How a handbag can hurt: gay jokes and their disastrous consequences

Picture the scene: At a recent concert, one member of our group, a man in his 60’s, was trying to find his seat in the row in front of us as he clutched a small bag. The bag had been given to everyone by the organiser of the concert as a free promotional gift. One of the men in our group commented in a funny voice “Lovely handbag!“ Upon hearing this, the slightly older man wordlessly smiled and pranced for a second in an effeminate way.

First of all, I would like to acknowledge that it is wonderful that there are people who look for the fun in things and spontaneously make jokey comments, which can contribute to general amusement. We need people who are good at humour and lightness.

“Lovely handbag!“ These are just two words, but ones which place a wedge between men, who are considered manly and those who are considered unmanly. For any man who was called names such as „gay,“ „faggot“ or “poof” when he was of primary school age because of his perceived softness, this joke triggers very familiar feelings of sadness, inferiority, and anger that developed in one of the most sensitive phases of his life. Most adult men have grown up in a world that rejected signs of femininity in men. The idea that a little boy must not be like a girl has been and still is repeated in many school playgrounds, in school classes, in families, on television, in the church and among other things in advertising and is, at least outside the progressive cities, still very present.

A wave of tolerance spread across much of Western Europe in the late 20th century. By this time, though, the idea that a boy and later a man must not show femininity had become deeply embedded in the minds and hearts of all men of today. Yet many of these traditional beliefs continue unconsciously – in the form of seemingly harmless „jokes“. The affected men and women process their emotional wounds to this day.

My question is therefore: with our sense of humour, do we want to rub salt into the psychological wounds of people who for decades have had to struggle with feelings of inferiority and exclusion?

I do not expect us all to refrain from all spontaneity and think through every single consequence of our actions before we react. We all make mistakes and our actions can have consequences that we would never be able to foresee. Nevertheless, I would like to live in a world where we are interested in other people’s well-being and in which we seek to broaden our horizons by at least attempting to imagine how things can look and feel from the point of view of someone whose life experience may be vastly different from our own. Through this we can all live in a world in which we try to limit the psychological damage our behaviour may cause to others.

“Lovely handbag!” can only be considered funny if you find it absurd that a man can have feminine features. The joke is based on the idea that men should reject feminine things for themselves because they are superior if they do so. Thus, the joke contains a devaluation of feminine and gay men but possibly also of women. And it is harmful for men to think so. It is implied that a man must deny rather than acknowledge and be in tune with his softer features.

The patriarchal social order propagates an idea of ​​masculinity that deprives men of much of their humanity, namely their ability to respond openly to their own emotions and needs, and thus to themselves and others. It promotes a variety of unhealthy illusions such as that it is good and right always to want to be in control, to drink too much alcohol and to have „power over“ others instead of „sharing power with others“. It leads to rejecting feelings of vulnerability, insecurity and the recognition or expression of emotions other than anger. As a result, men wait on average more than seven times as long as women before seeking help with mental health problems. It also contributes to the fact that men kill themselves twice as often as women and of course carry out many more acts of violence and go to jail more often. “Lovely handbag!” is much more than a funny, throwaway comment. These two words contribute to the maintenance of a myth that is dangerous not just for men and their mental and physical health, but also for the women who seek emotionally meaningful relationships with us and our children, who learn from us what it means to be male or female.

I understand that the man who says “Lovely handbag!” was probably surrounded for years by other heterosexual boys and men who made similar jokes. He probably also learned through this to make such jokes himself, thus securing his place among the dominant heterosexual male culture of the older generation. This has, most likely, become so much a part of who he is that a man holding anything that looks like a handbag immediately appears absurd. So it is second nature to spontaneously make such a comment about another man with a bag in his hand.

My wish would be that we all question who gets excludes through such jokes, what pain they reactivate in others, and which characteristics we are trying to suppress when we define a feminine feature in a man as something worthy of mockery. And I urge everyone to question comments or actions that suggest that any devaluation of a supposedly effeminate expression of a man is acceptable. And I ask you to keep in mind that it is about protecting all men, and keeping the women and children who love these men away from the devastating consequences of the one-sided type of masculinity that alienates men from their deepest selves.