Live Through This

That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore

There’s a difference between humor and bullying. It just took me a while to realize it.

Illustration by Caitlin

In fifth grade there was this girl, Paulette,* who was short and round, like a kickball, and really blonde and pale—practically albino. Like me, she was quiet, unathletic, and at the mercy of Liza, Brooke, and Cassie, the most popular girls at our suburban school. Sometimes during recess, they made Paulette run around the baseball diamond that was painted on our asphalt playground.

“Go, Paulette, go!” they mock-cheered, struggling to breathe because they were laughing so hard.

Paulette was struggling to breathe, too. And there were tears in her eyes, but she kept running for as long as they told her to. When they let her stop, she forced herself to laugh with them. With us. Because I laughed, even though I knew it wasn’t funny.

In junior high, I realized these jokes were really just bullying, and I stopped tolerating Liza, Brooke, and Cassie. But during sophomore year, when I started dating Greg, “joking” got confusing again.

By then I’d developed a dark, sarcastic sense of humor—very Winona Ryder in Heathers. Sometimes you have to poke fun at the fucked-up things in the world—including the reasons people are mean to one another in the first place—or you just get depressed. It was a coping mechanism, and one of my only healthy ones.

I hung out with a crowd that had a similar sense of humor, and we pulled a lot of pranks—mostly doing harmless stuff to one another. Like this one time during Christmas, when people were decorating their walkways with those little paper bags with candles inside. We swiped a bunch (OK, so this wasn’t a totally victimless crime) and piled them on top of another friend’s car. This guy was annoyed, and not at all amused, but he generally took things too seriously. We all thought he was someone who needed to “lighten up” anyway.

Greg and I started going out not long after that. Then I became the person who was told she needed to “lighten up.” Greg would say those words to me a lot.

The first time was about three weeks into our already intense relationship. He’d dated my friend Acacia before he was with me, and she’d left this stuffed animal, a pink duck, at his house. She asked me to ask him to give it back, and when he brought it to school, it was horribly vandalized. He’d burned off its fur in some places and had written all over it in Sharpie. Things like “Skunkhead,” which poked fun at Acacia for having recently bleached half of her naturally black hair blonde.

“It’s a joke, and she actually deserves it for copying you,” he said (I’d dyed a blonde streak in my hair three months earlier). Then he made me give the duck to her, laughing as he watched the expressions on our faces—hers sorrowful, and mine apologetic and fearful. “God, you need to lighten up!” he insisted when I walked back to him with my chin quivering, about to cry.

He said it again a couple of months later. Greg and I were walking down a busy street when two frat-boy types pulled up in a convertible and started hollering at me, “HEY, BAYYY-BEEE!” I attempted to kick their car as they drove off. I expected Greg to do the same thing. Instead, he threw me over his shoulder and intentionally flipped up my skirt, flashing my panties to them—and the entire block.

When he put me down, I had tears in my eyes. “Why the hell did you do that?” I yelped.

“Because it was funny. Lighten up.”

So I laughed like Paulette did when Liza, Brooke, and Cassie harassed her in grade school. Like I used to do. I laughed because I felt so sick inside that if I didn’t, I might have thrown up instead.

Over the course of our six-month relationship, there were a lot of these kinds of “jokes.” Things that were supposed to be funny made me feel totally horrible about myself. I made excuses for him—he’s insecure or doing it to cope—but eventually the ribbing got to me. And every time I got upset when he was “kidding around”—whether he was exposing my underwear to strangers or making fun of my diary after begging to read it—Greg said I was overreacting. I was crazy, or something was wrong with my sense of humor.

I’d swallow back tears, thinking—fearing—he was right. As far back as first grade, my teachers told my parents how “sensitive” I could be, and I’d been struggling with depression since junior high. Maybe there really was something wrong with me.

At the end of sophomore year, after Greg and I broke up, I began to understand that his jokes really weren’t funny. In fact, just like the many other mind games he played—like trying to control whom I hung out with and what I wore—they were abusive.

