Joke or Sexism? Misogynist Humor Condones Prejudice
Plus, a checklist to gauge if you should laugh, or be a feminist killjoy.
What do you do when your dishwasher stops working? You hit her. Get it? The dishwasher is not a machine, but a woman. The violence in the literal punchline ensures she goes back to doing her ‘job’ where she belongs, that is, the kitchen.
The above ‘joke’ is an example of disparagement humor, which is humor that belittles, stereotypes or maligns an individual or social group. Jokes that employ sexist, homophobic, transphobic or racist humor rely on the implicit assumptions that the people consuming the joke will recognize the stereotypes that form the premise for the joke, and that discriminatory stereotyping is not to be taken seriously.
The language of the joke itself — as language has the power to do — creates a context that justifies the expression of prejudice against women and facilitates the tolerance of sexism. The semantics of a sexist joke is designed in such a way that it communicates the demeaning of women while, at the same, time trivializes sex discrimination under the disguise of harmless fun.
Psychologists Thomas Ford and Mark Ferguson have a ‘Prejudiced Norm Theory‘ about this, which they first discussed in Sage Journals in 2004. According to earlier research, prejudiced people, in most cases, keep their views to themselves because they fear ostracization by other people. They express their prejudice only when something in their immediate environment gives them safety and approval to do so freely. Ford and Ferguson posit that disparagement humor does exactly that, by changing people’s understanding of acceptable social behavior.
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While the earlier ‘dishwasher’ joke that ended with the woman being hit is an example of blatant and violent sexism — which most people will be able to recognize as problematic — there are several other instances of humor in which sexism is more nuanced and better camouflaged.
For instance: How do you annoy your girlfriend during sex?
You call her.
If you’ve ever been unsure if a joke is actually funny or just sexist, here’s a line of inquiry you can follow to come to a conclusion.
Does this joke insult women? Does it devalue women? Does it cement women in a gender role, or reduce them and their actions to exaggerations of existing sexist stereotypes? Does this joke reduce women to only their bodies? Does it refer to them as an object or piece of property? Do the women have any agency in the joke’s narrative? Are women portrayed solely from a male perspective with no personal agency or identity? Does it include violence against women? If yes, is it portrayed authentically to show reality, or is it crucial only to the punchline? Is the violence used to further prop up toxic masculinity and aggression?
If we put the aforementioned joke to the test, it is clear that it stereotypes the girlfriend as the “clingy” and “possessive” girl. It devalues and insults the women in the joke, while implicitly glorifying the sexually renegade man who is in a monogamous relationship, but who sleeps around just because he can. Neither of the women has any agency in the joke — the second one remains absent, existing only so that the boyfriend can have an affair; the girlfriend exists as an object to be hurt — and is portrayed only through the man’s lens.
If you’re feeling fancy, you can even extend the inquiry by employing two widely accepted barometers to judge whether a movie is sexist or not. The Bechdel Test asks whether the piece — the joke, in this context — has at least two women who talk to each other about anything besides a man. The Mako Mori Test assesses if the piece has at least one woman with her own storyline, which is not about supporting a man’s narrative arc.
If we assume that a joke is a micro-funny movie, with a storyline and climax (aka the punchline), then the two tests can really add nuance to our understanding of the many ways in which sexist humor can manifest.
The ‘dishwasher’ joke also failed nine of the 10 questions listed above. It scored one non-sexist point because the woman in the joke is not reduced to her body — but only because she’s literally reduced to an object (a dishwasher),so, even that point is questionable. It, too, fails both the Bechdel and the Mako Mori Tests abysmally.
By using levity to present these problematic views, the joke makes it trickier to object to it. This becomes harder in social settings where any negative reaction is met with a barrage of defenses all implying that sexist talk is not a serious issue: “It was just a joke;” “It’s not a big deal;” “I didn’t mean offense;” “Lighten up;” “Why do you have to make everything so serious?”
The “it’s just a joke” argument used to hide prejudice — though extensively and aggressively used — is easily refutable by research alone. Ford and Ferguson’s study concluded that while jokes don’t create hostility towards women, it reinforces the prejudice where it exists. Essentially, if you joke about women and get the laughs you are vying for, those who are already hostile to women will see this as a social green light for their views. This study proved that men who ranked higher in hostile sexism (that is, active hostility towards women) had greater tolerance of sexual harassment in the workplace when exposed to sexist versus neutral (non-sexist) jokes. In another report, men who were more hostile toward women also recommended larger funding cuts to a women’s organization at their university after watching sexist versus neutral comedy skits. Another study — and the gravest of them all — found that men higher in hostile sexism expressed greater willingness to rape a woman upon exposure to sexist versus nonsexist humor.
Not being able to take the joke as the listener is also a significant part of this ‘just a joke’ narrative because there lies a risk of being branded as unlikeable and a bad sport.
If you happen to be a woman taking umbrage at a sexist joke, you will be told you are overdoing it — “it” being the quest for gender equality. According to a Princeton University research by Susan Fiske and Michael North on stereotypes and prejudice, asking women not to “make everything about feminism” and insinuating that they are somehow overdoing it in demanding gender equality and respect is, in itself, a more recent manifestation of modern sexist behavior.
So, knock knock!
Be a better person who doesn’t need to punch down on women for a few minutes of social adoration.
Pallavi Prasad is The Swaddle's Features Editor. When she isn't fighting for gender justice and being righteous, you can find her dabbling in street and sports photography, reading philosophy, drowning in green tea, and procrastinating on doing the dishes.