Cranium’s Christmas sign: why is mainstream Kiwi culture so unfunny?

[Content note: transphobia, insincere apologies]

I’ve posted before about the paradox which occurs when privileged types – usually middle-aged white dudes – tell incredibly unfunny, bigoted jokes, and then whinge that the people who point out that their jokes are unfunny and bigoted “don’t have a sense of humour”.

And here we are again, with a hilaaaaaaaaaarious Christmas billboard from Cranium, a signage company in Auckland. Featuring a ripped-off photo of Caitlyn Jenner, briefly posted to their Facebook page (and greeted with multiple “joke” comments calling Caitlyn Jenner a man) and then deleted as soon as the bad publicity started to hit, but immortalised for all time in screenshots because the internet doesn’t forget:

My response at the time was:

And I figured that was the end of it. Another in an eternal chain of thoughtless dudebros punching down with incredibly unoriginal “humour” getting a moment in the spotlight and then fading away.

But as always happens these days – because New Zealand Twitter is simultaneously an echo-chamber of toxic Wellington lefties and also a major source of clickbait for the mainstream media – the story hasn’t died there. Cranium made an incredibly insincere, self-justifying “apology” for the sign, in which company director Phillip Garratt whined

“I was referring to a Santa sack and your sick mind is the problem.”

doge apology

Here’s the thing.

I just don’t get it. What do people like Phillip Garratt think they’ll achieve by pretending that they weren’t making the only joke they could possibly have been making? The same kind of joke (obnoxious, unoriginal) people have been making since the moment they heard the name “Caitlyn Jenner”?

The alternative is that someone presented him with the design and he found the concept of an empty Santa sack so hilarious that he was laughing too hard to ask “so what’s Caitlyn Jenner got to do with it?” And I kinda doubt that.

jon stewart caitlyn jenner

It was a cheap joke which reinforces a set of really harmful ideas we have about trans women. That they’re not really women. That they’re damaged or inferior un-men because they’ve had a particular type of surgery. That we have a right to know what surgery they’ve had or to wonder what their genitals look like or to ask how they have sex or demand to know their “real” name.

And it was put on a billboard on a road in Auckland by a company trying to market itself. This is what we treat as “normal” humour. As something appropriate to joke about in an advertisement.

And then we act surprised when trans women are incarcerated in men’s prisons and subjected to horrific abuse, and we act confused when trans people are overwhelmingly victims of violence, and it’s a total shock to us when trans people routinely commit self-harm.

We don’t need to “get a sense of humour.” If companies like Cranium are so inconsiderate and insincere that their director is literally going to say it was “just a joke” but also “it wasn’t even a joke about Caitlyn Jenner”, then it should be very clear where the problem lies, and who the villains are, and what needs to change.