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Run! Run Toward a Sense of Humor!

Nike has earned the wrath of the humorless. This isn't surprising. When one is unburdened by a sense of humor, one has a lot more free time to register one's displeasure via phone call, letter or stalking. Except that it's something completely fresh and funny which has set the humor-impaired off and running.

The offensive object is a commercial featuring Suzy Favor Hamilton, arguably one of America's more talented distance runners in the last ten years. Instead of featuring her moonlighting as a disc jockey or sweaty role model spouting aphorisms between laps, Ms. Hamilton is shown preparing to take a bath. The setup immediately evokes countless Friday the Thirteenth movies -- and a minute later, Hamilton spots a masked would-be killer in the mirror.

After a stereotypical shriek, stumble and false start, Hamilton's off and running. The psycho killer guy tries to give chase, and drops, exhausted. Cue the end of the commercial, and a caption that reads "Sport. You'll live longer."

This spot is great: chick athletes are being treated as actual jocks, with handy physical skills. The cherry on the sundae is the horror-movie conceit: the girl in peril turns out to be better equipped for survival than Jason the would-be chainsaw killer. In a summer where you couldn't avoid the Carmen-Electra-loses-her-clothes promotions for Scary Movie, this Nike spot was a funny antidote.

More importantly, it showed sports as a lot more relevant to women's lives than any fuzzy spot where girls blather on about half-filled stadiums or disport in the deep end for Visa. Naturally, people have chosen to ignore this aspect of the commercial and fixate on the stereotypes in the commercial, apparently missing the joke entirely. One woman fumed to The New York Times that the commercial was "truly disgusting and misogynistic," thus demonstrating to the rest of the world that not only does she not watch any of the commercials airing during a WWF broadcast or on any of the Viacom cable properties, she was buying into a stereotypical set of attitudes about what's acceptable for men and women on television.

You see, Nike's got a commercial out where a skateboarder has to defend himself against a gladiator. Nobody's called it disgusting or anti-male. Apparently, commercials depicting men successfully defending themselves against physical harm are okay, whereas commercials showing women doing so are disgusting. Double-standard much?

A lot of self-identified feminists are wary of humor, and understandably so: making someone the object of a joke is the best way to dehumanize them or insult them without being called on it. But there's an enormous difference between humor that's meant to enforce the status quo and humor that's meant to challenge it. The Nike commercial was a fine example of the latter.

The best punch line associated with the commercial may well be where it airs. NBC -- which has tried hard to cultivate a rep as a chick magnet network with retrogressive tripe like Providence -- won't air the spot anymore. Yet ESPN, often touted by media planners as a "guy-oriented" channel, has no problems showing a commercial featuring a butt-whooping female athlete.

Now that's funny.


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