Around this time, I officially lost my sense of humor. I even started to hate the word funny. In a zine I published junior year about that relationship, I wrote about how an acquaintance, Ray, told me he thought it was “funny” that Greg—the person I then hated most—was someone I used to loved very much. I wrote that I’d told Ray it wasn’t funny at all—I hated Greg because he hurt me. Then I wrote in big, bold letters: “I’M STARTING TO THINK THE WORD ‘FUNNY’ IS MISUSED.

Sometimes it is. Sometimes we use “funny” in place of “fucked up.” Sometimes we tease other people to compensate for our own insecurities—like Liza, Brooke, and Cassie seemed to do in grade school—and sometimes we make fun of ourselves for the same reason. Sometimes we push it too far—like Greg did—and it becomes abuse or bullying.

There also are times we laugh because we’re trying not to cry. We’re afraid we’ll be the butt of the next “joke” if we don’t, or we feel humiliated or scared. If you completely refuse to let yourself laugh at anything, though, you can fall into a debilitating depression or spiral out of control trying to have “fun” in other ways.

I had to learn about humor all over again. I watched comedies I’d always loved, like The Simpsons. I hung out with my delightfully immature friends Jack and Rob. Sometimes they made fun of things I cared about—like being vegan—and sometimes I flipped out. The difference was they never got mad or defensive about it like Greg had.

Gradually, I learned to assess when I was being super sensitive versus when people were being mean (and when it was a combination of the two). I found that, as with most things in life, the best way to judge whether something is or isn’t funny is by the feeling in your gut. I had forced myself to laugh at things that had not actually been funny when, deep down, I’d known it.

We’d been broken up for about nine months when I heard that Greg had pantsed a kid—completely yanked down his jeans—on a busy street corner. I decided to stand up to him in a way that I was never brave enough to before. I wrote him a letter calling out his messed-up, unfunny behavior. After reading it, he called me to defend himself—and once again he repeatedly insisted I just couldn’t take a joke. “The rest of the world,” he informed me, found things like pantsings and humiliating other people to be “hilarious.”

This time, I didn’t back down like I did when we were dating. I knew what was hurtful, and even if he wasn’t going to acknowledge it, I was. It was hard, not to mention frustrating, but confronting Greg with that letter—and making the zine—really helped me figure out where his “jokes” crossed the line. Once I acknowledged what wasn’t funny—and, even more important, that I wasn’t “crazy”—I started to reclaim my sense of humor.

I also eventually realized, through friends like Jack and Rob, that there were times I had to laugh at myself. Now I can look back and giggle at my freshman-year poetry. Or when I first went vegan and got really preachy. Living with ridicule isn’t fun, but neither is taking yourself too seriously. Figuring out what I was comfortable with laughing about made my instincts for what wasn’t funny even clearer. Slowly but surely, I taught myself to laugh again. ♦

* All names have been changed.

35 Comments

  • Abby October 22nd, 2012 7:10 PM

    This is… wonderful. Thank you. I’ve always hated when people say I need to “lighten up” when I don’t think it’s funny when they do something mean.

  • DreamBoat October 22nd, 2012 7:19 PM

    This is a really beautiful article.
    I used to have friends like that, who were always laughing at someone for being different, and they were just really mean people. They used to tell me I was “wrong” and “way too serious” for standing up to their bullshit. I still have problems and I feel like I’m always recovering from them (even though what happened was in 6th and 7th grade).
    Thanks for making me feel better, Stephanie <3

    http://psychedelicdaisy.blogspot.com/

  • AnaRuiz October 22nd, 2012 7:21 PM

    I loved this. I am the type of person who will willingly laugh at herself. It’s hard, though, when people start taking advantage. Then you stay your ground and it seems inconsistent. But you know what? People aren’t consistent. Even if we pretend or think we are. I’ll take a joke but I won’t take bullying, and sometimes it’s hard for others to understand that, but I don’t care. It’s hard for people to understand that “the clown” has a serious part to her. I’m scared that this lack of understanding is going to make me progressively more serious.

    • AnaRuiz October 22nd, 2012 7:23 PM

      Maybe that’s why I make more fun of myself than others? Because I’m scared of hurting someone? And sometimes I just end up hurting myself.

      anaruizwriting.blogspot.com

  • chiefpow October 22nd, 2012 7:25 PM

    You’re always right on with what’s going on in my life! It’s actually a little creepy..

