when did our coffee shops get sexist?

When funny tips over into offensive.

by Morwenna Jones
13 November 2015, 10:15am

On finishing my final exam at university, naturally, the first thing I did was go to the pub. With my notes still in my bag, I celebrated the end of library all-nighters, early morning lectures and seminars I'd prepared for by doing little more than checking Wikipedia five minutes before. Then, afterwards, in true millennial style I Instagrammed the sign outside which read "Education is important. Good beer is importanter".

Why? Because it was funny. If you've missed the joke, the writer of the sign is cleverly acknowledging that education is important, all the while showing that they themselves aren't sufficiently grammatically clued-up to know that it should be "more important", not "importanter". To a slightly tipsy soon-to-be English Literature graduate with a poor sense of humour, that sort of wit is hilarious.

It's also the perfect example of the current trend for "witty" marketing, one of many "banterous" signs you can find outside pubs, restaurants and coffee shops, luring customers in with their highly-Instagrammable beer, coffee and cake-related puns. Over the past two years, Buzzfeed has even run not one, not two, not three but four listicles showcasing the cream of the crop, from "SEX SELLS…unfortunately we sell coffee" (31 Bar and Coffee Sidewalk signs that are actually funny) to "Work Hard… then Gin Harder" (33 Brilliantly Blunt Pub signs that will make you want a drink").

It's fun, light-hearted, jovial humour and the best thing about it is that, if you happen to accidentally make a joke in poor taste, you can quite literally "wipe the slate clean" and start over. Or not, if you're Bricklane Coffee in Shoreditch whose sign yesterday read "Sorry No Uggs" followed by the explanation "(Slag Wellies)". When online commenters pointed out the sign, with critics like Caitlin Moran calling it "sexist" and "horrible" and another asking why she should have to explain to her five year old "why her shoes are called "slag wellies", the shop responded by tweeting "Offended by words on a blackboard?" with a photo of a "Give-a-fuck-o-meter", the needle resting firmly at the very bottom of the spectrum.

Before long, Fuck0ffee, Bricklane's Bermondsey-based sister shop joined in, patronisingly calling one critic "sugar tits", insulting anyone who pointed out that the sign wasn't funny or clever, just unnecessarily offensive, and retweeting any and all abuse sent in the direction of the latter. "It's offensive if you choose to be offended, to anyone not obsessed with being offended, its just a joke about Uggs", read one tweet, duly retweeted by the store.

Of course it's "just a joke" and, naturally, if you dare to point out that the joke in question makes you feel uncomfortable then you are automatically accused of being too sensitive and charged with overreacting- aren't you being ridiculous? You're offended that a shop in the middle of a busy high street missed the news, when it was repeated for the nine hundred and ninety-ninth and thousandth time, that it's not ok to call any woman a slag and decided to apply the term to Ugg boots, the winter equivalent of crocs that, these days, are mostly worn by children and toddlers.

Maybe it was just a joke when it started but, in this case, the dangerously thin line that divides humour and offence has been crossed. There's a difference between cracking a joke and acknowledging that it's all in good humour and viciously insulting, mocking and deriding anyone who disagrees with your brand of comedy.

And that's exactly the problem with what's commonly known as "lad banter". It's hard to define when the balance is tipped from funny to just plain insulting. But, when someone speaks up and has the joke that offended them in the first place reflected back on them tenfold, a mother complaining about an offensive sign, for example, or a student insulted by being asked to take part in a "foxes and hunters"-themed university social, it's probably a good sign that it's happened.

Whether it's likely to happen or not, the silence power of fear of the above shouldn't be underestimated. On Sunday morning I received a screenshot from a friend who works for a leading global bank. It was an exchange from her team's Whatsapp group in which someone had posted the poster for the 80s slasher film "Don't Go Into the Woods" with the caption "Mr X is clubbing hard and fucking women". In response, another member of the group had posted "Mr X is fucking hard and clubbing women". According to my friend, it wasn't the first time members of her team had gone too far. In fact, she'd spoken out about it previously, only for her "unreasonable" reaction to be talked about for weeks after.

As far as she was concerned, she had three options, apart from quitting and ranting about everything in a national newspaper. She could report it or talk to them and risk being called "unreasonable" again or having her managers label her a troublemaker. Or she could do nothing.

Sadly, she chose the latter and, to use a common cliché, it's a vicious circle. The more so-called banter intimidates us into silence, the more poorly-judged jokes are perceived to be ok and the more traction they gain. Perhaps I'm being old-fashioned but I still think banter, jokes, wit and humour should amuse as many, and offend as few people as possible.

And with that in mind, "slag wellies" really isn't that funny.  


Text Morwenna Jones

Think Pieces