My New Old Self was not amused by the story of the “mother-in-law from hell going free” that was recently in the news. Presented as a light-hearted feature, it was about a man offering his mother-in-law in the Adopt a Pet section of a classified ad website.
In a twist on the usual in-law dynamic, instead of complaining that his terrible mother-in-law was ruining his wonderful marriage, this son-in-law did his public venting as the couple was divorcing. The fact that the woman he was jokingly advertising was his soon-to-be-ex-mother-in-law didn’t stop the soon-to-be-ex-son-in-law from denouncing her – for trying to control his divorce the way she’d controlled his marriage.
Although this couple happened to be gay, there is nothing alternative about this diatribe againt mothers-in-law (MILs). It is a bog standard MIL joke. There are websites devoted to MIL jokes, stand-up comedy routines built around mocking MILs, movies with MILs as villains.
There was even a song called “Mother-in-Law” by the R & B singer Ernie K-Doe, with lyrics describing his MIL as “the worst person I know, sent from down below”. This video of the anti-MIL tune shows images from 1961, the year it was a hit single, from JFK to Khrushchev.
The essence of MIL humor is summed up in this one-liner: “An anagram of mother-in-law is Woman Hitler.” MILs are all tarred with the same brush, as fascists or at least control freaks meddling in their kids’ personal business.
Sure, parents coping with Empty Nest Syndrome should not interfere in their adult children’s lives – especially not in their relationships. But these jokes are not about parents in general. They’re not about FILs (the acronym for fathers-in-law if there were any websites mocking them, but there are none). These jokes are only ever about MILs.
MIL jokes play on the relationship between older women and the (usually) younger people who marry their children. Clashes between them are normalized and ridiculed. Actually this thing of blending two families through holy matrimony is tricky, and can easily bring conflict. I mean, we’re talking about two people who love the same person. We’re talking about the MIL losing her child to a DIL or SIL. (Not that there are any websites mocking daughters-in-law or sons-in-law, but if there were, those would be the acronyms.)
Anthropologists have some interesting views on MILs. The Scot regarded as one of the founding fathers of modern anthropology, James George Frazer, is known for his comment that “The awe and dread with which the untutored savage contemplates his mother-in-law are among the most familiar facts of anthropology.”
Social anthropologists use the term Joking Relationship to describe the “ritualised banter” between certain pairs of people, e.g. MIL + DIL/SIL. A common example cited is of a man and his MIL in traditional South African societies. Instead of such banter, Australian aboriginal languages include a so-called avoidance speech that aims to minimize interaction between MILS and their SILs or DILs. It’s known as Mother-in-law Language.
In the MIL jokes of most modern Western societies, problems are always the MIL’s fault. In fact, to prevent MIL troubles you’d do best to date only the motherless, according to this online comment on the original ad for the free MIL: “Good luck! You should have married a dude with no mother.”
How sad to advise, albeit jokingly, against reaching out to others. The world can be a lonely place, sometimes more so as we get older. So what’s not to like about a link to new people? Not through a blood relationship but via someone your child loves. What’s more, if and when grandchildren appear on the scene it can be win-win. The couple gets free babysitting and the MIL gets to show off cute photos.
Perhaps the world’s most famous MIL is the one in the White House. Michelle’s mother has been living with the Obama family ever since Barack was elected president. He publicly appointed her First Grandmother to help look after his daughters.
I was pleased to hear that there is a place where MIL jokes are banned. The city council of the London borough of Barnet passed the law in 2010 and issued a leaflet explaining: “Mother-in-law jokes, as well as offensively sexist in their own right, can also be seen as offensive on the grounds that they disrespect elders or parents.”
Unfortunately this law only sparked more jokes, about the council bosses who couldn’t take a joke. Defenders of MIL jokes described them as “the bedrock of British humour”. What an insult to the inventiveness and diversity of UK comedy.
I do accept that my strong reaction to MIL jokes may be coloured by the possibility that I could become a MIL myself someday. Maybe I even aspire to MILdom. I obviously do not aspire to be the butt of jokes.
I leave you with this warning: MIL jokes are just the beginning, as regards being parodied in one’s golden years. Watch out, next will come the LOL jokes. Laughing Out Loud at Little Old Ladies.