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Times of India: Just Kidding?

Written By: Usree Bhattacharya on February 6, 2011 No Comment

This was the “SMS Joke of the Day” in the Times Of India yesterday:

“Charlie Sheen is really coming to Lilo’s [Lindsay Lohan’s] defense. In fact, he’s set up a website asking the media to leave her alone. The site is doing good, it’s almost received as many hits as his wife.”

I nearly spilled my morning cup of Darjeeling tea all over the newspaper. This would, in case you’re not caught up on last year’s Hollywood gossip, be a joke at the expense of a domestic abuse situation in which Charlie Sheen pleaded guilty to assaulting his wife. To make fun of a woman receiving “hits” is not only tasteless, but reprehensible for a newspaper with the reach and reputation the Times has.

The Times of India, or TOI, as we fondly call it, has the largest circulation of all English-language newspapers worldwide, and bills itself as the pulse of the public in India. It’s not a tabloid; it’s a venerated, highly respected paper that does hard-hitting journalism at many levels, and positions itself righteously in the fight against “social ills” that plague India. However, not too deep in the recesses of the metro supplement (page 4, to be precise)-the Delhi Times, a daily supplement provided to those living in the National Capital Region-is the “Joke of the Day” (sometimes the SMS Joke of the Day) which spotlights jokes that are highly sexist, vulgar, and objectionable. The joke is prominently displayed adjacent to the comic strips (Peanuts, Garfield, Beau Peep, The Wizard of Id, and others), the Crossword, Su-Doku, Hitori, Scramble, and other games. I have collected some over the last five weeks (a sampling of which is provided here), and what I have makes me ashamed that the biggest selling daily in India  couldn’t find jokes funnier than these in any given day.

I need to situate myself here first. People find different things funny, and that’s fine, and I understand that. This is not merely a question of wanting to police taste. When a respected national paper ridicules women consistently, in the most blatantly sexist way possible, it sets a very bad example, and abets in the naturalization of a discourse where putting down women is perfectly acceptable, and gets daily column space. In a country like ours, where women’s rights are still not always equal to a man’s (see, e.g., this), such joking normalizes inequalities and reinforces gender stereotypes. What else can be the effect of a joke like this:

“Q: Why haven’t they sent a woman to the moon yet? A: It doesn’t need cleaning.”

DSC02515How is it acceptable to disseminate the idea that the only reason to send a woman anywhere is to clean?  How, again, is it proper to give space to jokes that engage in frequent, overt woman-bashing? Another example:

“Q: How are women and a hurricane alike? A: When they arrive they’re both wet and wild, when they leave, they take your house and car.”

And..an intelligent woman? Apparently-and not very surprisingly, given the tone of the jokes-a myth:

“Q: What do you call an intelligent, gorgeous, and sensitive woman? A: A rumour.”

A “blonde” joke also makes an appearance:

“A blonde asked someone what time it was, and they told her it was 4.45. The blonde replied, ‘It’s weird, I’ve been asking this all day, and each time I get a different reply.'”

I find it utterly unfunny to insinuate that blondes are so unintelligent that they cannot figure out a basic concept of time. In fact, not just unfunny, but offensive to my intelligence (yes, women have that). This next one is one of a series of jokes that make fun of older women:

“Q. What does an old woman have between her breasts that a young woman doesn’t? A: A navel.”

Another one from the same category:

“Q: Did you hear Cher is joining the Spice Girls? A: They’re going to call her Old Spice.”

Oh, and while we’re on dated references, there’s one starring Monica Lewinski:

“Q: Why are Monica Lewinsky’s cheeks so puffy? A: She is withholding evidence.”

And…

“Dentist: I am going to drill your tooth. Woman: The pain is so awful, I’d rather have a baby! Dentist: Make up your mind, I’ll have to adjust my chair.”

Cue laugh track? Or do we reserve the laughs for the following:

“Joe: Why is reading Playboy mag like watching National Geographic Channel? Sam: You’ll get to see great places, which you’ll never get to visit.”

Another thing that is striking to me is how the reference points are not only out of date, but also culturally obscure. Not many blonde women abound in India, so the joke is not very culturally relevant. Charlie Sheen news isn’t really that interesting for most Indians either, since there are enough Bollywood stars providing grist for the nation’s gossip-hungry mills. Cher, at least in my opinion, was never a major cultural icon in Delhi, that I remember. I am also not entirely sure Playboy magazine is even legally available in India-though the brand name would certainly be somewhat recognizable. And on the topic of names-“Sam” and “Joe”? Not very typical Indian names at all. I’m guessing these jokes are culled from some old American joke book or website…which renders these jokes even less funny.

I am sitting right now next to a huge pile of cuttings of the jokes, and I think I’m going to have a bonfire for cathartic effect. That’s always a good and popular idea during Delhi winters.

*The inspiration for this post is my husband who first noticed these “jokes” a year ago on his visit to India, and expressed his astonishment that these gets printed in a respected newspaper.

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