Is this clever and amusing?

As a humourless feminist, it is hard for me to tell.

Here’s what happened:  I got an email from the STS group in the Institute for Science, Innovation and Society (InSIS) at Oxford University.  They have had their first walking seminar, which involved walking around Port Meadow for two hours discussing a serious topic.  The topic was “what is it to compare two things”.  And the post had the following terrific picture, which illustrates comparing a graduate student and a cow! 

Isn’t that something!?!

34 thoughts on “Is this clever and amusing?

  1. I say this with trepidation, but I don’t see what’s wrong with the picture, or why it is in bad taste. I don’t find it clever or amusing either. I like how it looks like the cow is smiling; maybe that’s a little be amusing. If there is something objectionable here, then I have a blindspot to it, and that worries me.

    Could someone please explain to me why one would find the picture clever, amusing, in bad taste, in good taste, a joke, or a stupid joke?

  2. I actually love cows, and if I had a photo of myself with one, would totally include it on an announcement. :-) I find cows pleasant.

    I wonder, though, if cultural differences might work on our apprehensions of the same photo. I’m not from any part of the UK; the first time I ever went there, I accidentally blocked a man’s jog for a train; he exclaimed, “Out of my way, yeh COW!” This was funny to me, because it is just not ever an insult I hear in the States. So: Any chance it’s more insulting if you’ve heard a woman refered to as a ‘cow’ in the past?

  3. did it have a caption? cuz I am at a loss to tell that this is supposed to be a depiction of the concept of “comparison”. Possibly a picture of “holy crap, they have livestock on frickin campus?” or “speaking of holy crap…”

  4. I tried to respond before and somehow the comment got lost.
    I’m very glad there’s a strong pro-cow group, of which indeed I could be a member. My concern, though, is with the parameters of comparison:
    -number of teats, udders
    – whether milk is considered consumable by adult human beings
    – periods of being in heat
    – what part of what gets eaten
    – who has hair where
    and all sorts of other factors that could easily provide vignettes for something like Jender’s

    This may not be fair. Perhaps the STS people had in mind DNA, areas of early evolution and things like that. Sure.

  5. My immediate reaction, for what it’s worth, was the same as ‘I don’t see it’. I’d assume the picture had been chosen because it was a nice, country picture.

  6. Their note says, “And an encounter with a herd of cattle ended up in lively discussions about the similarities and differences between our visiting PhD student Helene and a cow.”

    I can easily imagine that getting very lively!

  7. I’m also in the ‘don’t see it’ camp. But I’m also a bit worried about the picture being put up on this site. JJ – was the picture already in the public domain? If I was the graduate student, I can imagine consenting to the photo being used in an email without wanting it to be put up on a blog. Maybe I’m being oversensitive?

  8. I think it may be a matter of probabilities. So perhaps we disagree about the likelihood or the probability of the lively comparison avoiding references to gendered mammalian characteristics.

  9. I find it pretty upsetting.

    The tag on the ear suggests that her days are numbered. Pretty soon, she’ll be sliced open at the neck and cut into little pieces so that someone, somewhere, can experience the unique taste of burnt cow flesh. The student’s carefree smile reminds me of the photos taken at Abu Ghraib, though at least the gals pictured here have a bit more freedom than most of those we burn and eat.

  10. JJ (comment #6),

    I’m still having trouble seeing the problem here.

    It seems to me that the points of comparison you list are points that one could make between a female and anything at all. Chairs don’t lactate; females do. The moon has no hair; females do. To compare involves noting similarities and differences, and any two objects will be either similar or different in any of the properties you list.

    And the same comparisons could be made between men and cows as well. Men don’t lactate; cows do. Men have no udders (or one, analogically-so-called); cows have more. Men have hair in some places; cows in others, etc.

    Perhaps one would think that the comparison might turn mean-spirited, or lead the graduate student to be embarrassed. But that seems equally problematic if a male graduate student were being compared to a cow (think of the udder line above). Maybe the moral is that we shouldn’t picture anyone with cows when discussing comparing two things.

    Or perhaps (maybe) the group is predominantly male, and would be (again, maybe) more prone to make off-color jokes about a woman being compared to a cow, rather than a man. I’m not sure about either of those maybe claims, especially the second one.

