What was she thinking?

Mountain Xpress has already heard from a few readers who were offended by last week’s Asheville Disclaimer page, and we may well hear from a few—or many—more.

When the joke’s on you: Asheville Disclaimer founder and coproducer Michele Scheve says “we can’t start trying to protect dumb people from their opinions,” and that the target audience for her Women in Business parody “isn’t misogynists, but self-empowered women.”

One person took issue with the bit about “Killer,” the lovable pit bull, but most were weighing in against the Disclaimer’s parody of Women in Business, an annual Xpress advertising supplement that triumphs local women who’ve made good in the commercial realm.

Underlying both Women in Business and the Disclaimer’s parody are issues of gender and equality. So the Disclaimer folks clearly pushed some buttons when they scripted a piece about sexism in the workplace that was rife with sexist stereotypes.

What was their intent? Where do they come down on questions of gender equality at work? And are some topics just too hot too be funny? Those are just a few of the questions spinning out of the debate over the Disclaimer’s latest salvo.

To help answer them, Xpress has gone to the source: the woman who created and co-produces the Disclaimer. Our conversation with her appears below, but first, a bit of background.

Michele Schevefounded the Asheville Disclaimer in 2002, and it lived for three-and-a-half years as a freestanding publication. Along the way—and through her publication (but that’s another story)—Michele met her husband, Tom Scheve, who today co-produces the Disclaimer feature. When the couple stopped publishing in early 2006, Xpress persuaded them to contribute a one-page version to our newspaper on a weekly basis.

Now, with a number of readers rankled about the substance and timing of the Women in Business parody, we asked Michele to explain what, exactly, she and Tom are trying to accomplish with their often-raw satire.

Below, a conversation with her about the business of parody.

Mountain Xpress: Is your Women in Business parody sexist, as some are claiming?

Michele Scheve: It’s meant to be silly and a parody of sexism, in its actuality and perception. The bit was audacious and overboard by design. It had an over-the-top quality that was intended to suspend belief.

MX: Does it inadvertently legitimize sexism?

MS: There is always the argument that there is someone out there who won’t “get it,” and that this person will process a given bit as being supportive of that which is being satirized—in this case, an over-the-top sexist attitude. We can’t start trying to protect dumb people from their own opinions. Also, nobody has ever admitted to being this dumb person or knowing them personally, but a lot of people assume this person is out there poring over satirical news articles in alternative newsweeklies, so dumb they forgot to put on their pants this morning; alone and naked in the world, unable to process local media in a manner that does not put others at risk. If this person does exist, he is not our target demographic. One of our writers, perhaps. But not our audience.

The target audience of this piece isn’t misogynists, but self-empowered women. The Asheville Disclaimer strives to make fun of everyone equally. It is a place where anyone of any religion, political viewpoint, creed or socio-economic status should be able to come and find humor, at their expense.

MX: Do you think sexism is still a phenomenon in our society?

MS: Of course sexism still exists in our society. I have been witness to it just doing the Asheville Disclaimer and being a woman. But I do not think that by virtue of existing it removes itself from the table as a topic for humor.

Sexism will never completely go away, but we don’t think that that’s because of our work this week. The last thing we want to do is denigrate an entire gender, but unfortunately, we don’t always get to do what we want to do. Sometimes in life we have to denigrate an entire gender.

You know, a former writer for the Disclaimer was quite fond of making fun of Christians and Christianity. In fact, we never did enough ribbing of Christians, in that writer’s opinion. Every week, the writer would suggest a new anti-Christian story. Then one week we hit on Catholics and the writer freaked out because a relative of hers is Catholic. She was really mad at us and told us never to print a story making fun of Catholics again. We tried to explain that Catholics believe in Christ, and that if she were offended by this story, she should probably be offended by all the others that she herself had been writing along the way. We were never trying to make fun of or sway religious beliefs in the first place; it just happened that the pope had been in the news a lot that month.

So, sometimes, people will go along with it, laugh along with it, and lightheartedly enjoy the satirizing of things they are against, but when the number comes up for a group they belong to or have some connection with, then it’s, “Wait a minute!”

MX: Was it bad timing to parody Women in Business in the same issue that carried the advertising supplement itself?

MS: I myself am a woman who owns a business, and this week my business is making other women cry.

It takes a lot of drive and energy to create and run any business. Being a woman who has run a business, I cannot say if it is more difficult for a woman (or a half-Lebanese dyslexic, like me) to run a business than it is for a man. The point is that it is up to each person, woman or not, to empower themselves.

That said, the sexist humor in this week’s Disclaimer was meant to be too silly and too outrageous for any woman, especially a businesswoman, to find it truly offensive. In fact, almost all of the businesses that I frequent in Asheville are owned by women. To me, it is a woman-run world, full of strong women who would not think twice about the seriousness of this week’s parody. With the exception of the Xpress advertising-sales team, who may have a legitimate complaint regarding the timing of our parody, I do not apologize for making fun of a group that is, by nature, intelligent and independent simply because they are also women.

MX: Looking at last week’s Disclaimer, it seems that—as with many you’ve produced over the years—a number of parties, if they take your parody in a certain way, are apt to be offended. Potential offendees with that edition could include women, women who own businesses, feminists (both female and male), mothers, fathers, children, right-wingers, left-wingers, “country bumpkins,” cattle farmers, pit-bull owners, pit-bull victims and their friends and families, prudes, City Council member Jan Davis, racing fans, people who use the personals, people who place advertisements in Mountain Xpress, Xpress advertising representatives, etc. Which begs the question: How much, if at all, do you worry about who you might offend when you turn your skewering, satirical eye on Western North Carolina?

MS: We’re not trying to offend anyone, but we can’t let the possibility of doing so dictate the subject matter. When we find bits funny, we hope the subject of the satire finds humor in it as well. Every group has a number of members who aren’t going to like being poked fun at. So [deferring to] that would pretty much take every group off the table: If you give protected status to one group or topic, you have to give it to every group or topic. In this case, the subject matter is “successful women.” If we can’t make fun of them, who can we make fun of?

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About Jon Elliston
An Asheville-based mountain journalist: Former Mountain Xpress managing editor. Investigations and open government editor at Carolina Public Press. Senior contributing editor at WNC magazine.

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