  • anisarose October 22nd, 2012 7:42 PM

    Thank you so much for sharing, I really loved the article! The wise Jonah Takalua once said, “There’s a difference between bullying and joking around” (although he was saying it to justify bullying) and that experience, the experience of struggling with what is right and what is funny, is one that most of us face. I’ve been in situations where my friends have made fun of someone and I’ve stood up for that person but I’ve also played along in a lot of those conversations. We all have a lot of learning to do, especially in the area of consistency of out actions, so I really appreciate that you were able to share this experience and visualize the emotional consequences that arise when things that aren’t funny are misconstrued.

    For those who don’t know, Jonah is from the Australian TV show Summer Heights High and I highly recommend looking it up on Youtube for some great (and intended) laughs.

    http://anisarose.blogspot.com/

  • MissKnowItAll October 22nd, 2012 7:55 PM

    This was so beautifully written. I found that line a bit back.
    I used to date this boy named Mikey. He was a year younger than me and a bit of a class clown. He used to empty my bag on out lunch table and throw my pads and personal stuff around to the other boys. I would get upset and I would yell at him. He would tell me to lighten up and I would tell him to screw off.

  • redblueblueberry October 22nd, 2012 7:59 PM

    Caitlin: Amazed at your collage! It’s really great!

  • Nadine October 22nd, 2012 8:08 PM

    This is probably a terrible comment because it’s only half formed, but this article just resonated with me.
    I’ve had to re-read it just to double check I hadn’t imagined bits of it. You’re so right though, funny is awfully misused and almost always instead of fucked up. Thanks for the clarity, Stephanie.

  • Yayo October 22nd, 2012 8:09 PM

    This is brilliant. I’m really struggling at the minute with some of the shit my closest ‘friends’ say to my face (they’re not friends, so much as people I have lots of lessons with at school).
    Today was ‘I wished you would straighten your hair more often. I hate your curls’. I know that I shouldn’t let them get away with it. I’m normally a pretty assertive person, it’s just that we ‘joke’ amongst each other about things which aren’t funny. We’re all offended by it, but nobody is willing to show it. Laughing off insults is always easier. Probably unhealthy, but easy.

    It’s so ridiculous. I’m such a weak person for going along with it, and most of the time I really hate myself.

    • Stephanie October 23rd, 2012 9:58 AM

      You are NOT a weak person. A weak person would be struggling with this, thinking about it, and trying to figure out how to cope. I spent a couple of years with “friends” like you are describing and half a year with the boyfriend I wrote about above. I, too, beat myself up for being weak (if I’m honest, there are still days when I get mad at myself about it), but that is just the damage of those “jokes.” They make you feel bad about yourself on so many levels.

      I wish I could describe exactly how I got away from all of this, but it was a gradual process (and having to get out of such a situation gradually is not weak). It’s scary because you feel like these friends are your world. You aren’t sure what else/who else you will have. But look around at the rest of your life, what/who really makes you happy without making you feel like shit. Begin to develop those relationships and interests. Build yourself bridges and that helps build your inner strength (because it is there, I promise), so eventually you can walk away and possibly even tell these friends, “we all hate this. I don’t know why we do it, but I can’t anymore.”

      xoxoxo

    • DreamBoat October 26th, 2012 4:18 PM

      I used to totally struggle with people like that. I think the fact you put up with that BS shows that you are incredibly strong person. Don’t ever hate yourself for the shit other people put you through. It’s not your fault. You’re not causing people to do this!
      The best advice I can give is to stand up to what they say and not talk to them, even if it is soooo hard. My “friends” used to say homophobic/racist/just total hateful things all the time. I always stood up them, they always got annoyed, but then I freed myself from them, and I’m so much happier without their hate.
      You sound like an incredible lady.
      Stay strong, love <3

    • Yayo October 26th, 2012 8:18 PM

      Thank you so much, I really admire both of you. It’s times like this when I realise that Rookie is such a big part of my life. I love that girls I’ve never even met can voluntarily give me awesome advice and really mean it. It’s incredible.

