Here’s what happens when somebody who feels marginalised in society listens to a joke which constructs them as its hilarious butt: There is a sense of shame, loss of self-esteem, and a rising sense of rage at the injustice of it all. This person at the butt of your common sexist joke may be a woman, a transgender person, or somebody who identifies as queer. It may even be a man.
The reason why a sexist joke hits so hard is that it makes fun of you on the basis of your identity, and an identity is a precious thing indeed. You might’ve put in years of effort to build it, nurture it, and accept it. You could’ve also taken it for granted until the moment that joke was cracked. But ask anyone with a strong sense of identity about their first encounter with a sexist joke, and they’ll tell you that it was anything but funny.
But here’s the thing about sexist humour that most of us, especially women, fail to understand. How is it still so prevalent, so rampant, that you come across it everywhere? There are dirty jokes that objectify women, song lyrics that do the same, or innuendoes that are passed around with meaningful glances among men (as if we don’t get it). We come across them at workplaces, marketplaces, and even our own homes. And, to put it simply, we’re done with them. Here’s why.
What is sexist humour?In an article published in the journal Hypatia way back in 1986, titled How Many Feminists Does It Take To Make A Joke? Sexist Humour and What’s Wrong With It, author Merrie Bergmann answers her titular question herself: One. “In fact, she is the joke. The joke is complex, for she is both a woman and a person committed to a particular point of view,” Bergmann explains. “Women are traditional objects of humour in our culture (and in numerous other cultures). We have countless jokes about dumb blondes, scatter-brained redheads, myopic wives, mothers, mothers-in-law, lady drivers, and college co-eds. Because she is a woman, a feminist is an amusing creature indeed.”
What was true in the 1980s is still true, which is why Bergmann’s definition for sexist humour outlasts the test of time. According to her, “sexist humour is humour in which sexist beliefs (attitudes/norms) are presupposed and are necessary to the fun.” You can understand how succinct this is simply by the fact that all of us assume that a listener who cracks up at a sexist joke actually believes in the stereotypes about women that the joke intends to perpetuate.
How sexist humour affects women and societyBut, because it basically perpetuates gender stereotypes and often reduces women into mere objects, sexist humour is globally understood as a tool of delegitimising women, their agency, and their achievements. According to a study published in Europe’s Journal of Psychology in 2010, titled A Framework for Thinking about the (not-so-funny) Effects of Sexist Humor, “sexist humour demeans, insults, stereotypes, victimises, and/or objectifies a person on the basis of his or her gender”, and women are its targets more frequently than men. In fact, this targeting is often aggressive and sexual in nature, suggesting an underlying intent of violence, which can be pretty scary.
What’s more, the study explains that sexist humour denigrates women and trivialises this sex discrimination at the same time. “It’s just a joke” is actually an excuse. The levity or light-heartedness with which you’re expected to accept a sexist joke without taking any kind of offence can be even more annoying and dangerous than the joke itself. After all, if you can’t take the joke, what’s likely to arise is confrontation. It would also indicate that you’re not happy with your circumstances and are prepared to pose a challenge to this type of stereotyping and patriarchy, which can make you a further (and specific) target of jokes, harassment, or worse.
Identifying sexist humourThe unfortunate fact of life is that most women today have come up against sexist jokes cracked by men on various platforms, and have had to endure the ensuing laughter—often from people we want to trust—in silence, in order to avoid confrontations and other adverse outcomes. Whether you face it during lunch time or a meeting at work, or while watching shows like The Kapil Sharma Show with your family, sexist humour can affect your self-esteem immensely. At the same time, it can make you feel unsafe and unloved. This is precisely the reason you should say enough, and find out how to counter the culture of rampant sexist humour.
How to do this? The first step is to identify sexist humour and educate those around you about it too. If everyone is aware of how a joke can be harmful, then the chances of their feeding it with laughter would reduce, and so would, ideally, the penchant for making such jokes. The following are some key questions you should be asking yourself when you hear a joke that you think is sexist:
• Does this joke insult or devalue women?
• Does it cement a stereotypical gendered role for women, or reduce them to sexist stereotypes?
• Does it reduce women only to their bodies (fat, thin, dark, white, or any other characterisation that forms their identity) or personify them as only sex objects or property?
• Do women have any agency in the joke’s narrative? That is, do they have the power to shape outcomes in this narrative or are they mute puppets?
• Does the joke present women solely from a male perspective of their identity?
• Does it include violence (verbal, physical, sexual) against women? Is this violence being used to promote toxic masculinity and aggression?
If the answer to any or all of these questions is a resounding yes, then what you have at hand is a sexist joke. If you want to understand if a sketch, play, advertisement, song, or movie is sexist, you could try the Bechdel Test (does the joke have at least two women talking to each other about anything apart from a man?) or the Mako Mori Test (based on the character in Pacific Rim; ask yourself if the joke has at least one woman with her individual storyline which does not automatically support a man’s narrative?). What do you do when you identify sexist humour? Don’t laugh, and read on about how to respond to it.
Responding to sexist humourThere have been many studies over the years which confirm that men, or anybody for that matter, who crack or laugh at sexist jokes are likely to have a lighter stance on sexual harassment (especially in the workplace). In fact, one 2013 study published in the Journal of Social, Evolutionary, and Cultural Psychology, titled Why Did The Woman Cross The Road? The Effect of Sexist Humor On Men’s Rape Proclivity, found that men who scored high on hostile forms of sexism in general reported higher levels of rape proclivity after exposure to sexist humour. So, yes, sexist humour does form a small but vital part of rape culture, which is why responding to it with care is very important.
It’s very important to remember that out-and-out confrontation is not the solution in this situation, especially in an atmosphere where everyone is joining in with laughter. Losing your temper, abusing the person in return, or cracking sexist jokes on them in a last effort to see how it feels when the tables are turned, aren’t going to help. The best way to go about changing this scenario for the better, while making sure you are safe, is to de-escalate the situation.
Judge the room and speak up if you feel the listeners are likely to listen to logic (like in a close circle of friends, colleagues or family members). Explain why you find this joke offensive, and refer to how it makes you feel, or how it would make women they love feel. Highlight the fact that we are all made up of layers of identities, which don’t just include our gender but also our origins, religion, mother tongue, nationality, economic status, etc. If cracking jokes about any of these other forms of identity isn’t funny, but in fact a matter of pride, then how can making a joke about any gender be funny? Once you open up the door to conversations about identity and why respecting all of them is important, you might be on a safer ground and be able to change a few minds, if not the entirety of patriarchal perspective.
However, if you feel the form, tone or content of the joke is too violent, hostile or aggressive, step away immediately. This is especially crucial in settings where you don’t have a pre-existing rapport or level of trust, like a new workplace, college or school. Figure out if the place has a mechanism through which you can report such behaviour—anonymously, if you fear being targeted—and report the incident. Cut off the perpetrators of these jokes and try to find people who have faced similar situations of discrimination within the same setup, to create a support group you can trust.