Note: This post contains spoilers for current episodes of Glee, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, and Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters.
There’s a particular brand of humour which seems to be extremely popular in the United States right now. It may, of course, be popular in other regions of the world as well, but since I’m American, I’m speaking to the American experience here rather than trying to conjecture about humour in other nations. I call it “hipster -ism,” in a reference to the fact that it’s especially prevalent in the hipster community and riffing off Carmen Van Kerckhove’s “hipster racism,” and it involves the use of -isms for supposedly comic effect.
Hipster -ism works like this: Someone uses an -ism among a group of friends, and the friends laugh, because the idea is that they know it’s an -ism, they know it’s not acceptable, and it’s funny because of this. It’s ironic, geddit? Over at this ain’t livin’, I’ve discussed hipster racism and liberal sexism, and today, it’s time for hipster ableism.
It’s important to note that there are a number of things built into the structure of the hipster community which are important to consider when evaluating hipster ableism, or any hipster -ism, in strict point of fact. The first is that the hipster community is primarily young and liberal, comprised of people who have grown up being lectured about racism and other -isms, while still living in a society which is rife with these -isms, and retaining the cultural values which prop these -isms up and directly benefiting from the entrenched -isms in their culture. Most hipsters also have class privilege, coming from the middle classes, and they are usually white and able bodied. Please note that these are generalizations. I am well aware that there are non-white hipsters, disabled hipsters, hipsters from the lower classes, etc, but I’m speaking to general demographics here.
Hipster -ism is a type of humour which people use because they mistakenly identify it as edgy and transgressive. The idea is that it’s funny because it’s pushing social boundaries and norms. Indeed, it’s a way of thumbing one’s nose at the “PC police.” But, there are a few things about it which suggest that this is not the case.
For starters, it’s primarily used in safe spaces, among other hipsters, which would seem to suggest that it’s actually a form of in-group humour. In fact, it’s a way for people to continue internalizing and believing in -isms, using their humour as a defensive wall. “Oh, I don’t really believe it, that’s why it’s funny,” they say, but if that’s the case, then why don’t they use this humour outside hipster circles? If it’s funny to make jokes about people with disabilities, for example, why don’t hipsters make those jokes around people with disabilities?
Another hallmark of hipster -ism is that people who challenge it are informed that they “don’t get it.” Another example of a technique used to silence and marginalize people; when those who question are told that they don’t get it, it often means that those being questioned are feeling uncomfortable. It’s true that different people have different senses of humour, but when entire classes of people fail to see something as funny, that may be a sign that, you know, it’s not funny.
Hipster -ism also props up cultural values, rather than breaking them down, by normalizing exclusionary language and ideas. When you make jokes about people of colour in a society which marginalizes people of colour, you are not being edgy, transgressive, or particularly funny. You are instead propping up the status quo. And, in a sense, privately justifying your privilege, although some hipsters are not even aware of the concept of privilege or of how it affects them.
And this brings us to hipster ableism. Hipster ableism relies on using jokes about people with disabilities as a form of humour, or using disability as a shorthand to make something appear funny. This can be seen in many forms of hipster art and expression, from films where disability is a joke to the entrenchment of ableist language in hipster discourse.
In Glee, we have Artie, a wheelchair user, constantly being used as a prop and being marginalized to the edge of the discourse. “It’s funny,” people say, “because that’s how people treat people with disabilities and Glee is making fun of that.” Uhm, no, actually Glee is just normalizing the marginalization of people with disabilities by constructing an entirely one dimensional disabled character (played by an able bodied actor) and using him as a prop. Artie does not defy social norms or break boundaries, he is a rolling caricature. And a cruel one, at that. Every time I see someone push Artie’s chair, every time Sue calls him a “cripple,” I cringe, as a viewer. I’m not seeing humour here, at all. I’m seeing what happens to people with disabilities every day.
The popular mashup series blending Jane Austen books with monsters is another terrific example of hipster ableism (among other hipster -isms). It’s kind of a fun idea, and I liked the concept initially, but the way the books have chosen to alter the plot is really reprehensible. They’ve added in things like racism and ableism because it’s “edgy” and “funny,” except that they don’t seem to recognize that readers have internalized the values supposedly being mocked, so actually the books just reinforce social norms.
In Pride and Predjudice and Zombies, we have Wickham being “punished” for his misdeeds by being severely beaten and developing quadriplegia, which is deemed just punishment, and Lydia is punished for her supposed sluttiness by being doomed to a life of caring for Wickham. The book makes sure to dwell on his incontinence to make sure that readers get the message, which is: Lydia is a slut, so she should be shamed and punished, and being a caregiver to a person with disabilities is a punishment and a burden. So, why isn’t this funny? Because this is what people actually think, right now, in the world. That sluts need to be punished, that developing quadriplegia is a tragedy, that caring for someone with quadriplegia is an impossible burden.
That plot isn’t funny, it’s not transgressive, it’s just a repetition of what society believes. It uses sexism and ableism to advance itself, rather than refuting these cultural norms. And it was totally unnecessary. The book could have turned the Lydia/Wickham plot on its head and played with it, but instead it decided to take the cheap and easy way out.
Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, aside from featuring some rather horrific racism and colonialism, gives Colonel Brandon a “cruel affliction” in the form of “perverse tentacles” attached to his face. When discussing his unsuitability as a marriage prospect, the girls make sure to stress how “repulsive” he is, and they throw in some ageism when they suggest that a 27 year old unmarried woman might settle for him, but a 17 year old girl certainly shouldn’t. Adding gas to the fire, Elinor suggests that a woman who was “say, visually impaired somehow” would make an ideal match for Brandon.
Again, this is not edgy humour. People are discriminated against in love, among many other things, because their faces do not meet with society’s standard of attractive. And people also say that people with disabilities should just settle for loving and marrying each other. Or that people with disabilities are not sexual, and therefore should not be upset that they are missing out on intimacy and love. Able bodied people in relationships with people with disabilities are repeatedly told how “brave” they are and informed that they are “so courageous” for staying with their partners, while people privately speculate on how on Earth a nice able-bodied person like that could possibly date a gross person with disabilities.
The sad thing about both of these modifications to the novels is that they don’t really add anything. A cute, fun concept is actually ruined by the insistence on bringing hipster -ism into the plot. The writers think it’s edgy and transgressive, or they write it in to appeal to the audience they are trying to reach, and people lap it up. Meanwhile, people like me who went “cool idea” when they first heard about the books are reading and going “sigh.”
The most insidious thing, for me, about hipster ableism and other hipster -isms is that they are a thinly veiled way to continue being a prejudiced bigot. People can go right on thinking their prejudiced thoughts, and they can hide behind the shield of “humour” and “you just don’t get it” when they are challenged. Hipster ableism, far from being edgy and transgressive, is in fact very safe and affirming.
Indeed, ignoring and marginalizing challenges to -isms are built right into the hipster culture, where “PC” is hurled like an insult, social justice movements are mocked, hipsters engage in cultural appropriation to make themselves feel cool, and members of marginalized communities are deliberately excluded.