    I do see how comparing a woman to a cow might make it easier for someone wanting to be rude to make off-colored jokes, than, say, comparing her to a tree. But even there, without much thought I can think of off-color things to say about women or men when comparing them to trees as well (does that say something bad about me?).

    Maybe if (as profbigk said) I associated ‘cow’ with an insult of women, I’d be more prone to see a problem here.

    I don’t see a problem; I say we just enjoy the nice picture.

  11. In parts of Africa, comparing a woman to a cow is a compliment. Something about lovely eyes, ample hips for delivering new life, and teats full of nourishment.

    I find Jay’s comment unsettling, though. I agree. I’ll have to dig up more info about the pastoral nomads I’m half remembering to see whether or not they use their cattle for dairy or meat.

  12. @ I don’t see it- the difference between comparing a woman to a cow and comparing a cow to anything else is that “cow” is not just a term for the animal, it’s also historically a term used in a derogatory way to refer to women. It might be the case that many people don’t associate “cow” with an insult of women, and you note that you do not, but the association is there for many others. (e.g., see Urban Dictionary)

  13. I liked the idea of the walking seminar, so I suggested organizing one to some of my classmates. Since I forwarded the background from the digest, I happened to include the post on the anti-porn campaign. Here’s the response I got from one guy: “Yeah I’m down. I’m going home right now and will watch some porn so as to be ready to talk about it on our walk. Let me know the exact time so I can get ample study time in.”

  14. I’m having trouble understanding how we seem to be, as it were, talking past one another. E.g., take Zena’s comment:

    In parts of Africa, comparing a woman to a cow is a compliment. Something about lovely eyes, ample hips for delivering new life, and teats full of nourishment.

    “lovely eyes” is maybe ok, but surely “ample hips for delivering new life, and teats full of nourishment” are completely inappropriate terms for describing a female grad student in a seminar, walking or not. That’s sexual harassment.

    Kathryn, your comment is very interesting; I am not sure that’s what was raising a question for me, but it may be there’s an underlying factor: cows are very often described as large, not too bright and relatively passive sexual creatures. They are of use if they are not obstacles.

    Those association, negative or not, are hard to see as appropriate in a graduate seminar.

  15. i think it’s a pretty weird choice for the photo. ‘cow’ is the nasty insult of choice for pig men in rows with their female partners. it is, indeed, meant to indicate that the woman is fat, and slow, and a bother, and only tolerable because of her baby-making capacity, and so on. it’s a nasty, sexist insult. -and it all seems rather suspicious, given the woman in the photo appears possibly to be a non-native english speaker. so, she possibly has no idea what it means to be called a cow, and that’s probably part of their fun with it. i’m with you, jj, it seems very off to me, too.

  16. Of course you’re right, JJ. I wasn’t disagreeing with the rest of the commenters, cultural relativism definitely applies here, too. Just because there are places in the world where it’s appropriate to walk around in a loincloth doesn’t mean I’d find that acceptable during a lecture. Especially not where I am. I think the temperature right now is close to what they’re experiencing in Siberia!

    I was just saying that there are different ways of looking at that type of comparison exercise. Some might put an Aristotelean/biblical bent on the comparison game and say that humans have “stewardship” over the animals. She’s more intelligent, faster, doesn’t smell like poo or whatever. Some, like Jay say we have no right to torture the poor cow that way. And I agree. Still others DON’T assume that a connection to the earth, to fertility, to things that smell funny and fart a lot is a bad thing, so the woman and the cow have things in common, but in a good way. Some may look at each from a purely structuralist functionalist view, and try to compare each digit, each muscle in terms of evolutionary heredity and usefulness within a given econiche.

    But coming from the Brits? Yes, it was probably a crude practical joke. I suspect some of us probably missed it because of the cultural differences in the way we understand colloquialisms, power structures, and taboos.

  17. Xena:

    I think that everyone understands that it is supposed to be a joke. The question is not whether it is a joke, but whether it is clever and amusing. For instance, I imagine that the KKK have a stock of racist jokes, which they find to be extremely funny, but we (you and I)
    would find them to be offensive.