      Stephanie, ‘It’s scary because you feel like these friends are your world’. Yes yes yes, that’s just how I feel. I’ve been trying to get away from them, become better friends with people I genuinely like. But its hard, because for the past 3 years they’ve been all I’ve known really, almost a security in an ironic sense. It makes me so

      DreamBoat, thank you. I’ve been trying to stand up to them, but it’s hard to defend myself without offending them which I really want to avoid. I like to use my mother’s personal favourite comeback ‘My Goodness, you ARE rude’ or just stare at them with an unfazed bitchface.

      • Yayo October 26th, 2012 8:22 PM

        *oops, unfinished sentence there. I don’t even remember what I was saying. It’s late. I need to sleep haha…

  • PearlFog October 22nd, 2012 8:12 PM

    You make a great point. This is such a sneaky form of gaslighting people – especially men to women- and standing up to it and calling it was it is can be so powerful. It is a case of taking responsibility for your words and actions and, where necessary, asking other people to take responsibility for theirs.

    When people tell you that you can’t take a joke, it reminds me of when they tell you that ‘you think too much’. Excuse me, but have you ever considered that maybe you don’t think enough?

    I think all of this comes down to trying to live with integrity and, in my experience, the longer you try and do this, the easier it actually gets because it shapes your life: you’re more likely to surround yourself with real friends and good people who can support you; you stand up to idiots who try and pull this crap and because they’re going to have to be pretty petty little bullies to do it in the first place, they’re also going to back off pretty quickly when they realise they’re not getting anywhere.

    Like you say, trust your gut. We know right from wrong, it’s just a case of being brave enough to choose what’s right and sticking to it. It gets easier with practise!

    http://www.etsy.com/shop/PearlFog

  • Maude October 22nd, 2012 8:14 PM

    I break out the verbal baseball bat and start swinging when anyone mentions “people”. Who are these people you speak of and why do their opinions on what’s funny have anything to do with my opinion of what’s funny. I never realized that some people had whole communities in their heads that gave imput on funniness or lack thereof.

    • decemberbaby October 22nd, 2012 8:32 PM

      Ahaha, this is an awesome comment. In fact, not only is this a great article, but all of the comments on it are helpful additions to the conversation. Rookies are the best.

  • Miss Erin October 22nd, 2012 8:39 PM

    Caitlin….I LOVE your illustration. It’s so so so so good.

    Stephanie: I can always count on your articles to be super wonderful and excellent and some of my most favorites. Thank you.

  • Ruby B. October 22nd, 2012 9:10 PM

    Love the illustration, love the writing! This made my night!

  • Madeleine Angel October 22nd, 2012 9:57 PM

    I relate to this so much right now…. in my sad teenage life ^.^ Luv u Rookie!

  • BritishFish October 23rd, 2012 1:12 AM

    Every time I completely relate to a story, sure enough, it’s Stephanie. (Which is also my name)

    Now that’s funny.

  • whodatgal October 23rd, 2012 3:49 AM

    UGH I loved this- it was so full of emotion. You guys have some real hardcore talent. Loved this xxxx

    Ophelia
    http://www.opheliahorton.wordpress.com

  • RXLWK October 23rd, 2012 5:22 AM

    I, too, relate so much to this. I have been thinking about the use of humour as a defense mechanism a lot lately and how I spent maybe more than a decade laughing at fucked up shit (about myself, about others) as a means of retaining my own control, of not being afraid and of just being in denial.

    I don’t think what Stephen Colbert said about laughter and fear is true. Sometimes laughter is a fearful act of self-preservation in a harmful situation. Figuring out how to self-preserve and still have a healthy sense of humour is really, really hard work…

  • ivoire October 23rd, 2012 6:30 AM

    Funny is definitely a misused word, as is ‘gay’. I really don’t know why but calling someone gay is drop dead hilarious now?

