Most in the audience laughed, but one man stood up and booed. What's wrong? asked a woman at his table. The man said, "Just substitute woman, black or Jew for 'man' in that joke, and tell me how it sounds."
At about the same time, American Greeting Cards launched an ad campaign in Newsweek, Life and other magazines. One ad featured a "Thelma and Louise" greeting card, pasted into the magazines, that said on the front: "Men are always whining about how we are suffocating them." The punch line inside the card was this: "Personally, I think if you can hear them whining, you're not pressing hard enough on the pillow."
The newswoman, who is a friend, seemed shocked when I phoned and raised questions about her joke. "The poor, sensitive white male," she said. A spokesman for the greeting card company saw nothing wrong with a humorous card about a woman killing a man. He faxed a statement saying the card had been pretested successfully, and besides, "We've heard no protests from consumers who are buying and using this card." But would American Greetings print a card with the sexes reversed, so the humor came from men joking about suffocating a woman? No, said the spokesman, because 85 percent to 90 percent of cards are bought by women. There is no market for a reverse card.
In truth, no man could get up at a fancy banquet and tell a joke about how stupid women are. And a greeting card joking about a woman's murder would be very unlikely, even if surveys showed that millions of males were eager to exchange lighthearted gender-killing greetings. The obvious is true: A sturdy double standard has emerged in the gender wars.
"There used to be a certain level of good-natured teasing between the sexes," says Christina Sommers, author of "Who Stole Feminism?" "Now even the most innocent remark about women will get you in trouble, but there's no limit at all to what you can say about men."
Men's rights groups phone me a lot, and I tell them my general position on these matters: The last thing we need in America is yet another victim group, this one made up seriously aggrieved males. But these groups do have an unmissable point about double standards. On the "Today" show last November, Katie Couric suddenly deviated from perkiness and asked a jilted bride, "Have you considered castration as an option?" Nobody seemed to object. Fred Hayward, a men's rights organizer, says: "Imagine the reaction if Matt Lauer had asked a jilted groom, 'Wouldn't you just like to rip her uterus out?'"
The double standard is rooted in identity politics and fashionable theories about victimization: Men as a group are oppressors; jokes that oppressors use to degrade the oppressed must be taken seriously and suppressed. Jokes by the oppressed against oppressors, however, are liberating and progressive. So while sexual harassment doctrine cracks down on the most harmless jokes about women, very hostile humor about men keeps expanding with almost no objections.
Until recently, for example, the 3M company put out post-it notes with the printed message: "Men have only two faults: everything they say and everything they do." Anti-male greeting cards are increasingly graphic, with some of the most hostile coming from Hallmark Cards' Shoebox Division. (Sample: "Men are scum ... Excuse me. For a second there I was feeling generous.") Detroit News columnist Cathy Young sees a rising tide of male-bashing, including "All Men Are Bastards" and "Men We Love to Hate" calendars, and a resentful "It's-always-his-fault" attitude pervading women's magazines.
Barbara Wilder-Smith, a teacher and researcher in the Boston area, was recently quoted in several newspapers on how deeply anti-male attitudes have affected the schools. When she made "Boys Are Good" T-shirts for boys in her class, all 10 of the female student teachers under her supervision objected to the message. (One, she said, was wearing a button saying "So many men, so little intelligence.")
"My son can't even wear the shirt out in his back yard," she said. "People see it and object strongly and shout things." On the other hand, she says, nobody objects when the girls wear shirts that say "Girls Rule" or when they taunt the boys with a chant that goes, "Boys go to Jupiter to get more stupider; girls go to college to get more knowledge." Worse, she says, many adolescent boys object to the "Boys Are Good" shirts too, because they have come to accept the cultural message that something is seriously wrong with being a male.
"The time is ripe for people to think about the unspoken anti-male 'ism' in our colleges and schools," she says. And in the rest of the popular culture as well.