    I myself don’t believe that there is a Platonic form of what is amusing, from which racist and/or sexist jokes deviate. However, my own ethical sense or moralism makes it difficult for me to see what is amusing and clever in racist and sexist jokes, even though I recognize that some cultures or sub-cultures find them to be very funny.

  18. Yes, Amos, that’s what I meant–crude joke, or cruel, rude, vulgar joke. Meaning that in the context that the Brits who designed the joke (probably) meant it, it’s NOT amusing. I was just explaining that I can understand how some commenters, like I Don’t See It, might not grasp all of the nuance behind the insult. We’re not talking past each other, we just have different ideas about what a cow is and different ideas about what an insult is. Some of those ideas are different because of what we learn in the countries we were born in.

    Personally, I’m still siding with Jay. I think the tag on the cow’s ear tells a story of extreme cruelty that’s about to happen to her. If the tag means what we’re assuming it does, she’s much worse off than a woman who’s just been insulted publicly. At least the woman’s in a position to fight back.

  19. Here’s an example of a British word that’s considered reason to bleep somebody on British telly, but means nothing in Canada: Bl**dy. Our tv networks air British movies that are just full of that word, and nobody bothers to bleep it out. It’s my cuss word of choice when I’m angry enough to swear, but don’t want to get kicked out of a restaurant or something. Non-Brits don’t even hear the word.

    The word cow is the same for us. It’s a mild insult pertaining only to a woman’s size if spoken directly to her, but it’s not in common enough use for us to make the connection when we see a picture of a woman standing beside a cow. Much like the American word ‘spade’ from a few generations ago. Many younger people, especially if they were born outside of the US, would not even notice the derogatory connotations in a caricature of an African American man holding a handful of cards from that suit.

  20. Hello Xena: Could I ask you a favor? Could you explain some of the cultural differences that you refer to? This is an entirely innocent question. I have spent most of my life in Chile, but I studied in the U.S. in the 60’s, early 70’s, and while I try to understand those whom you call “Brits” (the U.K. is an incredibly varied and multi-cultural society), I am fairly ignorant of what it means to be a Brit. I suspect that my reading of George Orwell’s essay, England, your England, will not guide me as to the current U.K. mindset. Thank you.

  21. Oh boy, that’s a complicated question. This could very easily turn into a mind-boggling semiotics debate and then some.

    Could you be more specific about which cultural differences you’d like me to explain, or let me know what about my other explanations left you confused?

  22. Xena: I can’t even specify the cultural differences that I don’t understand. Maybe it has to do with the “British” sense of irony
    (I put “British” in quotation marks because there probably isn’t one unique British sense of identity), which can be ironical about irony: thus a bad joke about a woman and a cow becomes amusing, precisely because it is a bad joke or something like that.

  23. Ok, I think I understand what you’re asking me. I read some of Orwell’s essay, btw. I’ve never lived in the UK, so I’m far from an expert on British national identity, if there’s even been such a thing in the last 60 years. The Britain in his essay is actually fairly close to the values, rituals and daily life that my Gran shared with me on her visits. What I know of present day England comes from tv, movies, literature, newsblogs and friends living on this side of the pond.

    So, because there’s no one way of doing things or understanding things in ANY country, I try to be careful when discussing what’s important to a group of people, and focus mostly on what anthropologists call tertiary culture. Day to day dealings with strangers, where manners are required, but where the views change quickly and little mistakes are forgivable. Not every Brit sits down for tea at 4pm, but all of them would know exactly what you mean if you said “Look at the time; my Gran would be warming up her teapot right about now.” Just like striking up a conversation with a Canadian about hockey (or a Brit about football). Not all of us follow it religiously, but it’s a good way to begin a chat and make new friends.

    So, it looks like you’re asking about the British sense of irony, where a rude joke like this stops being offensive, and the sexist individuals who think they’re funny become the butt of their own crass style of humour? Like Benjamin’s comment#5, “Clearly the cow is comparing the woman and the tree.”

    Sometimes jokers like this become funny in a pathetic Laughing-at-you-not-with-you kind of way, but that doesn’t normally happen until after other people start discussing their blog post. It’s an exceptionally gifted and rare joker that can put that many layers into a look-what-a-sexist-creep-I-am joke, and make the audience understand that the intention is to make the Alpha male look bad, not the marginalized group he’s attacking. Maybe John Cleese or Bill Murray could put that kind of spin on a bad joke, but most amateurs are not that good.

