Thursday, September 17, 2009

Are Ole and Lena jokes kosher?

I was in touch yesterday with a Chicago native (or at least a long-time Chicago resident) who had never heard of Ole and Lena jokes. I couldn’t believe my Midwestern ears! I guess Scandinavian-bashing stops east of the Mississippi.

(If you don’t know about Ole and Lena jokes, just google “Ole and Lena” and you’ll see some. Or visit Ole and Lena for more information.)

Even my Swedish husband enjoys Ole and Lena jokes although he raises an interesting issue: He points out that ethnic jokes, for the most part, are socially unacceptable in the U.S. Yet people accept Ole and Lena jokes. (Generally Ole and Lena – and their friend Sven – are portrayed as dumb as doorknobs.) He wonders why this is, and if it’s changing – that in a few years even Ole and Lena jokes will be considered vicious.

He may have a point. A few years ago I was at an optometrist in Minneapolis wearing a T-shirt purchased in Minneapolis that said “Pray for me! I’m married to a Swede!” The woman who was assisting gave me a funny look then said, “What’s wrong with Swedes? My husband is Swedish (i.e. Swedish-American).” She was mildly offended. I then double trumped her, explaining that my mother is “100% Swedish” by American standards and that I’m married to the real McCoy, which is why I bought the shirt! But I wear it only in the U.S., never in Sweden.

What do you think? Is it time to outlaw Ole and Lena jokes?


  1. that's interesting that you point out that the jokes are offensive - I guess they are like Polish jokes. I don't personally take offense to Ole and Lena jokes - perhaps because I don't feel like the Swedes have been terribly persecuted or badly treated in American society overall. But perhaps they were mistreated in the past. I know that the Irish and Italian immigrants were considered as lower class and less worthy of joining American society when they first immigrated to the United States in the 1800s and early 1900s. So I suppose that Irish-Americans or Italian-Americans could be offended by jokes targeting their particular nationality.
    Another thought - if Ole and Lena jokes are primarily told by Swedish-Americans, is that considered okay? Kind of like it is okay for African-Americans to use the "n" word but not for Americans who are not of African descent?

    1. Swedes had to pay their dues just like any other immigrant did. I remember reading a newspaper clipping from my grandfather (this would have been the early 1900's) and on the back there was a want ad for a maid, where the woman specifically wanted a Swedish girl. It just seems as if they would have always been privileged because of their tall and blondness.

    2. It's interesting the ad WANTED a Swede and did not say "Swedes need not apply," which kind of proves the point: Swedes were subject to their share of negative stereotyping - for example, "dumb Swede" - but as a group, I don't think they faced the same harshness as did the Irish, Italians or certainly the Chinese.

  2. I never thought much about Ole and Lena jokes until Richard brought up the subject and that woman made her comment. But, as you say, Scandinavians were not one of your classically and systematically persecuted groups in American history. She may have a point that it’s not right to make fun of anyone, but I think she was being a little silly. People who scream that “politically correct” has gone overboard or that PC standards should be applied universally to everything are missing the point.

    I have mixed feelings about whether or not it's OK for an ethnicity to make fun of itself but no one else can. I think it depends on the situation. Usually the best humor is one that makes a point so if the "joking" conveys a thoughtful message, then I guess it's OK. But for shock value or simple vulgarity, not acceptable.


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