  • karastarr32 October 23rd, 2012 8:57 AM

    I used to be the sort of person who would tease people and tell them to lighten up until I realized that it really wasn’t funny. Eg. I used to tell my friend that he was short, so he started calling me fat. If he knew that I looked at thinspo stuff after that…. Anyway just wanted to say I’ve been on both sides and that it’s just NOT ‘funny’ and that this article was sooo good
    Hugs

  • Mary the freak October 23rd, 2012 9:47 AM

    I needed this today. This was perfection. <3

    http://birdiewearsatie.blogspot.com/

  • Isabelle97 October 23rd, 2012 10:27 AM

    wow. You= awesome. This was really usefull and I’m going to bear it in mind in the future

  • Freaky Hufflepuff October 23rd, 2012 11:16 AM

    I´ve experienced lots of these “jokes”. When I´m in 7th grade cut my hair really, really short, people, and even my teacher, made “jokes” about it. And I hated it. But I didn´t tell anyone, except my sister. It was, after all, only four months till summer, and then I´d finally leave that crappy school. And now, in 9th grade at my new school, I feel more or less axcepted (well, now my hair´s grown to my shoulder, so I guess that´s not something to joke about anymore). But I want to colour my hair dark red, or dip dye it light blue, but after my experience after that haircut, I´m afraid people will joke about it again. And I know I don´t have the courage to say something in my defence.

  • paashaas21 October 23rd, 2012 3:59 PM

    In 7th grade, there was a girl in my class (and she still is) and she said mean things about me all the time and i still dont know why and when i asked she said oh it was just a joke but they were really mean and she was a real mean girl, like being smart in hurting other people

  • DrewNotBarrymore October 23rd, 2012 6:46 PM

    Stephanie,
    This completely hit home for me, as well as the article you linked to “Hello, My Treacherous Friends.” I am going through this right now, and -horribly melodramatic moment- I’m considering not going to school tomorrow. It’s just getting harder and harder to ignore everyone and everything, to just laugh it off. I DO have so very nice acquaintances I could talk to, but I’m worried of sounding like even more of a loser. Do you have any advice?
    Love,
    Drew

    • Stephanie October 29th, 2012 4:29 PM

      Drew, I would definitely talk to those very nice acquaintances. If they are indeed very nice, they will NOT think you are a loser. Even if you feel like you can’t talk to them right now about this, maybe just start hanging out with them more. What helped me get away from “Greg” was a girl from my gym class. She was a year younger than me and super sweet. We started out just talking about music in class and eventually swapped numbers and started talking on the phone and hanging out after school. I don’t honestly remember how we started hanging out regularly, but I think it was as simple as me being like what you are you doing this afternoon and then us hanging. She went on to become one of my best high school friends and her group of friends was the first positive, real group of friends I had. So just let yourself start migrating toward those nice people. Hope that helps!

  • starpower October 23rd, 2012 7:26 PM

    sometimes I feel afraid to speak my mind about stuff because people tell me to “lighten up” …

    my mum would say that a lot, after saying things that are inappropriate or mean…

    you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t it feels!

    “it’s just a joke, why are you taking it so seriously?”

    they say, when yr feeling like shit and make it 10 x worse

  • Mayabett October 23rd, 2012 11:34 PM

    The entire world needs to read this, especially high schoolers.

    I have a friend at my school who is very depressed and having a very hard time. We are also in senior year. Two of her close “friends” (as she believes) are always so mean and rude to her, make fun of her all the time, and never have any sympathy. She never does anything about it or stands up to it. Because they’re “just kidding.”
    Why can’t people see that this is BULLYING?

    This is what BULLYING IS NOW. What is wrong with our world? People are so cruel.

    Sarcasm has almost been ruined for me, because I have been hurt so badly consistently by it. Because it’s “just a joke.”

  • Guyinabunnysuit October 25th, 2012 11:40 AM

    This is a really interesting article and even now, as one of the older students in my college (UK) class I find myself telling the younger students when a joke has crossed the line with another student. People seem to have a tendancy to join together in a ‘joke’. I suffered with a nickname I dare not mention ever again that I was harassed with in school. The minute people learn it upsets me it continues for a while. I become exstremely angry now rather than passive, which isn’t good either but it certainly works when people don’t know when to stop. The pantsing thing isnt funny either. An ex did it to be infront of my best friend. If it had been infront of anyone else I would have cried. My friend didn’t find it funny either, yet interestingly enough it was hilarious to him. Maybe it’s just idiotic boy humour.

  • EnglishRose October 28th, 2012 4:39 PM

    Sooo true! It’s only a joke when EVERYONE finds it funny. So there bullies!