Sunday, May 5, 2013

Why do we laugh at sexist jokes?

Post about stereotyping, cliche
thinking gets stereotyped,
cliched image
Let's say you view love as a battlefield. Okay, more like a football field. Dating, sex, relationships, marriage-- they're all a series of skirmishes against the other team, aka the opposite sex. You compete with others on your own team as well, fellow Men players and Women players, but when push comes to shove it's really your team against their team. When you get together with fellow teammates, you make fun of the other team with abandon. Sometimes you even do it in their presence. It's expected; it's normal-- why wouldn't both sides of a rivalry do that? And hey, it's all in good fun. More or less. Because after all, you're going to be playing on this field for your entire life. You will never stop playing, and neither will they. As a straight person, that's what you're expected to do-- it's all you can do. Right?

That's what you'd call an adversarial model of sex and relationships-- a zero-sum game, in which men and women are two sides in a conflict, each trying to get what they want from the other. Generally speaking, according to this model what men are trying to get is sex with the hottest women possible (and eventually marriage with the most virginal) while women are trying to get married to the wealthiest, most high-status men, and the behavior of both sexes can be read as performed in pursuit of this goal. Both the "is" and the "ought" here are taken as a given, and since the goals of men and women generally differ, they are eternally at odds with each other and can be expected to engage in various forms of manipulation in order to get what they want. Sure, at times this will result in love-- but never complete trust, because the goals remain different even though they overlap. You're in competition amongst (straight) people of your own sex because you all want the same thing, and also with people of the opposite sex because they also all want the same thing, and they want it from you. Hopefully.

If you don't view relationships this way yourself, you probably know people who do. When there aren't members of the opposite sex around they'll talk about how crazy women are, or how stupid men are, secure in the belief that you not only won't mind but will actually appreciate these comments, because after all you're on the same team. You're just one of the guys/gals, and we've got to stick together. Bros before hos, and whatever the female equivalent is. I'm pretty sure there isn't one, or at least there isn't an actual slogan that women employ for this mentality. We are not, however, exempt from that kind of thing.

I was thinking about this while reading Miri at Brute Reason's excellent post discussing research on sexist humor. Her post covers studies which found a correlation between appreciation of sexist jokes and permissive attitudes toward sexual assault and rape, and it's a must-read. The most interesting portion of it to me, however, was this:
Men who found the jokes funny also tended to score higher on a measure of adversarial sexual beliefs, which is basically the idea that men and women are “adversaries” in the game of love and that women will deceive and manipulate men to get what they want (therefore it’s also a measure of good ol’ sexism). The study had female participants, too, and for them, the degree to which they enjoyed the sexist jokes was also correlated with their endorsement of adversarial sexual beliefs, but not with their self-reported likelihood to rape or any measure of aggression.
It actually hadn't occurred to me that if you're one of these people-- male or female-- who views sex and love in adversarial terms, you're not only likely to likely to appreciate sexist jokes, but likely to appreciate (or at least not be offended by) sexist jokes against your own gender. That is, if you go through life assuming that people of the opposite sex are in some sense the enemy, trying to manipulate members of your sex into getting what they want, you're not likely to be surprised when they make jokes at your gender's expense. In fact you'd expect this, because it's not like you can have a battle with only one side fighting, can you? It's all in good fun to trash people of the opposite sex because a) it's so true (that's why we're laughing), and b) hey, they do it too.

Now, the studies Miri discusses weren't conducted to examine adversarial thinking in relationship to sexist jokes specifically, so I'm extrapolating from this. But I would hazard to guess that if the jokes told had been sexist toward men rather than toward women, the men wouldn't have been terribly bothered and might well have laughed, again in correlation with the extent to which they think in adversarial terms. And this makes quite a bit of sense when you consider that a lot of the jokes which poke fun at people based on their sex do so in both directions. It's staggering to think about how many comedians have built their entire careers trading on such stereotypes, male and female, and they're usually at least implying some not-so-flattering things about their own gender while appearing to attack the other. Often unintentionally, but still they are.

So if this is all true, it gives you something to think about when, for example, discussing why a woman would laugh at Seth McFarlane's "We Saw Your Boobs" song at the Oscars. That song celebrated adversarial thinking, without a doubt. And when a public figure makes a joke, song, commercial, speech....really any sort of performance that transmits a message which turns out to offend people, the first thing those who enjoyed/agree with it do is find examples of people the performance supposedly mocked, hold them up, and say "Look at this-- we found a woman/person of color/homosexual/citizen of that country/member of that religion who thinks it's funny/true! Therefore it's not offensive!" Every. Single. Time.

In the case of sexism, maybe this is the explanation for why. Not because the joke isn't sexist, but because they share a mindset with the person making the joke which permits them to enjoy it along with them, even though it's sexist in their direction. Because hey-- it's so true. And they do it too.


In related news, it's a travesty that this Kickstarter will almost certainly not be funded. If you're interested in the general topic of offensive jokes, consider supporting it even if you don't like this post from me. Even if you think I'm absolutely wrong-- especially if you think so. Because if so, that documentary might bolster your case. :-)

1 comment:

  1. In terms of the female equivalent of "bros before hos", I frequently heard the phrase "chicks before dicks" used by my friends during my teen years (early to mid 2000s), to mean the same exact thing (I personally found both phrases to be kind of icky for being so adversary - before discovering feminism!). I don't know how common this one is, but I definitely heard it enough to say that this female equivalent exists. Otherwise, great and interesting post!


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