The joke ‘that’s what she said’ has been around for years. But is the joke – made popular in recent years by Steve Carell’s character in the US sitcom The Office – actually funny? Or is it offensive to women?
Let me paint you a picture: you’re hanging out with your mates and someone pulls an unusually large chip from a Doritos bag and exclaims “Woah, that’s so big!” and another mate instantly chimes in with, “That’s what she said.”
It’s a common joke that first gained popularity in the 1970s thanks to a Saturday Night Live sketch where Chevy Chase uttered the phrase, and then again became popular in the 2000s thanks to the US sitcom, The Office – Steve Carell’s character regularly makes the joke throughout all nine seasons.
But is ‘that’s what she said’ offensive? It’s a question that I’ve found myself wondering after a friend recently sent a gif of Carrell with the text ‘that’s what she said’ on it to someone during an Instagram exchange, and received a reply that essentially said, ‘this is offensive’.
After a bit of research, I found an essay that was published in Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies, and the authors – Communication scholars Matthew R. Meier and Christopher A. Medjesky – argue that ‘that’s what she said’ is indeed offensive.
They insist that as it’s a sexually suggestive joke, ‘that’s what she said’ contributes to rape culture – society normalising and trivialising sexual assault and abuse – and even if the intentions of the person making the joke are innocent or naive, the joke is still ultimately reinforcing oppressive ideologies.
“The link between rape humour and rape in culture may seem tenuous but treating rape jokes as merely jokes…reinscribes rape culture by normalising discourses that dismiss and silence rape victims, justify violence against women, and even blame victims for having been assaulted.”
Matthew R. Meier and Christopher A. Medjesky
However, I would argue that, depending on the context, ‘that’s what she said’ isn’t a rape joke. It’s merely a joke insinuating that a woman is engaging consensually in sexual activity and is exclaiming things like ‘that’s so big’ or ‘it’s so hard’; which ultimately could be considered as sex-positive rather than oppressive.
In fact, an advocate for sex-positivity, Samantha X – a high-class escort based in Sydney and bestselling author of Hooked: The Secrets of a High Class Call Girl – doesn’t find the joke ‘that’s what she said’ offensive at all. But she doesn’t begrudge anyone who does.
“No, I don’t find it offensive, but I’m of that generation of Benny Hill and Carry On films… If people get offended, I say let them be offended. That’s their choice.”
Every time the ‘that’s what she said’ joke is made in The Office.
However, Samantha, who in her line of work has multiple offensive comments made to her, just shakes them off, à la Taylor Swift, and doesn’t let them bother her; meaning she may be more resilient to this type of joke than others.
“As a female, and a female in the adult industry, many offensive things have been said to and about me, and it’s like water off a duck’s back.”
Speaking of females, while the ‘that’s what she said’ joke could be considered misogynistic, I again must argue, that the joke isn’t reserved just for ‘she’. If someone were to exclaim, “that’s so wet”, you could easily make the joke, “that’s what he said”.
I guess at the end of the day everyone is entitled to their opinion and whether you’re offended or not by ‘that’s what she said’, just be mindful and respectful of others’ standpoints. It’s not hard. (That’s what she said.)
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