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The Bush-Clinton Sociolinguistics Comedy Hour


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.



  1. jkd says:

    Spot-on analysis, and I’d go a bit further in contextualizing their comments. For G.H.W. Bush, a man and conservative politician of his generation, a woman has a particular role to fill in society: as sex and reproductive object, and definitely not as an independent, autonomous member of society and participant in political discourse. So for a woman to violate those particular expectations he has of her – especially by being a “protester” – she must further be demonized as not fitting all other categories of acceptable femininity. Thus, she kind of has to be the “ugliest woman he’s ever seen” and he has an obligation to exclude her from the “I’d do her” list. Which to us is disgusting but to him is the ultimate possible denigration, as being not do-able makes her not really a woman.

    Clinton, on the other hand, is not simply well aware of the particular semantic link between him and sex but also of his positioning politically. As a Democratic politician of his generation, he has a very different – both personally held (I can only assume) and politically enforced – view of women that actively foregrounds their roles as independent, autonomous members of society and participants in political discourse. See, obv., his wife. So while his joke is partially about himself it’s also a bit about the absurdity that in the political world he inhabits, a creature like G.H.W. Bush is still around. And maybe it’s about him being in the cage of his political constraints, but he also needs to make the joke to enforce his role as representative of a particular view of gender relations.

  2. scottgolder says:

    Thanks for your comment, jkd! I suspect GHWB’s views on gender roles are not quite that retrograde, but I see your point. Are you saying it’s more acceptable for a liberal man to make sexist jokes than a conservative man, because the former is “only joking”? I’m not sure that’s defensible; for jokes to be funny, they have to be consonant with your worldview, and so making a sexist joke evinces a worldview in which something about sexism rings true.

  3. jkd says:

    I suspect GHWB’s views on gender roles are not quite that retrograde, but I see your point.

    Actually I agree – as with many of his views on other social issues – but he has a role to fulfill, and reinforcing the position of women in society is part of that. A bigger part is just the Bushes’ generally privileged disdainful attitude towards their social lessers.

    Are you saying it’s more acceptable for a liberal man to make sexist jokes than a conservative man, because the former is “only joking”?

    Oh no! Sorry if I was unclear – I think Clinton is boxed in on several sides here, and he knows it, but that he’s willing to poke fun at himself as being part of the system of gender relations. But no, definitely not acceptable to “just kid” about stuff.

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