He’s now down to 3 days a week, but he once regularly produced 25 hours of radio every week. He loses track of the things he says. He says whatever comes to his mind. One day he might prattle on about how bombing Iraq would be fun, and the next he’d tear into a caller who suggests we should be sending troops to war. He’s contradictory and inflammatory.
He’s also very funny. If you listen long enough, you see he means well. He’s not an example of how to behave, and he doesn’t pretend to be. He’s an entertainer.
I think that Rush could have easily gotten away with his sexist tirade if it were actually funny. But the guy’s a boor. The problem with Rush wasn’t that he was making fun of a young person, or a woman, or someone in a position of less power than he. Howard Stern regularly pokes fun at the physically and mentally challenged, and not only do those folks not protest, they often become regular callers, even after he’s tagged them with offensive nicknames. He’s funny. It’s easy to see that he actually sympathizes with the people he attacks. And, perhaps most importantly, he never suggests that he’s better than they are.
Neither did Sqoot, and this is why the backlash against the company rubbed me wrong. The joke was not: “Hey, let’s make subservient women serve us alcohol.” It was: “Hey, you’re all too lame to attract women, so we’ll hire some to be nice to you.” There is humor in there, but Sqoot simply failed to find it.