On Sociological Images this morning:
If we step past the obvious, that the joke is sexist, and there are structure/power/role issues around sexist (and other kinds of) humor, the sociological angle here is really a sociolinguistic one.
The key point is that the meaning of an utterance is tied to the speaker. I’m reminded of Bloomfield‘s classic example (which I love sharing and first read in Dell Hymes’ book; despite being 35 years old, I continue to recommend it) is the statement “I’m hungry” — when a homeless person says it, they’re begging for money. When your 5-year-old says it at 9pm, they’re begging to delay bedtime.
So in order to understand something’s meaning, we have to think not just about what’s being said, but who’s saying it. Bush 41 is just another guy telling a sexist joke, and so to the degree that that’s marginally ok in our culture, it basically gets a pass here, but years of SNL parodies (and, well, the news) have made the Clinton-sex semantic link pretty strong.
So “the woman’s so ugly even George H.W. Bush wouldn’t do her” isn’t funny. In fact, thinking about George H.W. Bush doing anyone is kinda disgusting. But “the woman’s so ugly even Bill Clinton wouldn’t do her” is pretty funny. Clinton’s joke wasn’t so much a joke about ugly women, it was really a joke about himself. And a Bill Clinton joke’s always funny.