    Here’s a similar situation from a Latin American country involving the word ‘pinto’, which has many meanings to Spanish speaking people. Americans hijacked that word over a hundred years ago, and used it to describe a certain breed of horse–the smallish, sturdy brown&white ones. Then in the ’70’s (I think) Ford (?) named a car after the horse, to advertise to their buyers that the car wasn’t flashy or fancy, but it was reliable, etc. like the horse. Nothing rude intended.

    I’m not sure if Chileans use the word ‘pinto’, or how they use it, but in the country where the car company tried to set up shop, ‘pinto’ means Tiny Penis. After what some Spanish speaking residents south of the US border have lived at the hands of some Americans, it’s easy to see how many would be angry and insulted by what these Americans did. But it was a perfectly innocent mistake, even if it was the product of American ethnocentricity, a type of implicit bias that they often refer to on this site.

    The Pinto peddlers WERE funny, because nobody got hurt, and they became victimized by their own arrogance. The people that the Americans had previously exploited in sweat shops got the last laugh that time.

    But, like I said, the woman and the cow is either a total accident (not likely) or a cruel joke on her. I don’t think the people who originally posted it are clever enough AND humble enough to be making fun of themselves.

  24. Thanks Xena.

    “Pinto” means “painted” or “spotted” in Chile, but Latin America slang is very different in each country. Each country adopted words from the Native-American language used before the colonization, and some countries also have words from African languages.

    A Brit, a student of linguistics, once told me that the Brits have 10
    (I don’t recall the exact number) ways of asking you to have tea, only one of which is an invitation to have tea.

    I probably have a distorted picture of Brit culture, since most of my information comes from novels, poetry, philosophy and from online conversations with highly literate Brits. It’s as if after reading
    Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, I assume that the typical Frenchperson is similar to them.

    I tend to generalize horribly from what I read: the Don Quijote fallacy.

  25. Thank you, Amos. You just taught me something about ironic nuance. Now I’m wondering if I should be careful about British as well as American tea slang.

  26. I’m going to comment about different cultures and different kinds of Brits, but let me first stress that the point is really about what we (Western, reasonably well educated people) think about comparing a female grad student to a cow in a seminar. Even Xena’s attempt to talk about Biblical associations brings in poo; we are talking about highly corporeal images.

    Cultures: Oxford has had some claim to being the number one place in the world for effete nastiness. In fact, during my very recent visit, it seemed to me a really friendly place in many respects; people were kind and welcoming. This might say something about my current fraught location or, equally, it might be that Oxford has changed since I lived there. For example, when I was there the number one criticism I heard of people was that they were boring. A lot of people were boring, and if you didn’t go to a public (= private) school, you might well be earnest and boring. In addition, people spoke with roughly the same accent since you wouldn’t be listened to if you talked with a regional accent. That’s changed, and perhaps a great deal more has too.

    Some of this still goes on: An extremely distinguished neuroscientist from University College, London, told me recently of an Oxford college feast (yes, they have those) he went to where he was greated with “How did you get invited? Wrote a good review of X’s book, did you?” (Where X was the host). When he left, the same person said “If you write a good review of my next book, you might be asked back.”

    In fact, before the topic of Brits arose, I looked at who is in STS at Oxford, and I couldn’t tell how likelily it is to be dominated by a nasty type. But if it is, most of us may not be able to fully imagine how nasty it was, below the surface.

  27. Of course, we could distinguish between cultures which say nasty things to your face (apparently, Oxford) and those which say the same nasty things behind your back.

  28. amos, that is such an interesting difference. I think of course that those who say it to one’s face also often backbite, but not vice versa.

  29. In some places, insulting someone to his or her face can get you killed or at least slapped. That sense of public honor tends to restrict nastiness to gossip when the person targeted is not present.

  30. A little bit off topic, re Jay (.11): I think it is European regulation that all cattle should wear visible identification markers like that. Here (Netherlands) all cows and sheep have them, it has nothing to do with them being up for extermination.

  31. hippocampa, thanks for pointing that out. In addition, the Port Meadow animals may have different owners, so there are reasons for tagging ones that could be confused.

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